The Sarasota Institute of Lifetime Learning (SILL) is a non-profit organization that offers an expert lecture series to provide information on and discussion of the arts and contemporary global issues. SILL is guided by an all-volunteer board committed to modest pricing and enhanced outreach.
The History of SILL
The Early Years
SILL was founded in 1972 by Dr. Evelyn Duvall, a retired college professor and Sarasota resident who attended the first White House Conference on Aging. She came back enthused with the idea that older minds need exercise as much as, or more than, their bodies. She invited the White House Chair to give the Keynote Address for a Creative Retirement Conference held in Sarasota in March of that year. She established her fledgling organization under the guidance of the National Institute of Lifetime Learning and partnered with the National Retired Teachers Association and American Association of Retired Persons. At the conclusion of the Conference participants were invited to register for "neighborhood courses" offered from mid-March through April. Early offerings focused on discussion groups around the City, each led by a moderator, some on topics mostly of interest to retirees, for example: health, investment and adaptation to retirement lifestyle. Soon however, the organization's more serious programs on major public issues became its true strength.
As the idea took hold, more people were attracted, and the program changed from the intimacy of a small gathering to the formality of a large audience. In 1978, the program established its current season of January through March. Eight seminars, usually six sessions apiece, were offered at three Sarasota locations: Plymouth Harbor, Unity Center of Sarasota and the 1st United Methodist Church.
Expansion Follows Success
By the early 1980's there was a clear awareness that not only had enthusiasm remained high, but interest extended beyond Sarasota. In an effort to assist persons traveling from Venice, a modest program was opened there in 1981. Retired Foreign Service Officer Frances P. Bourne headed the program for the first dozen years. She was a dedicated Venice civic activist for whom Sarasota County named the Jacaranda Boulevard library.
A similar expansion into Bradenton took place in 1985. Thirty-six sessions were offered that year in Sarasota, six in Bradenton and six in Venice. In addition to its "International Challenges" series, Sarasota programs offered a variety of series based on themes such as "Lost Civilizations," "Religion in Changing Times," and "Genres of the Novel." Lectures were held at the South Gate Plaza Theater for a number of years before moving in 1990 to the Gulf Gate Theater. In November 1986 the Sarasota Institute of Lifetime Learning (SILL) was incorporated in the State of Florida as a fully tax-deductible, nonpartisan, nonprofit 501(c)3 organization.
Although the Sarasota lecture programs continued to enjoy moderate growth throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, average attendance in Bradenton and Venice was more modest. Accordingly, the outreach experiment at the Bradenton Oakmont Theater was terminated in 1990. Attendance at the Venice Community Center rarely exceeded 150 per lecture, but the decision was reached to continue the program. As the area's population increased and residents came to recognize and appreciate the SILL Venice product, attendance grew as well. Joseph Roddy was the driving force for expansion between 1997 and 2006. By 2001 Venice was offering a full series of 11 lectures, and in 2002 the program was expanded to its current offering of two series per season, or 12 lectures each on Tuesdays and Fridays. The Venice Community Center was completely renovated and upgraded in 2005, allowing an average of almost 300 people to comfortably attend the Venice lectures in 2006.
Sarasota's more rapid program growth in the 1990s was largely attributable to a small cadre of Directors: Herman Barr, Dr. Margaret L. Bates and retired Foreign Service Officers Richard Hart and Scott Behoteguy. Mr. Barr was responsible for advancing the previous music offerings into a full fledged Special Music Appreciation Series in 1999, which was offered at the Florida West Coast Symphony's Holley Hall. The program was so successful that the initial six lecture program was expanded to 12 and by 2005 the Monday music program had become a permanent fixture in our annual offerings. Average attendance ranges between 325-350. Dr. Bates was tireless in bringing an Arts and Humanities focus to compliment the Music Series and offer balance to the more heady newsworthy lectures on Contemporary Public Issues and International Challenges. The Arts and Humanities program moved to the Bayfront Community Center in 2007 and was discontinued the following year.
The New Millennium
No SILL program has matched the enthusiasm generated by our flagship Global Issues Series. This program was expanded and significantly strengthened under the leadership of former Foreign Service Officer Scott Behoteguy. His pursuit of recruiting high level former Foreign Service Officers and think tank experts as guest lecturers created demand for a more advanced learning experience. He met the need by establishing a Seminar Series that allowed a small group of participants to join in a three hour exchange with the experts, in part signaling a return to some of the original SILL roots. The three session 2001 Seminar Program was increased to 10 sessions in 2006, while attendance at the G.WIZ Museum was held to 25-30 serious students. Attendance at the regular Thursday lecture series was invariably a sellout at the Players Theatre where lectures werer held between 2001 and 2015.
Our 2007 season offered another breakout year. The International Series, under new leadership, expanded from 12 lectures to 24. Two fully complementary programs were offered on Wednesday and Thursday in Sarasota, accommodating over 1,000 attendees during the two sessions. Contemporary Public Issues was merged with International Challenges in 2009 to form three Global Issues programs. 2009 brought a new 6 lecture Music Mondays series in Venice which was expanded to 12 in 2012.
SILL continued to grow in the first half of the 2010s, with attendance surpassing 37,000 in 2015. The growing popularity of SILL, especially the Monday Music and Thursday Global Issues series, required moving the Sarasota programs and the Venice Music program to larger venues. The First United Methodist Church replaced the Players Theater and the Church of the Palms replaced Holly Hall. Venice Presbyterian Church replaced Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Venice. With the growth of the Lakewood Ranch development east of I-75, an abbreviated evening program of four lectures was introduced in 2015 and was expanded to a full 12 lecture series in 2017. All of the growth required an increasing number of volunteers as well as the efforts of the Board members. In recognition of the widespread use of credit cards, the registration system was changed in 2015 to allow online purchases of season tickets through the SILL website.
Programs continued to attract increasing numbers of attendees during the 2017 season. Sadly, the Monday Music program suffered the loss of June LeBell who had organized and hosted the extremely popular program for many years. Always dedicated to SILL, she had arranged for the 2018 program before her passing. Fortunately her husband, Ed Alley, who had worked with June for several years joined the SILL Board and took responsibility for the program.
Finally, SILL's success is testimony to the commitment of its all volunteer Board of Directors, a small cadre of dedicated unpaid workers, and an active and engaged retirement community keen on understanding the complex and ever-changing world in which we live. We look forward to supporting the community in the 21st Century and hope to see you at one of our lectures!