Friday, May 14, 2010
Once a year, The Tennessean newspaper holds a sit-down dinner to honor the people who wrote the best letters to the editor of the previous year. It's been held almost every year since back before World War II. In my 14 years at the paper, I think I went to maybe 8 or 10 of them. And for the last several years I was at the paper, I was the idiot in charge of coordinating the newspaper's this-is-almost-as-big-as-the-Second-Coming coverage of the event.
Now, I could get all syrupy here about what a wonderful time it was to spend in the company of the people who wrote in letters to the editor -- and I did indeed have some very nice times and meet some interesting people at the tables I hosted. But more than anything, I came to love the Forum Banquet as part ritual, part family reunion, part theater of the absurd.
I'm not old enough to have lived through The Supposed Good Ole Days when Halberstam and Wicker and Kovach were regular bylines, but when I came to the paper as an intern in 1994, The Tennessean still thought of itself as a family. And one of my first assignments in my first week on the job was learning how important The Forum Banquet was and being part of the crew that covered it.
If the paper was, and is, a family, then the Forum Banquet is the annual family reunion. One night a year, everyone puts on their Sunday clothes and hauls over to the Maxwell House, dons the red flower and nametag in their lapel, looks on the board to find the table they're hosting, and hopes they get good people at their table.
Times change, people come and go, the size of the paper gets skinnier and there's a redesign every few years, but the Forum Banquet remains. And at the end of the night, everyone gets up and sings Auld Lang Syne. Mr. Seigenthaler did it, Halberstam and Wicker and Kovach and all those guys probably did it. I believe it is the newspaper's single most lasting tradition in the community. (For a more complete history of the Forum Banquet, I would point you to the piece written a few years ago by my friend and colleague Andy Humbles, if you can still find it online. There was also an interesting piece in Time magazine published in the 1940s that is online.)
I did meet some very nice people at the tables I hosted. I talked about what was going on at the legislature with a volunteer lobbyist for a local advocacy group. I once had three older gentlemen at my table, all in their 70s and 80s -- all of them repeat Forum Banquet attendees -- and, in conversation, we discovered that two of them had been in attendance at a legendary Vanderbilt football game in the early 1950s or so, and the third gent had listened to the game on the radio. At my last Forum Banquet, in 2008, I had at my table Mr. Foster Shockley, who was at either his 24th or 25th Forum Banquet.
The people who write letters to the editor are the most regular readers we have. In an era of news from TMZ.com on your iPhone, they not only read the paper, they take the time to write something and -- gasp! -- they attach their real name to it. Not drunkdawg68 or govolsgo2005. Their real names. Remember when people actually had to stand behind the things they said and wrote? And if they responded to someone else's opinion, they had to say something more substantive than "You and your whole family are s---heads"?
It's like finding out somebody somewhere still actually takes the effort to make Coca-Cola with real cane sugar in it. You think, this is great. This is so much better than what we have now. Why did this ever go away?
And like all newspaper traditions, the Forum Banquet has its own folklore. Several longtime newsroom staffers claimed to have been the person who had a lady at their table who, in an earlier era when wine flowed freely at the banquet, got drunk. Maybe as many people claimed to have hosted that lady at their table as claimed to have been the victim of one of Jerry Thompson's backward-named fake obit jokes. (There's just no way you could all be telling the truth. When I was younger, I believed all of you who told me that. Now that I'm older, I don't think I believe any of you.)
The quality of the guest speakers varied, though they almost always spoke on the importance of the First Amendment and free speech. More than the content of any of the speeches, I remember when the speaker for the evening was to be a retired high-ranking military man originally from Nashville, whose father had headed Metro's water system when our editor, Frank Sutherland, had been a young reporter covering City Hall. When Mr. Sutherland introduced our speaker that night, he recalled how our speaker for the evening had been taken prisoner during the Vietnam War, and how Mr. Sutherland had gotten a bracelet bearing our speaker's name, the type of which was commonly distributed back then in remembrance of American POWs. Mr. Sutherland said he had kept that bracelet all those years, and that night at the podium at the Forum Banquet, he pulled out the bracelet and gave it to the man whose name was on it.
But nice gestures and small talk with longtime readers aren't all that the Forum Banquet offers. It's also the wildest show in town.
The greatest tradition of the Forum Banquet has to be the open-mic period: Every letter writer in attendance is given the chance to stand up at a microphone and talk for one minute on any subject of their choosing. Some don't, but most of them do, and the resulting hour or so makes the American Idol tryout shows look like MacNeil and Lehrer.
Some of the letter-writers make totally comprehensible statements taking traditional left/right stances on major issues like education, the war on terrorism, city government and the like. Yeah, yeah, yeah, boring, boring, boring. Bring on the crazies!
One guy got up a couple years ago and asked that we all listen to one minute of silence, after which he stood at the microphone for the remaining 45 seconds or so and said nothing. Another got up and observed that it was Arbor Day, and said that people in the Netherlands referred to it as "Plant a Wooden Shoe Day."
People say whatever comes to their minds, or whatever obsession or rant they're on that day. Some of it's comprehensible. Some of it isn't. The story we used to publish in the following Sunday's newspaper -- in which we were instructed to quote each letter-writer who spoke -- always had a substantial section at the end that could have easily been subheaded "miscellaneous," because we couldn't group the joke-tellers and thank-yous and randomness under any other topic heading.
Sometimes people get up and respond back to what an earlier letter-writer had said at the mic. Thankfully, no punches were thrown at the banquets I attended, though I was concerned at the 2008 Forum Banquet, when one speaker got up and told us that he thought most of us in the room were guilty of sedition that he wanted to meet another letter-writer on the battlefield and put a bullet between his eyes. And then, as the dude left the mic and sat down, he hurled a few comments back at an earlier speaker at another table who had dissed President Bush, ending with the very adult command "So shut up!" (The guy was a Metro employee. Doesn't that make you feel better now?)
Some people go up to the mic to thank the paper for picking their letter and inviting them to the banquet. One lady wrote and recited her own poetry. Yes, about the banquet. Some people shoot questions out at the Tennessean editors on the dias or spew criticism at the paper.
People also ask questions of the prominent figures delivering the keynote address. I remember when the speaker a few years ago was Metro Police Chief Ronal Serpas. Most of the letter-writers had had their say and sat down, but there was an older lady who got up and went to the microphone on the right of the ballroom. She addressed her comments to the police chief. Her name, she said, was Virginia Trimble.
Say whatever you want to say, but say it in 60 seconds, or you'll get gonged. Yes, they time it. Religiously. well, there's no gong, but there is a brass bell that's rung at the end of your time.
And when all the letter-writers who want to speak have spoken, it will be time to sing Auld Lang Syne. The lyrics are printed in the program in your chair, and the pianist for the evening will give everybody some idea of the tune. And then it will be time to go home. At least until next year.