If You Build It, They Will Come

How a small-town chapter built a big-name speaker series.

If You Build It, They Will Come

On a Texas map, San Angelo is a lonesome dot 200 miles northwest of Austin and 100 miles east of Midland. The town popped up in 1867 as a military outpost next to Fort Concho, and a century and a half later, a bit of that frontier feel has stuck around. Ranching is still big business, and a stately 14-story 1920s hotel, the Cactus, stands watch over the town, whose official motto is “the place to come for good times.”

It’s also where, in 1992, Max Parker, BBA ’73, JD ’76, Life Member, and his friends decided that the Texas Exes San Angelo Chapter needed a new way to come together. At the time, about 25 alumni made up the group, and they met only a few times a year—for a Texas Independence Day party and a dinner that raised money for scholarships.  Happy hours and Thirsty Thursdays are a big hit with other chapters, but that didn’t feel right for San Angelo. “We have a lot of diversity in terms of ages and interests,” Parker says. “So we hit on the idea of asking some speakers to come and we’ll see how it goes.”

More than two decades later, it seems safe to say that it’s gone pretty well. The chapter’s list of past guest speakers reads like a who’s who in Texan life and culture: novelist James Michener, former UT System chancellor William Cunningham, history professor Charters Wynn, women’s basketball coach Jodie Conradt, state Rep. Drew Darby, and dozens more. Former football coach Mack Brown and his staff dropped by not once, but every year for 15 years (to be fair, they were already in town for an annual coaches’ clinic nearby). Former athletics director DeLoss Dodds has visited at least five times. And UT scholars in fields as diverse as piano performance, kinesiology, politics, and botany have all made the three-hour drive from Austin.

So what’s the secret? How does a little chapter score so many big names?

“It’s simple,” Parker says. “We ask ’em.”

The first step to creating a top-notch speaker series, it turns out, is to invite top-notch people. So Parker and his team weren’t shy: in their first year, they invited everyone from congresswoman Barbara Jordan to football great Earl Campbell. “I would write them a nice letter,” Parker explains, “and say where we’ve heard about them, why we’d like to have them out, and hope you can make it. Some say no, but it’s a surprise just how many say yes.”

Of course, the job doesn’t end with securing a great speaker. The chapter leaders also strive to get a great audience. All the lectures are open to the public, and the chapter works hard to make sure everyone—yes, even the Aggies—feels welcome.

“We make sure to invite people from the local schools, the community, the city,” Parker says. “And we send reminders. Lots of reminders.”

It doesn’t hurt that San Angelans are a naturally inquisitive bunch. “We could invite the janitor from McCombs, and 100 people would probably show up to find out how he cleans the building,” Parker says. “The topic doesn’t really matter because we’re looking for the opportunity to get together and learn something.”

Then there’s that other key ingredient: high-quality beef. Each lecture is held over lunch at Zentner’s Daughter Steakhouse, which has been firing up the grill since 1974. The Kansas City-style sirloin is legendary for miles. The lectures run like clockwork: guests show up at noon and pile their plates at the buffet; the speaker talks and answers questions; and then everybody sings “The Eyes of Texas” and heads back to work by 1 p.m.

Anywhere from 25 to 150 people turn out for the lectures, which are the chapter’s primary source of scholarship funding, says president Kathy Cothran Ramirez, BBA ’86, Life Member. “Last year we were able to award more scholarships than ever before,” she says proudly—$10,500 split among 17 local students heading off to UT. “The lectures have infused the organization with camaraderie.”

As the series heads into its 22nd year (Texas Exes president Charles Matthews, historian Jeremi Suri, and Butler School of Music professor Martha Hilley are all on the list), what’s San Angelo’s advice for other chapters planning their own events?

“Be patient,” Parker says. “Initially, a few of our members would say, ‘I’m not coming if it’s not a coach.’ And some of their wives would say, ‘I’m not coming if it is a coach.’ But by now some of the non-sports folks will say, ‘That coach gave a great talk,’ and some of the good ol’ boys will say, ‘Hey, that music professor was really interesting.’”

Illustration courtesy Mario Zucco. 




No comments

Be the first one to leave a comment.

Post a Comment