Most-Popular Skeptics Lecturers
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To commemorate Skeptics’ latest milestone—more than 40 continuous years of weekly presentations during the school year—program director and history department chair Jason Beck offers his personal recollections of some of the most memorable lecturers who have visited Blair, addressed students and, as tradition often dictated, enjoyed spending time informally with students and faculty.
Loung Ung spent much of her first 10 years of life fleeing her native Cambodia, surviving the genocide known as “The Killing Fields,” a period in the late 1970s when more than one million Cambodians were killed by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime. It took nearly a decade to escape and even longer to be reunited with her remaining family. In fall 2022, Blair students gathered to hear the Nobel Peace Prize-winning human rights activist share her story and her passion for humanitarian efforts across the globe.
Benjamin Schwartz P’21
The Society of Skeptics welcomed Dr. Benjamin Schwartz P’21, a specialist in gynecologic oncology and minimally invasive surgery, to share his experience with the daVinci® Surgical System and how robotic surgery is shaping the future of healthcare. Students had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Schwartz and try out the cutting-edge daVinci® Surgical System during the class day, before he addressed a larger audience to showcase how this real-world innovation is enhancing doctors’ surgical options while minimizing pain and recovery time for patients.
Susan Kilrain P ’20 ’23
Sharing her experience as the youngest person, and one of only three women, to pilot a space shuttle, Navy commander and NASA astronaut Susan Kilrain P ’20 ’23 revealed to Blair students some of her secrets for defying the odds to become an astronaut–less than a .01 percent chance–and described what it is like to travel in space. She also recounted her experiences as an officer in the U.S. Navy, a distinguished Navy test pilot with more than 3,000 flight hours in over 30 different aircraft, an aerospace engineer and experienced world traveler. For her service, the U.S. Department of Defense awarded Commander Kilrain with the Defense Superior Service Medal, as she paved the way for young women to follow in her footsteps.
During a visit to northern India as a high school graduate, Maggie Doyne quickly befriended a Nepalese refugee who invited the American to her home. Witnessing the poverty-stricken living conditions of her friend’s village, Ms. Doyne felt called to make a difference in the lives of refugees. Within two years of her visit, Ms. Doyne founded BlinkNow, a philanthropic organization that has helped hundreds of thousands of individuals across the globe find safety and comfort. At Skeptics, Ms. Doyne emphasized to Blair students, “You don’t need to travel 3,000 miles to create change. You can make a difference in your own community right now.”
Luol Deng ’03
Having fled war-torn South Sudan with his family in 1990, Luol Deng ’03 entered Blair Academy nine years later as a ninth grader from the United Kingdom and went on to an illustrious basketball career that took him to the highest echelons of the sport. Today, the former two time NBA All-Star is a global philanthropist and the leader of the Luol Deng Foundation, a nonprofit he founded in 2005 that uses basketball and education to give hope to all South Sudanese in Africa and around the world. At Skeptics, Mr. Deng was joined by a crowd of Blair students eager to hear more about his long commitment to global philanthropy and why they should give back for the opportunities they have been provided.
Award-winning author Colum McCann underscored the power of storytelling during his Skeptics address. Hoping to inspire students to share their own experiences with others, Mr. McCann spoke about how people can shape the world through listening and storytelling. Apart from storytelling on the page, the Irish author co-founded Narrative 4, a nonprofit global story exchange organization where Mr. McCann encourages the community to tell effective stories for positive change. “They can change the world through telling their own stories and listening to the stories of others,” Mr. McCann said of high school students. “I also wanted them to understand that optimism is far stronger and far less sentimental than the cynic.”
Bonnie St. John
Author and leadership expert Dr. Bonnie St. John has achieved success in “impossible” ways her entire life. She joined the Society of Skeptics in 2017 for its inaugural event in the Chiang-Elghanayan Center for Innovation and Collaboration’s forum, where she spoke on the essential quality of resilience. Despite having her leg amputated at the age of five—and living in San Diego, where there is no snow—Dr. St. John became the first African American ever to win medals in Winter Olympic competition when she earned a silver and two bronze medals in downhill events at the 1984 Paralympics. She now travels the world to share her personal experience and practical tips on “how to make the impossible possible.”
Anthony D’Amato ’06
Bringing a message of inspiration to campus, Anthony D’Amato ’06 shared his decade of experience pursuing, and eventually securing, a career as a full-time musician. “If I can serve as an example of a non-traditional career path that’s available to students who perhaps don’t feel like they fit the mold, that would be a wonderful thing,” he said. Undeterred, Mr. D’Amato entered the industry professionally as a young freelance writer and eventually a music publicist soon after graduating from Princeton University. All the while, he was writing and producing his first two albums from home, and in 2014, landed his first record deal and international acclaim for his third release, “Shipwreck from the Shore,” which launched his career as a touring musician.
In 2012, this famed business leader, public intellectual and Blair uncle did the impossible: garnering the attention of the entire student body by talking about critical economic issues such as the U.S. housing bubble, the problematic growth of the financial sector and the Eurozone in crisis—no small task. After deeming his prepared speech too long without enough time for questions, the PIMCO CEO rewrote his lecture late the night before he visited campus. Students and faculty alike took their hats off to Mohamed El-Erian for his ability to explain complex concepts with understandable and accessible metaphors.
John C. Bogle '47
Chairman Emeritus of the Blair Board of Trustees Jack Bogle began one Skeptics talk by focusing on failure. Yes, he performed poorly in his first outing in the business world—and, indeed, this stumble was a blessing in disguise. He went on to found and lead The Vanguard Group, Inc., creating a veritable investment industry along the way. A student asked about the college courses necessary to enter Jack Bogle’s rarefied world. He replied: “Why not get a good liberal arts education? We can teach you the rest. When you are 45 and have made some money, you will want to have something to say beyond financial matters.”
Christo Brand served as Nelson Mandela’s prison guard for more than a decade, eventually becoming the former South African president’s confidant and close friend. At Skeptics, Mr. Brand shared how this unlikely relationship grew through his and Mr. Mandela’s mutual respect and trust for each other despite differences in race and ethnicity during a time of apartheid in South Africa. He gave a firsthand account of how it was possible for a young, white Afrikaans-speaking prison guard to befriend a 60-year-old, black Xhosa-speaking prisoner serving a life sentence. Mr. Brand enlightened students with personal stories of his and Mr. Mandela’s daily interactions and the many life lessons he learned from their unlikely friendship.