Profile: The Brain Trust
By Christina Freeman
Jane and Bob Stein on a hike to Upper Fish Creek Falls. Photo courtesy Bob and Jane Stein.
By Jennie Lay
Call it Steamboat Springs’ brain trust. Each fall, the Seminars at Steamboat board gathers to contemplate social, political and economic issues that might engage the community the next summer. They vote. And then they spend winter pursuing some of America’s most educated, experienced and compelling speakers to visit Steamboat in the summertime to talk about big ideas.
The idea for the non-partisan Seminars evolved during a summer hike in 2002. Bob and Jane Stein were on the trail with Belle Sawhill, who works for the Brookings Institution, and Jim and Freddi Goodrich. The five decided to see if they could mine their Washington, D.C., contacts and bring people to Steamboat to talk about public policy issues.
“We didn’t know whether it would fly,” Bob says.
In 2003, Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, was Seminars’ inaugural speaker in Centennial Hall. “We said, ‘If we have 40 people it at least won’t be embarrassing,’” Jane says. “It was standing room only.”
“It resonated. It was something that people here really wanted. We were delighted,” Bob says.
Heading into its 11th season, Seminars is a hallmark of Steamboat summers. Now at home in the Strings Pavilion, the audience always fills to capacity. If there is a craving for direct connection with thinkers and policy-makers, it’s being sated by well-connected folks like the Steins.
Native New Yorkers, the Steins moved to Washington, D.C., in 1966 for Bob’s job with the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. They never left. Bob, a lawyer, spent much of his career in the international arena working with issues in the environment and health, notably AIDS. Now he volunteers on various American Bar Association committees that deal with individual rights and legal aid for indigent defense.
Jane spent her career as a journalist covering health and science policy, writing magazine articles as well as books on topics ranging from medical ethics to solar power, to how health insurance works. She just finished a children’s book.
So, are they retired?
“We use the word refocused,” Bob says.
“It’s very hard for me to use the word retired,” Jane says. “It doesn’t fit in with what we do.”
“One of the things that we feel strongly is that Steamboat is one of our homes and we want to be involved in the community. Second-homeowners can make a contribution,” Bob says. Avid skiers who now spend about a third of their time in Steamboat, the Steins have owned a home in Steamboat since 1981. They volunteer year-round with Horizons and STARS, and in creating Seminars they’ve created an institution that promises to keep their Colorado hometown on its toes.
Early on, they leaned on founders’ contacts and distinguished careers, but after a decade of high-powered speakers, Seminars has earned its own prestige and an attractive calling card that promises extra days to enjoy Steamboat.
By putting the community in direct contact with foreign ambassadors, journalists, economists and academics, the Steins’ efforts have bolstered local discourse on everything from foreign policy to economics. In turn, Steamboat’s sophistication has shown up in force: “We get comments from the speakers that the questions that are asked are generally at a very high level,” Jane says.
Humbly, the Steins insist that Seminars is fueled by the generosity of the community and the interest of people who regularly pack the house to hear from different backgrounds in the partisan divide. Keeping Seminars free remains a priority. “People glomming onto these great ideas are one of the things that make Steamboat so exciting,” Bob says.
What the Steins treasure most is not being on a board, but being on-the-ground volunteers, be it Horizons or STARS or a bike race, Bob says. “We very much enjoy that. That’s part of who we are.”
Click here for the complete 2013 Seminars at Steamboat schedule: