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Slimantics: Civic clubs: Eat, pray, listen, but everybody goes home at 1


Slim Smith



Lunch and a speaker. 


Today, it is the Exchange Club. Yesterday it was the Kiwanis. The day before that, Rotary. 


While I am not a member of any clubs -- under Groucho Marx's credo that any club willing to accept me is not the sort of club any self-respecting person would care to be associated with -- I routinely attend meetings to write about their guest speakers had to say. 


Some of these clubs have been operating in Columbus for close to a century and have become as much a part of the fabric of the community as the historic buildings that dominate the downtown streetscape.  


Most meet once a week and all of them have found a home at the Lion Hills Center, a perfect venue for such. On days when the Lowndes County Republican Women hold their monthly luncheon on a Tuesday, the parking lot overflows as Rotarians and the women's group jockey for parking spots. 


I've attended meetings of all four groups, writing about what their speakers had to say. On two occasions, I've served as a speaker. 


For almost five years, I've seen a steady procession of speakers from all sorts of backgrounds and areas of expertise -- office holders generally make the most appearances, but there are a steady stream of university officials, military officers, business leaders, experts in a variety of fields and occasionally artists and writers. 


Each group has their own little rituals and observances. The Rotarians make a point of telling their speakers that they can speak as long as they like, but they will be talking to themselves when the clock strikes 1. 


The club members gather, "catch up," eat, listen and then go back to whatever it was they were doing -- work mostly, although retirees are prominent in all four groups. 


How informative the speakers are largely depends on the subject matter and how much the members already know. Big news is rarely, if ever revealed, although there are a few times when a speaker says something that lifts eyebrows.  


Joe Max Higgins, the CEO of the LINK, is a favorite speaker, always certain to say something that leaves the members shaking their heads in "how does he get away with saying that" sort of way. 


One of the most memorable exchanges came when House Speaker Phillip Gunn spoke to the Rotary to talk about how the state is frittering away its money on education. Gunn turned the table on the audience by asking a question rather than fielding one.  


Noting that the state could save $10 million by some measure he proposed -- I forget what it was -- he asked the audience members what they might do if someone gave them an extra $10 million, Rep. Jeff Smith spoke up and said he believed he'd just go ahead and tithe the whole $10 million. I had to hide under the table for about five minutes at that point. 


But, for the most part, the audience sits quietly, patiently and listens politely. 


Based on my experience, the best part of the meeting is near the end, when the speakers generally leave time for questions from the audience. 


Here I have found an interesting dynamic.  


The questions are almost always of the softball variety. Occasionally, there will be one old guy in the audience who, having heard all the nonsense he can stand, will ask the one question that has been on everyone's mind, but no one dared to utter. 


Generally, it catches the speaker flat-footed. It also produce the one revealing, unrehearsed comment of the entire program. 


There are just enough of those moments to keep the audience entertained, though few enough to warrant lingering past 1 p.m. 


Some things just won't do. 



Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]


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