The Reverend Walter Welsh, loved by community activists, the poor, and minorities, once said that, "The Thursday Morning Roundtable is Lee Smith's church in the community." I've always treasured Walter's characterization of my work, which may have been inspired partly by my lack of involvement in any traditional church, but also by our objectives for TMR. It has always been our hope that the project would be good for the community and that its members would be inspired to do good things in the community.
The Roundtable, a weekly civic forum, was started at Syracuse University in March 1965. It followed a similar forum I conducted at the University of Akron, involving a mixture of University faculty and community civic leaders.
The purpose and nature of the Syracuse project was framed by three remarkable local leaders who participated in the project's initial planning. Clifford Winters was the dean of University College, the continuing education division of Syracuse University. John R. Searles was head of the Syracuse Metropolitan Development Association, an organization representing the largest business and industrial interests of the area. Irving Berman was head of the largest private foundation in the area, and was most influential in contacts with social agencies and programs.
These men envisioned the concept of a weekly civic forum as a vehicle to bring together a mixture of business, social agency, educational, and civic leaders to learn about and discuss community issues and problems. They saw it as education for community development and problem solving. It was also viewed as a way to capitalize on the University's expertise and prestige in the community.
Searles and Berman developed a list of eighty well-known Syracuse area men who were invited to become members of the University's Thursday Breakfast Roundtable. The rationale for this project reads as follows:
"One of the major obstacles to rational and progressive community development is the lack of effective and continuing communication among those most directly responsible for the various phases of the process. This is a fundamental problem, well recognized in all rapidly growing urban communities. It is especially critical and basic with regard to the conduct of local and regional governmental affairs, and the interrelationships of government to the unofficial agents and agencies involved in community decision-making.
"The mushrooming expectations and actual responsibilities of local government in our urban centers complicate the traditional problems of communication among governmental offices and officials, as well as between them and their various publics. The urgent and hectic work life of modern governmental officials makes effective intercommunication almost impossible without the intervention of an artificial element, an "institutional" break in a routine, an "excuse" to communicate.
"The University, as "neutral ground" and as the respected source for bringing reason to the discussion of public affairs, is the logical social agent to provide this opportunity for communication and clarification of issues. As convener and programmer of an ongoing series of informal discussions on community and regional problems, University College would be making a continuing contribution to the improvement of local government and to the orderly development of the entire community."
It was expected that the actual membership roster would ultimately number 50-60 men with an average weekly attendance of 25. Emphasis was on continuity and regularity of attendance to establish a sense of group identity and to encourage the interaction necessary to fulfill the program's purpose.
The original invitation for membership resulted in a roster of 76 names during the first season. Of those, 33 attended frequently enough (ten or more of the 27 meetings during the first full year of operation) to be listed as regular members. They represented a broad cross-section of leadership within the community. Included were the head of the local NAACP, the county executive, several local government department heads, a newspaper reporter and editor, representatives from several state offices located in Syracuse, social and cultural agency executives, business representatives, educators, and clergymen. The "regulars" included 11 governmental personnel, 10 from civic agencies, six from business, four from education, and one each representing religion and culture.
The structure and routine of the project as established in 1965 has remained very much the same throughout its history. Members received a printed schedule of meetings for the first abbreviated season, March 4-April 29 (nine programs). Meetings were held in a snack bar room in the classroom building of University College. That location proved very important for the future growth of the project. It provided ample free parking and was situated in downtown Syracuse, near many participants' offices. Members assembled around 8 a.m. each Thursday morning, paid for coffee, tea, donuts, and juice at the snack bar, and socialized at tables scattered throughout the room.
Programs began about 8:30 with a presentation by a well-known local person for 20-25 minutes, followed by questions, comments, and discussion. Sessions ended promptly at 9:30, when most members left for their offices. Some stayed to discuss their own agendas, and this practice grew throughout the years. Programs were determined by the project director with suggestions from active members. The first two-month season featured presentations from the city mayor, county executive, a Syracuse University vice president, and several leaders of community and business planning groups. Two subjects discussed which proved popular in years to come were public welfare and social action programs.
Other than the individual cost of "breakfast," there were no fees for membership or participation. That policy has remained in effect throughout its history. TMR (the "Breakfast" misnomer was soon dropped in favor of Thursday Morning Roundtable) was a community service provided by Syracuse University.
During its first full year of operation, 1965-66, TMR began following a function often repeated through the years. Many new community organizations, social programs, and planning ideas were first introduced and promoted at TMR programs. Early examples were the University Hill Corporation, integration in the public schools, a new Regional Planning Board, a new cultural center, the University Regent Theater, and the Canal Museum.
There were 28 weekly sessions that year. Subjects which were revisited many times in future years included community planning, the public schools, various arts and cultural developments, health problems and developments, and several local governmental departments and activities. Included in the latter category were the Syracuse Police Department, the new metropolitan transportation network, the new Parks and Recreation Department, the city airport, water and air pollution controls, and community renewal.
Onondaga County Executive John Mulroy gave his annual report to TMR-a feature every season for 25 years. The plan for a local educational television station was introduced, and TMR supported that station, WCNY, in years to come. Later, WCNY's FM radio component taped and broadcast TMR programs.
Another feature of that first full year of programming was a short series of related programs. In this instance, four sessions were devoted to "How Syracuse Looks to Me," featuring a labor leader, civil rights activist, business leader, and government planner. In later years there were programming themes, usually presented as one program each month.