Please register to access this FREE content.
Wangari Maathai Remembered During 50th Reunion of her Classmates
A special dedication on Saturday, June 14, saw the placement of a statue of the late Wangari Maathai, a 1964 graduate of Mount St. Scholastica College, now Benedictine College, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. Maathai was selected for her efforts to promote democracy, peace and sustainable development and she was the first Peace Prize winner to have an environmental focus. She was the only Nobel Peace Prize Laureate to graduate from a U.S. Catholic college.
“To have a statue of Wangari Maathai on our campus has been a dream for a while, and it is appropriate that it is here in St. Scholastica Plaza, where our students will see it and aspire to be like her,” said Benedictine College President Stephen D. Minnis.
The statue was made possible through a combined effort and the generosity of the Mount Class of ’64, the Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica Monastery and Benedictine College. The lead gift was provided by Wangari’s longtime friend and classmate, Florence (Conrad) Salisbury, and her husband, Alan. The sculptor was Bill Hopen, who had previously done the statues of two students and a Benedictine Sister, along with a bas relief, that grace St. Scholastica Plaza outside of Elizabeth Hall.
“It was such an honor to be selected to do this portrait,” said Hopen. “I’ve done many portraits of famous people; astronauts, senators, millionaires. I have to tell you, this is the most favorite subject I’ve ever had. But it was a challenge in many ways. For instance, there was the smile. It is never done in bronze but it had to be in Wangari’s case because there are no pictures of her that exist without this optimistic, positive, charismatic smile. It had to be expressed.”
The event included a poem written by Sister Thomasita Homan, OSB, a Benedictine Sister from the Mount, former professor at Benedictine College, and a close personal friend of Maathai. Mount St. Scholastica Monastery’s Prioress, Sister Anne Shepard, OSB, gave her thoughts on Wangari and offered the closing prayer. In attendance were many of Wangari’s classmates who were in Atchison for their 50th reunion, including her Kenyan classmate, Agatha Wangeci Kahara.
Wangari and Agatha came to the United States and Mount St. Scholastica College in 1960 as part of the Kennedy Airlift. The airlift originated when a Kenyan educator approached then-Senator John F. Kennedy with the information that hundreds of Kenyan students had been given scholarships to American universities through the African-American Students Foundation, but didn’t have the money to get to the United States. Kennedy tapped his family’s personal Kennedy Foundation to provide airfare for the students, including Wangari and Agatha.
Salisbury, a dear friend of Wangari’s who used to take her home over the summers, spoke at the dedication and noted that Kenya was a new country at the time, just emerging from colonial rule in 1963. The girl’s would face trying times when they ultimately returned to their home country.
“They went home and did what George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and our Founding Fathers did, they became Founding Mothers,” she said. “They suffered terribly. We knew much about what Wangari suffered. Agatha endured every bit as much, maybe more. We did not know that and we must honor her, along with Wangari, for their dedication in establishing the underpinnings of democracy in Kenya.”
Discrimination based on gender and tribal background was rampant in the 1960s in Nairobi. Wangari was even denied a job based on her tribe. She still managed to pursue her education and got married. She was thrust into the political arena when her husband decided to run for office in 1969. By 1971 she had completed her dissertation and earned her doctorate, the first woman to do so in Kenya and all of east and central Africa. In 1977, after conducting research that linked problems within the Kenyan economy and society to deforestation, she founded the Green Belt Movement. The group has planted more than 40 million trees in the last 37 years and has brought environmental issues into the realm of world politics.
Kahara stated that Wangari was able to use the Green Belt umbrella to protect urban green spaces, forests and water towers from being destroyed.
“Whenever she saw anything wrong, she made it her business to put things right. Wangari never stopped to calculate how much it was going cost her in terms of physical injury, loss of property or imprisonment,” she said. “She only looked at and considered the end result, with total regard to the benefits of the present and future generations.”
During the ceremony, Salisbury recalled Wangari’s famous hummingbird story about taking action. In the story, a hummingbird carrying small droplets of water in an attempt to put out a forest fire is stopped by other animals who say she isn’t making any difference. The hummingbird acknowledges that she is small, but she is doing all she can.
“If she were here today, Wangari would say ‘But I was only doing my little thing. I plant trees,’” Salisbury said. “So each of us needs to find our little thing and do that little thing. And if each of us does that little thing, the world will be a better place and we will have followed in her footsteps in some humble way.”