Paul Sturtz: festival co-founder, 'visionary' and energetic candidate

Tuesday, March 25, 2008 | 6:21 p.m. CDT; updated 5:57 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
First Ward City Council candidate Paul Sturtz talks to Columbia residents during a meet and greet at Klik's at 205 N. Tenth St. on March 19.

This article has been modified to reflect the fact that Paul Sturtz is the co-founder and co-director of the True/False Film Festival, co-founder of the Ragtag, and that he was previously the communications director of Missouri Rural Crisis Center.

COLUMBIA — It’s almost 9 p.m. on March 1, and Paul Sturtz is tired. He sinks into the old beat-up couch in the lobby of the Helis Communication Center at Stephens College, a few feet from Windsor Auditorium where only moments before, Sturtz completed his last film introduction of the night.

It’s the Saturday of the True/False Film Festival and, for a moment, the busy day of running back and forth from venue to venue has caught up with Sturtz, co-founder of the festival and the Ragtag Cinemacafe — and now a candidate for the First Ward seat on the City Council.


PERSONAL: Age 43. Single. He has a 14-year-old son, Zola. OCCUPATION: Co-founder and program director of Ragtag Cinemacafe, co-founder and co-director of True/False Film Festival. EDUCATION: Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and American Studies from the University of Oregon. BACKGROUND: Founding member and board member of Columbia Locally Owned Retail and Services, or COLORS; founding member of Big Canoe, an organization focused on economic and environmental sustainability in mid-Missouri; board member for KOPN/89.5FM; former reporter and editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune and the Missourian; communications director, Missouri Rural Crisis Center.

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Sturtz runs his hands through his hair and slips off his coat, revealing his True/False track jacket. He reaches into the pockets of his dark brown khakis and pulls out his Blackberry, scrolling through recent e-mails and messages. The phone has been in his pocket all day, shrilly chirping when any of the hundreds of people involved with the festival needed his help.

Sturtz has used the phone only slightly less often than he has used the day’s film schedule, a brightly colored calendar with times for films blocked off and a color-coded list of the names of people introducing the films. Although the calendar covers only one day, it bears deep, well-worn creases from being folded and unfolded countless times. The paper is soft, and Sturtz runs his fingers along it gently, as if he were tracing a route on a trusted map.

He removes his glasses, rubs his nose where the frames have rested all day, and sighs deeply, leaning his head back on the aging couch. There are only a handful of hours between him and rest, which he’ll need badly after running between The Blue Note, Stephens College, The Tiger hotel, the Ragtag and then back to Stephens over and over.

Of course, he will wake up and do it all again the next day.

Fewer than 24 hours later, Sturtz and fellow “co-conspirator,” David Wilson stood on stage at Jesse Hall, introducing the festival’s closing film, “Man on Wire.” The staff had spent thousands of hours working to bring festival and this director and film to Columbia. The documentary is about a tightrope walk between the Twin Towers and illustrates the power of a dream to unite people.

For Sturtz’s friend, Ginny Chadwick, the film served as a metaphor about Sturtz’s life.

“Paul has visions of things he’s going to do, and he’s determined to get them done,” Chadwick said. “‘Man on Wire’ speaks to who Paul is. He gets (the people around him) to do these crazy, amazing things like walking a tightrope across the Twin Towers.”

Chadwick is a member of COLORS, a locally owned business network, and Big Canoe, a group that established an inner-city garden on Sanford Avenue.

Sturtz is a founding member of both groups, and Chadwick said seeing his work in these organizations inspires her to work hard and get things done.

The power of Sturtz’s vision is a common theme among the friends and co-workers who talk about him.

Justin Arft, operations coordinator for the festival, said Sturtz’s work with the festival proves his ability to follow through with a vision, though many would have doubted a film festival could thrive in Columbia.

“Paul was able to conceptualize an idea and know that it was going to work and persist with it,” Arft said. “He had a really great intuitive sense for how it would work.”

Dana Everts-Boehm, a former neighbor of Sturtz, said she knew he was the man to call when she received word that Stephens was planning to close and possibly sell the lake where her family and Sturtz’s family had spent time together in the mid to late 1990s. Sturtz jumped into action, founding an organization called Friends of Stephens Lake with Everts-Boehm and others. Within a week Sturtz had organized a meeting with Stephens’ president to determine what needed to be done to keep the lake open, Everts-Boehm said. In the end, the city bought the lake and surrounding property, then turned it into one of the city’s larger public parks.

“He’s just one of those people that when he gets involved in something it takes on a life of its own and blossoms and turns into something that he could pass on to someone else,” Everts-Boehm said. “He comes up with the ideas and brings them to life in such a way that’s beneficial to the community.”

Sturtz’s 14-year-old son, Zola, said his dad is always coming up with a new idea.

“He’s always scheming and creating all these kooky ideas that work out most of the time,” Zola said. “I wouldn’t be able to put those things into being so easily.”

In fact, Sturtz has plans to write a documentary, which would be partially scripted. He’s already got it named: “BITS to Blown.” Sturtz said it will be about a group of people who take over a small island in the Ohio River and plan to secede from the United States. Sturtz jokes about the idea, saying it is part of a crazy, five-year plan. But with his record of building a film festival that sold 18,000 tickets in its fifth year and bringing a small film series at The Blue Note to the now two-screen theater that is the Ragtag, it seems anything is possible.

“I’ve learned to never really question what he’s thinking,” said Janet Marsh, co-owner of 9th Street Video, which will share the newly renovated Kelly Press building with the Ragtag and Uprise Bakery.

“I know he can get things done that are way beyond my abilities and the abilities of a lot of other people,” Marsh said. “He’s gifted.”

Still, Sturtz is not without his faults. Some are minor.

Leigh Lockhart, owner of Main Squeeze and long-time friend of Sturtz, joked that she wished he’d cut his hair more. Everts-Boehm and Marsh both said Sturtz’s clothing leaves something to be desired. Chadwick said she teases him about not vacuuming often in the office shared by True/False and COLORS.

Most of Sturtz’s friends and co-workers, when asked about Sturtz’s weaknesses, responded with many “umms” and moments of quiet thought.

Arft said that, at times, Sturtz’s strong faith in how a project should come together can be perceived as a weakness. Arft was quick to frame it in the positive, however.

“Paul will often have a tremendous amount of faith that a project is going to work out, though sometimes those around him, for various reasons, might not think it can work,” Arft said. “The thing is, though, more often than not, his ideas do in fact work, and this disposition becomes a great strength in terms of his leadership abilities — the problem is usually not his ideas, but other people’s reticence to act.”

Chadwick told of a time during the 2007 festival when she felt Sturtz was too much of a perfectionist. She was in charge of coordinating food for the Reel-Gone Round Up, a breakfast for more than 100 people, but they ran out of coffee at the event. Sturtz’s disappointment showed.

“At the time I felt slightly judged,” Chadwick said. “But now I understand that he’s such a visionary, and that he has all these huge projects with many, many pieces. He was just showing disappointment that some part of the project had failed.”

Arft said that Sturtz challenges people to avoid the path of least resistance and motivates people to try new things.

“All indicators point to his abilities to rally people behind his ideas and plans,” Arft said.

At times, even Sturtz seems amazed at this ability. A few weeks before the festival, the almost 500 volunteers that made the weekend possible packed into the ballroom of Lela Raney Wood Hall on Stephens’ campus for an overview of the festival and training. As a photo slide show of past festivals played on a projection screen, Sturtz and a few others grabbed more chairs to put in rows in the back of the room. Fifteen minutes after the event was set to begin, there was still a line outside of the door.

“This is a huge village we’ve packed in,” Sturtz said as he surveyed the room of volunteers.

Seeing that many people getting involved with the festival gave him a jolt of energy, Sturtz said. That energy was evident; Sturtz could hardly sit still. He floated around the room, examining boxes of T-shirts, making a presentation to the volunteers, then talking to them one on one. Even when he took a seat on the wood floor, he was constantly shifting about and tapping his fingers.

It was excitement that powered his movement. Sturtz acts with that same excitement when he goes door to door for his First Ward campaign.

On a cloudy early March day, Sturtz began his mission to knock on every door in the First Ward before the April 8 election. Although it was cold enough to induce runny noses, Sturtz was undeterred. When one woman invited him into her home, he put his background in reporting to use. Sturtz served stints as both a reporter and editor at The Columbia Daily Tribune and the Missourian. He began asking questions to get to the heart of the issues the woman cared about. He listened intently, nodding some and asking follow-up questions as the woman spoke about her concerns for her street and the ward as a whole. When she agreed to put a campaign sign in her yard, Sturtz was pleased, despite what he calls his own “trepidation” about the signs.

“I live a life centered on pushing ideas and projects, not selling myself,” Sturtz said about the blue and white signs emblazoned with “Paul” in large letters. Still, Sturtz recognizes that he must promote himself in order to promote his ideas.

Lockhart has a different take. She said the decision to focus on Sturtz’s first name, rather than the last name most politicians use, was the perfect call.

“That’s the kind of guy that he is,” Lockhart said. “He’s just Paul.”

Lockhart said one of Sturtz’s best traits is his ability to listen and be respectful of others’ ideas.

Arft agreed, saying Sturtz gives equal consideration to everyone’s ideas when it comes to planning the festival. He said that Sturtz is very approachable and that he never feels anxious about pitching ideas to him, even when they involve money. This year, he approached Sturtz about paying some festival workers, who as volunteers, were contributing untold numbers of hours to the project.

“That’s not always a question that you’re comfortable going to your boss about,” Arft said, but Sturtz responded positively.

“Without even blinking, he was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do that. Absolutely,’” Arft said.

Arft said he was a bit caught off guard by such a quick decision, but no one was surprised to learn that Sturtz had decided to run for City Council. Everts-Boehm said it’s a natural development in Sturtz’s life and has always joked that Sturtz should take over the world as a force for good.

Sturtz, too, sees his candidacy as part of a natural progression and said there are several reasons to run now. He cited the retirement of former City Manager Ray Beck, which he said creates new possibilities for Columbia. At 14, his son has become more self-reliant. Ragtag and the festival have a strong staff and volunteer base, so he can step back a bit from those ventures. He also said that little has changed for the better in the years he’s lived in the First Ward. He wants to change that.

“I think what I’m doing now is diving in,” Sturtz said. “I want to work for what I care about and give of myself.”

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