Lesher Speaker Series in Walnut Creek
Thanks to Steve Lesher, a star-studded lineup of political leaders and deep thinkers comes to the East Bay each year to share their stories.
Steve Lesher (right) invited former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to speak in the 2014 Newsmakers series.
Photo courtesy of The Dean and Margaret Lesher Foundation
When Steve Lesher was a child, he loved to listen to his grandfather’s tales about meeting presidents and world leaders. That grandfather— Contra Costa Times founder Dean Lesher—left a local legacy in the form of Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts and the nonprofit Dean and Margaret Lesher Foundation, an organization dedicated to enriching the lives of everyone in the community. One of Dean Lesher’s dreams was to bring an international array of luminaries to Contra Costa County, so they could share their thoughts and experiences with local residents and spark a dialogue about important issues.
In 2004, Steve Lesher realized his late grandfather’s dream by launching Newsmakers: Lesher Speaker Series in his honor. Now in its 15th season, the wildly popular events have featured a who’s who of movers and shakers from around the world. The new season kicks off September 11 with a presentation by former FBI Director James Comey. Diablo caught up with Lesher to discuss the series’ history and purpose.
Q: Your grandfather was one of Contra Costa County’s most influential people. What do you remember about his vision for a speaker series?
A: He was very impacted by a speaker series in Chautauqua, New York. He was young when he went to it, and it fascinated him. He ran a speaker series in Merced, but he always wanted one for Walnut Creek.
He also loved talking with influential leaders. His interactions with [former Egyptian president] Anwar Sadat were very important to him. When we had [Sadat’s widow] Jehan Sadat [speak during the 2005–2006 season], I showed her a picture of my grandfather with her late husband. That was a special moment.
Q: How did it feel, in 2004, to finally see the series come to life?
A: It was positively nerve-racking. Any opening night, you have this feeling of What have I done? But it was so much easier because [the series’ first speaker, comedian and TV star] Jay Leno, is a gracious person—so down-to-earth. He stood outside and signed autographs and talked to everyone. He basically did his stand-up routine, but he also took questions from the audience. He had just taped that night’s Tonight Show that afternoon and then got on a plane to fly to the East Bay for the event. Someone asked him who was going to be on the show that night, and it was [actress] Kirsten Dunst. … I remember it seemed kind of cool that we had that little bit of inside scoop before the rest of the country.
Q: Who have been some of your favorite speakers? Is there anyone whose comments you still reflect on years after the event?
A: [My grandfather] was so interested in global affairs, he would have been thrilled to know that [former U.S. secretaries of state] Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Madeleine Albright came here to speak. Same with President Vicente Fox [of Mexico, 2000–2006 ] and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney [of Canada, 1984–1993 ]. And he would have had a special connection with Madame Sadat.
There are so many guests who have said things that have resonated with me. I loved when we had [the Oakland A’s executives featured in Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game] Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta to talk about baseball sabermetrics. I was able to factor that information into my master’s in leadership studies [at Saint Mary’s College].
Q: When former First Lady Laura Bush came in 2012, the security preparation sounded impressive—snipers on the rooftops and Secret Service agents all over Walnut Creek.
A: Yes, Laura Bush’s appearance was certainly the most intense in terms of security. It was exciting to see the Secret Service do their thing. …
On the other end of that equation, [Hall of Fame football player] Steve Young drove himself, and showed up at the front door of the Lesher Center and asked a patron where he was supposed to check in to speak.
Colin Powell was very down-to-earth. He would not let me carry his bag when I picked him up at the hotel. On the way to dinner, he asked about the community. It was around the time that there was a ballot referendum about whether Walnut Creek should build a Neiman Marcus store. He thought that was pretty funny.
Q: When journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein spoke in 2008, the series made national news for a revelation about Deep Throat, the source for Woodward’s reporting on the Watergate scandal. What happened?
A: A few years before their appearance, [former FBI associate director] Mark Felt had been revealed as Deep Throat, and Woodward wrote the book The Secret Man about him. An astute member of the audience pointed out that Felt was living in Santa Rosa and asked if Woodward and Bernstein went to visit him when they were in town. Bernstein said, “Bob took me to meet him for the first time yesterday.”
There was an audible gasp through the theater. It was in the New York Times the next day. It was the biggest revelation we’ve ever had. If there was a seminal moment in the series, it would be that.
Q: There was an incident at an event last season that caused you to comment publicly about the audience’s responsibility to remain respectful and open-minded.
A: Yes. It was an ugly incident. An audience member made some very unpleasant comments to actor John Leguizamo. I was horrified and apologized to John backstage. He was absolutely unflappable, onstage and off, and could not have handled it any better.
It was very upsetting, and I don’t think it was in keeping with the value of the series. From the feedback I’ve received, I think it was unsettling for a majority of the audience as well, whether people agreed or disagreed with what John was saying. I am troubled, like many people, with where we are in our civic discourse. It seems like the coarsening of the dialogue has become more pronounced.
Q: Years ago, you told me who your dream speaker would be. Is it still that person?
A: I’m sure I said [former Soviet leader] Mikhail Gorbachev. I will keep him as my dream get. I would also love to have any living president. Presidents … have such a unique experience to share.
Subscriptions to the 2018–19 season of Newsmakers: Lesher Speaker Series are sold out, but individual tickets are often made available on the day of the event. To inquire, call the Lesher Center for the Arts’ box office at (925) 943-7469.
Keep an eye out for these noteworthy guests taking the stage in season 15 of the Newsmakers series.
By Morgan Mitchell
James Comey (September 11, 2018)
The former FBI director will discuss the challenges the agency faced during his tenure and reveal how he navigated ethical dilemmas, including his infamous decision that may have influenced the 2016 presidential election.
Dr. Jean Twenge (October 30, 2018)
The author and psychology professor, who studies technology’s effects on children, is one of the speakers Lesher is most excited to hear. “People will still be talking about [her] while they are driving home from the theater,” Lesher says.
John Avlon and Marc Lotter (November 5, 2018)
Avlon, a CNN political analyst, and Lotter, a former special assistant to President Donald Trump, will examine the relationship between the president and the press—and what that means for our country—in this debate showcasing both sides of the political spectrum.
J. D. Vance (March 4, 2019)
“I find him to be fascinating, particularly in this moment in history,” Lesher says of the Hillbilly Elegy author, who will speak about his experience growing up in the white working class, and the rise of populism in America.
Amy Tan (April 16, 2019)
The Oakland native and best-selling author of The Joy Luck Club and, most recently, Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir will talk about her acclaimed writing career and background.
For the complete Newsmakers lineup, visit lesherspeakerseries.org.