SVU EXTRAVAGANZA IN FLORIDA
Mila Rechcigl, SVU President
North Miami, Florida
March 2005

“Here comes the sun...
always behind rain Rain brings tears,
the sun warms away pain
Gone now the doubts that seemed to loom ahead
Now bright sunshine to fill my life instead!”

The Czechs, and so do the Slovaks, have the saying “Po desti vzdy slunce sviti”, which is comparable to American gardeners’ popular quote “The sun always shines after the rain”. The Floridians have, of course, modified it to their own favorite sayings, such as “Sun shines on Florida, as the rain pours0 on the rest” or “Sun shines and the fun never sets in Florida beaches”, etc. All these sayings are quite appropriate in characterizing our joint SVU Conference and the ASCC Festival held in North Miami on 17-20 March, 2005.

Just as a number of my friends did, such as the Czech Ambassador Martin Palous or Slovak Ambassador Rastislav Kacer, Eva and I decided to combine our trip to the Conference with a brief vacation on Florida beaches. Miami is about 1100 miles from Washington, DC which, we figured, would take us ca. 18 hours by car., i.e. , roughly two days, with one night stop-over in some motel on the way, if we had an early start. We left on Tuesday morning. To avoid traffic around Richmond, we left a few hours after midnight so that by the midst afternoon we made it to Brunswick, Georgia where we stayed over night. When we left Washington, the temperature was 32 degrees F. While in Georgia, it rose above 40, which was still pretty cold. After a few hours of sleep we decided to move on. The temperature, in the meantime, dropped down again and it began raining. It looked miserable and the drive was difficult, as the rain changed into a downpour. Nevertheless, we drove on and when we reached Jacksonville, Florida, the temperature began rising rapidly. Upon coming to our destination in North Miami at noon on Wednesday, it climbed to 85 degrees. The overflowing sunshine with the blue sky above was a marvelous sight and wonderful welcome.

After checking in the Windsor Inn, we drove immediately to the American Czech-Slovak Cultural Club which was only a few blocks away, to see what the place looked like and also to ascertain how the Conference preparations were proceeding. The Club was located on a four-acre lot, on a grassy meadow, adjacent to a spacious yard for outdoor activities and a large picnic area covered by ancient banyan trees. These are East-Indian fig trees of the mulberry family with branches that send out shoots which grow down to the soil and root to form secondary tree trunks. With Spanish moss hanging over the branches, the trees give a majestic and somewhat mystery, if not spooky, appearance.

The extensive property was bordered by a small brook which apparently was used in the old days by the legendary Al Capone, the original owner of the place, for shipping whisky to other locations during the prohibition era. The Club building was apparently purchased by the Czechs, sometimes after the war, who refurbished it into the meeting place for their American Czechoslovak Social Club, with a restaurant, bar, library and sport and picnic facilities. They had their dances there, with Czech music bands, serving Czech cuisine with Czech beer. As I was informed, Alice Masarykova, the daughter of President Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, used to come to the Club occasionally, when she lived in her retirement in the area, as did such personalities as Minister Jan Masaryk or Czechoslovak Ambassador to the UN Jan Papanek.

The main Club room reminded one of a typical Czech American Sokol Hall with pictures and paintings of prominent Czechoslovak figures, such as Tomas G. Masaryk, Edvard Benes and Rastislav Stefanik, intermingled with the paintings of typical Bohemian landscapes, picturesque panoramas of Prague and castles, the Tatra mountains, the Czech and Slovak State insignia, flags and much more. You really had a warm and melancholic feeling that you were at home, even though a few decades before our times.

When we arrived, our Florida co-organizers had obviously still plenty to do, considering that they were in the midst of paving the yard and the Club road with a fresh layer of asphalt. Only late that afternoon, they started erecting a huge tent and setting up a generator for the electricity in preparation for the Waldemar Matuska concert, scheduled for Friday night. I was a bit concerned about the timing because one of our session was scheduled to take place in the tent on Thursday afternoon. Robert Petrik, President of the Club was running around, instructing the Club employees to get the Club ready for the avalanche of people expected the next day. He did not shy away from doing much of the physical work himself. I also had a chance to pitch in by moving and arranging tables and chairs in the Club. The Czech Chef, with several helpers, were engaged in preparing all sorts of typical Czech dishes, such as duck with sauerkraut and dumplings, sirloin tip with dill sauce, paprika chicken, goulash soup, kolaches, etc., everything in huge quantities, expecting some 200 people. Honestly, I don’t know how they managed to cook all these dishes in their relatively small kitchen. As I understand it, more people came than were expected, but everybody got served, nevertheless.

Cecilia Rokusek, professor at the Gulf Coast University at Ft. Myers, was responsible mainly for the logistics of the Conference, including the registration. She must have taken off a week from her University responsibilities to be able to handle all the chores. I am sure that she welcomed my wife’s help in preparing the registration material. Mrs. Callahan from Nebraska who later sat at the Registration desk for the duration of the Conference, without taking a break; was a marvelous help throughout the Conference.

Despite of all the work that had to be done, the Floridian organizers did not seem to get excited and somehow finished everything on time so that our Conference could get started on Friday morning, as scheduled. Frankly, I was amazed by their somewhat easy-going attitude, calmness, poise and humor - characteristics, which are quite different from us who live in the eastern part of the US where everything is urgent and has to be organized to the last detail beforehand. I suppose, if we lived in the Florida environment, we could get acclimatized to the Southern way of doing things with ease.

From the point of view of the American Czech-Slovak Cultural Club, the SVU Conference brought them a new dimension, by acquainting their members, many of whom having descended from early settlers from the territory of former Czechoslovakia, with the outstanding contributions of Czechs and Slovaks worldwide, as well as bringing them new information in the area of history, literature and the arts, sciences technology, business and medicine. The SVU members, on the other hand, benefitted by being exposed to the ways Czech and Slovak Americans maintain the Czech and Slovak historic and family traditions, from generation to the next, especially the folklore, music, and the cuisine. It was a happy marriage with genuine cordiality and good spirit.

By combining the SVU efforts with those of the Florida-based American Czech-Slovak Cultural Club, we were able to put together an outstanding academic program, combined with highly enjoyable and entertaining cultural events. The general theme of our joint program was “Czech and Slovak Heritage on Both Sides of the Atlantic”. This was our fifth SVU Conference devoted to the subject of Czech and Slovak Americans - a subject, obviously, close to our heart, and one of SVU priorities. The conference was co-sponsored by the US Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad and was held under the aegis of President of the Czech Republic Vaclav Klaus and President of the Slovak Republic Ivan Gasparovic. The academic program was organized into several major topics, including Czech and Slovak Historic Tradition, Czech and Slovak Contemporary Issues,, Echoes from the Old Country, Czechs and Slovaks in the New World, and Presidential Symposium on Preserving Czech and Slovak Heritage. The latter session featured the Ambassador of the Slovak Republic to the U.S., H.E. Rastislav Kacer, the Czech Ambassador to the U.S., H.E. Martin Palous, and the Director of the Immigration History Research Center (IHRC) of the University of Minnesota, Prof. Rudolf Vecoli. I used the occasion, in my capacity as SVU President, to announce the establishment of the new Czech and Slovak Archival Fund which is reported in more detail elsewhere.

Apart from the various sessions bearing on the general theme of the Conference, there was a special symposium and a discussion panel relating to Czech and Slovak Universities and their Cooperation with the Institutions of Higher Learning , with the participation of University Rectors and other high-level university officials from the University of West Bohemia in Plzen, University of South Bohemia in Ceske Budejovice, Technical University in Ostrava and the Catholic University in Ruzomberok. The US institutions were represented by the University of Florida and the University of Southern Illinois in Carbondale, both of which have active cooperative agreements with Czech and Slovak Universities.

The attendees had an opportunity to view two special exhibits, one on “Czechs in America,” organized by curator David Kraft and the second showing the paintings of Miami-based George Horak. The new SVU publications, which were exhibited in the Club’s library, included Jan Vicar’s Imprints: Musical Studies and Lectures from the 1990s, Rechcigl’s Czech American Historic Sites, Monuments and Memorabilia and a two-volume set Czechoslovak American Archivalia, all published through the courtesy of Palacky University in Olomouc. Also shown was a newly issued video cassette and DVD, featuring the highlights of the 22nd SVU World Congress in Olomouc in June 2004. Other exhibited works included SVU Biographical Directory, a collection of Selected English Papers from the SVU World Congress in Plzen and the Proceedings of the Working Conference on Czech and Slovak American Archival Materials and their Preservation, held in Washington DC in November 2003.

The cultural program featured Czech country and western singers, Slovak folk dancers from Masaryktown, FL, the Europa Band from Orlando, Czech folk singers from Key West, etc. Other heritage events included ethnic food and craft demonstrations, folk art booths, ethnic food tasting, an accordion jamboree, and last but not least, the Miss Czech and Slovak Florida Pageant.

The latter was a highly enjoyable charming event, involving young ladies, mostly college students, dressed in Czech and Slovak picturesque folk costumes (“kroje”) from different parts of Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia who had to demonstrate their poise and particular skills and respond to questions before a group of judges. These young ladies, each of them accompanied by a court of young charming princesses, also attired in beautiful Czech/Slovak costumes, had to demonstrate their knowledge of and love for the heritage of their ancestors. In their presentations, they were all sincere and very natural. They obviously believed in what they were saying to the point that some of the older folks had a tear in their eyes. This is certainly one of the best unassuming ways to assure that the children will acquire the love for the roots of their ancestors.

The Matuska Concert on Friday night was a real hit. The tunes he and his wife Olga sang were familiar to most of the audience who frequently joined them in singing. Music seemed to be ever present during the duration of the Conference and the Festival. During dinners and lunches, two noted Slovak singers Jozef and Dodo Ivaska sang a medley of traditional Bohemian, Moravian and Slovak folk songs.

There were some 150 pre-registrants for the Conference but a number of additional attendees registered later at the registration desk. Some of the cultural events drew as many as 300-400 visitors. Even though the nearby beaches attracted a large number of our members, there was always a sizeable audience in most sessions.

We were glad to see so many people from the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Apart from the two Ambassadors, the roster of attendees included DCM from the Slovak Embassy Miroslav Wlachovsky, Senator Jaroslava Moserova from Prague, Senator and the former Rector of the Technical University in Ostrava Vaclav Roubicek, Rector Josef Prusa and Past Rector Zdenek Vostracky of the University of West Bohemia, Vice Rector Vladimir Palousek and Docent Michael Bauer of the University of South Bohemia, Vice Rector Dalibor Mikulas of the Catholic University of Ruzomberok, Mayor of Ruzomberok Hon. Juraj Cech and his Deputy Pavlik. Palacky University in Olomouc was represented by historian Dr. Karel Konecny and the head of the musicology department dr. Jan Vicar. The Conference was also attended by the Director of the Czech Academy’s Institute for Contemporary History Oldrich Tuma and the historian of the Slovak Academy of Sciences Slavomir Michalek. There was also an official representation from the Cs. obec legionarska (Czechoslovak Association of Legionnaires) at the Conference, led by Col.Ing. Jan Horal, who used the occasion to award medals to selected individuals. Also in attendance was Eva Strizovska, Editor-in-Chief of Cesky Dialog, and her assistant. Czech media were also there, including CTK, the Radio Prague and the Czech TV, who were very busy, recording the proceedings and interviewing the participants.

For the Conference participants were reserved relatively inexpensive accommodations in close-by motels and for those who wanted to extend their stay on the beach, rooms were reserved at an ocean resort.

Overall speaking, it was a grand event. I did not find a single person who did not enjoy it. Above all, everybody had a good time and there was plenty of opportunity to rub shoulders with pretty important people from the Czech and Slovak Republics, as well as from the US. The joint SVU Conference and the ACSCC Festival clearly demonstrated that it is possible to arrange concurrently a high level academic event with cultural and social community activities, to the benefit of both. Those of you who missed this great event will regret that you were not there!

In conclusion, I would like to again express my sincere appreciation to Bob Petrik and Cecilia Rokusek who have really outdone themselves to make the event such a memorable happening. They were also very helpful to me in the preparation of the Conference program.

Mila Rechcigl
SVU President


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