Dress nicely and polish your shoes.
Love what you do.
Words of wisdom shared by Wendy Luers, wife of US Ambassador William Luers and founder of the Foundation for a Civil Society (FCS), the predecessor to Via Foundation. Wendy’s life lessons have been etched into Via staff memory and, just in case memory fails, posted on the wall of our conference room.
Last week Wendy and Bill took Via by storm. They visited Via with current US Ambassador King, talking about the history of cooperation between the US Embassy and Via Foundation and how we can work together moving forward. They held an informal conversation at the American Center of the US Embassy, sharing stories from their time as the US ambassadorial couple from 1983 to 1986. Wendy spent time with Via staff talking about what the early days of FCS were like, what principles have guided her work and what advice she would give to young graduates today.
Can you imagine what it was like to be the US ambassadorial couple to Czechoslovakia in the mid-1980s? Arriving into the dark, bleak winter of Central Europe, driving from Frankfurt across the Iron Curtain into even darker and bleaker communist Czechoslovakia, Wendy wondered what they had gotten themselves into. Pulling up at the US Embassy residence in Dejvice to a greeting line of 22 staff softened the cultural shock (all 22 were, of course, spies). Once they settled in, Wendy and Bill began applying their approach of ‘cultural diplomacy’: visiting dissidents and inviting prominent American writers, artists and musicians to the Embassy residence to meet their Czech counterparts.
They maintained their close friendship with Czech dissidents even after they left Czechoslovakia in 1986 and were even a source of formal wear: when Václav Havel was inaugurated as the first Czechoslovak president in 1990, it was Bill’s tie that he wore and Wendy’s blouse that Olga Havlová wore. Wendy and Bill held an inaugural dinner in Prague that became an annual tradition and also organized Havel’s first trip to the US in February 1990.
Václav Havel, Wendy and Bill Luers in New York, 1990
Can you imagine what is was like to run an NGO in Prague in 1990? We heard how Wendy was asked to serve as the US point of contact for development of civil society in Czechoslovakia. She founded FCS in New York and Prague in January 1990, set up offices and began building a team to support development of civil society in Czechoslovakia. Xerox machines were few and far between, infrastructure was lean but enthusiasm was pervasive. Wendy has a sixth sense for hiring bright young people and instilling a strong sense of purpose and “can do” attitude in them.
Can you imagine what it was like to be in the thick of the emerging new state? Truly, Wendy and her young FCS team were at the very nexus of the fledgling democracy in Czechoslovakia. As my colleague Katka commented: “Wendy (and with her, the future Via Foundation team) were there during the biggest and most important events in the development of the Czechoslovak democracy – we couldn’t have been any closer if we tried.” It was also refreshing to hear Wendy reflect on the negative as well as the positive aspects of that period; she was open about the mistakes the government made in the early years of the Czechoslovak democracy as well as the missed opportunities.
In 1997, Wendy and FCS passed the baton on to her Czech team. Three FCS staff members founded a private Czech foundation to continue the work that FCS has led since 1990. Twenty-one years later, 4,000 projects later, that organization – Via Foundation – is a cornerstone of civil society development in the Czech Republic and the CEE region. We owe a lot to Wendy, our founding grandmother or maybe fairy godmother is a more apt description.
Spending time with Wendy is like getting an injection of inspiration. As our program manager Zdenek Mihalco said: “The meeting was like a getting a kick-start. I came away thinking we should communicate what we do more directly and pursue our goals with greater drive without fear.” Wendy and Bill’s boldness and their ability to pinpoint and connect people who can make a difference have been instrumental to civil society in Czechoslovakia.
The image of Wendy, “a strong, emancipated woman” as Monika from our program team put it, is etched into Via staff’s minds along with her words of wisdom.
When you believe you can do something, you will. And you have to know what your own strengths are and when you need other people to help you.
It’s important to wear a tie:).
Thank you, Wendy and Bill.
You can read more about Wendy and Bill’s story here.