With a dose of Texas hospitality and pageantry befitting a hero, former Polish President Lech Walesa, the labor leader credited with starting the movement that toppled communism, was recently welcomed into the Sam Houston State University fold.

From the fledgling democracy in Central Europe, to the piney woods of East Texas, Walesa came to share the history of his people's struggle against oppression, to celebrate their bloodless victory over communism, and to offer a vision of hope for the future of the free world.

Though the Oct. 14-15 visit surrounded the Nobel laureate's participation in the university's Distinguished Lecturer Series, the highlight of his Huntsville trip was his acceptance of the Sam Houston Humanitarian Award.

Walesa's visit began that Monday afternoon in the nearby town of New Waverly where, amid a flurry of fanfare, he was greeted by the sons and daughters of Polish immigrants who founded the community.

After a special religious service conducted at Walesa's request in New Waverly's 90-year-old St. Joseph's Catholic Church, the former president told the throng of well-wishers that religious beliefs had played an important role in the Polish revolution. He urged them to hold tight to their values and adhere to the Ten Commandments.

"I think that faith in God and religious values gives a purpose to mankind," he said. "I am very happy that I live in a country where people have a religious faith and I believe that our civilization will also come to the conclusion that they should return to religion."

Though Walesa is considered a modern champion of the free world, he told the crowd that the glory for Poland's victory belongs to Pope John Paul II.

"The Holy Father inspired values in us," he said. "He reminded us that those values existed, and it was those values which actually defeated the system."

From New Waverly, Walesa and his entourage--including Jerzy Kozminsky, Polish Ambassador to the U.S.--traveled to Huntsville where he was guest of honor at private dinners that evening and again on Tuesday, prior to his acceptance of the Sam Houston Humanitarian Award.

Accompanying Walesa throughout his visit was Witold Lukaszewski, a SHSU political science professor who played an integral role in bringing the former president to Huntsville. Walesa's visit realized a life-long dream for Lukaszewski, who as a young boy witnessed the German and Soviet invasions of his native Poland and was forced with his mother into a Siberian prison camp. Lukaszewski, who yearned to see his fatherland restored and free of tyranny, developed a friendship with Walesa in 1981, when the then labor leader was engaged in a struggle against the oppressive communist regime.

The son of Polish farmers, Walesa began his historical odyssey in 1970 when, while working as a shipyard electrician in Gdansk, he joined Poland's labor movement. In the years that followed, he helped found and lead the Solidarity union movement which, through a series of strikes and peaceful demonstrations, led to the 1989 defeat of communism and to Walesa's election as the new republic's first president.

In the wake of Poland's transformation, similar revolutions in other European countries routed communist regimes; and finally, in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed.

For his outstanding achievements against incredible odds, Lech Walesa was chosen to receive the Sam Houston Humanitarian Award.

At the Tuesday night award presentation, SHSU President Bobby K. Marks noted the similarities between Walesa and the award's namesake--hero of the Texas Revolution and first president of the Republic of Texas--General Sam Houston.

"Both had great triumphs over seemingly overwhelming forces," said Marks, and "the victories of these two great leaders had stunning consequences far beyond the arenas in which they occurred.

"Sam Houston's military victory at San Jacinto resulted eventually in the addition to the United States of a territory larger than the organized area of the United States at the time of the battle," Marks continued. "The peaceful victory lead by Lech Walesa of Poland, was the first event which, by example, led to the peaceful demolition of the Soviet Empire."

"With great honor and great pride" and a sense of humor that punctuated his address to the university community, Walesa accepted the award as an overflow crowd at SHSU's Killinger Auditorium stood and cheered.

"As a revolutionary, I never thought I'd be given awards," Walesa said. "I was rather concentrated on saving my own life and concentrated very much on defeating the terrible regime that oppressed us. The revolution is over and now I am getting the awards and prizes. I must admit, I am enjoying it."

The Polish leader was quick to share the honor with the many Polish patriots who aided his efforts and with Solidarity's many supporters outside of Poland.

"You have also contributed to my award," he told the audience. "You participated in it too."

Following the presentation, Walesa, through interpreter Magda Iwinska, spoke on the peaceful struggle for human rights in Europe. Though touching briefly on the history of Poland's revolution, he focused primarily on his dreams for a prosperous future.

Because of Poland's location between the two great powers of Germany and Russia, the Polish people are no strangers to the tragedies of war and the horrors inflicted by oppressive regimes, Walesa told the audience.

"Once, we disappeared from the map for over 123 years," he said, "But each time we rose again and struggled for freedom. From the early times, we were experts at that kind of trouble."

The trouble in Walesa's lifetime began after World War II, when Poland was placed under Soviet domination.

"We never accepted that fact," he said.

Walesa's battle began in earnest in the 1970s when the Polish labor movement, Solidarity, began pushing for economic and political reforms. It was a struggle to which the labor leader would devote 20 years of his life. His efforts earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 and ultimately led to his election as Poland's president in 1989.

Yet in spite of his many accolades, Walesa repeated for Tuesday night's audience, his conviction that credit for Solidarity's victory belongs to Pope John Paul II. While praising the Pope, he attacked recent reports that the Polish religious leader secretly conspired with other nations to overthrow the communists.

"I want to make myself clear," Walesa said. "It's not like this, that the Holy Father was involved in any kind of plot--there was no conspiracy."

In spite of Walesa's overwhelming popularity during and shortly after the revolution, voters denied him a second term as the nation's president. Yet in his political defeat by his post-communist opponents, Walesa sees a victory for the people of Poland.

"Many revolutions, as most of you know--the Bolshevik Revolution and the revolution in Cuba--were right at the very beginning," Walesa reflected. "But the people became disenchanted with the results because they had high hopes."

This same, post-revolutionary disenchantment gripped Poland as the economy faltered while making the transition to a free-market system. When the presidential elections were held last year, the people reacted to their discontent. The difference in the Polish revolutions and the Bolshevik and Cuban revolutions, Walesa said, is that in Poland elections were held.

"If Lenin or Castro had tested themselves in a democratic election, they would have lost for sure, but then, they would have saved their revolution," Walesa said. "Therefore, I am deeply confident that my revolution will win and will achieve final victory because it will retain its values and behave according to principles."

"In returning to power," he added, "the post-communists are taking advantage of the fact that we did not behave like Castro or Lenin--that we did not put them in jail."

With his presidential days behind him, Walesa spends a great deal of his time lobbying the rest of the world on Poland's behalf. He's pushing hard for Poland to be admitted into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and is doing what he can to promote European unification and economic aid for Poland.

There are many misunderstandings surrounding the expansion of NATO, Walesa said.

"A lot of people think that NATO is there for confrontation, and they say 'We Americans will not die for Poland, it is not worth it.'"

But Walesa said that confrontation and standing against Russia is not NATO's purpose.

"NATO expansion reduces the possibility of emergence of an opposing bloc," he argued. "We must think in continental terms. We must unite the world so well that it will never blow apart again."

The former president's continental thinking has him looking to the day when European countries unite under one flag to create the "United States of Europe."

"Through a gradual leveling of differences between nations," he said, "we will have a peaceful way of achieving economic success."

The strength of Poland's democratic movement may well hinge on its ability to build a strong free-market economy, said Walesa.

"Freedom without a good bank account and cash flow is not very stable," he told members of the press earlier in the day. "When your bank account is small, you agree with everything and don't try to protest too much."

Yet while U.S. economic assistance is very important to Poland, that assistance, he said, should be aimed at helping them build industry.

Using an analogy comparing fishing rods to factories and other means of production, Walesa said, "We should be able to catch our own fish and the Americans should tell us only 'bon appetite.'"

He added with laughter, "We need American 'generals' in Poland--General Motors, General Electrics."

Another theme touched on at Walesa's public appearances in Walker County was the world's need for leadership from the United States.

"Leadership is a wonderful thing and a prideful thing, but it also is a responsibility," Walesa said. "There are many volunteers to lead--China, Japan and Russia--but I am voting for the U.S."

"The United States, the only big power in the world now, should think of using its leadership to provide a vision for the world," Walesa continued. "Today, I get the impression that the American politicians do not represent a vision--they are merely politicians of television."

"We need to demand of our leaders, conceptions, visions," he implored. "The United States will continue to do this, because America was always equal to the demands of the time."

Walesa's award-night presentation concluded on an emotional note, when his friend, Witold Lukaszewski, shared his personal story with the audience. He told how after being forced out of Poland as a young boy, he held on to his dream.

"The dream of seeing his country again independent, again free, did not die, because dreams are not born to die," Lukaszewski said.

His heart-felt story culminated as he turned to Walesa and repeated, "Thank you, thank you, thank you," and the two embraced.

"Politicians of vision," Walesa told the audience afterward, "receive victory through tears."

Early on the rainy Wednesday morning of Oct. 16, Walesa concluded his Huntsville trip with a visit to the giant statue of General Sam Houston. It was a quiet time. Gone were the crowds of well-wishers and media representatives that had followed him throughout his three-day visit. There with only his friend, Witold Lukazewski, to record the moment, he placed a bouquet of flowers at the statue's feet, paused for a photo, then joined his entourage for the drive to the airport.


Media Contact: Phillip Rollfing

Oct. 18, 1996