Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Speaking for the Downriver Town Hall Lecture Series

By Pierette Domenica Simpson

On February 10, I received a call from my agent asking if I could fill in for Anne Thompson of NBC News. The event was to take place the next day, but thousands of flights had already been canceled due to the snowstorm and Anne could not travel from New York.

This was one of those moments that I had to be strong and not dwell on what ifs—even if I had never spoken to a crowd of 600 people before! I answered affirmatively, saying I was glad to be available and to help out The Downriver Town Hall Lecture Series (Southgate, Michigan). They have a long-standing reputation for doing a great job by pulling in well-known speakers. I figured, even if I didn’t live up to Ms. Thompson’s standards, they would still appreciate me for doing them a favor.

Pulling up to the Crystal Gardens Banquet Center was a surreal experience: my name was flashing on the huge neon sign in a hot pink on Fort Road. I almost put my brakes on! Then, as I was carting in boxes of books into the lobby, a lovely elderly lady said, “I know this is going to be a great program! I remember when the Andrea Doria sank.” She didn’t know it, but she broke the ice for me. I realized that I wasn’t going to get a chilly reception because I wasn’t Anne Thompson.

I’ve always admired Ms. Thompson; I also know she’s a survivor like me—just different battles: 9/11 and breast cancer. Of the latter, she explains:

“Chemo also took all the cancer. My hair, as you can see has come back, and my desire to report is as strong as ever.”

That’s what I call a steadfast professional! I had big shoes to fill, but I was going to take my first step.

Mary Jarosz, event planner extraordinaire, introduced me and my topic: A Nostalgic Journey: The Andrea Doria’s Last Crossing. She explained it was based on my book, Alive on the Andrea Doria! The Greatest Sea Rescue in History. For an hour, I gave it my all. The audience of 600 did not seem so impersonal after all, as they warmly clapped at the end. Their gracious comments at the book signing table provided me the feedback I was hoping for:

“You are the best speaker I’ve ever heard! ---You look like Sophia Loren! ---You enthralled me! --- What a story! --- Can you come and speak to my group?”

These words were music to my ears. After lunch, the audience of 400 had many good questions. I could tell that they had followed every word I had said during the lecture. (37 years of teaching gives me that skill!)

That evening I watched Ms. Thompson report on Bill Clinton’s medical condition outside of a New York hospital. Fate had placed us where we were both meant to be.

Pierette Domenica Simpson

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