By Dave Astor
National Society of Newspaper Columnists
The NSNC’s annual conferences predictably feature great speakers and panels. Making the meetings even more interesting are unpredictable occurrences: surprising words out of speakers’ mouths, quirky field trips, spontaneous happenings in the hotels, and more.
Below are many examples of standout moments from the past 25 years – culled from my own memories (I’ve attended most NSNC conferences since 1991) and the memories of various NSNC members who commented under a recent Columnist Clubhouse post put up by our executive director Suzette Martinez Standring after NSNC communications guru Bonnie Jean Feldkamp suggested this story.
If you’re a columnist or blogger planning to attend our great June 8-11 conference in Manchester, New Hampshire, perhaps you’ll witness or personally provide future additions to this list!
1992: NSNC attendees visited the Bull Semen Hall of Fame near the conference city of Columbus, Ohio. Difficult to reproduce that scenario here…
1994: Molly Ivins, that year’s Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award winner, joined NSNC members in the hospitality suite of the conference hotel near Sarasota, Fla., to watch the O.J. Simpson slow-motion car chase on TV. Then-NSNC president Bill Tammeus recalls Ivins winning a betting pool guessing when the chase would end – with the Pyle recipient coming within three minutes of the correct time.
1995: While visiting the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum during the Kansas City conference, attendees got to meet and hear baseball legend Buck O’Neil.
1996: The NSNC happened to meet in the same Snowbird, Utah, hotel as a group of English professors, and challenged those profs to a spelling bee! The winner? Hint: its website is Columnists.com. This was one of several offbeat contests NSNC member Diane Ketcham spontaneously arranged during conferences.
1998: At the NSNC meeting in San Diego, speaker Arianna Huffington exclaimed: “I want sex off the table!” Huffington (who would co-found The Huffington Post seven years later) was referring to her belief that politicians’ sex lives should not be a litmus test determining their fitness for office.
1999: Physically imposing conference host Bob Hill lost a match with a very young female karate champion, as recalled by Bob Haught. This was in Louisville, where Hill was a renowned columnist.
2005: Grapevine, Texas, conference attendees were bused to the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas and heard remarks by Jim Leavelle — the white-hatted police detective in the iconic 1963 photo of Lee Harvey Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby. When NSNCers gathered around Leavelle after his talk, he casually pulled out the key to the handcuffs attaching him to Oswald. (During a different time that weekend, some attendees rode a mechanical bull!)
2006: Our conference hotel in Boston was quite close to the Old Granary Burial Ground, the final resting place for some people you may have heard of: Samuel Adams, Crispus Attucks, John Hancock, Paul Revere, Benjamin Franklin’s parents…
2007: Speaker Bill O’Reilly got snappy with more than one NSNC attendee in Philadelphia – showing that he could verbally harass columnists (male and female) in addition to sexually harassing female subordinates at Fox News.
2008: Columnists marched down the street playing kazoos in New Orleans, as recalled by Cynthia Ballard Borris. But the NSNC was not renamed the National Society of Newspaper Kazooists.
2011: Detroit conference-goers dined in the Detroit Institute of Arts courtyard adorned with magnificent Diego Rivera murals, as recalled by LJ Anderson.
2013: The NSNC was kicked out of its hospitality suite during the conference in Hartford – making for “A Connecticut Yanking” in the city where Mark Twain lived for many years. Plus there was an NSNC talent show with celebrity judges such as Dave Barry and former Saturday Night Live writer Alan Zweibel. Plus we met Australian writer Annie Barr, who made perhaps the longest trip ever to attend an NSNC conference.
2014: A major highlight at the Washington, DC, conference was a dinner event in the U.S. Capitol Building.
2015: During our Indianapolis conference, we made an unforgettable trip to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – a visit that included a look inside the enormous complex and a drive around the track.
2016: During our Los Angeles conference, we gathered one night at the stunning Will Rogers Ranch in Pacific Palisades.
2xxx?: No one could quite remember the exact year former NSNC president Samantha Bennett did some very impressive cartwheels in the hotel!
A partial list of other renowned people who have spoken at NSNC conferences over the decades includes David Broder, Gail Collins, Ellen Goodman, Pete Hamill, Heloise, Steve Lopez, Judith Martin (“Miss Manners”), Mary McGrory, Clarence Page, Jeanne Phillips (“Dear Abby”), Leonard Pitts Jr., William Raspberry, Andy Rooney, Connie Schultz, Mary Schmich, and Calvin Trillin, among others! Many of them are Pyle and/or Pulitzer winners.
Dave Astor writes the weekly “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com, blogs weekly at DaveAstorOnLiterature.com, and is the author of the 2017 book “Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time: The Book Lover’s Guide to Literary Trivia.”