The death of Vaclav Havel at age 75, the dissident Czech playwright who was a symbol of resistance to Communist oppression and became the symbol of freedom as his nation's first president in the post-communist era, made front-page headlines around the world.
On, Jan. 1. 1990, his first day in office, Havel proclaimed that communism was "a monstrous, ramshackle, stinking machine" whose worst legacy was not decades of economic failure, but creating a "spoiled moral environment" that made the people learn "not to believe in anything, not to care about each other Under communism, love, friendship, mercy, humility, or forgiveness had lost their depth and dimension," he said.
Havel wrote a seminal essay, "The Power of the Powerless," which was instrumental in steeling the will of the dissidents to resist communist oppression in Eastern Europe.
He set out to free his country from communism. As a leading dissident in Eastern Europe and the first freely elected president of his nation, he played a major role in providing political stability and helped his country to make a peaceful transition from communist central planning to free market. His prestige also helped his country to gain admission into NATO, and other international organizations.
Havel's obituaries, which were published around the globe, described him as a former dissident who led his country from Communist dictatorship to democracy, a humanist who defeated a totalitarian regime. A long list of his achievements and the legacy he left behind were included. What is missing from those obits is a little known episode.
Shortly after he was unanimously elected president of free Czechoslovakia, Havel was invited to Washington to address Congress. He recalled that the last time the communist regime ordered his arrest on Oct. 27. 1989, he didn't know whether it would be for two days or two years.
"Exactly one month later, the rock musician Michael Kocab told me that I would be probably proposed as a presidential candidate. I thought it was one of his usual jokes Nineteen days later, I was unanimously elected president of my country," he said.
Inspired by Havel's unconventional ascendancy to the presidency and his singular role in freeing his country from totalitarian rule, the College of William & Mary made an attempt to generate another historical precedent.
W&M offered Havel an honorary degree if he attended the commencement exercises in May. The scheduled commencement speaker was Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia.
"It is a historic occasion. Here is the first black elected governor in the history of the United States and here is the first freely chosen East European dissident to become president. These two figures - Wilder and Havel - symbolize what is happening in the world today," I was quoted saying in a newspaper report.
Alas, in spite of a strenuous effort and the support of the famous Czech movie director, Milos Forman, Havel was unable to take part in the commencement ceremonies. .
A spokesman at the Czechoslovak Embassy in Washington explained. "Our presidential election is in June, and most of the campaigning will be in May. So we almost know for sure he won't come back."
Thus, it was not for the lack of trying that the desire to bring Havel and Wilder to share the stage at William & Mary was unsuccessful.
It would have been a poignant footnote to history.
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.