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Birth of the Centennial 
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Heinlein Nexus
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Post Re: Birth of the Centennial
[... Continued...]

And now... two years later... my account of that weekend

The road to Victoria airport is never crowded by any standards except the locals', but when I left home at 4am on Wednesday, July 4th, 2007 it was a vehicular wasteland. The 6am flight to Seattle was the only option for getting me to Kansas City the same day, which, after a stop at the mammoth Dallas-Fort Worth airport, I arrived at that evening. Outside the gate an unfamiliar figure held a sign with my name on it, and that was the first time I met our esteemed chairman, Tim Kyger, who was standing watch for Tina Black, ensconced in a nearby bar.

Tim had been until now a voice on the phone, our man in the Pentagon. Tina was our woman in KC, the head of all things local and our liaison to the Kansas City Science Fiction and Fantasy Society (KaCSFFS). We'd met once before, at LACon IV, in the Centennial's hospitality suite. That was our only previous collective experience at hosting an event. Now we were about to go considerably further than a few videos and hors d'oeuvres. After a few prayers to the automotive gods, the TinaMobile, stuffed with convention supplies and ourselves, was off to downtown, where I became profoundly glad that I had a guide and didn't have to try navigating by myself.

The Hyatt Crown Center boasts an elegant interior design with massive dendritic chandeliers. After checking in, I asked the quickest way to our sister hotel, the Westin, where our operations center was being set up. Well, it turns out that if you ask that question in the Hyatt lobby, as I did, it is a hair shorter to go outside along the street than the alternative, if they assume that you're going to the Westin lobby, which I wasn't. One fifteen-minute walk along the streets convinced me of three things: (1) I wasn't going to do that again; (2) I didn't want our out-of-town guests navigating the pedestrian crossings at night; (3) Our hotels were further apart than I thought! Fortunately there was a quicker and cooler route for getting between the ballroom levels of both hotels which our events were taking place on: "The Link", a glass pedestrian tube the locals call The Habitrail for obvious reasons, which visits the Crown Center mall on the way. Even with air conditioning, however, it was... toasty. I was destined to lose a few pounds crossing it many times each day at full tilt.

In the Westin's Board Room I found our nascent operations center, and Jim Gifford deploying an array of publishing technology. Later we went up to our VIP hospitality suite in the Hyatt to enjoy the fireworks around the city from a crows nest view. Robert James ("that's DOCTOR James to you") and Bill Patterson were there, and Robert slid a glossy booklet across the table to me. It was the souvenir book created by Jim, and it exceeded my wildest dreams: never-before-published Heinlein writings, photographs I'd never seen, a sumptuous layout, in its own plastic cover. It had Collector's Item written all over it.

Thursday morning I hightailed it over to the Board Room ready for action. A KaCSSFS team was preparing badges and clucking over the important names as they came across them. The schedule books arrived, but we discovered that they were mispaginated and the whole run had to be redone. Could they get them to us before the next morning? The Science Fiction Research Association's conference-within-our-conference started shortly and was so smoothly run that I never had to pay any attention to it. Joyce Downing (Registration Queen) drove me over to John Taylor's where I helped load materials that had been shipped to John's in advance of our arrival. (John's wife died during the convention and while that had been expected for some time, John continued working for us throughout the event and remained in good spirits.)

Back at the Westin, our vinyl banners arrived (these were so gorgeous that they were carefully bequeathed at the end to a few of the people clamoring for them - I have one, nyah, nyah) and there was some debate with the hotel management over where they could be hung. The very professional Westin banqueting staff had provided Jim and me with radios so that we could reach them around the clock - and we did.

Joyce got Registration open on time and our public started to sign up. There were serendipitous tales abounding - somehow, we got a mention on the giant LED sign at the exit of the Kansas City airport, and a Heinlein fan and pilot arriving on layover saw it. His layover hotel happened to be the Westin. When he discovered our event he signed up and spent the rest of his layover in bliss.

The only official Centennial event of the evening was the Early Arrivals Reception, at which Bill Patterson held forth on his Heinlein biography (honest... it was the only time we could fit it in. Ask Bill.)

[... to be continued...]


Mon Jul 06, 2009 3:23 am
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Post Re: Birth of the Centennial
[... Continued...]

On Friday the game started in earnest. We had so much programming we wanted to do that I had to schedule some to take place first thing in the morning before even the opening ceremonies - it was the only way Bill Patterson and Robert James would get any breaks during the weekend. The very professional video crew started setting up in the main ballroom, and a sweet woman by the name of Leandrea Jones found me and made herself tirelessly available for many hours of Programming assistance throughout the convention. At our opening ceremonies Tim and Jim and I nervously introduced ourselves and I arrogantly predicted that people would remember the event for the rest of their lives. I thanked our many honored guests in advance for setting aside their usual stellar status to be part of a large ensemble cast celebrating Robert and Ginny, our only true Guests of Honor.

Our first keynoter was an hour away, and knowing that he had to be somewhere around, I roamed the hotels looking for Mike Griffin, the administrator of NASA. I found him walking around by himself looking at our displays. When he gave his speech, I realized that we had an issue with geography: even though I had scheduled nothing against the keynoters, because they were speaking in the Westin ballroom and the main programming was in the Hyatt, some people were not making the ten minute trek along the Habittrail but going to eat instead. I hadn't scheduled in food breaks - there wasn't time! For the rest of the weekend we made announcements in program rooms reminding people of the keynote talks.

I wanted to make sure that our sessions which had requested projectors got them, so I showed up to one ten minutes early to look at the equipment: Video cart, check; video cables, check; screen, check; projector... uh-oh. After a quick conversation with the Hyatt management I discovered that the "projection packages" we had ordered did not, in fact, include projectors; they cost extra. Go figure. So we bit the bullet and ordered them delivered immediately.

I was glad that I had scheduled myself as a panelist for "The Crazy Years", because it meant I finally got to sit down! But as soon as it was over I hared off in search of our next keynoter, Brian Binnie, and found him checking his audio in the ballroom. Brian, the astronaut who won the X Prize, was our first keynoter to agree, almost two years earlier. His presentation was jaw-droppingly professional, enthralling, educational, and humorous. I never knew before how his mother-in-law's coffee nearly cost him the X Prize. (You had to be there.)

Saturday. 7/7/7. Robert Heinlein's birthday, and - coincidentally I'm sure - mine also. My only regret was that my wife wasn't with me (we couldn't afford it), but she surprised me anyway by asking my hotel to send chocolate cake to my room.
Yesterday's Space track had focused on government-led activities; today was concerned with current private enterprise efforts. One of the changes to the publshed schedule (covered in our twice-daily newsletter, "The Daily Lunatic") was Peter Diamandis' talk moving to the keynote slot. And what an electrifying presentation it was. To describe Peter as being passionate about making space accessible to the common man in our lifetimes is like calling the Cretaceous asteroid impact a fender bender. I could see why Tim had suggested we compare him to D.D. Harriman, even though Peter himself eschews the comparison - he's not as ruthless as Harriman, but he certainly is as creative. His story of how he financed the X Prize was right out of Heinlein: Instead of fronting the whole $10 million, he took out an insurance policy for a lesser premium, and convinced the Ansaris to fund the premium. The man is a serial enterpreneur - he's running Zero G Corporation, the company that flew Stephen Hawking in free-fall.

The banquet was superb - I can attest to that, since I made sure to grab a few bites between gala preparations. Definitely a cut above my usual experience of hotel buffets for large functions. We had been overwhelmed with last-minute sign-ups for the dinner, and the Westin graciously accommodated us beyond our agreement by opening up an air wall and putting some extra tables in. Somehow, we didn't run out of food. Throughout dinner we were elegantly serenaded by the Atlanta Radio Theater Company's keyboardist playing science fiction themes. Around 6:15, I announced that people might want to grab a space in the general seating for the gala to follow; and they must have had a sense of what was to follow, because there was quite a dash for choice seats.

The gala was so well run that I spent most of the time enjoying it as a spectator. I say "well run" knowing full well that the actual program for that night was finalized on a napkin during dinner. But it came together perfectly. By now everyone knows that we had a video speech Arthur C. Clarke made especially for us - despite visible poor health he was as lucid and interesting as ever. There was another video I had never seen before - Ginny Heinlein reading Robert's "This I Believe" at his memorial service in Washington; but Jim had added a twist by adding a much older audio recording of Robert reading it himself, and a little way in, he faded that up. At the end, when Robert concluded with, "This I believe, with all my heart," followed by Ginny repeating the words, there couldn't have been a dry eye in the house.

A tough act to follow, and not for the first time did I not envy our emcee, the suave Robin Wayne Bailey, who rose to the occasion splendidly, and kept everyone amused and informed while moving things along rapidly. Peter Diamandis gave a riveting presentation on his plans for "X Racing" - like pod racing from Star Wars Episode I - personal rocket-powered airplanes racing through aerial courses with each other and remote participants. The video was one of those hold-onto-your-seat times.

So many things happened at the Gala, I don't remember them all - Susan Satterfield presented the short story awards, Yoji Kondo presented the Heinlein Award, and Spider and Jeanne Robinson did a musical number. Jeanne gave a slide show on her Stardance zero-gravity dance film project, and in the most dramatic unscripted moment of the gala, when someone in the audience asked whether she had considered going into free-fall for inspiration herself, and she admitted that much as she'd like to, the budget had to go to production, Peter Diamandis called out from the back of the room, "I'll fly you, Jeanne." Cue thunderous applause.

Jordin Kare gave a rendition of "The Green Hills of Earth" and Chuck Coffin, resplendent in dress uniform, closed us out with a final toast.

[...To be continued...]


Tue Jul 07, 2009 4:53 pm
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Post Re: Birth of the Centennial
Peter Scott wrote:
Saturday. 7/7/7. [...]
Jordin Kare
and Margaret Middleton
Peter Scott wrote:
gave a rendition of "The Green Hills of Earth" and Chuck Coffin, resplendent in dress uniform, closed us out with a final toast.

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Tue Jul 07, 2009 9:19 pm
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Post Re: Birth of the Centennial
Satchel Paige?


Wed Jul 08, 2009 11:28 am
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Post Re: Birth of the Centennial
[...Continued...]

I pitied the speakers who had to start Sunday morning at 9:00, but again, the schedule demanded it. The day's Space track focused on more exotic and longer term projects like laser-launched spacecraft. I scheduled myself for another panel that I was actually able to make, talking with David Gerrold about intelligent computers, and out of sentiment, also put myself on the "Heinlein's Children" panel, which unfortunately meant I missed ARTC's second production, "The Menace From Earth" - at least I'd seen most of their "All You Zombies" on Saturday, and promptly bought their CD - those people were GOOD. Our final keynote speaker, Jeff Greason (president of XCOR) gave an emotional speech about how Heinlein had affected him.

In my experience, the only people left at weekend conventions at 4 pm on Sunday are the breakdown crew, yet we had a full house for closing ceremonies, which ended right on schedule precisely at 5 pm. By then, we knew we had pulled it off - numerous people had told us how good a time they had had, some calling it better than any Worldcon and the best convention they'd ever been to. I predicted to the crowd that one day, when people were talking about the weekend, some gnashing their teeth over not having gone, others would smile smugly and say that they were there - and some of them - those present - would be telling the truth. (Considering how credit for the event was later ascribed in some quarters to people who weren't involved, I would call that evidence that we done good.) The last word went to Ginny, with her "This I Believe" speech, this time in her own words. The KaCSFFS volunteers pulled together so well that we were completely packed up by 7 pm and headed off for a celebration dinner.I paired up a Spider Robinson needing a ride to the airport with a goggle-eyed fan with car and made both their days.

So much more than that that I haven't touched on - the many vendors who formed our Marketplace, which I got to see, along with the displays and exhibits of Heinlein's life; and the Heinlein video theater, which unfortunately I didn't have time to get to. The continuous autographing sessions, the late night movies - somehow we pulled off a complete, well-rounded convention.

To be continued...? Where, when, who...? It's up to us, and you.


Wed Jul 08, 2009 8:36 pm
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Post Re: Birth of the Centennial
I've just had a chance to finally start to look at this website, and I'm as impressed with it as I was with the Centennial, which was the high point of my con experience, as well as my professional experience outside of the classroom. I was aware of some of that nonsense going on behind the scenes, and early on, committed myself firmly to following wherever Jim, Peter and Bill led, having come to realize they were heading in the right direction. They asked if I wanted to be involved in some leadership role, and given my personal travails at the time (two jobs, and a nasty, never-ending court battle), I didn't want to commit and then let them down -- but I fully committed to being there, and doing whatever programming they wanted me to be on.

I forgot: never volunteer. I ended up being on 20 panels, if I recall correctly. I do recall making a few suggestions right around the time they asked what panels I wanted to be on, and they graciously added almost everything I suggested. Little did I know that they would be putting me on that many panels....

As Peter said at the closing ceremony, he thinks that must have been some kind of record...to which I shouted out "One...more...panel!" To which Bill shouted even louder, "NOOOOOOOO!"

I didn't get much of a chance to see anybody else's panels, and I remember having to leave one academic panel immediately after I presented a paper, because I had to get to the next panel I was on. I spent as much time in that Habitrail between the hotels as I did on the panels, or so it seemed. I remember drinking vast quantities of cold water during panels, so I could keep the voice in shape -- and then having to run to the bathroom between panels....and having more than one fan follow me in as they asked me questions....

I do recall the audiences being wonderful, and laughing in all the right places...

There are highlights I will never forget from that weekend.

I got to introduce Diamandis to James Gunn and Fred Pohl, after noticing "The Man Who Sold the Moon" standing off sheepishly, not knowing how to approach those legends of sf....fortunately, I had had dinner with them both, and served on panels with them both, and I loved being able to bring them together...

Meeting Fred Pohl and James Gunn were moments I will cherish as well.

Getting to interview Dorothy Heinlein, the last person alive who knew Elinor Curry and Leslyn, and helping her along in her memories -- and then having the family thank me afterwards for letting her shine, was magnificent.

Finally getting to set a wrong right by reading Jack Williamson's letter about Heinlein at the Gala was almost as good as finding a copy of "For Us the Living" after everybody thought it was gone....

Watching the relief on Jim and Peter's faces when it was finally all done and accomplished was priceless as well.

Also, meeting with the entire Heinlein family, who showed up in a hotel room I was waiting in, by myself, and managing to put them all at their ease and keep them entertained until Bill and others showed up was fun, if a bit nerve-wracking at first. I'm great in front of an audience, but put me in a room of strangers, and I tend to clam up...

All in all, the Centennial was beyond price. I'd ask to do it again, but having read this whole history, I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy....

...or maybe I would, as long as I got to be on more panels...


Fri Jul 24, 2009 9:13 am
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Post Re: Birth of the Centennial
Doc, one of the intentions with re-rolling the concept into the Nexus is that you can organize, moderate, populate and document as many "panels" - be they lectures or interactive sessions - as you like. No time limits of any kind.

For example, we could set up a special forum, with posting access only for selected members, and make it a slow-motion "panel" that goes on until the topic is exhausted - then edit and archive it on the web site as a more polished "article" or report.

I haven't been beating my brains out making this an fully interactive site for nuthin'. A static site, as we started with, would be so much easier... and so boring... and quickly get so outdated... but this is in the hands of the members to work with and fill up.

Get to it.


Fri Jul 24, 2009 9:32 am
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Post Re: Birth of the Centennial
Having Dr. James here makes this community feel somehow...complete. Your interaction with Dorothy Heinlein was the highlight of the Centennial to me. It was the one experience that was completely unique and valuable and can never be repeated anywhere.

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Fri Jul 24, 2009 10:41 am
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Post Re: Birth of the Centennial
Oh, my blushes, Jack.

And that's "Robert" to you....


Fri Jul 24, 2009 3:21 pm
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Post Re: Birth of the Centennial
As, unfortunately, a non-attendee, I very much appreciate these retrospectives!

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Fri Jul 24, 2009 4:30 pm
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