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Chautauqua's Heart









by Isabel Pedersen








 Sara Zinman


Sara Zinman was a member of the CLSC Class of 1984, and was subsequently a lifelong member of the Guild of the Seven Seals, serving many years as secretary. Sara was, in the words of her husband David, a voracious reader, never without a book, and with the gift of great power of retention.  A faithful attendee at Seals meetings, Sara was rarely without a prepared book report; and on occasions when without one, she could retrieve from memory and present a verbal report that was equal to any prepared.  Her informed critique and opinion were frequently based on wide personal knowledge of the locale, characters, and author of the book.  Wit, imagination, and creativity were among her personal characteristics.  Her idea for the appearance of  ‘Madame Davida’ at the yearly CLSC Great American Picnic is an example.  Finally, she was an advocate for the CLSC and Seven Seals.  Some will remember her using the opportunity to speak at Bryant Day for continued reading and membership in both organizations, resulting in renewed interest and increased membership.

With these recollections and a Chautauqua friendship too many, this history of the Seals is dedicated to her memory.

  • Bob Thomas, 2008





In 2007, Dick Karslake, President of the CLSC Alumni Association, asked a small committee, named the Seals Graduate Committee, to conceive of and produce some things which would add value to the current Seven Seals organization.  One such project was the production of this history.  Although there are earlier histories of the Seven Seals, none covered the ‘modern era’.  This history not only gives a record of the modern era but gives an overview of the Seals history from conception.  For this work, we are indebted to Isabel Pedersen.

We are indebted, as well, to the CLSC Class of 1984, of which Sara Zinman was President, for their support which made possible the publication of this history.

The Seals Graduate Committee

Bob Coghill
Nelson Horne
Don Milks
Isabell (Ish) Pedersen
Norm Pedersen
Pat Rowe
Bob Thomas
Dick Karslake, ex officiao

Fall 2008





The Guild of Seven Seals
Part 1

“The highest order of the C.L.S.C.”  That was how Bishop John Vincent referred to the Guild of the Seven Seals.

When that Methodist minister was pondering the future of education during an Alpine sojourn in the 1870’s, could he have foreseen that his Chautauqua would prove so successful?  In 1874 he and Lewis Miller settled on a wooded lakeside in western New York as a site for their program to train Sunday School teachers.  Within two years, by 1876, the program had proved so popular that foreign languages were added, and then science.  The “hunger for knowledge” that Vincent had tapped was indeed widespread.  Both the students and the two founders were eager for more.


When John Vincent, after teasers, hints, and suggestions of a major new project, faced an overflow audience in 1878, his listeners were ready to hear what was coming.  Indeed, such was the anticipation that the side flaps of the tent had to be raised so the 2000 could hear his words, perhaps “the best speech they had ever heard him give.”  He laid out plans for a four-year course of readings going far beyond Sunday School pedagogy.  This adult education program which he named the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle was designed to give students “the college outlook” and was to be available regardless of previous education wherever a reader might live.  The response was immediate.  700 signed up on the spot, 1000 by the end of the summer and over 8700 within months.


His new students read and read.  1817 men and women became graduates four years later, in a ceremony of enormous pomp.  They and the following classes continued reading and reading.  By 1886, they were asking for more, a post-graduate C.L.S.C. please. 


The Bishop, visionary that he was, promptly suggested the Guild of the Seven Seals and a preliminary meeting was held on Recognition Day 1886.  The formal founding, August 19, 1887, came complete with a constitution and the election of officers. 


The Guild may have been planned to be the highest order of the C.L.S.C but there were steps along the climb.  On the way to that august height, a reader first became a member of the Order of the White Seal by reading four additional books.  Three more books, three more seals, entitled one to be part of the League of the Round Table.  Seven more seals, seven more books, brought the successful scholar to the Guild of the Seven Seals, proving that fourteen books had been mastered after becoming a CLSC graduate.


Once again, his idea proved popular; 106 members of the Pioneer 1882 class were Guild members, 32 each from the following two classes, then 29, 58, 44, 35 in the succeeding years.  By 1893, 456 graduates had reached post-graduate heaven according to Nathalie Leonard’s count in 1986. 


The early meetings of the Guild were held in Pioneer Hall, hardly a surprise since Alumni Hall did not exist in 1887.  The first president of the Guild, serving a one year term, was Dr. S. J. McEaton.  The Doctor and Mr. A. M. Martin, ten years later, must have been exceptional men since no other presidents in the early years were men.  Mrs. John C. Martin, Mrs. Hoffman, Mrs. Westcott, Mrs. Luella Knight, and Mrs. R. B. Burrows, were all women.  In Adelaide Westcott’s sometimes fanciful 1917 Guild history, she asked in a dream whether all the members were of the gentler sex.  “Oh, no” was the answer.   “The brethren are equally welcome, but their labors and cares are so much more than these of the sisters, that they have not the time for this work.”


Mrs. Westcott, in her 1917 history, suggests a newer purpose for the Guild of Seven Seals.  Not only had the CLSC provided the “college outlook” to its readers but the Guild was serving as a stepping stone to college.  Indeed, there are references to the “missionary” spirit of the Guild.  While the stepping stone idea may have been new in 1917, the reference to a “missionary spirit” encouraging reading comes straight from the 1887 Constitution of the Guild.  That document gives as an objective of the group, “To emphasize the aggressive missionary spirit of the C.L.S.C.”  A second aim was to stimulate their members to engage in special lines of work, whatever lines that may have been.


Their missionary efforts began with their own group.  They beat the drum looking for new Guild members, encouraged continued reading and the collection of seals.  Roll call at early meetings was answered by giving the number of seals earned.  The group total of seals for that day was announced.  Proud as they were, they still wanted others to join, assuring them “that you do not have to balance a ball on the end of your nose” to join the Guild. 


Among the privileges they cherished was the Guild’s position marching at the front of the Recognition Day parade.  Indeed, the powers-that-be, in 1913, wanted the Guild well up in front because of the impression it might make on the “barbarians.”  While parading, the Guild banner was carried by the member with the highest number of seals, two streamers were held by the next highest and the other members lined up in order of seals earned.  Indeed, there is a story, true or note, about an elderly woman who was determined to lead the parade.  To that end, she read and read, collecting more seals than anyone else.  Partway through her parade, she suffered a stroke.


Their own Guild of Seven Seals banner had been requested from the beginning and, two years later in 1889, class president Mrs. John C. Martin gave three glittering ones.  The Order of the White Seal had a white banner.  That of the Round Table was green, and the Guild’s, with gold lace and embroidered letters, was, of course, gold.


The lower orders, The White Seal and the Round Table, seem to have received little attention, once the were many elite Seven Seals members.  There is little mention of them in the records and, increasingly, a confusion about requirements to join them.


In addition to that uncertainty, there had been, and still is, a longstanding argument over what levels of recognition were available for those eager folks who kept reading after they became Seven Seals members.  Bishop Vincent’s early listing of a system with additional “degrees” seems to have been forgotten.  As he spelled it out, after the fourteen seals required for the Guild of Seven Seals, (four for the White Seal, three more for the Round Table, and seven more for the Guild equals fourteen), further degrees would be added ascending by a progression of 7’s.  After reading seven more books and earning seven more seals, “twenty-one seals would be the first degree, twenty-eight the 2nd degree, the 5th degree would require 49 seals.”


This prescription was the first, but not the last, formula in this recurring hassle. There was, by 1902, the Inner Circle, a proud group of those who had 49 seals and the Parnassians, lesser folks with 28 seals.  In 1936, the Inner Circle was renamed the Olympians, so as to be less exclusive and those who pushed ahead could become Centurions with 100 seals.  At the same time, in what appears to have been a fit of exasperation, both the Order of the White Seals and the Round Table were abolished because nobody knew “what was required for membership.”


Indeed, once the Guild of the Seven Seals was thriving, there was little reason for the two “lesser” orders to continue.  The last time these two were known to have a purpose was under the superstar leadership of Mrs. R. B. Burrows, president of the Guild from 1904 until her death in 1921.  During her reign, the Order of the White Seal members were assigned the task of meeting and greeting, making all comers welcome.  Round Table members were to be the scribes who were to tell the world about the CLSC.  There is little record, however, of their performing the assigned tasks.


Mrs. Burrows, who came from Andover, New York, must have been a woman of remarkable talent. As Mrs. Scofield tells it in her witty history of the Guild’s first 57 years, Mrs. Burrows’ years were “either the most progressive and constructive years of the Guild of the Seven Seals or the Secretary was a master hand at writing up the minutes.”


Mrs. Burrows’ years, when considered 100 years later, appear to have been the peak of the Guild’s popularity and influence.  The membership in 1917 reached 1039.  With the assistance of Miss Evelyn Dewey who was confined to a wheelchair, the Guild raised $50.00 year after year for scholarships and in 1919 added a $1000.00 gift for a permanent scholarship and $2000 more for the Save Chautauqua Program.  Another $1000.00 in 1921 was an “expression of love for Bishop Vincent” with $100.00 more to buy books for readers.  Another member, Miss Ford, was charged to provide “fun”, twenty minutes worth at every meeting.  This included stunts, “most embarrassing experiences,” making a “literary salad” and even some angora kittens.  There was also some food at every meeting and the first “Supper a la Tureen,” this one to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Guild’s founding.


All was not fun and games under Mrs. Barrows, though.  Meetings were started by reciting the CLSC mottoes and attendance was taken by reporting the number of seals which had been earned.  Indeed, the activity known as “seal hunting” was everpresent, with constant exhortations to keep reading.  Miss Ford, by 1920, had reached 137 seals.  There was always a meeting to discuss the books of the past year or how members came to join. The work of the amazing Mrs. Burrows is best summed up by her 1909 injunction to members to think not only what Chautauqua had done for you but also “what we could do for Chautauqua”.


After Mrs. Burrow’s death in 1922, it became clear how important her influence had been.  The 1923 minutes take on a pessimistic tone.  Mrs. Scofield, in her history, sums it up this way.  “It was remarkable that in the earlier days, the Guild was a goal, an inspiration, an incentive, while now it attracts little attention.”  And, embarrassingly, it was necessary for the first time to hire a boy to carry their flag on Recognition Day.


The Guild of Seven Seals
Part 2

The history of the Guild of the Seven Seals takes on a different character after 1923.  Subsequent presidents, such as the nearly blind Mrs. Emery, found the job daunting.  In 1929, Mrs. Roblee from St. Louis agreed to serve and from then until her resignation in 1933, she kept the group going with membership hovering near 18.  She provided a pleasant meeting place at her cottage and found a stimulating speaker each summer.  Mr. Roblee, “beloved” as she was described in the minutes, received from Miss Dewey the President’s pin.  The pin’s present location is a mystery as is its origin.  It must have been worm by Mrs. Burrows since her great friend passed it along.  At least three of the next presidents, Mrs. Wood, Mrs. Cooley and Miss Eldrige, wore it. Always though, it was returned to Mr. Roblee for safekeeping.  She was also made custodian of Sara Ford’s diploma which, by her death in 1935, had over 200 seals.


It was after Mrs. Roblee’s term as president that the knotty question of the Guild of the Seven Seals’ requirements for membership was tackled.  In addition to abolishing the two lesser groups, the Round Table and the Order of the White Seal, new and more stringent readings were required.  Over the years, the default requirement had been the reading of fourteen books beyond Recognition Day.  In the earliest years there had been special courses planned for the post-graduates; sometimes memoranda or tests were required.  In 1936, It was decreed that, from that day forward, seals would be awarded only for special seals courses.  An example was one called “100 Years of English Prose; 1600-1700”.  An alternative would be the reading of five histories, five biographies, or perish the thought, eight historical novels.  It is not clear how long the eager scholars of 1936 followed the more demanding course but the default to fourteen additional CLSC titles seems to have become the norm before too long.


During the years of World War II, William H. Hamlin, who was the Guild president, was described as “the only man with courage enough to undertake the works”.  There is no record of Mr. Hamlin’s wearing the mysterious President’s pin, but he did have it.  In spite of the courage of the president, membership in the Guild and in the CLSC itself, fell off, followed by lessening interest year after year.


One surprise of the postwar years was the appearance of a challenger to Miss Ford’s record of 200 seals.  Nancy McIlvaine, of the Class of 1947, was honored by Director Carl Winters at Recognition Day in 1956 for having earned 248 seals.  Mrs. Winifred Kemp, the longtime backbone of both the CLSC and the Guild, once talked of people with 500 and 1000 seals “in the old days”, but no other voices confirm that record.  Miss McIlvaine, as a child in Pennsylvania, had regularly been too sick to attend school so the CLSC books became her education.  Her success surely would have gladdened the heart of Bishop Vincent.  This was the kind of student he had hoped to reach.


Members of the Guild of the Seven Seals soldiered loyally on during the 1950’s.  There is a near absence of records for the postwar years.  Just as the Guild had given scholarships and, in one instance, a car, during the 1930’s, there must have been continuing scholarships.  Only one, from the Class of 1948, appears in the notes.  The huge hole in the records of the CLSC and the Guild may be blamed on the Colonnade fire of 1961.  Treasurers’ books, membership rolls, records of books read, perhaps even the mysterious President’s pin may have fallen victims of the fire.  The ever-faithful Winifred Kemp said that there were financial records with burned edges which she had rescued. 


The CLSC itself was struggling in this period.  Funding from the Institution was reduced and, for a time, abolished.  Mrs. Kemp, who had been the paid CLSC secretary from 1955-1961, Myrna Marstellar, and then Doris Jones as heads of the CLSC Alumni Association, plus a myriad of other volunteers, worked frantically to keep Alumni Hall, the Veranda, and the normal programs going.  For two years, there was no Director of the CLSC.  With the appointment of Helen Theurer and then in 1972, Nately Ronsheim as Directors, there was some help.  Ironically, Mrs. Ronsheim was told that her task was to keep the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle afloat until Chautauqua Institution’s 100th anniversary in 1974.  After that, it was to be permitted to die.


Granting scholarships had been the longtime practice both of the Guild and of many classes.  The Class of 1948 provided memberships and books to an exchange student from Kenya and his wife, stopping only when the two returned to Africa. The Guild, over the years, offered books, memberships, and for a short time, summer school scholarships and gate tickets to teachers.  Only those who earned less than $600.00 a year were eligible.


As it began to appear that the CLSC might vanish, the Guild got ready to go out of business.  Though there tended to be 34 to 39 members in the late 1960’s, there seemed little interest in the scholarships offered, though a few survived.  After 1969, Mrs. Kemp, now the Guild treasurer, and secretary Sarah Trammell began cutting expenses by avoiding printed invitations and dues notices, holding two meetings rather than the usual three, and selling off CLSC notepaper.  One comment from this period was that of Nately Ronsheim.  She reported being unsure that she wanted to join the group because Alumni Hall was “dark and gloomy”, the members were mostly old, and they sat there and no one said anything.  They did, however, keep the Guild alive.  And one of the reasons was Nately herself.


Throughout the previous years, periodic attempts had been made to revitalize the Guild.  Mrs. Charles Bentley, in 1958, declared she would raise the membership from 30 to 50 – and she did.  The Guild was again kept from succumbing by Mrs. Gladys Schake who served as President from 1969 until 1978.  Mrs. Ronsheim’s enthusiasm, plus her fellow officers, Mrs.Kemp’s ad Mrs. Trammell’s steadfastness, kept the membership level.  A year might begin with six at a first meeting but, by the end, they might be back to 35.  The ascension of Nately Ronsheim to Director of the CLSC and the influx of a huge new class, people who had been waiting to graduate on Chautauqua’s 100th birthday, did little to strengthen the Guild.


The Guild of Seven Seals
Part 3

Gradually, however, the Seven Seals began to attract members from the new larger classes.  53 and then 60 members were active by 1977.  After its near-death experience, the Guild of the Seven Seals began to settle into a fairly consistent pattern.  Each summer, three meetings were scheduled.  This should be compared to 1972 when there was only one.  A first meeting has often been a discussion of books read, a book review or a speaker, frequently one with a CLSC connection.  For many years, the annual meeting was held at the St. Elmo Hotel.  This has turned into a potluck supper or luncheon.  The Guild’s longtime duty of providing refreshments after the Vigil each year provides the third reason to meet. 


Under a succession of strong leaders, Nathalie Leonard, Doris Jones, Don Milks, Tom Wierbowski, Jerine Clark, Bob Thomas, Nelson Horne, and Gary Doebler, the Guild has prospered, true always to its primary function: the encouragement of reading.  No one has put it more clearly than Jerine Clark.  We do not want to “expand activities since our stated purpose is to encourage reading, not add to the overcrowded Chautauqua program”.  Emphases varied.  Some wanted verbal reports on books, some asked for written reviews, sometimes circulated by email, some provided summaries for other readers.  There were periods when non-CLSC books were of interest.  There were occasional speakers on travels, on opera, on whatever might be of interest.


A punctuation point in this history came in 1987 with the centennial of the birth of the Guild of the Seven Seals.  At a luncheon, greetings were delivered by CLSC Director Nately Ronsheim and Alumni President Clary Burgwardt.  Class member Dr. Alex Holmes gave the main address and Nathalie Leonard provided a glimpse of the history of the Guild.  By way of contrast, the guests at the 10th Guild Anniversary in 1897, were treated to seven lectures, poems and a reading.  The grand total of fourteen offerings on the program suggests that our predecessors were less hurried than we are.


A second punctuation mark, this one a bit mysterious, was the result of the appearance in 1993 of Ruth Malpass, guardian of Alumni Hall, bearing a dusty, padlocked metal box.  The mystery was solved when the assembled intellectual giants broke the lock and found the long-missing diploma of Sara Ford, being not 200 but 201 seals.


Tracking the strength of the Guild through its membership rolls is difficult.  Some years, only dues-paying members counted.  Some years, those who had paid in past years were also counted.  Other years, graduates of the current class who had read fourteen extra books were counted.  These seesawing numbers hide what seems to be a loyal core group of 30 to 45 people with swings up and down as classes graduate. In 2007, for example, 107 members are listed with perhaps 17 at a meeting.


The Guild, in the last two years, has taken on some new tasks, partly at the behest of Alumni Association President Dick Karslake, partly on its own initiative.  A handsome new graduation certificate was designed to replicate as closely as possible, those of the 1880’s.  Some historical research was undertaken before establishing the levels of recognition for students who advanced past the Guild requirement of 14 books. After 28 books, members became Parnassians, at 49 – Olympians, with Centurion status reserved for those who had read 98 additional books.


Embroidered replicas of the early seals were made to adorn one side of the new white stoles designed by Bob Thomas to be worn by Guild members in recognition of their exalted position.  And, so that no one would misunderstand, Guild of Seven Seals is to be embroidered in gold on the other side of the stole.


As an additional initiative, a system has been fashioned by Gary Doebler to suggest books for consideration to those who choose each summer’s reading list.  In this, as in all else, the Guild of the Seven Seals is a persistent and everpresent supporter of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle’s purposes and programs.


Mrs. Rowley who, in 1914, produced the down-to-earth Guild cheer:


“Onward, upward still appeals
We’re the Guild of the Seven Seals”


summed up today’s sentiment just as accurately as she did that of her own period.  The cheer reminds us of a sometimes different past.  That a skit based on the proverb “Too many cooks spoil the broth” should be part of the Recognition Day service seems quaint today.  A 1918 Guild program featured a “literary salad that was spicy and quickening to the intellect”.  Betty Maguire opened a 1967 meeting with a prayer, “Lord, give me the grace to keep my tongue in my face.”  But it may be that the opening of a 1910 service joins the past and the present.  “Will you, with us, remember that education ends only with life.”





About the Author

Isabel Pedersen (1928-2019) was an icon at the CLSC for many years.  A graduate of the Class of 1963, she was part of a resurgence that has happened periodically when special, enthusiastic, and dedicated people came along and inspired others.  She took particular interest in the Alumni banner collection.  She wrote the banner book that became the banner bible for many.  And when special projects came along, she was always there to participate.  She served on many committees.  Her husband, Norm, headed up the CLSC for Chautauqua Institution for a period of time and she was always there to provide support.  The Alumni Association has been very much blessed and bolstered by the membership—and enthusiastic volunteer support—of Isabel Braham Pedersen.



Isabel "Ish" Pedersen










The Guild of Seven Seals post-graduate levels


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