Who Turned the Lights Out?: Behind the Scenes at the Symposium

By Mary Ellen Robertson


I’ve been involved with Sunstone in one capacity or another for 22 years—essentially all of my adult life. During those two-plus decades, I went from being an attendee to being a presenter to being a board member and finally to being on the Sunstone staff as Executive Director and Director of Outreach and Symposia.

I attended my first Salt Lake Symposium in 1992 where, as a member of VOICE: BYU Committee to Promote the Status of Women, I was part of a panel discussion on feminist activism at BYU. I talked about the subtle and not-so-subtle sexism women encountered every day at BYU from offhand comments by professors and peers to the ASA Sportsmen’s Club-sponsored scavenger hunt for women. In my remarks I credited byu for my feminist awakening. (Indeed, BYU drove me even further into the feminist camp when it ran some of my favorite professors out of the English, anthropology, and Hebrew departments.) And I now credit this first Symposium experience for turning me into a Sunstoner. I had found my crowd—people who appreciated intellectual inquiry on Mormon topics, who welcomed rigorous, respectful debate, who weren’t satisfied with the status quo or Sunday School answers. After that first summer, I missed only one Salt Lake Symposium in 22 years.

In the mid-1990s, when the Internet was still young, Sunstone was the place where I met up with the many virtual friends I’d made on Mormon-related email discussion lists. In 1994 some members of the ELWC (Electronic Latter-day Women’s Caucus) email list organized a reader’s theatre-style panel where they read some of the most famous—and infamous—messages from the list archives, some of the callings we’d given ourselves in “the ward from hell” (the moniker we had given our group), and a recipe for witch finger cookies. That was the year I met longtime Sunstone contributors Cherie Woodworth and Hugo Olaiz.

In grad school, I began my era of doing Sunstone on the cheap—hoarding enough vacation time to attend 2–3 days of the Symposium, carpooling to Utah, crashing on friends’ couches, and registering at the student rate. It was all worth it; symposiums were a magical time where I got to meet the authors I’d been reading and the thinkers I wanted to emulate.

In 1996, as I was in the midst of grad school, I was unofficially inducted into the Mormon Studies scholarly community when I participated in one of several sessions focused on Lowell Bennion’s contributions to Mormon thought. Though I was too young to have been a student in his University of Utah Institute classes, I encountered him through his academic work on Max Weber. I met people who had known him—Lavina Fielding Anderson, Bonner Ritchie, Eugene England, Laurie DiPadova-Stocks—and through them saw the impact a thoughtful scholar could make and I hoped I could follow suit.

Symposiums also provided a friendly, yet rigorous audience to help hone my budding academic work. I presented papers I had written for Claremont Graduate University seminars on gender, violence, and religion, and on my thesis topic: Mormon women’s use of spiritual gifts and the development of priesthood authority.






In 2001 I interviewed for the editor position being vacated by Elbert Peck after 15 years of valiant service. As Elbert walked me out to the parking lot after the interview, I said, “If I don’t get the job, can you get me on the board?” I wanted to contribute to the organization whether I was hired or not. Six months later, I attended my first board meeting—a 7:00 am breakfast at the beginning of that year’s Symposium with Ed Kimball, Bonner Ritchie, Carol Quist, Michael Stevens, and recently hired editor Dan Wotherspoon, among others.

Many Symposium experiences impacted my thinking. But it was during this 2001 Symposium that I had a transformative experience. I was part of a panel modeled after The Vagina Monologues that some friends and I suggested; Janet M. Kincaid had solicited and compiled a collection of essays that were first read at Sunstone West that year, and we were giving an expanded performance at the Salt Lake Symposium to discuss the intersection of Mormon women’s faith and sexuality.

Though the session itself was groundbreaking, what happened afterward transformed me. A group of us skipped the evening session to go to dinner and then loiter on the grass outside the hotel. We had representatives from almost every sexual demographic—straight married Mormon housewives, single graduate students, divorced women, newly-out lesbians, and several transgendered women (sorry—no straight white males). We sat in a circle and talked about what we wanted most out of life. As we went around the circle, it became apparent that everyone wanted the same thing: meaningful work, someone to love, and someone to be loved by. I know it doesn’t sound like much on paper, but this was revelatory to me: no matter what our backgrounds or where our life journeys had taken us, we were essentially the same, sharing similar desires and hopes. This experience opened my eyes to the profound kinship and sisterhood binding us.


I was lured into running Symposiums little by little. First, a hiking buddy of mine who was also friends with then-editor Elbert found her name listed in the magazine as the event chair for the next Sunstone West in Los Angeles. She roped the rest of the hiking crew into the planning and after several years of assisting with Sunstone West events, I became a co-chair of the event in 2002 with Julie Curtis and in 2004 with Lee Poulsen.

After nearly eight years, Dan Wotherspoon wanted to move on and the board did some major restructuring of staff positions, separating editorial/magazine duties from Symposium/event planning. For the first time, staffers would be primarily devoted to one area. Although I applied for both jobs, I felt more drawn to Symposium and outreach work and was hired. Of the candidates for editor, Stephen Carter emerged as the clear choice—with the added benefit that someone else would have a shot at winning Sunstone’s writing contests.

I started working as Sunstone’s director of outreach and symposia in June 2008, two months before the Salt Lake Symposium was scheduled. Though Dan Wotherspoon and Allen Hill had laid the groundwork for the event, there were still enormous amounts of work to be done. The final program had to be prepared, a teetering stack of banquet event orders had to be processed for every room and every day of the Symposium (not to mention scheduling AV equipment). I had to learn how to run the schedule board with its endlessly propagating cards and labyrinthine session numbering system. Managing the scheduling requests for 200-plus speakers, panelists, moderators, respondents, and session chairs became like a never-ending game of Tetris—avoiding double booking a speaker in a single hour (especially difficult for heavily involved presenters); dodging session swaps that would upend the entire schedule; remembering to calculate sales tax and the service charge into the price of a banquet ticket; trying to decide on a menu. When this first Symposium finally reached its end I thoroughly understood the reason behind the tradition of closing the office for a week after the event.

Two thousand nine marked my first “solo” Salt Lake Symposium. The theme I had chosen was Zion’s Sisterhood: Celebrating Mormon Women’s Contributions to Church and Culture—the first time the Salt Lake Symposium had focused on women. There were quite a few first-time presenters and dozens of first-time attendees who were hungry for discussion about women’s issues. Critics wondered if the program wasn’t a rehash of 1990 women’s retreats. But LDS Church culture had not progressed very far in addressing issues of women and authority, polygamy, and Mormon women’s history, so I felt that the theme was still very relevant. The overwhelming positive response more than confirmed the need for such conversations.

The Saturday afternoon before the 2009 Symposium, we were well on track to completing the final program when the office lights went out. We canvassed the street and saw that the buildings a few doors south of us and across the street were still lit. It almost seemed like Sunstone had been singled out at this most inopportune moment. We had to get the program to the printer by 7:00 a.m. Monday or it would not be ready for the Symposium. I called the power company and found out that it would likely be a while before the electricity came back to the office.

Desperate, I called the Sheraton Hotel where the Symposium was being held that year. I talked to half a dozen people before I finally nailed down a manager who allowed us use of the employee break room with a hard-wired Internet connection. So Stephen Carter and I packed up our computers and set up shop on a long table surrounded by bedraggled hotel chairs, laundry carts, and a vending machine. We toiled until three in the morning, poring over page after page of the program, guzzling caffeinated beverages, and running the business center printer out of paper at least three times.

Happily, the program was finished in time and the Symposium got off to a rousing start. But Thursday morning we woke to a darkened hotel. Another call to the power company revealed that a substation had been vandalized and a wide swath of downtown Salt Lake was without power. So we set up the registration table by the light of windows and hoped for the best. A few minutes before the opening devotional started, the lights mercifully flickered back on, but for a while I wondered what was up with all the mettle testing?

The 2010 Symposium went much better. We celebrated Sunstone’s 35th year of publishing with cake and gelato after the opening lecture, which was a hilarious and insightful dialogue between scholars Jan Shipps and Jon Butler with Philip Barlow moderating. It was the largest opening lecture crowd I’d reeled in during my tenure. We also had a double feature with performances from Charles Frost’s alter ego Sister Dottie S. Dixon and Internet sensation Mr. Deity (Brian Dalton) who brought Lucifer (his wife, Amy Rohren) along with him.

The only significant glitch revealed itself as we checked through the printed final program (which we had managed to finish without the electricity going out once!). Holly Welker gasped and showed us a page with a startling error. Somehow one of the ads had translated itself into Arabic during the printing process. Fortunately, the good folks at the Tooele Transcript Bulletin press reprinted the programs just in time for the Symposium.




If the 2009 Symposium was the frying pan, the 2011 Symposium was the fire. Despite booking our reservation with the Sheraton a year in advance, their sales manager called me in February to say that they had to cancel on us—though this was quickly revised to, “We had a glitch updating our booking system and your reservation was improperly entered,” then to, “Another group booked before you, so they’re getting the space,” and then to, “We can offer you 70% of the meeting space you typically use,” which meant that we wouldn’t have two ballrooms, a book room, or a banquet room. If I had had a telephone number for the Danites, believe me, I would have called it. The Sheraton still owes Sunstone money for the cancelation.

However, through Sunstone board chair Michael Stevens’ connections at Weber State University, we managed to reserve the student center for the Symposium that year. Being half an hour from Salt Lake City, it wasn’t an ideal location, but the venue was inviting and the personnel easy to work with.

The theme that year was Material Culture which brought out all kinds of interesting displays such as a photo and essay gallery sponsored by Exponent II where Mormon women wrote about and displayed the material things, such as jewelry, furniture, and clothing, they inherited from their mothers and grandmothers. I submitted photos and an essay about wearing my mother’s 1956 wedding dress when I got married in 2006 and how I felt that it was knitting the generations together. The Symposium centerpiece was a 15-foot tall balloon sculpture of Moroni complete with trumpet that presided over the event from the balcony. Everyone who walked through the student center (including hundreds of people from an international archery tournament) inevitably stopped to photograph it. As the event wrapped up, Stephen Carter and his brother David carried balloon Moroni half a mile to my house and affixed it to the balcony for the after party.

That year, a great deal of online criticism was directed at a couple of presenters and some off-program activities such as a baby blessing during a lunch break and a post-session prayer to Mother in Heaven. But the real offense received little attention—a presenter making an anti-Semitic remark during Q&A and offending a Jewish convert to Mormonism who called the presenter an sob and stormed out to find the person in charge (me). He even reported Sunstone to the Anti-Defamation League after feeling that we hadn’t responded quickly enough. We dedicated many hours of board meetings and some pages of the magazine to resolving this matter.

However, on a positive note, we introduced what has affectionately become known as “the grid” (brainchild of Sunstone volunteer Lee Beardall): three pages at the beginning of the Symposium program that show the day’s sessions at a glance. It has quickly become the most referenced feature of the program.

Two-thousand twelve saw the Symposium move to the Olpin Student Union Building on the University of Utah campus, effectively bringing the Symposium full circle (it had started at the Arts and Architecture Auditorium at the U in 1979). Mitt Romney was the Republican nominee for president, so we focused on Mormons as a political force, covering everything from the Romney campaign to Glenn Beck to voter registration patterns among LDS Church authorities. The power did go out once during our preparation of the program, trapping volunteer Ellen Decoo in Sunstone’s spooky, windowless basement for a few minutes, but other than that incident, we escaped unscathed.

Two-thousand thirteen was a good year for the Symposium. It had a great theme, Mormon Bodies: Literal, Metaphorical, Doctrinal, that brought out some provocative presentations such as sessions on body image and eating disorders, a discussion of what constitutes pornography, a display of several Mormon photographers’ nude photos, a Mormon square dance, and even some road shows. Best of all, the lights stayed on the whole time.

The upcoming 2014 Salt Lake Symposium is looking to be a lot of fun. It will include a series of Mormon films that will run concurrently with Symposium sessions, a handcraft expo, and workshops featuring Super Saturday crafts from Church magazines of different decades. The fates may have already spent their energy on sabotaging Sunstone’s electricity for the year as I found myself suddenly in the dark just as I was preparing to print the Sunstone Kirtland program, but only time will tell.

Looking back, I think it’s been a good run. Every single one of the Symposiums I planned covered its direct costs or was revenue positive. Considering the economic downturn of 2008 and its effects on conference attendance and pre-registration patterns, I am very proud of this accomplishment. I also managed to find a way to get our software to track onsite registrations for the Symposiums (something no one else had been able to figure out—yay me!).

I mourn the passing of some of our most faithful Symposium participants such as Paul Swenson, Linda Sillitoe, C. Jess Groesbeck, Belle Cluff, and Cherie Woodworth among many others. Another early contributor and volunteer, W. M., also passed away. Previously a musician, he had fallen on hard times and would stop by the Sunstone office to pick up a preliminary program, leaving the evidence of his presence lingering in the air long afterward. He would sometimes show up at the Salt Lake Symposium and gate crash a few sessions—and once he even proposed to me, offering to become my plural husband. The last year I remember W. attending the Symposium, he had scraped together enough money for a one-day pass and a ticket to the closing banquet. A woman attending the banquet recognized W. from his days as a University of Utah music prodigy and asked him to sit at her table. I was grateful for this example of welcoming all comers to the Sunstone table. But I guess that’s what Sunstone is all about: making room for the outliers and helping them feel listened to, acknowledged, accepted, and welcome.






I first started attending Sunstone as a single woman in search of an elusive species: the progressive Mormon male. I met many over the years; most were gay. It wasn’t until several years after I had given up that I hit the jackpot at a regional Sunstone Symposium. I ran into Michael Stevens in the hotel lobby Friday night. We had joined the Sunstone board at about the same time. I noticed that he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. As the weekend progressed, we attended many of the same sessions and during a break discovered that we were both single. We shared our respective breakup stories and talked until the wee hours of the morning. The next day, I called to see if Michael wanted to go to breakfast. I didn’t hear back from him in time, but he managed to track down my unlisted home phone number and then call me after he’d returned to St. Louis. We continued to talk with and email each other daily; within a few weeks it became clear that this was something special. We married in July 2006 surrounded by family, friends, and fellow Sunstoners during a record-breaking heat wave that knocked out power during the rehearsal the night before. While he and I don’t always agree on how to best run Sunstone, I have to give the Symposiums credit for bringing us together.


One comment

  1. BrokenHearted says:

    Dear Editor,

    With a broken heart, I write this letter to the editor. I recently encountered this essay online written by Mary Ellen Robertson that deeply affected me due to the insensitivity toward a deceased member of the Sunstone community. Although the piece was published two years ago, I humbly ask that you please consider an apology.

    Mary Ellen’s retrospective mentioned her “feminist awakening.” She told of her first Sunstone talk where she informed the audience of the “subtle sexism” she encountered “every day at BYU from offhand comments by professors and peers.”

    After describing her experiences at Sunstone, she acknowledged familiar faces of the Sunstone community that had passed away. Apparently, abandoning awareness of the harm that “subtle” “offhand comments” can do to demean a person, she gave herself permission to casually ridicule a dear soul, a brother in Christ, by full name, who had since died.

    I will not repeat his name though he was a good, talented person and his name deserved praise, love and respect. She wrote:

    “W_______M__________. Previously a musician, he had fallen on hard times and would stop by the Sunstone office to pick up a preliminary program, leaving the evidence of his presence lingering in the air long afterward. He would sometimes show up at the Salt Lake Symposium and gate crash a few sessions—and once he even proposed to me, offering to become my plural husband. The last year I remember William attending the Symposium, he had scraped together enough money for a one-day pass and a ticket to the closing banquet. A woman attending the banquet recognized William from his days as a University of Utah music prodigy and asked him to sit at her table. I was grateful for this example of welcoming all comers to the Sunstone table. But I guess that’s what Sunstone is all about: making room for the outliers and helping them feel listened to, acknowledged, accepted, and welcome.”

    I cannot fathom why Sunstone allowed these statements to be published. What is “welcoming” or Christ-like about publishing by name that a member of our community smelled so bad he left “evidence of his presence lingering in the air long afterward?” Did our vulnerable brother, an “early contributor and volunteer,” who died of a lingering illness, give permission for Mary Ellen to expose that he had such little money he had to scrape a few dollars together to attend for only one day? Did this individual lose his right to privacy for seeking to buy a ticket and stay connected to Sunstone? What corroboration is there that he “proposed” to be her “plural husband?” Why make this man out to be a fool? Whose interests do these hurtful comments serve?

    Labeling someone the “outlier” who is an example of being accepted and welcome reveals a lack of understanding so vast, I can say nothing more.

    Broken Hearted

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