Popular lecture series brings renowned speakers to Fresno

TV personality Jack Hanna is part of the San Joaquin Valley Town Hall lecture series.
TV personality Jack Hanna is part of the San Joaquin Valley Town Hall lecture series.

An impressive lineup – authorities in technology, politics, national security, conservation, education, religion and water issues – will speak during the annual San Joaquin Valley Town Hall daytime lecture series in Fresno.

A sold-out evening with Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer with Steve Jobs, starts the 2015-16 season on Thursday, Oct. 8. The first of six daytime lectures at the William Saroyan Theatre begins Oct. 21 with “Jungle Jack” Hanna, a zoo director who has made appearances on national television shows handling exotic animals.

“Our goal at our events is to learn something,” says Hillary Bell, vice president of the nonprofit lecture series. “We’re not necessarily looking for inspirational speakers. We want our folks to walk away with some knowledge every single time they come to a town hall.”

Fresno has enjoyed these talks since 1938 thanks to a Hanford woman named Clio Lee Aydelott, described as a “woman of letters,” who helped connect the city with an already established national lecture series for “thinking adults to become better informed.” The independent San Joaquin Valley Town Hall series was established in 1946. The nonprofit group is run by a volunteer board of 25 and all proceeds raised go to pay for speakers.

Jack Hanna (Oct. 21)

Animal expert “Jungle Jack” Hanna is lauded by organizers as “one of the most visible and respected ambassadors between the human and animal worlds.”

For supporters of the Fresno Chaffee Zoo, Hanna’s work as director emeritus of the Columbus (Ohio) Zoo and Aquarium also makes his perspective especially valuable, Bell says.

“He changed their downtown and made it relevant and that’s what our zoo is looking to do with Measure Z dollars,” Bell says.

Hanna will handle some animals from the Fresno Chaffee Zoo during his talk, something he is famous for as a television personality appearing on shows such as “Good Morning America” and “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”

He is a very crowd-pleasing, family-friendly kind of lecturer.

Hillary Bell

“You will walk away knowing about conservation and the animals you are seeing up there,” Bell says.

His presentation, “A Day with ‘Jungle Jack’ Hanna,” will also include a mix of video clips that will showcase some of his globetrotting experiences. The conservationist is the author of 11 books.

Sir Ken Robinson (Nov. 18)

The author and professor emeritus in education at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom was knighted in 2003 for his service to the arts – contributions that include two immensely popular TED talks in 2006 and 2010 that have been viewed by millions around the globe.

His website describes Robinson as an “internationally recognized leader in the development of creativity, innovation and human resources in education and in business.”

His talk in Fresno, “Out of Our Minds: Learning To Be Creative,” will explore a few questions Robinson says are vital in education: Why is it essential to promote creativity? Why do so many adults think they’re not creative? Most children are buzzing with ideas – what happens to them as they grow up?

“In exploring these questions,” Town Hall organizers say, “Robinson argues for radical changes in how we educate all students to meet the extraordinary challenges of living and working in the 21st century.”

Ann Compton (Jan. 20)

Ann Compton, a former White House correspondent for ABC News, retired in 2014 after 41 years with the network. The award-winning journalist was the first woman assigned to cover the White House on a full-time basis by a network television news organization.

During her talk, “Up Close and Very Personal,” Compton will share insights on the media, the presidency and the changing role of journalism in the United States in the 21st century.

She covered politics, elections and on Sept. 11, 2001, was the only broadcast reporter aboard Air Force One when President George W. Bush was not allowed to return to the nation’s Capitol.

“She’ll provide a behind-the-scenes look at history from the insider’s view,” says Julie Beecher, president of the lecture series’ board of directors. “It just makes you look at the news and history in a different way and makes it much more close to home. … To get people’s perspectives like that just makes you feel a little more apart of the world stage.”

It helps you understand how everything is local but everything is also global at the same time.

Julie Beecher

Daniel Nelson (Feb. 17)

Daniel Nelson, executive director of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, is a longtime water expert in the Central Valley.

Over the course of his 34-year career, he’s built coalitions and advocated for solutions to address California water woes. He was recently awarded by the Family Farm Alliance for his “dedication and capable advocacy” on behalf of farmers and ranchers in the Western U.S.

Nelson’s talk, “Whiskey Is for Drinkin’, Water Is for Fightin’ ” – a quote from Mark Twain – will explore the history of the California water system, current challenges facing the system, and efforts to address water issues in the Central Valley.

“He’s going to tell it like it is,” Bell says. “He’s not going to be conservative or liberal. He’s going to say, ‘This is the history of it, and this is where I see the future going.’ 

Stephen Prothero (March 16)

Stephen Prothero is a professor of religion at Boston University and a senior fellow at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of American History.

The author of six books, numerous articles, and a frequent guest on NPR and television news programs will present a talk titled, “God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World.”

“Part of his thesis is basically that America is a religious country but does not know very much about world religions … and that you have to understand the similarities and differences in those religions to really understand what’s going on in the world,” Beecher says.

“I think that lots of the conflict in the world is rooted in religious differences and I think understanding what makes us all the same, and understanding how different people look at the world differently, helps us all understand each other and hopefully get along with each other.”

James Stavridis (April 20)

The retired Navy admiral – deemed a “Renaissance admiral” by The New York Times – served as a commander of NATO (2009-2013) and the United States Southern Command (2006 to 2009).

His background is phenomenal.

Julie Beecher

Stavridis is now dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and has published six books and written more than 150 articles.

Drawing from his military career, Stavridis’ talk, “Beyond the Horizon: 21st Century Global Security and Risk,” will give an overview of “risks, opportunities and strategies for creating a secure nation, government, and business community in the 21st century.”

“He’s an incredibly engaging speaker,” Bell says. “He’s actually one of the first people that we booked.”

Adds Beecher, “There’s probably no one in the world who understands how our military works better than him.”

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge

Attend a lecture

  • The hourlong lectures, which include an opportunity to ask questions, begin at 10:30 a.m. Wednesdays.
  • At William Saroyan Theatre, 700 M St., Fresno.
  • Tickets cost $30 per lecture or $125 for the full season.
  • A luncheon follows each lecture, where organizers say speakers often talk more “off the cuff.” Luncheon tickets are $120 for the season or $25 each. Call 559-444-2180 for dining reservations by the Friday before a lecture.
  • Students can attend the lectures for free with a student ID. To reserve space for a classroom, email or call 559-444-2180.
  • Tickets can be purchased online at or by calling 559-444-2180 to request an order form with a return envelope for season tickets. Single lecture tickets can be purchased at the door.