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Message from the President

The Embodiment of Our Enduring Values

Mitchell Reiss

Mitchell Reiss

In the face of encroaching darkness, there are those who stand up and those who stand aside. History judges accordingly.

Fifty-nine years ago, the leaders of this Foundation reached across the Atlantic to honor a man who had stood against the Devil himself to lead the world out of darkness. Sir Winston Churchill was eight months into retirement from his second term as prime minister when Colonial Williamsburg Chairman Winthrop Rockefeller presented him on Dec. 7, 1955, with the newly created Williamsburg Award.

At age 80, Churchill was not through with politics; he would remain a member of parliament for another nine years. But he was in fragile health, and frustrated over the aggressive rise of the Soviet Union and Cold War conflicts that had followed the Second World War. So many courageous decisions and victories in battle — both military and political — had left so much still undone.

Such was the complex picture of a man who had spent a career spurning easy choices — and often, popular opinion — to defy the crushing forces of oppression and tyranny. As Churchill himself had put it in September of 1941: “There is only one duty, only one safe course, and that is to try to be right and not to fear to do or say what you believe to be right.”

With the Williamsburg Award, Chairman Rockefeller and other trustees paid tribute not only to the accomplishments of this rare individual, but to the moral courage and respect for human dignity he embodied, and that forever link his legacy with the visionaries and heroes of early Williamsburg. Faced with the prospect of annihilation at the hands of a powerful king, these were patriots who chose the promise of liberty over expediency and self-preservation.

It is this audacity of principle, this service of nobler purpose that distinguishes each recipient of what we now know as the Churchill Bell. Colonial Williamsburg reinstituted this award in 1992 as the highest honor this institution can bestow, and appropriately renamed it for the first recipient who so exemplified the qualities for which Colonial Williamsburg stands to this day.

Last November, Colonial Williamsburg's trustees extended this seldom-granted honor to a new pair of honorees: Chairman Emeritus Colin Campbell and his wife, Nancy. Few people embody the spirit of this award more than Colin and Nancy. The Campbells were equally talented and tenacious in their leadership of Colonial Williamsburg, standing strong at the helm in the face of adversity. Had they not been so determined to see Colonial Williamsburg through the pain of 9/11, the Great Recession and the sluggish economic recovery that followed, this would be a very different Foundation than the one we know today.

It is no secret that Colin deferred retirement for six years to face a battery of difficult situations and decisions, and at times brooked unpopular opinion to ensure not just that Colonial Williamsburg would survive, but that it would thrive for the long term. At the same time, Colin boldly positioned Colonial Williamsburg at the forefront of contemporary discussions of citizenship and democracy, reminding the world of the modern-day relevance of the struggles of early America and the enduring values on which our Founding Fathers built it.

Is there more yet to be done? Of course there is, for it was the Campbells' faithful stewardship that has made possible the next chapter in Colonial Williamsburg's story. The creation of new opportunities — this is the true stuff of making history, and it is Nancy and Colin's finest legacy.

It is in no small way symbolic, therefore, that on the same weekend we honored the Campbells with the Churchill Bell, we also publicly announced the Campaign for History and Citizenship. This campaign, which Colin quietly initiated in 2009, is our $600-million pledge that Colonial Williamsburg will educate and inspire many generations to come. It is our pledge that we will invest fully in preserving the nearly 600 buildings that occupy these 301 acres of hallowed ground. It is also our commitment to finding new and better ways to bring the founding period alive for 21st-century audiences. With social studies education on the decline in schools, and tourism at historical sites continuing to lag — here in the Historic Triangle and throughout the country — we must embrace new ideas and new technologies so we can reach younger, more diverse audiences, across the country and beyond. And we must find even better ways to dramatize those stories for those who come here — captivating them while they are with us and compelling them to come back for more.

Such are the challenges that we, like so many historic venues, face today. With the support of our friends and donors, we are tackling them head-on. To Nancy and Colin we offer our thanks for setting us on a path toward future success, and for providing the momentum that now propels us toward it.