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Great Lives lecture series launches Jan. 18 with astronaut John Glenn

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The region’s William B. Crawley Great Lives series returns with a lineup of personalities who loom larger than life—and who are timely subjects for 2022. The lives of Dolly Parton, Vincent van Gogh, Ida B. Wells, Jimmy Carter and more will be revealed during the three-month series, which marks its 19th season this year.

The organizers at the University of Mary Washington are taking a “wait and see” strategy with the lectures. Tentatively planned to be entirely in-person for the first time in two years, the surge of the COVID-19 omicron variant has necessitated the first four lectures—all in January—be livestreamed online. They can be accessed on the program website (

Professor Crawley said they will monitor the COVID situation with the hope that the subsequent 12 lectures, beginning on Feb. 1, can be in person in George Washington Hall’s Dodd Auditorium. All updates will be announced on the website.

These free lectures will take place on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from Jan. 18 through March 10, at 7:30 p.m. Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test is required, as are face masks, for all attendees.

The lecture series was forced online during its last two seasons due to the pandemic. And in 2021, only in-house talent was used. Crawley said UMW’s professors received rave reviews for their lectures, and “when you think about it, teachers make great speakers. They are used to crafting engaging presentations every day.”

Several UMW professors will present lectures this year as well, including Stephen Farnsworth, discussing the life of Charlie Chaplin. A political science professor may seem a strange fit to comment on a comedian, but Chaplin was also politically active and brought his politics into his comedic work. Professor Surupa Gupta will offer insight on Indira Gandhi, the first and only woman to become India’s prime minister.

Marjorie Och, a professor of art history, will share her thoughts on the endlessly appealing Vincent van Gogh. Local families may be especially interested in the life of the late artist due to the recent “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience,” which has travelled the world and has been in Washington, D.C., since August.

Also of interest to audiences will be the lecture on Dolly Parton by Sarah Smarsh. Parton built a successful career, penning songs about working-class women, but she’s also revered for partially funding the Moderna vaccine and promoting childhood literacy, for which she’s been in the news recently. According to Smarsh’s biography “She Come By It Natural,” Parton’s recent surge in popularity makes sense.

“Maybe it’s no coincidence that Parton’s popularity seemed to surge the same year America seemed to falter,” Smarsh writes. “A fractured thing craves wholeness, and that’s what Dolly Parton offers—one woman who simultaneously embodies past and present, rich and poor, feminine and masculine, Jezebel and Holy Mother, the journey of getting out and the sweet return to home.”

Similarly, Jimmy Carter, whose presidency has been recast as “consequential” by writer Jonathan Alter, has been thrust into the cultural consciousness of Americans for his faith, honesty and volunteerism. Alter will present his lecture on Feb. 1.

The series begins on Jan. 18 with astronaut John Glenn, who was the third American in space and first to orbit the Earth. Historian Jeff Shesol, author of “Mercury Rising: John Glenn, John Kennedy and the New Battleground of the Cold War,” will discuss Glenn’s career, which also spanned time in Congress.

That will be followed a lecture on Frances Perkins, who was “perhaps the most famous woman in America at her time,” according to Crawley, but who few know now. FDR’s labor secretary, Perkins helped deliver the New Deal and will be discussed by biographer Kirstin Downey. Female groundbreakers such as pioneering aviators who didn’t get the same glory as their male counterparts and Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman on the Supreme Court, are also lecture topics for 2022.

Journalist Ida B. Wells will also be discussed. Biographer Sarah Silkey will cover the career of the pioneering Black woman who forged her path by exposing the horrors of lynching and white supremacy. Her work was a portent of what was to come in America. The life and lynching murder of Emmett Till in 1955 will be discussed by David Tell.

Other authors will be highlighted, too. C.S. Lewis, who penned “The Chronicles of Narnia” and was noted for his theological writing, will be the topic of the final lecture on March 10. Sylvia Plath and Homer round out the literary topics during the series. Season highlights also include the Catholic missionary Mother Teresa.

Rescheduled due to the pandemic, and widely anticipated according to Crawley, is a lecture by Eric Jay Dolin on America’s pirates, whose crimes shaped the early U.S.

All lectures will also be archived and available to watch after recording online. The university’s archives contain the entirely of the 19 years of lectures. The annual lecture series started in 2004 as a biography-focused course, “Great Lives: Biographical Approaches to History and Culture,” using the wealth of knowledge and experience UMW instructors had to offer. That course opened to the public for free because of its widespread appeal and the school’s mission of public service. The response was so great, Crawley said, that the program was moved from its original room, a 200-seat lecture hall, to the 1,200-seat Dodd Auditorium.

Looking forward to two decades of the series, Crawley said he’s glad to be able to provide a service to the community, one that extends the public mission of UMW to educate and inspire.

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