|A Brief History of The Forum Club|
The Forum Club of Southwest Florida, Inc. (“Club”) originated in the summer of 1984, when a man named William Gentry wrote letters and visited some twenty-five business and professional leaders in Naples and Marco Island. Gentry was nearing retirement from his job as Marco Island Bureau Chief for the Naples Daily News and he thought a club that would present prominent and well-informed speakers would be a good project for his retirement years.
The first organizational meeting of the Club was held at The Naples Beach Hotel on November 9, 1984. One of the early, major supporters was the hotel’s owner, Henry B. Watkins, Jr., and the Watkins family has remained vital to the Club’s success until May, 2021 when the hotel was closed. Of the twenty people at the first meeting, fourteen agreed to serve on the initial Board, which established an original initiation fee of $25! It also set the future course of the Club as non-profit and non-partisan.
The initial officers were elected, including Leonard Llewellyn, President; Henry Watkins, President-Elect; Brenda Wilson, Vice President; and the aforementioned Bill Gentry, Executive Director and Secretary.
The initial dues were set at $75 annually. A vital decision was made by the founders that the Club would pay travel and hotel expenses for the speaker and spouse, but would not pay an honorarium. The Forum Club has never paid a fee or honorarium to any of its distinguished speakers, finding it more challenging and satisfying to invite speakers through efforts by members, who reach out to friends and colleagues.
The first formal program of the new Forum Club took place on February 1, 1985, when a group of ninety-eight members and forty-five guests gathered in the Sunset Terrace Room of the Naples Beach Hotel to hear Charles T. Hollinshead, Director of Public Affairs at the Kennedy Space Center, speak on "Our Future in Space.”
Over the past thirty-seven years, the Club has attracted many outstanding guests, including three Supreme Court Justices; Harry Blackmun, Byron White and Clarence Thomas. The Club also prides itself on identifying and presenting speakers before they become household names. A good example would be General Norman Schwarzkopf, who gave a program about the Middle East to the Forum Club on February 2, 1990 - some six months before he took command of the Desert Storm operation in the Persian Gulf.
In 1988, Bill Gentry initiated a new program for the Club by inviting students from each area high school to the luncheon meetings as guests of a sponsoring club member. In 1992, the Board of Directors established the William S. Gentry Student Scholarship Award that is presented each year to one senior from each participating Collier County high school in Bill’s memory. The criteria includes: academic excellence and demonstrated community civic responsibility of the chosen students. The Naples Daily News has been proud to sponsor the students and their administrators for lunch since the inception of the award.