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Published: Friday, 4/16/2004

Be fearless, last speaker in longtime series says

Never stop learning and asking questions, author-scholar Robin Gerber says. Never stop learning and asking questions, author-scholar Robin Gerber says.

In the Junior League of Toledo's final Town Hall Lecture, speaker Robin Gerber urged the audience to follow the example set by Eleanor Roosevelt.

The former first lady, who had worked in New York City tenements, didn't want to sit back and decorate the White House. Instead, she held press conferences, wrote magazine columns and a daily diary, and traveled to do work on poverty and women's and civil rights.

A member of the Junior League, which trains women to be community leaders, she was a fitting subject for yesterday's final talk in the 29-year series, Ms. Gerber told the 1,000-person audience at the Stranahan Theater.

Ms. Gerber, author of Leadership the Eleanor Roosevelt Way: Timeless Strategies from the First Lady of Courage, is a senior scholar at the University of Maryland's Academy of Leadership and a senior fellow at the university's R.H. Smith School of Business.

Through anecdotes about the former first lady's life and work in human rights, she spoke on what leadership is and how to be a leader.

Ms. Gerber said Mrs. Roosevelt worked every day to be fearless despite criticism, death threats, and a price put on her head by the Ku Klux Klan.

"When you try to make changes, you will come into conflict with people and you will be criticized," Ms. Gerber said.

She encouraged the audience members to never lose their belief that they can change the world, and to never stop learning and asking questions.

Even toward the end of her life, Mrs. Roosevelt was still trying to find out what needed to be done, Ms. Gerber said.

"The greatest tribute we can give to Eleanor Roosevelt is to follow her examples," she said.

The lecture series has brought a number of high-profile speakers to the city, including Bob Dole in 2000, Barbara Bush in 1998, and Bobby Knight in 1992.

"It gets you into that sort of wider experience," Sue Potter, who was attending the lecture, said. "It's something I've really enjoyed, so I'm sorry it's stopping."

Rising costs mean the talks are no longer raising as much money for the group's projects.

Speakers' fees have risen over the years. The league used to get all five of a year's speakers for the price it now pays for one, Junior League President Karen L. Driggs said.

"It was very hard for us to make this decision," she said.

Nat Louviaux, chairman of the third Town Hall series in 1977, told the audience that members had suggested Karen Hughes, President Bush's adviser, as a speaker, but her fee is $60,000.

At the same time, more women are working outside the home and the audience has dropped to fewer than 1,000 for most of the lectures, while in the past they were often sold out. The Stranahan has more than 2,000 seats.

"People our age aren't coming anymore, and young people are working," said Lois Wilson, who said she and the friends with her were in their 70s. They have been attending the lectures since the beginning.

The series will be missed by many.

"It's going to be a real void in my life," Doris McEwen, a longtime attendee, said.

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