Reflections on 24 Years: A Fond Farewell from Debbie Watrous

Twenty-four years at New Hampshire Humanities – so many wonderful memories! I’d like to offer a few of them on the eve of my departure, but in shorthand because each memory is a story that’s too long to fit here.

I’ve always loved that we bring the world of ideas to New Hampshire. Whether at our Annual Dinner, literacy events, Chautauqua, symposia or other occasions, I have been privileged to meet some of the most interesting, brilliant, and caring individuals. These people have enlarged my understanding and challenged my assumptions – experiences that have been both humbling and inspiring.

Without a doubt, the high point of my career to-date has been meeting Archbishop Desmond Tutu, our Annual Dinner speaker in 1998. Here he was, one of the giants in the fight against apartheid, asking me to dine with him and his friends, Eleanor and Jack Dunfey. When I demurred, not wanting to interrupt them, he teased, “You’re going to say ‘no’ to The Arch?” Needless to say, I sat right down and took the proffered chicken wing. On the way to the ballroom where 850 guests awaited him, Archbishop Tutu took a detour through the kitchen (much to the distress of the Radisson catering managers) so he could thank the staff. He was delighted when a birthday cake loaded with candles arrived at his table and we all sang “happy birthday” to him. And then this little elderly man with the twinkle in his eye and sly smile stood at the microphone and held us in thrall with stories from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings he was leading in South Africa, offering example after example of the healing power of truth and justice combined with forgiveness. I was in the presence of grace.

Over the years I’ve organized many events featuring Ken Burns, New Hampshire’s own “patron saint of the humanities,” a brilliant filmmaker, eloquent speaker, and incredibly generous, nice guy. The most memorable occasion for me was “An All-Star Night of Baseball” in 1994, a fundraising event that included a talk by Ken, a preview screening of his new documentary, and the presence of 16 baseball greats. In my entire life, I never imagined I’d actually meet players from the Negro Leagues and the All American Girls Professional Baseball League. After the event was over, we held an after-party in a room upstairs where Max Manning, a star pitcher for the Newark Eagles, regaled us with stories of his life and career. Listening to Max, I had a glimmer of the thrill that Ken and his team must feel as they capture and convey the previously-hidden stories that are part of the American story.

Speaking of storytelling, I had the pleasure of spending a couple of days with the Palestinian-American poet and novelist Naomi Shihab Nye when she came to NH in 2010 for our celebration of literacy, giving a public talk and meeting with adult ESOL students in Connections classes. She remains one of the most curious, open-hearted people I’ve ever met. Rather than rest in her hotel room after a long flight, she walked around Manchester, ending up late at night at the Red Arrow Diner, where she settled in at the counter to meet the locals. After a full morning with Connections participants and literacy teachers, the head of the Manchester School of Technology stopped Naomi as we were leaving to ask her to speak to a group of school administrators gathered for a workshop. Without hesitation or preparation, Naomi delivered an eloquent lesson on valuing the creativity in every child. Her impromptu talk was derived from her own experience of an elementary school teacher’s criticism captured in her poem “How to Paint a Donkey.” What a gift she gave those school leaders, and what a gift she gives anyone who has the good fortune to spend time with her or read her work. 

Many of our projects over the years have included story gathering and storytelling. As part of our four-year initiative “Fences & Neighbors: New Hampshire’s Immigration Story,” we funded the creation of a play by Genevieve Aichele called Dreaming Again. Based on the oral histories of immigrants to NH, the play included the story of a Sudanese woman who spoke out against the brutal government of Omar al-Bashir. In one of the most powerful scenes in the play, the actress pumps her fist and leads the other actors (fellow inmates in the scene) in the chant “Down, down al-Bashir.” Suddenly, in the dark theater, a voice rang out, “THAT’S MY STORY!” Samira Karrar, the Sudanese refugee whose story was featured in that scene, was in the theater! We invited Samira to join the panel afterwards, and she talked about the challenges her grandson had faced being accepted by other students at his Manchester elementary school. She visited the class one day and took his classmates on an imaginary trip to their homeland, describing the animals, the food, the games they played, what daily life was like. By helping his classmates to imagine the full, rich life of her grandson, Samira broke through the barriers of distrust and ignorance and opened the path for his classmates to get to know him. 

Finally, I need to thank Brendan O’Byrne, the young veteran and gifted facilitator involved in “From Troy to Baghdad,” our discussion series for veterans that uses The Odyssey, guided conversation, and peer support to reframe the experience of war and homecoming. Over the past few months, on long drives, over meals, and at events, Brendan has graciously shared his story. He has given me a glimpse into the complicated reality of being a soldier and a veteran and how, quoting Brendan, “coming home can sometimes feel harder than going to war.” The participant and facilitator evaluations of “From Troy to Baghdad” have reminded me, once again, of the power of a great story to reveal, to comfort, to elicit joy and sorrow, and sometimes to heal. 

While the humanities are vitally important to a healthy civic life, it is their transformative power in the lives of individuals that is most meaningful to me. I am deeply grateful for the gift of the humanities in my life and especially for the wise, caring, dedicated, generous people who have been part of my life here at New Hampshire Humanities. Thank you all.