Editor’s Note: The Vonnegut Library celebrates its second anniversary on Saturday, January 26, from noon to 8pm. As part of that celebration, we are revisiting some of the highlights of 2012. Jim Lehrer’s keynote address was certainly one of the high points of the year. The following blog post was originally published on April 21, 2012.
[The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library held their annual Night of Vonnegut celebration last Saturday, April 14. Guest blogger Cindy Dashnaw was there to record the highlights of Jim Lehrer’s terrific keynote address!]
Jim Lehrer (of PBS NewsHour fame) had his first novel published in 1966. It was satire, he said. But when the editor of The Texas Observer met with him after writing a so-so review and told Lehrer, “Have you read any Kurt Vonnegut? Go read Cat’s Cradle and call me back,” he did just that.
And he immediately understood what the editor meant.
“From then on,” Lehrer told the audience at Night of Vonnegut this month, “I decided I was going to write like Kurt Vonnegut.”
Lehrer went on to read “literally everything Vonnegut wrote. He stood for funny, serious, pungent, great satire. You’re laughing, crying, sweating, shivering, happy and unhappy all at the same time within three sentences. He captivated me.”
At the podium during Night of Vonnegut, Lehrer held up his wife’s dog-eared copy of Cat’s Cradle, filled with Post-It notes. Kate Lehrer had taken it on The Diane Rehm Show a few years ago for a discussion about Vonnegut. Lehrer read one of their favorite passages – appropriate, he said, for an Indiana audience:
“My God,” she said, “are you a Hoosier?”
I admitted I was.
“I’m a Hoosier, too,” she crowed. “Nobody has to be ashamed of being a Hoosier.”
“I’m not,” I said. “I never knew anybody who was.”
“Hoosiers do all right. Lowe and I’ve been around the world twice, and everywhere we went we found Hoosiers in charge of everything.”
“You know the manager of that new hotel in Istanbul?”
“He’s a Hoosier. And the military-whatever-he-is in Tokyo…”
“Attaché,” said her husband.
“He’s a Hoosier,” said Hazel. “And the new Ambassador to Yugoslavia…”
“A Hoosier?” I asked.
“Not only him, but the Hollywood Editor of Life magazine, too. And that man in Chile…”
“A Hoosier, too?”
“You can’t go anywhere a Hoosier hasn’t made his mark,” she said.
“The man who wrote Ben-Hur was a Hoosier.”
“And James Whitcomb Riley.”
“Are you from Indiana, too?” I asked her husband.
“Nope. I’m a Prairie Stater. ‘Land of Lincoln,’ as they say.”
“As far as that goes,” said Hazel triumphantly, “Lincoln was a Hoosier, too. He grew up in Spencer County.”
“Sure,” I said.
“I don’t know what it is about Hoosiers,” said Hazel, “but they’ve sure got something. If somebody was to make a list, they’d be amazed.”
“That’s true,” I said.
She grasped me firmly by the arm. “We Hoosiers have got to stick together.”
“You call me ‘Mom.’”
“Whenever I meet a young Hoosier, I tell them, ‘You call me Mom.’”
Lehrer said he met Kurt Vonnegut Jr., “as he was called in those days,” a few times. He told a story of a humbling encounter.
“Vonnegut’s wife was a great photographer of authors. The MacNeils, my now-retired partner and his wife, knew the Vonneguts very well. They threw a book party for me when I published my book, and Vonnegut and his wife were there. I tried to get my picture taken with him, but he just shook his head and said, ‘No.’ That was it! Just, ‘No.’ Everyone there that night had their picture taken except for Vonnegut.”
Lehrer pledged his ongoing support for the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library.
“I will always be with you all, to help you in any way I possibly can, to salute the work of Kurt Vonnegut and to preserve it,” he said.
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