Fulton college events celebrate anniversary of Berlin Wall dismantling

Monday, November 9, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 11:43 a.m. CST, Monday, November 9, 2009

FULTON — With a population of about 13,ooo, Fulton lays claim to an internationally known moment in history — and an 11- by 32-foot block of stone to go with it. Less than a year after the end of World War II, Britain’s wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill, blazed into Fulton to deliver a speech in which he coined a phrase now embedded in language and cultural memory. 

“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an Iron Curtain has descended across the continent,” Churchill declared on March 5, 1946, at Westminster College.

The Fulton and Westminster College communities express pride in their relationship to the historic event. Fulton is known far beyond its city limits because of the liberal arts college's connection to the famous man and his famous words.

“There’s a great deal of pride in (Churchill’s) tradition at Westminster and the fact that such a world leader chose to come to this small, rural Missouri town and small liberal arts college to deliver an important message,” said Rob Crouse, director of college relations at Westminster.

As the site of Churchill’s "Sinews of Peace" address, Westminster College received a section of the Berlin Wall. Built 15 years after Churchill dubbed the East-West barrier an iron curtain, the wall divided East and West Berlin, blocked emigration from the East and was a concrete symbol of the East-West political and cultural divide.

Thousands of tourists travel to Fulton annually to see its piece of the wall, the National Churchill Museum and a 17th-century church that was moved from London piece-by-piece to Westminster in the 1960s.

Snapshots from the day of Churchill’s visit can be seen throughout Fulton. They show a community parade and the throngs of people who awaited his speech. A restaurant named Sir Winston’s features memorabilia from the historic day.

Now, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Westminster College is commemorating the anniversary with events including the creation and dismantling of a mock wall.

'One of Churchill's greatest speeches'

In 1946, Westminster College was looking to revive its lecture series. The school began to consider Churchill, who had been recently voted out of office as prime minister and was looking for a place to speak.

“He was looking for a place to take the world stage again,” Crouse said.

Maj. Gen. Harry Bond, a friend of Westminster President Franc McCluer and a military aide to the White House, suggested that President Harry Truman help bring Churchill to the college. According to Crouse, Bond arranged for Truman to write a note at the bottom of Churchill’s official invitation saying, “This is a great school in my home state. I will introduce you."

Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech described a Europe divided between self-governing nations of the West and those in Eastern Europe under Soviet control. Churchill advocated for association between the U.S. and Britain while painting a dark picture of post-war Europe.

“It caught the world’s attention, but no one knew at the time that it would be one of Churchill’s greatest speeches,” Crouse said.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, its broken pieces sold for $60,000 to $200,000, Crouse said. Because Churchill had prophesied the Cold War at Westminster, Churchill’s granddaughter Edwina Sandys worked to have a large section of the wall given to the college.

On Nov. 9, 1990, former President Ronald Reagan came to Westminster to dedicate a sculpture by Sandys titled “Breakthrough,” which is made of eight sections of the Berlin Wall. The sculpture stands near the campus quadrangle and an old English church commemorating Churchill.

“I think it’s cool because when I walk to class every day, I walk by a piece of history,” said Mylhan Myers, freshman class president.

A lasting home at Westminster

About 30 miles southeast of Columbia, Westminster College's brick campus on a hill is picturesque. On Friday, dry leaves crackled and fell like confetti, and the wind blew in chilly gusts while a small group of students worked to create a mock Berlin Wall in honor of the 20th anniversary of its dismantling.

The activity was suggested by the “Freedom Without Walls” program, an initiative of the German government, Crouse said. To commemorate the wall’s destruction, the German embassy distributed grants to 20 colleges and universities. Westminster received $4,500, which, for the past month, has funded school and community events to educate attendees about the history behind the Berlin Wall.

With 15 active members, the Westminster history club has taken the lead on planning and organizing the mock wall activity.

“Churchill’s visit is a very large part of what our school is,” said Philip Mohr, a Westminster senior and history club vice president. “It’s our connection to the Cold War and how we came to have a real piece of the Berlin Wall. We’re hoping the lessons of the Berlin Wall — the benefits of freedom to move and to communicate — will sink in through our activity.”

“We hope this is more of a community event than just a Westminster event,” Mohr added.

The club used wooden frames and drywall to build eight mock wall panels. During the week leading up to the anniversary, four panels were placed at spots around the Westminster campus; one was in front of the Fulton courthouse, and one was loaned to a William Woods University art class.

Providing spray paint, the club invited students and community members to design graffiti and write on the panels. The other two panels circulated around Fulton schools and were signed by students from elementary- to high-school age.

“The neat thing has been, while watching these panels, to see youngsters from first through fifth grades who are being introduced to the Berlin Wall by this,” Crouse said. “They maybe have never been exposed to the wall, and they’ll remember this. They have something they can personally identify with.”

History club members reassembled the mock wall panels on Friday just north of its real Berlin Wall counterpart. Layers of graffiti on the wall panels expressed overlapping messages of peace, love and freedom. Phrases such as “Let freedom ring” and “If love is a poison cup, then drink it up” marked the wall in dark spray paint. At one point, history club members counted 10 languages among the messages, including Arabic, Hebrew, German and French.

Leaders of Westminster student organizations plan to play a part in toppling the wall Monday evening in an anniversary re-enactment.

“We have a rich history here,” Myers said. “We all know about it, and we’re proud of it.”

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