Baltimore City

City man connects to Czech heritage through Wilson statue

Michael G. Rokos has traveled thousands of miles to pay homage to his American and Czech heritage and to the 28th U.S. president, who befriended his family nearly a century ago.

The lifelong Baltimorean will reconnect with cousins in the Czech Republic and gather with them in Prague Wednesday for a ceremony that pays tribute to two cultures and one American leader. They will stand on Wilson Street, in front of Wilson Train Station, and rededicate a monument to Woodrow Wilson, who championed the Czech quest for independence early in the 20th Century.


In the Central European capital, the ceremony will herald the unveiling of a towering bronze statue, an exact replica of one destroyed by the Nazis in 1941. The $1 million installation stands 30 feet tall in downtown Prague on the site of the original.

"Dollars raised by the Czech community in America erected the first statue," said Rokos, 65, the director of the American Friends of the Czech Republic and an Episcopal priest. "Now Czech sculptors have made a perfect copy of that original statue."


And, again Czech-Americans raised the bulk of the funds, with proceeds from a gala in Houston, hosted by former President George H.W. Bush, and sold hundreds of memorial paver stones that now line the Walk of Freedom, the pathway to the monument in Prague's Vrchlicky Park.

Wilson maintained strong bonds with Baltimore's large Czech community, and many members were active in the Democratic party. A century ago, long before other groups established political clubs, the city's Czechs were active in the Young Men's Bohemian Democratic Club. They vigorously supported Wilson's candidacy, said Rokos, whose great uncle Jaroslav J. Rokos was a delegate to the 1912 Democratic National Convention at the Fifth Regiment Armory in Baltimore.

The president studied, taught and earned his doctorate at the Johns Hopkins University. He won the Democratic nomination and gave his acceptance speech at the armory. Both sides of Rokos' family, who were prominent in city commerce, politics and social life, campaigned for Wilson.

Wilson thanked them with invitations to the White House.

"My grandmother, a young suffragette, told us stories of going to the White House and meeting Wilson," Rokos said.

Wilson bolstered efforts to create a Czech nation after World War I and supported Tomas Masaryk, the first leader of the fledgling country.

"The Czech democracy was modeled on the principles of American democracy," said Robert W. Doubek, who founded the American Friends of the Czech Republic and led the campaign to rebuild the Wilson monument.

Masaryk visited Baltimore often in 1918, in the months before he returned to his country, and was often the guest of Rokos' family. He, in gratitude, presented Josef Klecka, Rokos' great-grandfather, with an ivory sword that the Czech legion had carried into battle on the western front of France. The sword remains a family keepsake.


"Masaryk is revered as the father of the Czech Republic and Wilson is the foster parent," said Rokos. "These men were very much on the same page in terms of human rights and freedom."

The rededication in Prague Wednesday pays tribute to the spirit of democracy that survived through decades of oppression, said Doubek, a Washington resident and State Department employee, who has also flown to Prague for the ceremony.

"The monument symbolizes the restoration of democracy, the rebirth of freedom and the American contribution to the Czech Republic," said Doubek.

The statue dates to the early 1920s, when Albin Polasek, a Czech-American artist, sculpted Wilson's figure, draped in the American flag and with hands outstretched. He positioned the 14-foot-tall statue in front of an oversized chair with arms he carved to resemble American eagles. The figure was placed atop a granite pedestal, etched with the president's name in bronze and inscribed in English and Czech with Wilson's rationale for entering World War I: "The world must be made safe for democracy." A team of three Czech sculptors has recreated those exact details and dimensions.

The first Wilson statue, which Masaryk dedicated on July 4, 1928, remained in place until German soldiers razed it and reportedly used the metal to make bullets. After the war, Czech citizens installed a commemorative plaque on the site, until they could rebuild the statue, but the Communist regime removed that marker. Years of repression followed, until the Communist government fell in 1989.

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The Czech sculptors were guided by the plaster model of the original statue's head, discovered only recently in a warehouse of the Prague Museum, and by a virtual model developed from aged newsreels and photos.


"This rededication is like the phoenix rising from the ashes," said Doubek, whose grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Czech lands.

Now Doubek, Rokos and many in their families, from America and the Czech Republic, will join dignitaries, including former Czech President Vaclav Havel, former U.S Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and the countries' respective ambassadors, at the rededication.

"This event is rooted in history," Rokos said. "We are reestablishing what once was and continuing to strengthen the ties between the Czech lands and the U.S."

For now, the monument remains shrouded in heavy protective cloth. For all his efforts, organizers have promised the unveiling honor to Doubek, he said.

"Not only will I be there, but I am going to pull the cloth off."