HOUSTON, Nov. 18 (UPI) -- Former President George H.W. Bush entered the room from the right front of the stage, with former first lady Barbara Bush close behind. "Do I know you?" she said to me with a Cheshire cat grin as she walked by and sat within earshot and kitty-corner at the neighboring table. "We met in Prague some years ago, ma'am," I said. "Beautiful," she said. "We'll have to talk." And she sat down. It was the gala of the American Friends of the Czech Republic at Houston's venerable J.W. Marriott hotel last week.
The Czech Republic has become one of the leading new democracies in Central Europe. As far back as the early 20th century the Czech Republic was the seventh-largest economy per capita in the world. Prague is known as one of the world's great cities. President Woodrow Wilson and President Tomas G. Masaryk were good friends. Masaryk's wife was American.
George H.W. Bush, and later Madeleine Albright -- who was also present and received the Prague Society's Hanno R. Ellenbogen Citizenship Award in 2002 -- contributed immeasurably to Czechoslovakia becoming free and the Czech Republic joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. This was movingly presented in a speech by Peter Kolar, the current Czech ambassador to the United States.
The American Friends of the Czech Republic was founded in 1995 to help bring the Czech Republic into NATO. It has evolved to become the leading voice in the United States for Czech-U.S. interests. In 1998 AFoCR chaired the Executive Committee that coordinated the 80th anniversary celebration of the creation of Czechoslovakia. In 1999 in Washington it coordinated the 10th anniversary celebration of the Velvet Revolution.
AFoCR's first Civil Society Award Dinner was held in New York City in 2000 and honored Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. At that dinner I sat next to Gen. Wesley Clark, which would spur me to support him for president four years later. In 2002 the second Civil Society Award Dinner was held in Washington. By then I had become a member of the Advisory Board of AFoCR. Others on the Advisory Board include Henry Kissinger, tennis great Martina Navratilova, filmmaker Milos Forman, actress Sissy Spacek and a gaggle of former U.S. ambassadors to Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic.
On this evening in Houston, with Tom Dine, AFoCR director and former head of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, presiding, the Civil Society Awards were presented to two U.S. astronauts of Czech heritage -- Eugene A. Cernan and James A. Lovell Jr.
Cernan and Lovell were visibly moved by President Bush's laudation, which was humorous and earnest. Also present were former Commerce Secretary Robert A. Mosbacher and AFoCR Chairman Fred Malek, who served in the Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush administrations.
Cernan was the second American to walk in space and the last to take his foot off the moon. Born March 14, 1934, he was a crew member on the Gemini 9 (1966), Apollo 10 (1969) and Apollo 17 (1972) missions. Cernan wrote the initials of his daughter Tracy in the lunar dust before leaving the moon. He is one of only three men to have visited the moon twice -- the others are Jim Lovell and John Young -- once from orbit (Apollo 10) and the second time landing (Apollo 17, which he commanded). His last trip was with Moonwalker (Apollo 17, December 1972). His autobiography is called "Last Man on the Moon." Cernan was born in Chicago of a Czech mother and a Slovak father. He attended Purdue University and was commissioned in the Navy through ROTC. He is a member of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity.
"As I take man's last step from the surface, back home for some time to come I'd like to just say what I believe history will record -- that America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny for tomorrow. And, as we leave the moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind."
James A. Lovell Jr. was born March 25, 1928. He is most famous as the commander of Apollo 13, which suffered an explosion en route to the moon. After a harrowing delay, Apollo 13 was brought back safely to Earth. In the film version, Lovell is played by Tom Hanks. He is the only man to have flown to the moon twice without making a landing. Lovell was born in Cleveland to a Czech mother. They later moved to Milwaukee. An Eagle Scout, he attended the University of Wisconsin, joining the Alpha Phi Omega fraternity. After two years he transferred to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. Later he fought in Korea. Lovell's father was killed in an automobile accident when he was a young man.
"There are people who make things happen, there are people who watch things happen, and there are people who wonder what happened. To be successful, you need to be a person who makes things happen," Lovell said.
On this evening in Houston, with my friend and former U.S. Ambassador to Prague Bill Cabaniss, now vice president of the American Friends, and Peter Rafaelli, the AFoCR president, present, I and the room were moved and proud.
I was especially pleased to sit at the table with Phil Kasik, AFoCR's treasurer, a silent hero who relentlessly pursues support for the Czech Republic.
With efforts now focused on rebuilding the Woodrow Wilson statue in Prague destroyed by Reinhard Heidrich in 1941 and later by the communists, I am reminded that the AFoCR helped the victims of floods in Prague and Houston, lobbied heavily so Czechs may now travel visa-free to the United States and has paid tribute to Sir Nicholas Winton's heroic efforts during World War II to save Jewish children.
I tip my hat to you, AFoCR -- Czech-American relations benefit from your outstanding work.
(UPI International Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Berlin, Copenhagen and Sydney-based Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. He has advised political candidates and participated in the underground fight against communism.)