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The gift Madeleine Albright leaves is showing us what's possible

Madeleine Albright is pictured in 2018 on the set of <em>Madam Secretary.</em>
David M. Russell
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CBS via Getty Images
Madeleine Albright is pictured in 2018 on the set of Madam Secretary.

Sometimes the impact of a person's death can ripple across time zones and continents, triggering memories that can inspire today.

I was reminded of that this week, when Madeleine Albright's family announced she had passed away. Albright died at the age of 84 – her family attributing the death to cancer.

Albright represented different things to different people. As a refugee who as a child fled with her family from post-World War II Europe to the United States, she represented the so-called "American Dream" of raising oneself up through education and hard work. To others, Albright's decades of public service proved a model for a person choosing to serve their country.

And to so many, Albright was a feminist icon. The first woman to become U.S. secretary of state, Albright literally changed the face of American diplomacy. Throughout her life, she spoke out frequently on what it meant to be the only woman in a room of men, and the responsibility women take on when they push open the doorways to power with their own voices:

"If you're going to interrupt, you have to know what you're talking about. And you have to do it in a strong voice," she wrote in 2015.

The news of Albright's death took me back to the summer of 1994, when she was the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., and I was a (much) younger journalist, an earnest correspondent for The Associated Press, based in Bratislava and excited to be covering what was then Europe's youngest country, Slovakia.

I had already been in Europe a few years, first arriving in Prague, the capital of what was then Czechoslovakia. As 1992 gave way to '93, I witnessed and covered the dissolution of one country as it gave way to the creation of two others, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

People pray at cemetery during a ceremony held the 28th anniversary of Ahmici massacre under COVID-19 measures in Vitez, Bosnia, and Herzegovina in April 2021. 116 Bosnian civilians were killed by Croatian Defence Council (HVO) during the Croat-Bosniak War in April 1993 in Ahmici village.
Elman Omic / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
People pray at cemetery during a ceremony held the 28th anniversary of Ahmici massacre under COVID-19 measures in Vitez, Bosnia, and Herzegovina in April 2021. 116 Bosnian civilians were killed by Croatian Defence Council (HVO) during the Croat-Bosniak War in April 1993 in Ahmici village.

In 1993, as many journalists were converging to cover the wars in the Balkans, I moved Tallinn, Estonia. I returned to Central Europe early in 1994 to cover Slovakia. The annals of world history will show the importance of that year: I began the year in Lillehammer, Norway, covering the drama taking place between American women's ice skaters Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding. Pop culture aficionados will recall another reality-TV moment: OJ Simpson and a white SUV.

But there were more important global markers taking place: South Africa electing Nelson Mandela as president, as the country's peoples threw aside the shackles of apartheid; the IRA declaring a cease-fire in Northern Ireland; Israel signing accords with Palestinians. Those events suggested the possibilities of a better world.

It wasn't to be. More sobering events were occurring: the Serbs' bombardment of Sarajevo; Russia attacking the secessionist Republic of Chechnya; the U.S. sending military forces to the Persian Gulf.

And then there were the massacres unfolding in Rwanda. The U.S. came under criticism for its slow response to the genocide that took place in Africa, and Albright herself took issue with the U.N.'s response.

A file photo showing South African President Nelson Mandela taking the oath 10 May 1994 during his inauguration at the Union Building in Pretoria.
WALTER DHLADHLA / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
A file photo showing South African President Nelson Mandela taking the oath 10 May 1994 during his inauguration at the Union Building in Pretoria.

All of that was in play in August 1994, when Albright returned to a part of the world where she was born, to honor the victims of what is now called the Slovak National Uprising. In August 1994 I covered the 50-year anniversary of that moment when Slovaks took on Nazi military forces. It was a doomed mission, but it also was a testament to the human spirit to stand up against oppression, even when it will likely mean your death.

Albright was there, at those anniversary ceremonies. At a news conference, she spoke about the Slovaks who stood up against oppression, gliding seemingly effortlessly between English, Czech and Slovak in the news conference, like a dancer trained to move from the tango to the waltz.

And then my moment with Albright came. I fumbled my greetings in Slovak:

"Dobrý deň, pani Albrightová. ..." (Hello, Ms. Albright ...)

Her stature (4 foot 10 inches) and her piercing eyes immediately struck me.

For me, the gift that Madeleine Albright leaves is knowing the possible: that a woman who grows to small dimensions can command a room, thanks to knowledge and grace.

Today, as Ukraine, whose people are tortured for simply wanting to be their own nation, defend themselves against military forces from Russia, Albright's journey is especially important:

"If you're going to interrupt, you have to know what you're talking about. And you have to do it in a strong voice."

Kevin Drew is a supervising editor at NPR Digital.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kevin Drew
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