To foster U.S.-Czech relations, Georgetown University, in conjunction with the Embassy of the Czech Republic, will honor the late Czech President Vaclav Havel with a memorial in Alumni Square.
The memorial and dedication Oct. 2 is part of the Czech embassy’s Mutual Inspirations Festival, now in its third year, which seeks to highlight the contributions of a famous Czech citizen in an effort to enhance relations between the two countries.
Construction in the northeast corner of Alumni Square began Sept. 9 and is set to continue through next week.
Havel, who died in 2011, was a prominent dissident and human rights activist during the Communist rule of then-Czechoslovakia, authoring plays, poetry and essays. After the fall of Communism, he became Czechoslovakia’s last president before the dissolution of the state and was elected the first president of the newly formed Czech Republic.
He visited Georgetown on his first trip to the United States in 1990 and later returned, appearing at a speaking event in 2005. His close relationship with Georgetown professor and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who was born in Czechoslovakia, introduced him to Georgetown and its environment.
“We were privileged to have welcomed Vaclav Havel to our campus throughout the years,” University President John J. DeGioia said. “This was one of the first places in the U.S. where he spoke following the Velvet Revolution, which was fitting — he was devoted to the idea of the university as a place to foster discourse and the free exchange of ideas.”
The embassy approached the university in 2012, prompting a review by senior university colleagues, including Albright, to advise DeGioia moving forward.
“It became clear that there was a real connection here. This was a former head of state, this was someone who was devoted to freedom, this is someone who was an artist and, as the Czechs call him, a modern-day hero,” DeGioia’s Chief of Staff Joe Ferrara said. “There was an intersection between the values that he and his life represent and the values Georgetown represents.”
Ferrara said that Vaclav appreciated Georgetown’s open environment in comparison to the oppression he faced growing up in Czechoslovakia.
“What he appreciated about Georgetown was freedom: academic freedom, freedom of speech, the freedom to talk about ideas and have an open debate and discussion without the fear that someone was going to come throw you in jail because of what you said,” Ferrara said.
According to Embassy of the Czech Republic Cultural Counselor Barbara Karpetová, a special significance lies in dedicating the year 2013 to Havel, as it marks the 77th anniversary of his birth. Havel co-wrote Charter 77, a document calling upon the Communist regime to recognize basic human rights that incurred the wrath of the government.
The university ultimately picked Alumni Square as the home for the memorial, with input from colleagues and the embassy, based on its high foot traffic and uncluttered setup.
The design consists of a linden tree, the national tree of the Czech Republic, in the middle, surrounded by a bench with two chairs attached. The ground will be laid with pea gravel to avoid the accumulation of mud. Concentric circles of bricks, stone and grass will surround the installation, along with a plaque dedicated to the university.
The memorial is sponsored by the American Friends of the Czech Republic, the Embassy of the Czech Republic and the Vaclav Havel Library in Prague.
“We have basically taken charge of designing, constructing it and funding most of it,” AFOCR Founder and Corporate Secretary Robert Doubek (LAW ’74) said. “They look to us to manage the entire project.”
While the American Friends of the Czech Republic will pay the for the architect and contractor work, the Czech embassy is providing the tree and the Vaclav Havel Library in Prague is providing the chairs for the site.
Doubek estimated that the AFOCR’s contribution would measure $20,000, while the library’s provision of the bench would be around $5,000. The university will assume future maintenance costs.
The programming on Oct. 2 will consist of a panel on Havel, moderated by Center for Eurasian, Russian and Eastern European Studies Director Angela Stent and featuring Albright and professor Tomáš Halík of Charles University, in Prague.
The panel will be followed by a procession to the memorial site led by Executive Director of People in Need Šimon Pánek, who was a student leader during the 1989 Velvet Revolution. The Czech embassy will pass out small Czech flags in remembrance of the peaceful demonstrations and freedom.
DeGioia will speak at the dedication, with the Czech Republic Ambassador to the United States Petr Gandalovič and Havel’s widow, Dagmar Havlová, in attendance.
Karpetová, from the Czech embassy, envisioned the site as a “living memorial.”
“The whole idea is that Havel was a man who believed in the truth and free expression,” Doubek said. “It’s generally intended to be part of the university campus … and a lot of people, at least supporters of Havel, would like to come here and see it.”