Geof Follansbee, editor
Excellence, Community, and Belonging: Tara VanDerveer on the Lessons of Chautauqua
Back in 1985 VanDerveer took the calculated risk of leaving the winning program she had built at Ohio State to take on head coaching responsibilities at Stanford University, where losing had become a ritual. In only five years, she turned the team around to win her first NCAA national championship. She's since carried her Stanford teams to the Final Four seven times adding another national championship in 1992. Last year's team was runner-up to the University of Connecticut in the 2010 NCAA national championship game.
That Stanford athletes must meet stringent academic requirements for admission makes VanDerveer's recruiting accomplishments even more impressive. Some of that vigorous recruiting takes place by phone from the porch of her Chautauqua cottage each summer.
In interviews, VanDerveer never fails to mention the influence of Chautauqua on her life. She still remembers her first summer on the grounds, not by the year (she was in fourth grade), but by the musical she saw: The King and I. The oldest of five, she says it was always a stretch for the family to afford a summer at Chautauqua. "My father worked for Syracuse University, and we'd come down and rent a place, but after each season, we could never go back to the same place. All those kids and dogs were not too popular with the landlords,' VanDerveer chuckles.
In 1973, the family finally purchased their own place - the Lakeside Lodge, a rambling old rooming house at the corner of Simpson and Bowman. They ran it as a B&B every summer. The proceeds from this family enterprise paid the college tuition bills for all five children. When VanDerveer's father passed away a decade ago, her mother, Rita, called with the difficult news that she would have to sell the place. Tara pledged to buy and renovate it instead.
With a new foundation and scrupulous adherence to historic district standards, VanDerveer had the bottom floor converted into a three-bedroom, two-bath apartment that sister Beth now manages and rents by the week. Upstairs are the family quarters where Rita, now in her early 80s, spends the entire summer, while the other VanDerveer siblings - Marie, Heidi, and Nick - and their friends and families come and go. Given the demands of her work, Coach VanDerveer only manages at most two weeks a year on the grounds. She also owns a handsome home in Menlo Park, California, and a getaway cabin in Minnesota, but VanDerveer insists that Chautauqua is home to her more than anyplace else. "I feel this calm come over me as soon as I enter the gates," she says.
When she's on the grounds, she's usually up by six, watching the sunrise over the lake from her room on the third floor. VanDerveer then makes her way to the workout facility in Turner. She'll usually take in the 10:45 lecture and will get out on the lake most days: either in a kayak or her Laser sailboat. This year she took up duplicate bridge, a new obsession, and there is always time set aside to play the piano. VanDerveer began learning the instrument as an adult and insists on having a piano available to her when her Stanford team is on the road. Five years ago she brought her teacher and fifteen other piano students to the grounds for a week.
"When I'm here, I won't leave the grounds," VanDerveer says. "It's sort of a family joke. My mother will want to go into town for dinner, but I refuse. It was the same when I was a kid. Our car would pull up to the house at the beginning of the season and my father would look up and say 'Where's Tara?' I was already gone to find my friends. There's so much to do here and never enough time."
VanDerveer says she always cried at the end of the season as her family left the grounds. Today she still seeks out old friends Wendy Lewellen, whose late mother was hostess at the Wensley House next door, and Cindy Gelb, daughter of longtime Chautauqua Foundation Director Vic Gelb.
"She was the gym rat while we were working on our tans," Wendy Lewellen told the audience this February at VanDerveer's induction into the Chautauqua County Sports Hall of Fame.
"I did play basketball with the older boys on the upstairs court in the old Boys' and Girls' Club building," VanDerveer confirms, "but I did much more - sailing, tennis, swimming I was so fortunate. Kids these days don't even have P.E. in school, and even back in my college days, some of the girls I played with had never done anything but summer basketball camp. I think the Boys' and Girls' Club had it right, helping us be well rounded."
The magic of the mix for VanDerveer extended far beyond sports at Chautauqua, however. "Chautauqua was always a smorgasbord to me," she explains, "and I loved filling up my plate with all that was going on. I was in three operas as a child here. My family went to all the rehearsals. And I heard Van Cliburn, Robert Kennedy, and Marian Anderson in the Amp."
VanDerveer was asked how Chautauqua has affected her life away from the grounds. "You know," she says, "I think I was drawn to Stanford because it reminds me a lot of Chautauqua - so many accomplished, upbeat people in a very stimulating place. Building a team is also about excellence, community and belonging, being part of something special. That's what I tell my players. We are part of something special. It's not just about showing up, dribbling and shooting."
Of her coaching style, a New York Times reporter once wrote that "VanDerveer knows how to bond a team, how to wrap them as tight as ankle tape to support each other. She loves coaching, the strategy, the game films, and solitude of thought on a crowded team bus."
VanDerveer credits Chautauqua for helping to create her appetite for engagement, reflection, and critical thinking. "So now I try to create a Chautauqua experience for myself all year long. My life is so rich. I travel all over the world. I went to the Olympics. I've met incredible people. But I don't know too many places better than Chautauqua."