The original invitee was Lech Walesa, the leader of Poland’s Solidarity Movement—the first anti-communist trade union in the Soviet bloc.
Unfortunately, Walesa, an electrician from the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, Poland who would later serve as the country’s president, could not set foot on U.S. soil for fear of being unable to return to his country, thus becoming the first to have his speech read in absentia at a Harvard Commencement.
At the time of Harvard’s invitation, Walesa was under house arrest by the Polish communist government. Walesa’s affirmation of the honor was interpreted incorrectly by Harvard as an acceptance, because of the absence of consistent communication with the leader. Confusion continued as sources in Poland reported that Walesa had never stated his intention to leave the country at all that year—not even to receive the Nobel Peace Prize that he was awarded.
“He never turned Harvard’s invitation down, but his government refused to let him out of the country,” said Fred L. Glimp ’50, vice president for alumni affairs and development at the time and a member of the committee that referred the speakers in 1983.
Harvard had to jump through many hoops to get the invitation in his hands, not notifying government officials or the State Department until after communication with Walesa had occurred.
“This is essentially a private invitation on the part of a university to a private individual,” David A. Aloian ’49, executive director of the Harvard Alumni Association, told The Crimson in 1983.
Walesa’s cousin, Walter S. Brolewicz, who lives in New Jersey, was in Poland during the correspondence.
“I was aware of [Harvard] trying to contact him, and there were others too at the time, and there was much scurrying to see who can get to him,” Brolewicz said in a recent interview, recalling the competition to host the Polish leader. “But he was not easy to get to, he was in prison...it was hard, very hard.”
Walesa’s political and historic importance as a Harvard Commencement speaker was compared by some to that of U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall in 1947. That year, Marshall famously unveiled the European Recovery Program—the Marshall Plan—to the graduating class.
“It was very exciting stuff, though we didn’t finally do it,” Glimp said of Walesa’s intended visit. “The issue was whether we should go ahead and do [the speech] anyway in absentia, which we had never done.”
Harvard decided to go ahead with the speech, and so, on Commencement day, while Mexican writer and ambassador Carlos Fuentes was the one to speak in person at the ceremonies, he shared an honorary podium with Walesa, as then-University President Derek C. Bok read excerpts of a text sent by the Polish revolutionary.
Walesa’s text contained an optimism for freedom, stating that “it is precisely such ideals that unite us, the people of America and Poland.” But with the last word, Fuentes challenged America’s “hypocrisy” in how it treats its “southern neighbors” even while it considered Polish Solidarity a friend.
“By placing two self-determination crusades under the same spotlight—one against the Soviet Union, the other against the U.S.—Harvard helped to demonstrate that the different causes are essentially the same,” former Crimson President Jacob M. Schlesinger ’84 wrote at the time. In the past, Commencement transcended the “celebrity parade mentality that has surrounded the event in recent years” and was instead a “fresh, well-crafted intellectual argument,” he wrote.
Even in light of his political importance, Walesa did not officially receive an honorary degree from the University.
“I was aware of the desire to give him this, but I don’t think there was one,” said Brolewicz, who in the past has accepted some of Walesa’s honors for him when he was unable to attend an institution. Many biographies of Walesa, however, do include the anecdote that he was awarded an honorary degree at Harvard’s 1983 Commencement exercises.
Walesa, who claimed in his 1981 Time “Man of the Year” article to have “never read a serious book in his life” has received a total of 32 honorary degrees from institutions of higher education.
—Staff writer Vidya B. Viswanathan can be reached at email@example.com.