Highpoints and Heroes

By Beau Denton February 1, 2011

We all have them—certain sights, sounds or smells that instantly transport us to another time and place. For me, one of those sounds is the voice of Garrison Keillor, whose distinctive bass tones bring me to the backseat of my grandma’s car, where I was exposed to A Prairie Home Companion long before I could point to Minnesota on a map. So I jumped at the opportunity, along with more than 1700 other people, to see Keillor at the Van Wezel Monday night. And since Sarasota Magazine sponsored the event, a few of us got to attend a brief meet-and-greet upstairs, where Keillor—who is much taller than I’d imagined—patiently shook hands and posed for pictures. I tend to get awkward and quiet when I meet personal heroes, but inwardly—as I thought about my grandma’s car and those many weekend afternoons I spent driving in circles so I could hear all about Lake Wobegone—I was turning cartwheels.


Image courtesy of Greg Kaspar at Don Daly Photo.

The event itself was exactly what I’d hoped. Keillor told stories for an hour and a half, mixing his own childhood experiences with those of his trademark characters and tossing in some poetry for good measure. The crowd was enthusiastic, laughing at all the right moments and applauding his skill with words, the way he can turn a serious topic into a charming, often humorous story. And his unique stage presence—he repeatedly stared at his fingernails, closed his eyes or turned his back to the audience while he talked—made it even more endearing. He’d probably say that’s one of the reasons he got into radio.

Then, Wednesday morning, I went back to the Van Wezel. Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools, was in town to kick off the Ringling College Library Association’s Town Hall series. Mortenson, who describes himself as “a Minnesota Norwegian Lutheran—Garrison Keillor’s stock,” is another one of my heroes, but for different reasons. He helps start schools throughout rural Pakistan and Afghanistan, equipping remote villages to educate their children—especially girls. His stories, about the “fierce desire” for education, or traveling through the most hostile of regions, or how villages rally around the cause of educating their children, have had a tremendous impact—Three Cups of Tea is now required reading for all senior U.S. military officials.

Mortenson values human relationships, and he’s confident that building schools—especially sustainable schools run by locals—is the most powerful way to combat extremism and aggression. And his message translates easily to our culture; he spoke with passion about the need to cherish education and to see young people engaged in civic society. Through all this, even as he talked about his accomplishments in front of a packed audience, Mortenson’s soft-spoken humility was evident—later I heard a lady describe him as “a giant teddy bear.” His words and actions are inspiring, and I applaud the RCLA for kicking off this year’s series in such an important and high-minded way.

While Keillor and Mortenson aren’t exactly local celebrities, Tuesday morning featured one of those only-in-Sarasota moments we’re always talking about. Circus Sarasota has made an annual tradition of announcing a new show with a public stunt (last year they strung a tightrope Man On Wire-style between two highrises), and this time they outdid themselves. Joseph Dominick Bauer, Jr. climbed into a contraption that looked like a giant hamster’s wheel attached to a swinging pendulum (called, unfortunately, the “Wheel of Destiny”) and awed audiences from on top of the Watergate Condominium by the bay. The crowd—which, in true Sarasota fashion, was comprised of elderly couples, young families, and even a handful of Amish folk—waited patiently for the morning fog to clear while local clowns entertained in typical circus fashion. Bauer’s 12-minute act (watch part of it here), made even more thrilling by the slippery fog, included a blindfold and a jump rope, and it was breathtaking. Standing by the bay, surrounded by cheering kids and older ladies gasping and clutching their chests, I was overwhelmed—grateful once again that I get to call this place home.

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