Monday, March 21, 2011

Thoughts on the Southwest Florida Reading Festival

For the 12th year the Lee County Library System staff and many, many generous sponsors and volunteers from around the county have put together what has become a premier event for authors from around the country and beyond. (Laura Esquivel came in from Mexico City). This multi-generational celebration of reading seems to run smoother every year and the crowds are more and more grateful and receptive.

Every year I work at this festival and every year I think of the one person whose germ of an idea was the catalyst for our very auspicious beginning. Lesa Holstine was a branch manager in Lee County, a readers' advisor extraordinaire, an author groupie, and an organizer. She asked a few of us (you know who you are) that she knew were "good" readers to join her committee, got the library administration on board and the Lee County Reading Festival emerged.

The thing about Lesa is that she knew so many authors and wasn't afraid to go after them. Yet, it was never about her. She  didn't care to be in front of the microphone. She walked around Centennial Park in a wide brimmed hat, her husband Jim manning the camera. But we all knew that "the lady in the big hat" was the "go to" person.

After that first shaky year we were able to attract a young man, just starting to make a name for himself in the mystery writing genre. Dennis Lehane agreed to join us and some writing buddies of his came along too. Jan Burke, James Hall, and Les Standiford stand out. Maryellen was beside herself as she was assigned the enviable task of picking up Carl Hiaasen and bringing him down to the outside stage where he proceeded to regale folks with his snarky tales of politics and corruption.

As the years went by, the Lee County Reading Festival became such a big deal that we had to hire someone to run it as a full time job! I had the pleasure of eating dinner the other night at the Evening with the Authors at Heather Graham's table and we commiserated about the rapid passing of time. I reminded her that she had been our keynote speaker years ago before we even had the Harborside Event Center as an indoor venue. She spoke out on the lawn in her spike heels under a white tent and it was so hot, folks were keeling over in their chairs!

Lesa has moved on to greener pastures - lucky Glendale, AZ - festival coordinators have come and gone, but some of us have stayed on volunteering because we LOVE this! We have often discovered that the most famous writers are the easiest, most gracious people to work with. Think of Sue Grafton, Elizabeth Berg, Janet Evanovich, and David Baldacci who donated the proceeds of his sales to his charity.

I can scarcely single out all the lovely people we have briefly crossed paths with over the last twelve years, most recently the beautiful Alice Hoffman who received our Distinguished Author award this year for her work with young writers and in breast cancer research Then there was Dr. Michael Palmer and Jeffrey Deaver who were like a stand up duo, playing off each other and leaving the audience in stitches - pun intended. And what about Nelson DeMille who demurred at being considered the "keynote" speaker, leaving that spot to the incredible Linda Fairstein.

Oh, I could just go on and on but....once again, I'm told that long posts lose people's attention. We are a nation with attention deficit disorder, aren't we? I guess I just wanted to write a paean to authors and to Lesa, in particular, to thank her for her foresight that resulted in this labor of love. We miss you lady!

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