The military transport ship made a stately entrance into New York Harbor on August 23, 1949, or so it seemed to one young passenger who, along with many other World War II refugees, had traveled more than 4,300 miles across the Atlantic Ocean from Soviet-occupied Lithuania. The ship headed directly to the dock, bypassing Ellis Island by way of a special congressional act. As the young passenger made his way to the exit, the captain plucked him from the crowd, shook his hand, and said, “Young man, you will have a great future in America.”
The captain could not have known how propitious a statement he had made to the 23-year-old Valdas Adamkus (CE ’61, Hon. Ph.D. ’99), who would grow up to hold one of this nation’s highest-ranking roles in the Environmental Protection Agency and serve two terms (1998–2003, 2004–09) as president of the homeland he had to leave behind.
“Nobody could predict that all this was going to happen,” says the 83-year-old Adamkus, recounting his first flush of freedom. “It probably was my destiny to be given these opportunities.” While it may indeed have been his destiny to be on that ship, Adamkus had been bound—and determined—to uphold democracy for his entire life.
It is now February 16, 2010—coincidentally, the 92nd anniversary of Lithuania’s declaration of independence—just over seven months since Adamkus concluded his last term as president. He is staying at the west suburban Chicago townhouse of a friend he is visiting from his days at Lithuania’s first high school, the Aušra Gymnasium, in Kaunas. Adamkus recalls how, 50 years earlier, another Lithuanian family provided shelter after his family immigrated to the United States.
“We lived at 7200 South May Street—I remember the address even today,” says Adamkus of the home of Kazys Grinius, Lithuania’s president in 1926, and whose family immigrated to Chicago in 1947. Grinius signed the affidavit of support that allowed Adamkus, his parents, and his two siblings to come to the United States. “They had a very small apartment; my mattress was thrown on the floor,” Adamkus says of the Grinius home. “That was my first night sleeping in America.”
The son of civil servants, Adamkus was separated from his family during most of his teenage years while he worked as one of three publishers of an underground resistance newspaper. He was able to reunite with his family in 1944 and escape to Germany but returned to Lithuania for a short period to fight the Red Army as part of the National Defence Force. He rejoined his family and lived with them in a displaced persons camp for a total of five years before being given permission to come to the States.
Once in Chicago, Adamkus took a job at an automotive parts factory and became active in the city’s growing Lithuanian-American community, where he began to establish his reputation as a unifying leader who worked tirelessly to eliminate Soviet control of the Baltic region. He co-founded a federation of young Lithuanian émigrés, Santara-Šviesa, and broadcast his messages through Voice of America. He also organized protests against the occupation in his homeland and was instrumental in gathering 40,000 signatures in a youth petition calling for the federal government to intervene in the ongoing Soviet deportations of Lithuanians to Siberia. The petition was presented to then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon.
“Those who came here but spent their formative years in Lithuania had the motive to fight,” he explains about the commitment to liberation that fueled and forged together his new community in the United States.
After he graduated from IIT (family friend Liutas “Leo” Grinius [EE ‘53] introduced him to the university), Adamkus was working as a draftsman at an engineering firm when then-Illinois senator Everett Dirksen invited him to work on environmental issues for the federal government. The two years Adamkus thought he would stay turned into a 27-year career capped by his appointment as administrator of EPA Region 5, responsible for all air, water, hazardous waste, and other pollution-control efforts in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. He served the EPA under six presidents, from Nixon to Bill Clinton, before he left in 1997 to run for the Lithuanian presidency.
“The principles of freedom and human rights cannot be learned from books; you have to grow up with those ideas so that they become natural and a part of you.”
One of his proudest moments at the EPA came in 1983 when, under pressure by lobby forces, he refused to alter a report compiled by his team that fingered the pollutant dioxin as a carcinogen and found high levels of the substance in the Great Lakes. The matter received national attention when Adamkus appeared in a congressional hearing on the case, which involved a major chemical company. Adamkus notes that while much work still remains in protecting the environment, during his years with the EPA, Lake Erie was lifted from its “dead lake” status, the level of polychlorinated biphenyls in Waukegan Harbor were reduced, and Chicago’s air pollution levels dropped. In 1985, President Ronald Reagan presented him with the Presidential Distinguished Rank Award of Distinguished Executive for his overall efforts.
But an earlier experience at the EPA ultimately shifted the professional course for which he was destined. In 1972, President Nixon sent him to Moscow to attend an environmental conference as part of an official U.S. delegation. Through this event, Adamkus secured a side trip to Lithuania—his first in almost 30 years—and grew more involved in Lithuanian environmental concerns. By the time the Soviet Union’s control of Lithuania had weakened and was finally broken in 1990, Adamkus had made several return trips to his homeland, where his name and reputation had became widely known. Several political parties asked him to run as a presidential candidate.
After living in the United States for 50 years, Adamkus returned home. During his two terms as president, he achieved one of the highest approval ratings among Lithuanian politicians, and is still recognized as a moral authority.
“He was a great administrator and a very honest man, one whom you trusted,” says Stanley Balzekas Jr., president of the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture and longtime Chicago businessman. Balzekas met with Adamkus many times over the years and recalls that the former president always made himself available to everyone. “He was a man of the world, bringing great stability to Lithuania and the surrounding regions,” he says. “He wasn’t looking for any personal gain or notoriety.”
By having the opportunity to experience a free society in the United States, Adamkus was able to further unite the people of Lithuania to champion democracy and a better quality of life.
“The principles of freedom and human rights cannot be learned from books; you have to grow up with those ideas so that they become natural and a part of you,” he explains. “My two terms as president were based around those principles. I still try to live by them every day.”