“In the spirit of community, in the spirit of global citizenship, in the spirit of one person making a difference, I introduce David Oliver Relin.”
These opening remarks by President Mark D. Gearan at the inaugural President’s Forum Lecture of the Spring 2010 semester encapsulated the essence of Relin’s talk.
Before a packed-in crowd at the Smith Opera House, Relin, an investigative journalist and co-author of the bestselling book “Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time,” discussed how he discovered his life’s calling.
After graduating from Vassar College, he flew to India where he traveled throughout the country, interacting with people, talking, listening. He returned to the U.S., where he began working as a journalist, interviewing celebrities and athletes such as Michael Jordan.
But Relin said that he learned far more from the people he met on his travels than the stars he interviewed on assignment. “One of the truths I found in India and many other places I’ve traveled-in Ethiopia, Bhutan, Nepal, India, Pakistan-was that the people with the least offer the most,” he said.
With enthralling anecdotes and self-deprecating humor, Relin recalled his travels, assignments and important moments and decisions that informed his life and work.
Hours before the wedding of a good friend, Relin received a call from his editor who convinced him to come to the office because there was someone he had to meet. That person was Greg Mortenson. Mortenson recounted his attempts to summit K2, his interaction with the locals in Pakistan after failing and his promise to build a school in their village.
When he was finished, Relin recalled, “I thought, ‘What could be more important?'”
Using photographs he’d taken along his journeys, Relin guided the audience through the harsh landscape and demanding lifestyle of rural Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal and other central Asian countries, explaining the mission of Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute and the valuable insights he learned from the people of the region.
Why are these schools so important? Relin asked. The answer came from Brigadier-General Bashir, whom Relin met in Pakistan. Quoting Bashir from the account in “Three Cups of Tea,” Relin read, “You have to attack the source of your enemy’s strength. In America’s case, that’s not Osama or Saddam or anyone else. The enemy is ignorance. The only way to defeat it is to build relationships with these people, to draw them into the modern world with education and business.”
As for his own mission and calling, Relin remembered that when he was at a reading by Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-finalist Grace Paley, he was struck by something she said about the reason for and duty of being a writer: “To listen to the stories of the powerless and tell them to the powerful.”
“And with a lot of speed bumps along the way, that’s what I’m trying to do,” Relin said.
As part of Relin’s visit, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, through a partnership with Geneva City School District, The Finger Lakes Times and the Geneva Public Library, launched a Community Read featuring “Three Cups of Tea” at the end of the fall semester. After the President’s Forum Lecture, several Geneva Middle School students and Geneva community members were able to ask questions of Relin before his book signing.
A runaway New York Times bestseller, in 2007 “Three Cups of Tea” was selected as Time magazine’s Asia Book of the Year and as a Critic’s Choice by People Magazine. It was also awarded the 2007 Kiriyama Prize for nonfiction and chosen as the 2007 Pacific Northwest Booksellers’ Book of the Year.
Relin recently finished a new book about blindness in the developing world. He is currently at work on a book about food, a children’s book with the artist Amy Ruppel and a novel about land mine survivors in Vietnam. He is a contributing editor for Parade and over the years has won dozens of national awards for his work as both an editor and investigative reporter.
The President’s Forum Series, established in the winter of 2000 by President Mark D. Gearan, is designed to bring a variety of speakers to campus to share their knowledge and ideas with students, faculty and staff of the Colleges, as well as with interested community members.
Upcoming speakers include: Michael Tanner, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, who will speak on Wednesday, Feb. 10 at 7:30 p.m. in the Geneva Room; Vikki N. Spruill P’12, president and CEO of the Ocean Conservancy, who will join the Forum on Thursday, Feb. 25, at 7:30 p.m. in the Geneva Room; Howard Dean, physician, former governor of Vermont and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who will speak on Thursday, March 25, at 7:30 p.m. in Albright Auditorium, and 21 year-old writer Kevin Roose, who will join the lineup on Wednesday, April 7, at 7:30 p.m. in the Geneva Room.