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Kathy Witkowicki launches speaker series

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First Up

Monday, Oct. 17 – Political radio journalists Ken Rudin and Neil Conan will speak at Hanna Boys Center on November’s elections. General admission tickets are $35, VIP tickets are $75. sonomaspeakerseries.com.

Ever since Kathy Witkowicki’s retirement last year from the Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance she founded some 20 years ago, a popular cocktail party topic has been, “I wonder what Kathy is going to do next?

The secret is now out. Long a fan of San Francisco’s City Arts and Lectures series, Witkowicki has decided to focus her attention on bringing Sonoma its own speaker series.

She has joined forces with two award-winning NPR journalists: Alex Chadwick and John McChesney, who have taken up residence in Sonoma County following their retirements from NPR.

The team plans on inviting journalists, politicians, authors, scientists, athletes and artists to share expertise and experiences with a Sonoma Valley audience at the Hanna Boys Center auditorium.

Witkowicki explained that the team is particularly interested in looking for “back stories,” the details behind the making of an investigative article, the genesis of a novel, or the trigger that sets off a scientific discovery.

They are evaluating speakers from both the local and the national stage. “Nothing is beyond the scope of our inquiries,” she said. “From the war against ISIS to the restoration of Sonoma Creek.”

Witkowicki’s vast network of connections is proving invaluable both in attracting sponsors and in reaching potentially elusive celebrity speakers. “I have dozens and dozens of ideas in a binder,” she said. “And so many people have stepped forward to help me connect with potential speakers.”

Veteran interviewers Chadwick and McChesney will alternate interviewing the speakers on stage at Hanna, which will be followed by an audience Q&A, with, of course, some wine and socializing scheduled before and after.

For more than 30 years, Chadwick could be heard on NPR hosting weekend segments and, periodically, “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.” He was also the chief correspondent for Radio Expeditions which, in partnership with National Geographic, took listeners around the world on environmental explorations.

John McChesney, also with NPR for nearly three decades, was the architect of NPR’s first national desk, a team of reporters based in cities across the nation. He also established NPR’s first foreign desk, which launched major coverage of the wars in Central America, the Lebanese Civil War, and the fall of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. McChesney later became NPR’s technology correspondent in Silicon Valley for nearly 10 years. He ended his NPR career reporting on the war in Iraq, where he embedded with several national guard units.

While Chadwick and McChesney will hold the mic, Witkowicki has partnered with McChesney’s wife, clinical psychologist Wendy von Wiederhold, to run the speaker series behind the scenes.

Von Wiederhold runs a national organization which provides pro bono psychotherapy for foster children and youth, called A Home Within. She and Witkowicki bonded over their commitment to improving the lives of at-risk youth. “She heard I was interested in starting a speaker series here in the Valley and she called me to see if we could meet up and talk about it, because John and Alex were really interested in the idea,” said Witkowicki. “Over a few glasses of wine, we decided we were meant to be partners!”

Each Sonoma Speaker Series event will benefit one or more youth-serving nonprofits. The first event will take place under the umbrella of Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance (sonomamentoring.org) and A Home Within (ahomewithin.org).

First Up

Monday, Oct. 17 – Political radio journalists Ken Rudin and Neil Conan will speak at Hanna Boys Center on November’s elections. General admission tickets are $35, VIP tickets are $75. sonomaspeakerseries.com.

Each speaker series talk will be a fundraiser, but as Witkowicki put it, “you don’t need to buy a dress and an expensive ticket or sit through an auction. Just come, listen and learn.”

Email Lorna at lorna.sheridan@sonomanews.com.