It is a great pleasure to be here today and to see the realization of a vision that began a decade ago. In my travels across the nation and around the world, I am always eager to speak of the Center. People are excited to learn of an organization – really a “movement” – that seeks to translate values into action. And in the course of my discussions, one question always comes up. “Why Fort Scott?”
The answer is because of you. When Norm and his students started this amazing chain of events by discovering Irena Sendler – the Unsung Hero who rescued 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto – this greater-Kansas community embraced teacher and students with open arms. I believe that this Center could only have been born out of a community that deeply values history, education and diversity. And in the decade since the Center opened, you have rolled out the welcome mat to people from 80 countries!
And as we like to say, from Fort Scott to the world! Through online access and our ever-growing network of educators, more than a million students have already participated in the rigor and adventure of discovering heroes overlooked by the history books. Now, thanks to the scholarship, resources, and creativity that will emanate from this new space and beyond, millions more students, educators and communities will have the opportunity to interact with us virtually. People and events previously unknown serve to challenge our understanding and add context to our decisions to create a more secure future for us and our children.
This is why, in my view, history is never a done deal. I learned this at a very young age from my grandfather, Louis Zax. He was an avid chronicler of history. His life spanned world-changing events of the 19th and 20th centuries.
In particular, I recall his telling account of a flu epidemic in 1918 that was killing thousands. Based on his study of history and the impact of plagues on past civilizations, he packed up his family and left life in Chicago for a cabin deep in Michigan’s North Woods. Tens of millions of people would ultimately perish, and there’s every reason to think that my grandfather’s courage and insight saved their lives.
His example ignited my understanding that there were whole worlds to be understood by the discovery process of watching, listening, and asking questions. This awareness was raised to a level of history—to an understanding and appreciation that for history to be useful, it must be explored – its context and challenges, but most of all, how certain individuals responded and shaped events. Individuals with courage and conviction; vision and perseverance; responsibility and compassion. Individuals who by their heroic actions changed the course of history.
Sad to say, however, that in an age of instant gratification and self-absorption, the concept of a hero has been turned on its head. The main attribute being to gain fame itself without having accomplished anything for the benefit of others.
This is the wrong message for young people, in fact, for all citizens. Instead, the message we want to convey is that real heroes tower and guide. They are the North Star thattoday’s youth can look up to. But their stories need to be discovered and heard. And when we do, we have the opportunity to motivate new generations to aspire to values that are essential during the challenging times we face individually, as a nation and as a world community.
That is the purpose of the Center for Unsung Heroes. And that brings us to the present and the Unsung Heroes here today: Lieutenant Colonel Tran Ngoc Hue, Ken Reinhardt, Ann Williams Wedaman and Therese Frare. You honor us with your presence and embody the spirit of the new Hall we are about to enter. And as we do, let us challenge ourselves to ask: “What change can I create to improve the lives of others?”