With the Feb. 7 release of the Hollywood movie "The Monuments Men," directed by and starring George Clooney, America is getting to know the story of the Allied soldiers who risked their lives at the end of World War II to protect priceless works of art from destruction by the Nazis. The incredible story also, surprisingly, has a connection to Old Dominion University.
Robert M. Edsel, author of "The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History," the 2009 book that first focused attention on the brave actions of this small unit of fewer than 350 Allied soldiers, will speak at ODU Thursday, Feb. 20.
Edsel is the Marc and Connie Jacobson Raoul Wallenberg Humanitarian Lecture speaker for the university's President's Lecture Series. He will speak at 7:30 p.m. in the North Café of Webb University Center.
For more information or to RSVP, visit www.odu.edu/univevents (event code: REL14). All ODU President's Lecture Series events are free and open to the public. The program will also include a book signing by Edsel.
In addition to having written three books on the subject, Edsel is the founder and president of the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, an organization dedicated to honoring the memory and accomplishments of the military volunteers - many of whom had expertise as museum directors, curators, art historians and educators.
The Monuments Men remained in Europe for up to six years following the conclusion of fighting to oversee the complicated restitution of stolen works of art. During that time they played instrumental roles in rebuilding cultural life in the devastated countries of Europe by organizing temporary art exhibitions and musical concerts.
Upon returning home, many of the Monuments Men and women had extraordinarily prominent roles in building some of the greatest cultural and educational institutions in the United States. One of these brave soldiers became an art professor at Old Dominion.
Everett Parker "Bill" Lesley Jr., a captain in the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) division of the Civil Affairs and Military Government sections of the Allied forces, was assigned to several posts in Germany immediately following World War II.
In April 1946, he accompanied a restitution train from Nuremberg to Cracow, Poland. The shipment included some of the most significant artworks stolen from Poland during the war, such as the "Veit Stoss" altarpiece from the Church of Our Lady, Cracow, and Leonardo da Vinci's "Lady with an Ermine," from the Czartoryski Collection. In 1945, Lesley helped write - and later signed - the Wiesbaden Manifesto, a letter that formally objected to the American government's decision to transport 202 German-owned works of art to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., for safekeeping.
After the war, Lesley studied at New York University and then in 1950, he was the keeper (curator) of exhibitions at Cooper Union Museum in New York. Also in the early 1950s, Lesley was acting director at the Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences (now the Chrysler Museum of Art) in Norfolk. From 1959-79, Lesley was a professor of art at ODU, where he was later accorded the title of Professor Emeritus. From 1974-76, he also served as curator of decorative arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
For his restitution efforts during and after World War II, Lesley was awarded the Chevalier, Order of Poland Restored (Polinia Restituta), and the Honorary Medal of Art and Science, House of Orange-Nassau (Orde van Oranje-Nassua), the Netherlands. He donated his papers, composed of documents and photographs related to his MFAA service, to the National Gallery of Art in 1979.
There is also a collection of Parker's papers in the ODU Archives and Special Collections, which can be viewed at: http://www.lib.odu.edu/archon/?p=collections/findingaid&id=62&q.
A former nationally ranked tennis player, Edsel began his career in oil and gas exploration. His company, Gemini Exploration, pioneered the use of horizontal drilling technology in the early 1990s. While living in Florence, Italy, Edsel developed a passion for art and architecture, and became curious as to how so many of the monuments and great works of art had survived the devastation of World War II. His question evolved into an impassioned journey to unravel the secrets of the Monuments Men.
Named in memory of one of the legendary figures of World War II, the Raoul Wallenberg Humanitarian Lecture, part of the ODU President's Lecture Series, is an annual address sponsored by the Marc and Connie Jacobson Philanthropic Foundation.
Edsel will be honored with the Marc and Connie Jacobson Raoul Wallenberg Humanitarian Award. The award, named in honor of the memory of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish businessman and diplomat who dared to defy the perpetrators of the Holocaust during World War II and is credited with saving the lives of thousands of Jews, is given to recognize the recipient for their humanitarian efforts - those who are "making the world a better place" by their actions.
ODU's President's Lecture Series serves as a marketplace for ideas, featuring fascinating personalities who share their knowledge, experience, opinions and accomplishments. Presenting discussion of timely topics, the series puts diversity first, offering an international lineup of authors and educators, business innovators and political figures.