Two Decades of Dilemma
By Lynn Conlee
When national education expert Jonathan Kozol lectured at Rhodes during fall semester, his appearance attracted the attention of faculty—one of whom called Kozol his “hero”—and Memphis City Schools Superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash, among others. Orchestrating the event was a single student, history major John Pevy ’11. Multiply Kozol and Pevy by several and you’ll have some sense of the impact of Dilemma, a weekend-long speaker symposium launched in 1966 by a handful of energetic and dedicated Rhodes students.
Dilemma speakers represented the best and brightest minds of their times. Politicians—some of whom went on to run for president—actors, writers, protestors, and religious leaders constituted just some of the lecturers leading themed symposiums.
It took two years of planning to get the program off the ground, in part because the student initiative was completely funded by contributions solicited by the students themselves.
“I think we helped birth something new at Rhodes,” says Joyce Malone Wilding ’66, whose role was to procure the speakers for Dilemma ’66. “Examining some of the key issues of our time based on the liberal arts perspective was the whole idea of Dilemma ’66—to share thinking, look at some classic research and writing and teaching of key disciplines and then to continue to stay in dialogue.”
The inaugural symposium’s theme was “Society in Search of a Purpose” and included experts such as Dr. Frank Barron, a research psychologist at the University of California, writer Jesse Hill Ford, and a then little-known freshman Congressman from Arizona, Morris King “Mo” Udall, a Democratic presidential candidate in 1976 who lost his party’s primary race to future president Jimmy Carter.
C.V. “Bo” Scarborough ’67, a founding member and now the pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Memphis, recalls how the symposium was structured.
“We’d have the main lectures in the gym and then they would go to a fraternity house or a sorority house for a talk. So there was a speech and then a seminar and it was all open to the Memphis community.”
Dilemma was a hit both off and on campus.
“I recall the excitement of the weekend at the prospect of such world-class intellects descending on us and how the gym was transformed into a Chautauqua, with rows of chairs dotting the whole basketball court,” says Carol Colclough Strickland ’68, who did not serve as a member of the Dilemma team, but represented one of the many students who benefited from their association with the event.
One of Dilemma’s biggest challenges came in generating funding for the program.
“Freedom of speech was an important issue and we wanted to be able to control that ourselves. Having to raise the money made us think about being fair, not being one-sided,” says Scarborough, laughing as he recalled one particular fundraising moment.
“We’d go around to different businesses in town. One time, I was talking to the president of Otis Elevator and he said, ‘I don’t believe people should hear both sides. I think they should hear the right side.’ And then, he gave me $200, which, for that time, was a lot of money.”
Fundraising helped connect Rhodes students with the greater Memphis community where contributors not only donated funds but also suggested other donors.
“Dilemma was just a great experience. There were a lot of people involved. I did fundraising and got to reach out to a lot of business-people who became my mentors. In addition, they gave me money and ideas for Dilemma,” remembers John Sites ’74, a partner at Wexford Capital specializing in private and public equity investing. “Particularly William Leighton ‘Billy’ Reed, who was in residential and commercial construction. He told me he wanted to see more interesting and exciting speakers with divergent opinions come to Rhodes. Billy introduced me to other people and gave me leads.”
Famous names to grace the Dilemma dais over the years included then-Congressman Gerald R. Ford, head of the GOP leadership committee; famed theatrical producer and director Joseph Papp; author John Knowles; politician George McGovern; consumer activist Ralph Nader; philosopher and religious studies scholar Huston Smith; former Secretary of State Dean Rusk; Nobel Prize-winning biologist Dr. George Wald; ecumenicist Eugene Carson Blake; and bioregionalism expert Stephanie Mills.
“The theater producer Joseph Papp (Dilemma ’68) seemed like a big bear of a man, making the wit and vigor of Shakespeare come alive,” says Strickland. “But the most moving was Viennese existential philosopher Viktor Frankl (Dilemma ’67), a holocaust survivor who’d experienced the worst degradation in a concentration camp and still kept his humanity and belief in the power of love.”
Recalls Deborah Sale ’70: “Dilemma opened us to the world of thought beyond Memphis. In 1967, I was Whitney Young’s student host. We discussed the slow progress of race relations and the personal impact on his family and mine. And the next year after Joseph Papp’s eye-opening talk, we sat in Bo Scarborough’s apartment discussing the role of theater in community before Papp’s late night flight back to New York. A few of our friends followed him like the pied piper into the New York theater world. Rhodes encouraged our bravery, and Dilemma helped us channel it into new lives.”
Dilemma celebrated its 20th anniversary in 1986 by becoming a biannual weeklong event. But the decision to change the symposium’s structure appeared to seal its fate. The Sou’wester reports on only one other Dilemma, in 1989.
Wilding notes that 2011 will be the 45th anniversary of the original Dilemma. For those former students who conceived of and helped organize the event, its influence is felt still today.
“Much of the work I did in ’66 is shaping my ministry now, beyond just my liberal arts,” says Wilding, an educational and environmental ministry leader. “It’s wonderful to have a liberal arts education, I’m actually grateful for the beauty of a liberal arts school that gets the big questions out.”
“I remember someone saying to me once, ‘How does it feel knowing that one of the most important things you’ve done in your life you did as a junior in college?’” says Scarborough. “There are people in Memphis who are still my friends today who I met in Dilemma. People speak glowingly of what it meant to Memphis then. There was nothing like it.”
Behind those immediate experiences, the program taught Rhodes students lasting lessons, according to Sites. “It (Dilemma) shows that if you’re motivated enough, if you want something enough, you’ll know how to get it done.”