It began simply enough: During the Great Depression, a small group of citizens, wanting to learn more about the great affairs of the time, started a public lecture series. At a spring garden party in 1933, after an enthusiastic presentation by the founders, about 100 charter members signed on. A public campaign followed, with an enrollment booth in the lobby of Smith and Welton, the venerable downtown department store. A season’s ticket for all four speakers cost $1.00. They sold out the first year. The idea was to bring to Norfolk four speakers a year “to present to potential members a series of lectures from eminent individuals covering cultural, literary, and governmental issues before the nation.”
On October 29, 1933, the first speaker was Henry T. Rainey, Democrat of Illinois and Speaker of the House, who came to explain the fine points of the New Deal to subscribers at Blair Junior High’s auditorium. In an unbroken chain, The Norfolk Forum has presented at least four speakers each year since. Heads of state alternate with humorists, actors with advice columnists, journalists with the politicians they cover. We take pride in remembering that Margaret Thatcher, Alex Haley, Ogden Nash, Vincent Price, Bill Moyers, Pearl Bailey, Will Durant, Russell Baker, Barbara Walters, Ken Burns, Cokie Roberts, Ross Perot, Tom Wolfe, Dave Barry, George Bush, Jane Goodall, Mark Russell and a host of others have graced our platform.
A look back at the list of presenters shows philosophers, educators, consumer advocates, authors, historians, futurists, judges, musical revues, ambassadors, financial wizards, rocket scientists, war correspondents, foreign affairs experts, film critics, a self-described spy, and even a con man: the diverse speakers have aroused, amused, inspired, provoked and amazed us for 80 years.
And so it remains today. The Norfolk Forum is now the oldest publicly-subscribed speakers’ forum in the country. The formula remains simple. It’s still the best ticket in town.