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Chautauqua Community Mourns Passing of Jim Lehrer

We were heartbroken to hear the news yesterday that Jim Lehrer, the legendary PBS NewsHour anchor and dear friend of Chautauqua, passed away at the age of 85.

After first appearing on the Amphitheater stage in 2009 during a week on “The History of Liberty,” Lehrer returned to Chautauqua in 2010 in conversation with Roger Rosenblatt. In 2012, Lehrer moderated an entire week of conversations on “What Informed Voters Need to Know,” ahead of that year’s presidential election. 

“Jim found immediate kinship in Chautauqua. Our long-form exploration of themes and his dedication to finding the depth in the subjects he covered as a newsman shared both a style and an ethic,” said Thomas M. Becker, who served as Chautauqua Institution president from 2003 to 2016. “I found him to be a gentle soul, a fierce newsman, a clever wit, and a great teller of tales — stories of humor, pathos and meaning.”

Becker’s successor, President Michael E. Hill, expressed the Chautauqua community’s deep sadness as it “mourns the loss of a wonderful friend and partner.”

“We offer our sympathy to Jim’s wife, Kate, and his many friends and collaborators who Chautauquans have been fortunate to meet over the years,” Hill said. “Though Jim’s contributions to Chautauqua predate my tenure, his enduring example of fairness, generosity and kindness will continue to be one that we strive to achieve in our work.”

This fairness, generosity and kindness were evident in 2012’s week on “The Lehrer Report: What Informed Voters Need to Know.” From healthcare, jobs, taxation and the economy, Lehrer and his guests approached hot-button topics with thoughtfulness and civility. 

Lehrer delivered his only solo lecture that week on the Fourth of July, and while he certainly stood for the values Chautauqua holds dear — fostering an informed civic society, facilitating civil dialogue as a means to understanding — those who were with us during that week in 2012 may remember the experience not for the conversations he guided across political differences, or his insights into the debate process during an election year, but … the weather.

Hours before fireworks and flares lit up the lake, a fast-moving storm blew through Chautauqua, reaching its peak a few minutes into Lehrer’s Amphitheater lecture on presidential debates. Between thunderclaps and bemused pauses, Lehrer laid out the Founders’ vision. Shortly after quoting Ben Franklin, amidst the wind and rain pooling in the Amp bowl, Lehrer observed to the audience clutching their umbrellas: “Boy, it’s really storming out there.” Earlier that morning, Lehrer said, he was asked if “the Founders would be pleased about what the United States of America is today. And I said yes, they would be pleased by what we are, and what our country —”

But Lehrer was interrupted by gasps and cries from the audience as those in the Amp watched as a gust of wind caused part of the onstage backdrop to collapse, feet from Lehrer and the podium. Unfazed, Lehrer quipped, “Now, if we could all bow our heads …”

Determined to finish his train of thought, Lehrer went back to the Founders and that morning’s question: “And I said that Franklin and those folks … intended — absolutely intended — for it to be messy. … A democracy is inherently messy.”

So, thank you, Jim, for your work guiding us through this inherently messy — dare we say sometimes stormy? — American experiment. We are better citizens because of you.