April 22nd, 2011


An Evening With Ken Burns

A PBS Crowd

In 1993, documentary filmmaker extraordinaire Ken Burns came to Allendale and Grand Rapids to talk about The Civil War. We'd only been down here a year or two, but for Ken it was a homecoming, as his father taught anthropology and photography at Grand Valley State University for twenty years. We managed to make it both his talk downtown at Fountain Street Church and at the main GVSU campus. I seem to recall we were right up front at the Armstrong Theatre, and though I cannot recall how full the auditorium was, it seemed like an intimate personal talk at the time.

In 2011, GVSU is celebrating their beginnings fifty years ago, and Ken Burns came back to be their third speaker. Ostensibly his talk Thursday night was supposed to be about the next fifty years. But come on, the man is a historian. You know he wasn't going to talk about the future per se.

During the introduction, a comment surfaced from Ken's talk with students in the afternoon. "He talks in paragraphs!" Ah, the joys of literacy. (grin)

Ken Burns regaled us for about an hour, and then they took questions. Mrs. Dr. Phil asked about the book American Uprising, about the 1811 slave revolt of New Orleans that no one seems to know about. Not sure he knew the book, but finessed a philosophical answer about us versus the other and racism in America.

Tonight our PBS station did their WGVU Newsmakers program and Patrick Center had a half-hour interview with Ken. Much as in the two talks in 1993, I was struck with how well prepared he is to talk -- which means you hear some of the same prepared talking points. But of course. If you attended my PHYS-2050 course lectures in Fall 2010 and Spring 2011, you'd hear some of the same dialog, the same examples, the same jokes. It's called being good at what you do. That Ken Burns is a good speaker and tells good stories in person, in addition to his real day job as being a documentary filmmaker, well, that's just bonus.

Dr. Phil