Winter Park Institute’s Repeat Performances

Intellectual heavyweights from Pulitzer-prize winning historian David McCullough to former Poet Laureate Billy Collins find many things to love about Winter Park.

Osceola Lodge is home to the Winter Park Institute. (Photo by Scott Cook) Osceola Lodge is home to the Winter Park Institute. (Photo by Scott Cook)

There’s something about Winter Park that attracts the nation’s top thinkers and artists to the area—and keeps them coming back. From poet laureates and Pulitzer Prize-winning historians to renowned musicians and economists, Rollins College’s Winter Park Institute (WPI) has brought an array of heavyweights to the city for presentations that are free and open to the public. Now, many speakers are returning for repeat engagements, deepening their investment in the area, and raising the intellectual profile even further.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough is one of these returning luminaries. The historian, who wrote the seminal works 1776 and John Adams, has come back several times to Winter Park since lecturing at the Institute last November. Patricia Schroeder is another. As the first woman elected to Congress from Colorado, Schroeder drove efforts to expand women’s rights and enact the Family and Medical Leave Act. After drawing a crowd of hundreds when she spoke on campus last October, she returned for Women’s History Month in March. This past fall, she and a Rollins professor co-taught a course about gender in the 2012 election.

“I always make a point to fit Rollins and the Institute into my schedule,” says Schroeder, who spoke alongside longtime friend Gloria Steinem. “It’s not just the physical beauty of the campus—it’s the interaction with the community and the quality time you get to spend with the students. In too many places, it’s town versus gown. The Institute brings town and gown together for truly meaningful discussions.”

That’s precisely the goal of the Winter Park Institute, which began in 2008. Through lectures, readings, symposiums, and special-interest sessions, WPI brings together experts from a spectrum of disciplines—micro-finance, photography, technology, music, and environmentalism, among many others.

“Beyond bringing stellar scholars to share with faculty, staff, and students at Rollins, from the beginning we’ve treated WPI as a community asset—a way to foster conversations that enhance educated citizenry,” says Executive Director Gail Sinclair. “People from all over Central Florida, and extending to an ever-widening circle, attend these events. They’re enthusiastic and supportive, and they tell us what a wonderful opportunity these events provide for hearing the wisdom of world-renowned intellectuals and change-makers.”

Terry Teachout—a Wall Street Journal theater critic who recently served as a WPI Scholar In Residence—echoes that point. “WPI’s audiences are smart, interested, and welcoming, and it's a pleasure to talk to them about anything at all. They never fail to ask intelligent and provocative questions; in fact, it's the Q & A portion of my public appearances that I enjoy most. On top of that, I get to appear jointly with great artists like Pat Metheny, which doubles the pleasure I derive from coming to Winter Park.”

During his residency, Teachout worked in the Osceola Lodge, located on Interlachen Avenue. Built in 1882 by Winter Park developer Francis Knowles—and later renovated by Charles Morse, the namesake of the Morse Museum—the Lodge and the adjacent Knowles Cottage are home to WPI’s office and its scholars-in-residence.

“When I was approached about the residency, I had a feeling it would be fun to spend a few weeks at Rollins,” says Teachout. “But I had no idea how rewarding that visit would turn out to be, or that I would become so deeply attached to the campus and the community. My wife and I have really come to think of Rollins as a second home.”

Along with the personal rewards he’s gained, Teachout has seen a career boost. “Had I not done a residency, I doubt it would have occurred to me to write my first play, Satchmo at the Waldorf,” he says, referring to a recent work that tells the story of jazz legend Louis Armstrong and his manager, Joe Glaser. “Because I was at WPI, I had the free time to pursue that impulse.”

When he was invited back the following year, Teachout directed a workshop production of the play—leading to its production in Orlando, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. “That's just one example of what can happen when you come to a friendly place and spend a chunk of time there under ideal circumstances,” he says.

Teachout now returns regularly, sharing reports about his ongoing work such as an opera libretto and a biography of Duke Ellington with Winter Park residents.

Some high-profile speakers are even taking their involvement with WPI a step further. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins—lauded as “America’s most popular poet”—was intrigued by the potential of the Institute and has made a personal mission out of connecting WPI with his friends in creative fields.

“I began by persuading Paul Simon to come down and have an on-stage discussion with me about music, song-writing, and poetry,” Collins says. He later brought dramatist Marsha Norman and cartoonist Jules Feiffer—each of whom has a Pulitzer Prize—to serve as panelists in a symposium he moderated titled The Arts and Social Responsibility.

Photographic historian Anthony Bannon and photo-journalist Ed Kashi have also come to WPI at his invitation. “I hope to keep inviting people until I exhaust my Rolodex; then I’ll just have to make some new interesting friends,” Collins says.

As WPI enters its fifth year, that’s a fitting description for its mission: introducing Winter Park to interesting and highly accomplished people who quickly become friends of the College and the city.