Founding Director Michael Riley
Inside CMC, May 2001
CMC, mid-70s. Anne Rice is speaking on the CMC campus as a personal guest of Riley's. No one knows much about her, other than the fact that she is a fledgling writer who is married to Stan Rice — now a celebrated poet and fixture of the Bay Area's literary scene. Several years later one spring afternoon, there is a message in Riley's mailbox to call Anne. He does. They talk. She's just sold her first novel for $12,000. It's called Interview With The Vampire (1976). A few weeks later, there's another note in Riley's mailbox to phone Rice. This time, she's sold the paperback rights to the story for $750,000, and the movie rights for $150,000.
Dissolve to 1980. A previously shelved proposal by College namesake Donald McKenna to build a formal home for the Athenaeum is being revisited, and Riley finds himself central in its coordination. A faculty-student club — a building that would serve as the academic heart of the College — was first discussed in the 1960s, but with building residence halls and faculty offices still the priority, the idea was put on the back burner where it collected dust. During the 1970s, the Athenaeum was housed in the President's House (which is now the home of the admission office) at 890 Columbia Ave. Central to its functions was the regular melding of minds over meals — where faculty and students could leave the formality of the classroom to interact together, without desks or lecterns separating them. Students and professors dined together at the same table, while mentally chewing on heady fare — be it related to political science, literature or economics.
The new building was to be more than just a home for the speakers series, however. Defining the role of the Athenaeum took three years devoted to meetings with architects, refining the vision for this new structure. Says Riley, "What made it exciting was that it wasn't a building that we had to decide what to put in it. It was an idea, and how would we implement that idea? And what kind of building do we want to house it?"
From the get-go, Riley was asked by Stark to put to use the networking skills he'd developed for film studies. How about bringing in some featured guests that could engage faculty and students in topics of the day? Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel agreed to be one of the first guests - later came notables such as John Irving, William F. Buckley, Jr., John McPhee, Francis Fitzgerald, and Peter Drucker.
Says Riley, laughing, "I think what got me the Ath job, frankly, is that Jack decided that if I could get all these people (to my film classes) without paying them a dime - having no budget at all — then maybe I was the guy to run the Ath." And so it was that the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum became the campus hotbed for meaty discussions and fine dining. Riley always had one antenna up reading newspapers or magazines, always on the lookout for potential guests. With a little ingenuity and the telephone, "I found I could get almost anyone" to do it, he says.