The Elbert Files: Great storytellers at Salisbury
Friday, September 27, 2013 7:00 AM
A history question: What do Des Moines residents Harry Bookey and Pam Bass-Bookey have to do with Spanish conquistadors, the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, the outbreak of World War I and the daughter of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
A lot, as it turns out, because beginning Oct. 3 and continuing through May, each of those subjects will be explored as part The History Series at Salisbury House & Gardens, a lecture series created by the Bookeys 13 years ago.
“We thought something was missing” from the Des Moines cultural scene, Bass-Bookey explained. So in 2000, the couple began inviting experts on a variety of historical subjects to give lectures at Salisbury House, the Des Moines mansion built by cosmetics magnate Carl Weeks in the image of a royal home in Salisbury, England.
The first year, the experts included anthropologist Brian Fagan, who wrote “The Rape of the Nile: Tomb Robbers, Tourists and Archaeologists in Egypt,” and Roger Kennedy, a former director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, who talked about his book “Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson: A Study in Character.” Topics have ranged from the Black Death to the lost city of Atlantis, and they attract “a lot of people you would not ordinarily see at a lot of the other things going on in Des Moines,” Bass-Bookey said.
Along with fringe topics, presentations have focused on such mainstream subjects as Mozart, President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the role that women played during the Revolutionary War. Harry Bookey said the goal has been to find speakers who cover a wide array of periods from the 20th century to the Renaissance and ancient history with an occasional “wild card.”
One benefit for the Bookeys is that they have become friends with several of the speakers, including James Reston Jr., who has presented three lectures. In fact, the couple have traveled to Rome with Reston, who gave them his personal tour of the city and its history
Another historian who has made repeat appearances is Iowa-born Dayton Duncan, who wrote and co-produced several Ken Burns’ PBS documentaries. Duncan’s 2001 presentation, “What Lewis and Clark Mean to America,” was attended by Gov. Tom Vilsack and was so powerful, “there was not a dry eye in the room, and that included Duncan and the governor,” Bookey said.
The concept for the series grew out of the Bookeys’ love of history. They got the idea after attending similar lectures in Florida.
But when they launched the Des Moines series, the Bookeys added something new, an educational component, by asking speakers to spend part of a day with students at the Des Moines Independent Community School District’s Central Academy.
“None of the speakers have worked with high school students for years, and they are always so exhilarated by the experience,” said Bass-Bookey.
The couple said that when they launched the series in 2000, it was in partnership with Charles and Rusty Edwards. In more recent years, co-sponsors have been Fred and Charlotte Hubbell.
Tickets are $10 per session or $35 for all four lectures. Each presentation lasts about one hour. This year’s schedule is:
Oct. 3 – Buddy Levy, author of “River of Darkness: Francisco Orellana’s Legendary Voyage of Death and Discovery Down the Amazon.
Nov. 14 – Jeff Guinn, who wrote “The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral – and How it Changed the American West.”
April 17 – Heath Lee will discuss her forthcoming book “Winnie Davis: Daughter of the Lost Cause.”
May 1 – Michael Neibert, author of “Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I.”
Lee, the Bookeys noted, is a museum consultant who has recently moved to Des Moines. Her presentation in April should be especially interesting, they said, because a descendant of Jefferson Davis plans to attend.
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