116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — The chilly day three presidents waved from the balcony of the new National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids in 1995 created a ripple effect that continues to be felt on a local, national and international level.
President Bill Clinton, Czech President Vaclav Havel and Slovak President Michal Kovac were on hand that day to dedicate what continues to be North America’s only national museum committed to Czech and Slovak heritage.
And after the Oct. 21, 1995, celebration, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin told reporters: “This was a great event for Cedar Rapids. The first time three presidents from three countries have ever been in Iowa. That’s phenomenal.”
That 25-year milestone was to have been commemorated in 2020, but the event was delayed because of COVID-19 until this weekend, when three days of festivities will remind people not only of that historic gathering, but of the museum’s ongoing place in the world.
The $80,000 celebration, financed through donations and corporate sponsors, is drawing ambassadors and dignitaries from the Czech Republic and Slovakia, as well as guests from across the United States.
“It makes me happy that we’re living that national sort of reputation,” said Cecilia Rokusek of Cedar Rapids, the museum’s president and CEO.
Where: National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, 1400 Inspiration Place SW, Cedar Rapids
When: Friday through Sunday, Sept. 17 to 19, 2021
Friday: BrewNost outdoor international beer festival, 5:30 p.m. VIP entry, 6:30 p.m. general admission and designated driver entry; tickets at ncsml.org/ncsml-events/brewnost/
Saturday: Free activities: 10 a.m. ribbon-cutting and parade of traditional kroje folk attire; more programming on film at noon, visual arts at 1 p.m. and an author discussion at 2 p.m. Ticketed anniversary dinner at 5:30 p.m. (registration closed); ncsml.org/event/ncsml-building-dedication-25th-anniversary-celebration/
Sunday: Free film and exhibition programs, noon to 3 p.m.; ncsml.org/events/category/september-19/
Details: Go to ncsml.org/
Behind the scenes
Activities inside the museum nearly 26 years ago were monumental, as well, when Clinton met separately with Havel and Kovac in the museum’s library.
That’s something that “a lot of people don’t know — that was extremely important to the wonderful dedication of our museum,” said Ann Poe of Cedar Rapids, a museum board member at the time. Poe used her Democratic Party and White House connections to orchestrate the presidential gathering to coincide with Havel and Kovac coming to the U.S. for the United Nations’ 50th anniversary commemorative session.
“That was all the stars aligning right,” said Rod Jiruska of Cedar Rapids, the museum’s board president at the time. “Everything just seemed to fall together, and I’d put it all on Ann, that she got things so that the people could all get here at the same time.”
“It’s still talked about today,” said Gail Naughton of Cedar Rapids, the museum’s president and CEO from 2002 to 2018. “It is such a point of pride for the people with Czech heritage in the community. The ones who organized it, they pulled off a feat that still boggles the mind today. To get those three men here was just unbelievable. It’s still the only time three heads of state have been in Iowa.
“It’s still a source of pride,” Naughton said, “and it’s so integrated into the museum and what it is.”
Czechoslovakia had formed in 1918, after the end of World War I, and separated into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993, so both were new countries when the presidents came to Cedar Rapids. This was their chance to speak privately with Clinton.
Poe noted that Havel wanted to gain Clinton’s support for expanding NATO to include the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, which happened March 12, 1999.
Kovac, who had been elected to lead in Slovakia in 1993, wanted Clinton’s advice on running for a second term in office, which Kovac didn’t win.
“They were doing these conversations in our library that were extremely important to the sustainability and the working of those two counties after they split,” Poe said. “That was really quite a big deal in addition to our dedication. The White House was working with the National Security Council, and that’s how some of these discussions came up.
“So it was just a wonderful opportunity for these three countries to have a conversation while they were all together,” she said. “It truly was a cold, but magical, day.”
Raising the profile
The presidential visit also raised the museum’s profile, attracting a diplomatic corps from the United States and abroad, along with local and national media attention, and positioned the museum to continue attracting high-profile guests and exhibitions over the years.
“It gave us respect in the museum community, and even probably more importantly, in the larger Czech and Slovak community in United States, and that’s the key,” Naughton said. “When the museum was named and opened, you can call yourself the national museum, but this gave us the evidence that we truly were respected around the world as that national museum.”
The presidential visit helped pave the way for the museum’s first exhibition, “A Thousand Years of Czech Culture: Riches from the National Museum in Prague,” in 1997, and “Treasures of Slovakia,” which opens Saturday and will be view through March 20.
Both showcase artifacts that hadn’t left their respective countries.
“The museum profile was very high,” said Dan Baldwin of Monterey, Calif., who served as the museum’s first president and CEO, from May 1996 to 2002.
He said the museum’s profile extended to places “critical” for developing the “Czech Culture” exhibition: the Old Salem living history museum in Winston-Salem, N.C., which helped create the exhibit with the National Museum in Prague.
Baldwin went to the opening in Old Salem and started discussions with Prague museum officials about bringing the exhibit to Cedar Rapids.
"It was the combination of the three presidents, the building itself, then the aspirations of being a national museum with an international mission,“ Baldwin said. ”This was a really tall order for us at that stage of development, to bring in a show of like ‘A Thousand Years of Czech Culture.’
“It was a real bold step and an act of faith on the part of Old Salem and the (Prague) national museum to allow the exhibit to travel to Cedar Rapids,” he said. “This was like raiding the Smithsonian.”
The museum’s reputation has continued to grow, but the glory celebrated today began with the people who envisioned preserving the area’s Czech heritage from its earliest days, Rokusek said.
The museum’s reach, however, goes beyond ethnic and cultural boundaries. The museum is a home for everybody, Rokusek said, pointing to the permanent “Faces of Freedom” exhibit, which talks about freedom and democracy and immigration, so visitors can discover the differences and similarities in their own immigration stories.
It’s also a place for all ages, with educational and outreach programming, as well as exhibits, designed to span the generations.
“Baldwin and the founders built this great institution,” she said. “Now our challenge in preserving the past, celebrating the present and creating the future is focused on the future.”
But why here, why Cedar Rapids for this national facility?
Rokusek pointed to Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, as planting the seed for the museum, by entering into the Congressional Record on July 2, 1992, that the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library be established in Cedar Rapids.
For that act, he will receive the museum’s first Award of Distinction, to be presented during Saturday night’s anniversary dinner in the museum’s ballroom.
And when Rokusek is traveling and is asked, “Why Cedar Rapids,” her answer is always the same:
“That's the best place where it should be, because Czech and Slovak immigrants settled here. One time the city had a population of 28 percent Czech.
”Plus, we’re in the center of America, and if we were in a major city like New York or Chicago, we’d be lost. In Cedar Rapids, we get people here not only to enjoy the library, but to enjoy all the art centers, the city, NewBo, Czech Village and all of Cedar Rapids and the region. So I think that it's the right place to be because it's in the center of America.“
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