Rochester, MI — Former Poland president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Wałęsa was the keynote speaker at Oakland University last Friday, as the guest of the Varner Vitality Lecture Series. He made an earlier appearance at an intimate press conference that was sponsored by the Oakland University Division of Academic Affairs and the Polish-American Federal Credit Union. Wałęsa, who understands some English, was skillfully assisted by longtime interpreter and author Magdalena Iwinska.
Ora Hirsch Pescovitz, Oakland University’s president, told the audience, “We have a guest whose actions at a critical time in history embody the highest aspirations for those who believe freedom is an indivisible right regardless of your country, your race, your ethnicity, your political affiliation or your gender.”
Wałęsa told the crowd of over one thousand people that in today’s climate, bridging differences is the best way to spur transformations in governments, social policies and modern living around the globe. The evening lecture centered on a discussion about the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and his country’s struggles against communism.
Wałęsa, born in 1943, started as an electrician turned trade-union organizer and was thrust into politics. He co-founded Solidarity (Solidarność), the Soviet bloc’s first independent trade union. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, and served as President of Poland from 1990 to 1995. During the evening panel, he also touched on issues that are currently pertaining to Slavic Europe and the United States.
Under his leadership, he made Poland a model of economic and political reform for the rest of Eastern Europe to follow, earning his country one of the first invitations to join an expanded NATO.
He spoke passionately on the role of the United States in helping the Solidarity movement in Poland. He added, “We have to do everything we can for the United States to regain its leadership position. But we are talking about a totally different model of leadership than we used to have.”
Privately, he thanked the Detroit Federation of Teachers, Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan for the support that they gave to end communism in Poland. Ardently, he told how the murder on October 19, 1984 of the Rev. Jerzy Popiełuszko by agents of the Russian secret police galvanized Poland. He said, “Wherever there was trouble, people could hope that the United States would come to the rescue. And for many countries, the United States was like the ultimate refuge,”
Longtime journalist and broadcast veteran Carol Cain asked Walesa’s views on President Trump and current events in Ukraine. Walesa said, the businessman “has a very good diagnosis of almost everything he claims. But I disagree with the treatment he wants to apply. So I guess he needs to be assisted …”
“Bringing in Lech Wałęsa to campus continues a strong tradition of great Varner Vitality Series speakers,” said Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost James Lentini. “His perspective on the fall of the Berlin Wall, and sharing stories of his personal struggles, should remind us all of the freedoms and liberties we sometimes take for granted in our country.”
At the morning event Wałęsa wore a black T-shirt that proclaimed in Polish, “Constitution Is Being Violated” (In Polish block letters, an abbreviation.) He opened his sport-coat for a photo-opp. He expressly pointed out that the shirt’s message was universal and didn’t just refer to his native Poland. Walesa paused for effect and then spoke emphatically that even in democracy, which we are proud of, it requires reform and redefinition.”
“President Wałęsa played a significant role in world politics at the end of the 20th Century and his work is something we still discuss in political science,” said Dave Dulio, Director of the Center for Civic Engagement. “Indeed, he significantly changed Poland and impacted the world.”
Under Wałęsa’s leadership, political reform took hold. The rest of Eastern Europe soon followed. The economic situation improved and Poland earned one of the first invitations to join an expanded NATO. Poland is currently integrated into the European Union and it is a complicated and ongoing process.
Wałęsa still remains active in Polish politics and human rights abuses, although he does not hold an official government office. In 1996, he founded the Lech Wałęsa Institute, a think tank whose mission is to support democracy and local governments in Poland and throughout the world. Wałęsa has also written three books: Droga nadziei (The Road of Hope, 1987), Droga do wolności (The Road to Freedom, 1991), and Wszystko, co robię, robię dla Polski (All That I Do, I Do for Poland, 1995).
The Varner Vitality Lecture Series is named in honor of Oakland’s first chancellor, Durward “Woody” Varner. Previous speakers include Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, former president of India; Dr. Madeleine Albright, the first female U.S. Secretary of State; Dr. Jane Goodall, world-renowned primatologist; Bill Nye, scientist, author and TV host; and Doris Kearns Goodwin, presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author.