The Olympics of history
Bridging yesterday to today and tomorrow through competition
Through Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated and winning film “Bridge of Spies,” James B. Donovan’s legacy has been resurrected and introduced to generations of people across the globe as “Stoikiy Muzhik,” also known as “Standing Man” — a man true to principle in the face of adversity. Recently, a new generation has shown extensive interest in Donovan by featuring him in their projects for National History Day, an annual competition run by the education organization offering year-long academic programs that engage more than half a million middle and high-school students around the world. Through research on historical topics of interest within a certain theme, students compete on a local, regional and state level before advancing to the national contest in June at the University of Maryland at College Park.
This year’s theme is “Conflict and Compromise,” a theme directly relevant to James B. Donovan’s defense of Russian spy Rudolf Abel, his negotiation for Abel’s exchange with American U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, his negotiations with Fidel Castro in Cuba, his leadership of the New York City Board of Education and Pratt Institute during the civil rights era, his approach to peaceful negotiations throughout his career and life, and his stalwart commitment to upholding the U.S. Constitution and democratic ideals at whatever cost.
Since the release of “Bridge of Spies” and the republication of Donovan’s book “Strangers on a Bridge,” my family and I have been working with students across the country on their projects, which can be submitted through an essay, exhibit, performance, website or documentary. Just recently, I Skyped with high school students in Huntington, New York, and a thoughtful, bright and delightful sixth-grader in Arizona. Several of the students my family and I have worked with have even advanced to the national competition. We are thrilled to work with these students, honored they have chosen to highlight James B. Donovan, and inspired by this educational initiative that reinforces the supreme importance of history in all of our lives through something that motivates and excites the human spirit: competition. I am honored to judge this year’s North Country competition at Fort Ticonderoga on March 3 and look forward to working with anyone, now or in the future, on their projects, so please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
James B. Donovan met his wife Mary at the Lake Placid Club and were seasonal residents of Lake Placid, where they are both buried in St. Agnes Cemetery, alongside their daughter, so much of his legacy is here in the Adirondacks. He received the call to take the Abel case in Lake Placid and used the legal library of a local judge for the research he needed to do before accepting the case, only 24 hours after receiving that call. Upon returning from his first of many successful negotiations in Cuba to Miami, President Kennedy flew Donovan from Miami to Plattsburgh Air Force Base so that he could spend Christmas with his family in Lake Placid. Upon arrival, he was greeted by an onslaught of press, so he organized an impromptu press conference at the Lake Placid Club Golf House. He wrote much of his first book, “Strangers on a Bridge,” here in Lake Placid and presented several important talks, “Strategic Intelligence and Diplomacy” and the “Advocacy of the Unpopular Cause,” at the Lake Placid Club. He was president of the Board of Trustees at Northwood School, where his son John Donovan is an alumna who accompanied his father on one of his last trips to Cuba in 1963 for the spring break of a lifetime: meeting and spending time with Fidel Castro. As a teenager, Jim Donovan wrote for the Lake George Mirror and the Lake Placid News, taking the journalism skills learned there with him to become editor of the Fordham yearbook, writing for the Harvard Law Review, writing many articles published in international papers, magazines and journals, and writing two books. In fact, he even wanted to pursue journalism as a career, but his father negotiated with him by saying that he would buy the Lake George Mirror or the Lake Placid News should he pursue law instead.
History matters. It is the foundation of our present, informing and empowering us to create our present and future narratives. As the Olympics is upon us, we might channel that fervor from the ski slopes, luge and bobsled tracks, and ice rinks to the history books. As Lake Placid is the birthplace of winter sports in America, the host of two Winter Olympic Games and many current world-class events, the spirit of competition is not only in the local DNA but is thriving — with hometown heroes Andrew Weibrecht, Tommy Biesemeyer, Chris Mazdzer, Lowell Bailey and more who are representing us in Pyeongchang. The exhilaration of Olympic competition and the great outdoors is unparalleled, but harnessing and leveraging that energy toward intellectual competition is an opportunity to challenge ourselves, to chart new and undiscovered territory, and to realize untapped potential. I can’t think of anything more exhilarating and triumphant than that.
Beth Amorosi, of Lake Placid and New York City, is president of AMO Communications and managing director of Fastlane Communications. She is a speaker, writer and founder of Donovan Global Exchange, and granddaughter of James B. Donovan.