Lech Walesa to speak at NEC graduation on Saturday

  • Lech Walesa, who was president of Poland from 1990 to 1995, spoke Monday to students at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge. Luke Newman / Franklin Pierce University

Monitor staff
Published: 5/12/2022 4:46:19 PM

Lech Walesa, one of the pivotal figures in recent world history, will be speaking at New England College’s graduation on Saturday but it’s fair to say that a lot of the audience needed a lesson about exactly why he is so important.

“We have had to remind students of some of that history,” said Wayne Lesperance, a provost at NEC, looking at Walesa’s role in starting the unraveling of the Iron Curtain.

Lesperance pointed to four people outside Russia most pivotal in the fall of communism: Ronald Reagan; Margaret Thatcher; Pope John Paul II, the first pope from Poland; and Walesa. “Of them, only Walesa remains. That’s the stuff of legends, that’s a really remarkable story. That’s what we have focused on.”

Walesa, 79, will speak at the Henniker college commencement and receive an honorary degree. Lesperance said he was invited by David Tille, an NEC alumnus with extensive experience in Eastern Europe.

The need to help Ukraine in its war with Russia will likely be the centerpiece of Walesa’s comments, as they were when he spoke to the New Hampshire Legislature on Thursday. The parallels are striking between Poland and Ukraine, two mid-sized countries throwing off oppression from their huge Russian neighbor, and so are the personal parallels.

“Our dean has compared Walesa to (Ukrainian president) Zelensky – that young, vibrant opponent of totalitarianism,” said Craig Gallagher, assistant professor of history at New England College. “They both are outsiders … both seen in the West as a new presence against Russia.”

Walesa was an electrician barely in his 30s when he rose to trade union leadership at the Gdansk shipyards in the 1970s, opposing policies of Poland’s government at a time when the Cold War was hardening and the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies were becoming more totalitarian. It took a decade, including time behind bars as a political prisoner, but Walesa’s leadership eventually led Poland to be the first Warsaw Pact country to end Communist Party rule, starting a chain reaction that toppled the Berlin Wall and resulted in the dissolution of the USSR.

For those who were adults at the time, memories of the Solidarity union remain along with the vibrant red logo reading “Solidarnosc,” its name in Polish. But for younger people, the memories rarely exist, replaced by Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” speech – if that.

“To a certain extent, undergraduates today don’t know anything about the Cold War other than the Cuban missile crisis, and what they do know, they know from video games,” said Gallagher.

Walesa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 and went on to win Poland’s first direct presidential election by a landslide in 1990. He helped start the country’s transition to capitalism but was eventually defeated for re-election.

“He took a lot of criticism, was rough-spoken, critics said he didn’t delegate well, was not necessarily someone who greased the wheels of politics,” Gallager said.

“He’s also the guy who really starts the process of increasing the free market in Poland – long-term it was a success but in the short term he took a lot of the political pain for problems. … He gets a bit of post-presidency credit for long-term thinking.”

Walesa’s profile has been much lower in recent years, but the Ukraine war has put him back on the national stage as Poland has accepted more than 300,000 refugees from the conflict in its neighbor.

The ceremony for the 76th graduating class of NEC, more than 500 students, will begin at 10 a.m. on Saturday on the Simon Lawn of the campus in Henniker.

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of the monthly Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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