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Howard Higman, who liked to be part of a good conversation, died last week in Boulder, Colo.
Nearly 50 years ago, he founded the Conference on World Affairs, an event that brought 125 good talkers to the campus of the University of Colorado. It was not an academic conference. No papers were read. Half the speakers knew little or nothing about the subject. The sessions were free and open.
Howard was authoritarian, dictatorial, infuriating, presumptuous and lovable. He had many careers - he was a professor, directed a VISTA training program and wrote and lectured. But the conference was his life.
He deliberately made the conference the opposite of those precious academic events at which jargon is traded for tenure. He invited all sorts of people - poets, diplomats, bricklayers and Indian chiefs - and he didn't announce the subjects of their panels until they had already arrived in Boulder, so they would have to depend on what they really knew.
There were always a few diplomats and (international) journalists to justify the "World" in the title, but it was a Conference on Everything Conceivable. I feel qualified to make that statement since I claim the record for having attended 25 in a row - more than anyone except Higman.
No conference was held in 1995. Howard had finally offended too many people at the university.
Howard had retired and lost his campus clout. The conference was suspended amid the turmoils of his lifetime of heavy drinking, his shaky health and his conviction that the conference could be run by no one but himself.
There will be a conference again in April. To say it will be held in his memory is an understatement. It will be held in his indignant shadow.
He began the conference 48 years ago. Eleanor Roosevelt and R. Buckminster Fuller were there in the early years. It became a great honor to be invited. You got a letter informing you, bluntly, that you were requested to travel at your own expense, perform for a week on panels not of your choosing and be paid nothing. You could not arrive late or leave early.
At a time when famous speakers pull down $10,000 to $25,000 for an hour's work, this would seem like an offer they could refuse. And yet over the years the people who attended included Russell Baker, Steve Allen, Ted Turner, astronaut Rusty Schweikart, historian Henry Steele Commager, Ralph Nader, Barry Commoner, columnist Joseph Kraft, Eddie Albert, artist Robert Irwin, playwright Arthur Kopit, essayist Henry Fairlie, Henry Kissinger and countless other academics, artists, statesmen and eccentrics.
Over the years, I have been on panels with a witch, artists, American Indian leaders, Greek ambassadors, radical ex-priests and lesbian ex-nuns, a laughter therapist and cartoonists.
Higman, who died Nov. 22, is survived by his wife, Marion, and three daughters.
Howard Higman was the nearest I will come, I imagine, to the experience of meeting Dr. Samuel Johnson. Like Johnson, he was learned on many matters and opinionated on more. I think he invited all of those people to Boulder for the opportunity to set them straight.
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