GREAT LIVES: Biographical Approaches to History and Culture

The Chappell Lecture series began in 2004 as an academic course titled “Great Lives: Biographical Approaches to History.” Drawing on a model employed periodically by the History Department since the mid-1970s, and consistent with the University’s commitment to public service, certain lectures were opened to the public free of charge. The response was extraordinary—so great, in fact, that the program had to be moved from its original 200-seat Monroe Hall venue to 1200-seat Dodd Auditorium, the largest lecture facility on the Fredericksburg campus.

Soon after it began, Great Lives received a major boost as a result of a significant endowment from John Chappell of Philadelphia. That gift, subsequently augmented by Mr. Chappell’s continuing generosity, has made it possible for the program to attract speakers of prominence from throughout the country and abroad, creating an unprecedented intellectual opportunity both for UMW students and area residents alike.

Mr. and Mrs. John Chappell

The innovative approach of Great Lives is unusual, perhaps unique, in academia. According to James McGrath Morris, President of Biographers International Organization (and a 2011 Great Lives speaker on Joseph Pulitzer), “Quite simply, there is no other program comparable to it in the country. The University of Mary Washington is gaining widespread recognition for this truly remarkable achievement.”

Community support has been extraordinary, with audiences in recent years averaging around 500 and occasionally approaching 1000. A number of local organizations have collaborated with Great Lives in sponsoring lectures, including the Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center, Central Rappahannock Regional Library, George Washington Foundation, Community Foundation of the Rappahannock River Region, and Central Rappahannock Heritage Center. Area book clubs often schedule their programs around Great Lives topics. In addition, individual donations have become an important ancillary resource in funding the series.

What accounts for the success of Great Lives?  Fundamentally there is the inherent appeal of biography.  People tend to be interested in the lives of others, thereby making biography a useful, and accessible, approach to the study of history.  Not without reason has biography been called “history’s human heartbeat.”

More specifically, there is the program’s diversity, not just in race and gender, but in chronology and, importantly, fields of accomplishment.  Its subjects include persons both admirable and, occasionally, abominable. (The operating principle is that “great” means not necessarily good, but influential in some way.)  Indeed, some of the more popular topics have occasionally been non-human subjects, such as the great Virginia thoroughbred, Secretariat, and even a few fictional characters – e.g., Frankenstein, James Bond, and Harry Potter.

Among the criteria for choosing topics is their relevance to some contemporary event, such as the 2012 lecture on the founder of the Girl Scouts to coincide with that organization’s 100th anniversary; currently on-going lectures on figures relating to the Civil War sesquicentennial; and the 2013 lecture on Queen Elizabeth II, commemorating the 60th anniversary of her reign.

Also, an effort is made to feature authors who have recently written  biographies of significant subjects and whose works have been critically acclaimed.  Among the latter have been numerous nominees for prestigious literary awards, among them the recipients of the Pulitzer Prize in biography in 2006 (Martin Sherwin for J. Robert Oppenheimer), 2010 (T.J. Stiles for Cornelius Vanderbilt) , and 2011 (Ron Chernow for George Washington).

In addition to introducing the audience to some of history’s most fascinating figures, Great Lives has also evidenced a potential for inspiring students. As Rosemary Velasquez, a student in the very first class, wrote some years later, “This was by far the most influential class I ever took. . . . At 21, walking alone on campus, I constantly asked myself after each lecture: How will I lead a great life? What can I do to leave my own mark?” (Ms. Velasquez eventually decided that her future would be working with Girl Scouts in her native Texas, where she is now an executive.)

Thus far the Series has investigated the lives of over 200 figures—and there is no shortage of additional subjects.  In fact, a recent audience solicitation of perspective topics produced almost 400 different nominees!

Given the public’s obvious appetite for studying both the famous and the infamous, it appears that the future of Great Lives is, indeed, great.