President Lech Walesa at the 12th World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates, Chicago, April 22-24.
By Mike Smith
Poland was in the international spotlight last week, through the persona of its first democratically elected president, Lech Walesa. Not only were the achievements and leadership of President Walesa noted over and over, but also Poland was on display as a shining example to the world of how the Polish people, working together, brought down communism in Eastern Europe, promoted democracy, peace and social justice.
President Walesa was one of twenty-one Nobel Peace Prize winners attending the 12th World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates held in Chicago, April 22-24. Also in attendance were President Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, President F. W. de Klerk from South Africa, Jody Williams, and the Dalai Lama among many other dignitaries.
I had the great privilege and honor to be invited to the Summit by President Walesa as part of his official delegation with Piotr Gulczynski, president of the Lech Walesa Institute Foundation in Poland, and Marcin Chumiecki, director of the Polish Mission at Orchard Lake Schools. In November 2010, I wrote an article in this publication stating that meeting President Walesa and hosting him at the Walter Reuther Library at Wayne State University was one of the thrills of my life. I did not believe I would ever be able to surpass that thrill. Well, I was wrong: attending this Summit with Marcin, Piotr, and President Walesa is now the biggest thrill of my life.
The Summit began with a very nice lunch at the Conference Center at the University of Illinois-Chicago. The food was great, of course, but it was certainly more important to see President Walesa break bread with his colleagues, Gorbachev, de Klerk, and President Carter, the latter of which was the keynote speaker for the luncheon.
The Summit was then kicked-off with a few remarks by the hosts from the University, the MacArthur Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust. This was followed with a lively and most informative session, “Speak up, Speak out for Freedom and Rights,” featuring panelists Carter, Gorbachev, de Klerk, and Walesa. It was a session where the participants reminisced a bit about their significant achievements and actions, and talked a bit about the future and their desire to see continued efforts to increase democracy, freedom and social justice around the world. In particular, there were many young high school and college students attending this session and the Summit at-large over the three days, and President Walesa led the panel in urging these young folks to stay on the path the panelists had created, and lead the world in the future. After the session, President Walesa and the other Laureates had a brief private meeting with the Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, who welcomed them to the city.
It is also interesting to note, during the entire Summit, how many people wanted to have photos taken with President Walesa. Not just students and the many attendees, but also celebrities like the actor Sean Penn and the other Nobel Peace Prize Laureates.
On Monday evening, there was a reception for all the delegations at the Chicago Field Museum. At this event, there were again many photos, and a superb dinner. President Bill Clinton was the keynote speaker and delivered a fine speech, noting the accomplishments of the Laureates and telling of his admiration for their accomplishments and his personal interactions with many of them, including President Walesa. He noted that he was privileged to meet President Walesa and was struck by the freedom to exchange ideas among the Polish leadership that occurred, which would not have happened if President Walesa had not led Poland into its current state as a democratic nation. It was thoughtful and well-deserved praise for a world leader such as President Walesa.
On the next day, President Walesa participated in another session with President de Klerk, as well as Shan Cretin, representing the SG American Friends Service Committee, Steve Goose, representing the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines, and Dr. Bruce Lampard, from Doctors without Borders. Jim Frederick, International Editor for Time Magazine, moderated this session. After the session had concluded, President Walesa was interviewed by the press, and in particular, by Chicago’s Polish language radio station.
For me, Wednesday was the highlight of the Summit. We began the morning with a breakfast hosted by the President of North Eastern Illinois University in Chicago. This is the only college in the United States with a building named after President Walesa.
However, the biggest thrill after a very nice breakfast was a private meeting with the Dalai Lama of Tibet. Marcin, Piotr and I were honored and privileged to attend this meeting and listen while the Dalai Lama and President Walesa discussed politics and strategies; especially, regarding the Nobel Peace Laureate from China, who is interned in that nation and was not allowed to attend the Summit.
It was obvious that the Dalai Lama and President Walesa had the greatest respect for each other, and treated each other as old friends. They had met before, and truly enjoyed seeing each other again, as well as engaging in serious discussions about current affairs. Although Marcin and I do not hold such high stature, both the Dalai Lama and President Walesa treated us warmly and with the utmost respect. One of our prize possessions is a blessed linen shawl that the Dalai Lama personally presented to us. He also gave President Walesa a silver dish and an apple, as tokens of his high esteem for the President.
The Summit ended on Wednesday at the Chicago Orchestra Hall with an award from the Laureates to the actor Sean Penn, for his generous and tireless work in Haiti after the devastating hurricane that claimed 250,000 lives in 2010. Before the ceremony for Penn, all the Laureates including President Walesa were on stage and presented to the several thousand attendees.
Chrysler Corporation and Jeep most generously sponsored the Summit, as well as provided transportation for all the delegations and dignitaries. Before Sean Penn received his award, Francois Olivier, Chief Marketing Officer for the Chrysler Group LLC and Fiat Group Automobiles, and President and Chief Executive Officer for the Fiat Brand Worldwide, made some very thoughtful and moving remarks about the Summit and the cause of peace. In addition, under his direction, Chrysler produced a wonderful video that promoted the cause of peace, and featured images of Presidents Walesa, Gorbachev, de Klerk and Carter.
Although the Summit ended on Wednesday, our work with President Walesa was not over. On Thursday, April 26, Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Fiat and Chrysler Corporations, invited President Walesa to Detroit for a private meeting and tour of Chrysler’s Jefferson North Factory, one of the most efficient automobile assembly plants in the World. Marchionne also related that the Fiat engine plant in Bielsko-Biała, Poland, (coincidentally, Marcin’s hometown) was the best Fiat factory in Europe).
Also attending the meeting at the Chrysler Plant were General Holyfield, the UAW’s Chrysler Department Director, UAW Local Union leadership, and a good number of workers, including many Polish immigrants who labor at the factory everyday. Indeed, President Walesa noted he felt at home with so many Polish-speaking workers – many of the questions he entertained were in Polish!! President Marchionne also warmly greeted President Walesa and provided us with a personal tour of the factory. President Walesa made some fine remarks, reminding the audience of his roots in the working class, and that he would always fight for fair employment and social justice for all workers around the world.
It was a good week. Personally, it was the most thrilling week of my life. To be invited by President Walesa to be on his official delegation is something I never envisioned doing. Not only was it exciting and a deep, deep honor to be with him, I was also honored to accompany Piotr Gulczynski, who works tirelessly on behalf of President Walesa, and Marcin Chumiecki, who handles himself with class, as he ably represented the Polish Mission at Orchard Lake Schools, while also promoting a youthful, modern Poland in Chicago.
I must admit I could get used to traveling by chauffeured vehicles, eating fine meals, and getting the red carpet treatment. But, it was only because I was with President Walesa. My words cannot really convey the significance and excitement of the Summit.
And, I firmly believe all Poles and Polish Americans would be proud, justifiably proud, to see their nation represented at the highest levels of world recognition as a nation of democracy, peace and modern thought. This is how President Walesa represents Poland and Polonia, and at the Summit, the attendees, as well as the numerous members of the press, know that President Walesa and Poland led the way to a better Europe and a better world.
Photo: Magda Iwinski – translator, Piotr Gulczynski – president Institute Lecha Wałęsy, Dalai Lama, Marcin Chumiecki – Polish Mission Director, former Polish President Lech Wałęsa, Mike Smith – Walter Routher Library i Lobsang Sangay – prime minister of Tibet’s government in exile.