September 22, 2017 by Ronn
"I did get to be an extra," Margaret Lee, a former English professor and the mother of Margot Lee Shetterly, author of Hidden Figures (the book), told me last week. "You know the scene in the film where the women are greeting John Glenn? I was standing behind them. It was a long day and it was hot. [The movie was filmed in Atlanta.] But I enjoyed it."
The occasion was the National Academy of Sciences Communications Awards here in Washington last week. Shetterly received the award for books, and I met her and her parents afterwards. (The official title is Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race.)
I had read how the idea for the book came out of the career of her father, Robert Lee, who worked as a climate scientist for NASA for 40 years. He often told stories about "the computers," the women, many of whom were African American, who did much of the behind-the-scenes work. So it was wonderful to ask him about his experiences at NASA and hear these stories firsthand. "1964 was a very good year," he said. "Started at Langley and met my wife." In addition, I got to ask Shetterly how selling film rights works. The studios bid on it and then choose a director. "I was very fortunate they chose Ted Melfi," she said.
Hearing stories firsthand.
That's what Shetterly did to write this book, and that's what often makes attending events like nothing else. It's no secret that many publishers have turned to events as another revenue driver. They've found that nothing can replace that in-person interaction—not our phones, TVs, or smart watches. Studies say young people like business travel as well.
It's the same for SIPA. As wonderful as it is to have all the at-your-desk resources that we offer—webinars, the Forum, the SIPAward Showcase, Membership Directory, this column—you can't replace firsthand stories, conversations and information that comes with attending an event in-person. We have two big events coming up:
There's another strong reason for coming to a live event. We often get too close to something to appreciate its value, so we need to put ourselves in new environments. I'll never forget in college, I brought friends over my house when my grandparents were staying over. They asked my grandfather questions about immigrating to the United States from Romania before WWl. He told stories - firsthand - that I never heard before. But I had never asked.
You would think that Shetterly would have grown up with her book in mind. But similarly, it was all too matter-of-fact for her. These were the people of her youth, her town, her life. "It wasn't until my husband, who was not from Hampton, was listening to my dad talk about some of these women and the things that they have done that I realized," Shetterly told Smithsonian Magazine. "That way is not necessarily the norm."
I can't promise any stories of Hollywood extras at our events—though I bet we do have a couple—but I can promise you that the conversations you'll have and information you'll learn will be worth the price of admission.
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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…