Valdas Adamkus

President of Lithuania

Photo credit: Tomas Adomavičius

The day I became the President of Lithuania was unreal. At that moment, it seemed like a dream. I stayed in that trance for a while, unable to focus on what had happened to me. All that surrounded me seemed surreal, yet somehow I was involved.

Valdas Adamkus

Politics can be viewed in one of two ways – from the idealistic side or from the negative. Politics should be a sphere requiring honesty, high morality, and justice, both in image and in practice. Alas, this is not always the case. In fact, politics often represent the opposite of these ideals.

It brings me joy to witness Lithuania growing stronger. What an honor it is for Lithuania’s people to see their country, one of the youngest EU members, selected to hold the Presidency of the Council of the European Union for the second half of 2013.

To be the President of your country is an infinitely large assumption of responsibility. It is your duty to always seek what is best for the country, to strive for it to be an equal member of the community of nations. At the same time, it is your duty to strengthen the country from within, improving the welfare of every citizen and making him feel safe and proud.

The day I became the President of Lithuania was unreal. At that moment, it seemed like a dream. I stayed in that trance for a while, unable to focus on what had happened to me. All that surrounded me seemed surreal, yet somehow I was involved.

While President, my aim was to align Lithuania with the West as rapidly as possible. During my decade-long tenure, Lithuania strengthened its standing in the international community, was recognized and respected as an independent state, and became a member of the European Union and NATO (the actual signing took place a few months after my term ended).

My battle for Lithuania’s independence began in high school. Classmates Gabrielius Žemkalnis Landsbergis, Liudas Grinius, and I decided we needed to work actively for the cause. We published an underground journal directed against the Nazi occupants called Jaunime Budėk! (Youth – Be Alert!). This was a conscious decision on my part. I knew who I was, what my duties were, and what I was working for. I believe I acted the same way any Lithuanian who loves his country would have acted. Even with a war raging, bombs exploding, and cities collapsing in Germany, I was somehow able to distance myself from the reality of the situation. Arriving in America, I was faced with reality from day one. I needed to create a life out of nothing, not even knowing the basics of the language.  Without a community and without friends, I had to build it for myself. This was when I got my first taste of real adult life.

My first job in America was working the night shift in a factory for 75 cents an hour. It was backbreaking work. My hands were unable to bear the strain of drilling holes through metal for mounting automobile seats. I would get blisters. By the next evening, the blisters would fill with blood, and by the third night they would burst.

An achievement I am proud of is that today, under the streets of Chicago, there lies a giant filtration system that cleans the waters of Lake Michigan and saves the city’s people millions of dollars.

I worked under six US presidents sequentially and without interruption. Before each new president’s inauguration, his chief of staff would inform me, “We are not requesting your letter of resignation from the US Environmental Protection Agency. Please continue in your post.” I believe no one has since equaled this record.

The first time I entered the White House, I was 27 and the youngest member of my delegation. I remember the date well: February 16, 1963. At that time, President John F. Kennedy was still alive.

The biggest influence on me was my education. I credit my teachers with showing me the importance of responsibility, integrity, and direct person-to-person interaction. Throughout my life, I have retained my consciousness of being Lithuanian and valued its importance.

I am determined to continue the projects that I have started. Knowing my limitations, I will continue to work toward improving the general welfare, and I’ve made a conscious decision to succeed.

Having completed my tenure as President, and having lifted those responsibilities from my shoulders, I felt uneasy. After passing my duties to the new President, how would I fill my days tomorrow and in the future? Would I just pace restlessly from room to room? Fortunately, after these intervening five years, I can say that my fears were unfounded. I maintain much the same routine I did as President.

A similarity between my decade as President and my life now is responsibility. The workload – supporting various interests, maintaining contact with foreign statesmen and the Lithuanian people – did not change. Internal affairs may even have increased in complexity.

The most striking memory of my childhood is spending every spare moment playing on the Darius and Girėnas field. My active participation in organized sports, without any doubt, influenced the strengthening of my discipline and character.

During my teenage years, I matured in my understanding of ethnicity, my commitment to human rights, and my Lithuanian consciousness. Even as a teenager, I realized the importance of freedom.

Kaunas is Kaunas. Although I love all of Lithuania equally, every time I visit Kaunas a warm feeling fills my heart, and I walk the streets with joy. This is where I spent my childhood and teenage years, and returning home is always a pleasant and welcoming experience.

My closest friend is my wife.

Trust is something you feel for someone very close to you, knowing they hold you in equal esteem.

My vision for Lithuania is very clear. Lithuania has an endless reserve of young, talented people with the potential to work together and to align Lithuania with the world’s strongest nations.

Reflecting on the past makes a person take stock of his life’s highs and lows.  I look back at my youth – carefree, idealistic, and always looking at the world through rose-colored glasses – and realize I am one of those lucky people in this world to whom unbelievable possibilities appeared. Possibilities of which I could never have even dreamed.

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