The man who helped change world order by igniting the downfall of communism spoke of a new era in which national borders are vanishing and stressed the importance of truth as he sent 453 St. Ambrose University graduates into the world Sunday.
"Truth matters," Lech Walesa, Poland's first democratically elected president and winner of the 1983 Nobel Peace Prize, told graduates.
His commencement address capped a day of excitement at St. Ambrose's oak-shaded Davenport campus, where more than 6,000 chairs were set out in anticipation of the crowds. Traffic on busy Locust Street was detoured in order to accommodate the event.
Hearing from the electrician whose union activities led to the downfall of communism was a thrill for students, parents, faculty and guests.
Among them was Phylis Judge, of Davenport, who is studying for a master's degree in business administration at St. Ambrose. Twenty years ago, she noted, Walesa was in jail for his efforts to form his new Solidarity union in opposition to communist repression of his fellow workers.
"Now he is here. We are giving him a much better time," she said.
Walesa strolled across a stage bedecked with peace lilies, the American flag and the red and white banner of Poland after he was welcomed by St. Ambrose president Edward Rogalski. Rogalski, son of Polish immigrants, spoke a welcome in Polish to his guest as part of his remarks.
Walesa, who was awarded an honorary doctor of humanities degree from the university, doffed his mortar board, before delivering his remarks.
Speaking in Polish with St. Ambrose senior Ewelina Liguz acting as interpreter, Walesa promised he would not give a rambling political speech "like Fidel Castro," He spoke without a prepared text for less than a half-hour.
He told graduates that the world they are entering is different from the one in which he grew up. "I was facing a world that was divided between freedom and communism," he said.
Now that the Cold War is over, he said, we are in an era of globalization, a world without borders. Still, he said, there are great dangers because of differing political views.
At ease and obviously enjoying his appearance, he prompted laughs when he said that the United States elected two presidents. The United States, he said, is a large country "and maybe you need two presidents. They could switch back and forth."
At a news conference after his speech, he told reporters that in the old world order, wars often arose over territorial disputes or the riches of the earth. The new era is bringing an emphasis on communication through such tools as the Internet. As a result, borders between nations are falling.
He said a nation is built on a triangle of labor, the workers, the owners of the enterprises and the administration, or government. All three must be functioning to avoid problems.
Born in 1943 in Popowo, Poland, to a family of peasant farmers, Walesa worked as an electrician at the Gdansk shipyard, where he witnessed the repression of workers in the 1970s.
He said that new generations tend to forget the achievements of previous generations. "I believe each generation takes off from its own airport," he said.
Walesa also received the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award. It is presented annually by the Pacem in Terris Coalition, a Quad-City ecumenical organization.
Since losing election as president of Poland in 1995, Walesa has led the Lech Walesa Institute. He arrived in the Quad-Cities on Saturday after visiting the Dominican Republic and travels next to London. He spent the night at the Bishop's House bed and breakfast inn, owned by St. Ambrose, before joining fellow honorary degree recipients at a luncheon Sunday.
University spokesman Linda Cook said Walesa enjoys speaking at college commencements and had approached the university through his speakers' bureau. Both the college and Walesa believe in the importance of the worth and dignity of the individual, she said, a reason why all agreed that his appearance would be a winner.