I’ll call him “Mr. Smith.” I meet him one afternoon on the Charles Bridge in Prague. I’m there to lecture on race, class, and politics in American history. It’s 1978 and I’m doing my first Fulbright at the American Studies Centre in London. I help get the Centre started, working with my English colleague Chris Brookeman. The embassy people ask me if I want to do some extra work, in Copenhagen, Prague and Bucharest. They offer to pay for travel and lodging, so I say “when do I leave?”
I get to Prague a day early and I’m taking a walk the day before my lecture. The guide book says you can’t miss the famous Charles Bridge that goes from the Old City to the Castle district. I’m looking at one of the 30 statues that line each side of the bridge, the one of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of my hometown. I’m taking my time slowly deciphering the Latin inscription at the base of the statue (my high school Latin is rusty). The statue, like most of the buildings back then is still black from decades of coal-smoke and it’s hard to read the sign.
I hear a voice behind me, English with an accent, “That’s St. Francis of Assisi.” I turn around and see a man in his seventies, a twinkle in his blue eyes, wearing a suit. He puts out his hand, “Hello, I’m Mr. Smith. You must be an American by the look of you.” We end up spending the rest of the afternoon together, and he shows me around the castle district. I invite him to join me for a beer; we end up drinking two. Then we enjoy dinner and share a bottle of young, but good, local wine at a neighborhood bistro. Mr. Smith volunteers to be my guide if I want to get outside of the city, so the day after my lecture at the conference I rent a car and we drive to Kutná Hora. I want to visit St. Barbara’s Church, one of the very few cathedrals that that has statues and stained glass windows that honor workers, specifically the silver miners who toiled in that district for several centuries (I’m writing labor history back in those days).
Mr. Smith tells me he remembers when Josef Stalin died. He remembers exactly where he was and what he was doing when he heard the news. I tell him I remember the night I heard that President Roosevelt died. They interrupted my “Red Ryder and Little Beaver” radio program for the announcement. He tells me he knows about the Fulbright Program, “Senator Fulbright is one of my heroes.” I ask him why, and he says, “Because he stands for all the ways that America has done good in the world. Look at yourself, when it comes right down to it, you’re sort of a missionary, right?”
Bill Issel – Fulbright to UK 1978, Hungary 2008, Romania 2018