The English-Speaking Union

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2022 Annual Conference

Just a month after the Gala, this past weekend, about sixty of us gathered at the historic Mills House Hotel in Charleston, South Carolina for our 2022 Annual General Conference. And I know that all who were there will agree with me that this was the best ESU Annual Conference in recent memory.

We had three very busy days of work and fun.

On the work front, one of the main events was the plenary session on the morning of Saturday, November 12, during which our consultant Rev. Renee LiaBraaten presented her findings and recommendations on the ESU's future, drawing from her many interviews with ESU Members, leaders, supporters and beneficiaries of our programs.

A year ago, when I took the ESU's helm as Chairperson, I vowed to lead the organization forward by listening, by learning, and by embracing all the good ideas that come from the entire ESU community. But I felt that we needed to take stock of where we stood as an organization in order to chart a roadmap for the future, because the challenges we face as an organization are daunting.

That's where Renee came in. At her session, she presented a clear path forward with a set of specific, workable recommendations. They ranged from expanding collaboration within and outside the ESU, to strengthening both digital and direct communications, to building connections with those who can provide support and sponsorship, such as lifelong learners, program alumni, former members, and institutions such as corporations and private foundations.

Renee stressed that all these ideas came from her conversations with our community. The enthusiasm with which her presentation was received adds to my confidence in the course we've taken.

During the Annual General Meeting on Sunday, November 13, the ESU Board and leadership presented a series of reports on the ESU bylaws, budget and audit. A slate of excellent new Board Members was unanimously elected and two Board Members were re-elected for another two-year term.

With their detailed program reports, Executive Director Karen Karpowich, Education Program Directors Rona Weitz and Alice Uhl and Branch Services Manager Elizabeth Bigelow updated us on their plans for the ESU's programming, which include scholarship and educational programs as well as membership events.

I should also mention the series of excellent Breakout Sessions, organized by Dr. Julia Churchill Van de Water, on how to recognize and reward our most active Members and how to participate in the English in Action Across America program, TLab and the ESU National Shakespeare Competition. These conversations allowed us to share our experiences, learn from each other's successes and challenges and plan future activities.

But let me tell you now about the fun we had in Charleston, S.C. It's no wonder Charleston has been named a "Best of the World" travel destination by National Geographic.

During the welcoming dinner on Friday evening, as we enjoyed the fabled Southern cuisine, we had the opportunity to recognize a number of individuals for their leadership within their Branches.

The inaugural 2022 Membership Recognition Awards grew out of a grassroots initiative to develop a culture of appreciation and recognition at the ESU. A formal
committee was formed to accept nominations and identify the 2022 honorees. I want to thank the Members of the Committee: Dr. Karen Blair-Brand; Paul Boghosian; Judith Francis; David Grissett; Barbara Hughes; Julie Jardine; William Kennedy, Charles Maddrey, William Maschmeier, Kate Nitzken, and Dr. Julia C. Van de Water, for their diligent work.

The Creativity of Programs Award went to Ginger Bryant, Shakespeare Competition Coordinator of the Central Florida Branch, for her contributions to the program. The Excellence in Leadership Award for extraordinary leadership and long-term service was bestowed on Kathryn Lerch, a leader of the Indianapolis Branch for over 20 years. And for The Lifetime Achievement Award, we selected two Awards to give; one to Donna Miller for her many years of unending service to the Central Florida Branch, and one to Sylvia Bruton and posthumously to O. Grant Bruton for their numerous contributions to the vibrancy of the ESU Kentucky Branch.

There was also a prize for the ESU Branch with the greatest number of delegates at the Conference. The $2,500 cash award went to ESU Seattle. The Branch may use the prize at its discretion for any activities, programs or scholarship.

The program ended with long-term ESU Member of the Seattle Branch former Board Member Bill Maschmeier taking the stage to remind the dinner attendees of the ESU's important contributions to society and the need to nurture and enhance, in perpetuity, the value of our educational and cultural exchange programs and activities. In a playful and charming way, Bill appealed to all of us to remember the ESU in our wills. "Being dead is no excuse," he noted, and urged us to think about the legacy we leave behind.

The exclusive Patron Reception and lecture at the Charleston Library Society was another conference highlight. This annual event recognizes the ESU Patrons, our most generous and loyal members.

Renowned architecture critic and author Susan Sully shared with us some elements of the unique style lexicon that make the Holy City so exquisite, from the late 17th century to the present, and offered a richly illustrated overview of some of Charleston's enduring architecture, craftsmanship and decorative elements. All guests received a signed copy of Susan's most recent book, The Allure of Charleston.

We came out of her presentation with fresh eyes for Charleston's picturesque streets, pastel-colored buildings and lush gardens, as well as a new sense of appreciation of the city's extraordinary architectural details, beautiful color palette and graceful dignity.

On Sunday, following the Annual General Meeting, we were treated to a captivating lecture by avid student of Lowcountry history and raconteuse extraordinaire Leigh Handal, who took us on a fascinating tour of the city's streets as they once were, revealing to us some lesser known aspects of Charleston's history.

We also spent time outside.

We walked Charleston's cobbled streets with historians Christina and Nic Butler and we heard the true stories on the Gullah language, culture and music during our Gullah Geechee tour led by Al Miller. He sang for us and spoke Gullah words to us, but beneath the humor, the stories were a sincere and accurate portrayal of the struggles, strength, and resilience of the Gullah people.

Capping the perfect weekend was the Sunset Harbor Cruise on board the Charleston Princess. Under crisp, clear skies, we breathed the salty air and marveled at the brilliant colors of a Charleston sunset.

And for those who had a day to spare, the optional tour on Monday, led by storyteller Leigh Handal, took them to the American College of Building Arts, the only institution of higher learning in the U.S. that teaches exceptional craftsmanship and encourages the preservation, enrichment and understanding of the world's architectural heritage. The College has been a long-standing partner and beneficiary of the ESU Charleston Branch's generosity. The next tour stop was Middleton Place Plantation, a rare survivor of the American Revolution, Civil War, economic upheavals, and natural disasters that offers a unique glimpse into the lives of the Middleton family and the enslaved African Americans who worked there.

And finally, I would like to thank Lawrence Hollingsworth and the ESU Charleston Branch for so graciously hosting us during the Annual Conference. Their guidance, advice and practical help ensured the success of the weekend.

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