A stark contrast: Melvin Laird and Fidel Castro
By Marv Kohlbeck
In my estimation, two well-known world figures with opposite qualities of leadership died within the past two weeks.
Melvin Laird, a favorite son of Marshfield, died at age 94. He had a lengthy political career that included many years as a Wisconsin congressman and was selected for the position of secretary of defense by President Richard Nixon during the Vietnam War.
Besides his political leadership, Laird was best known for the role he played in the development of nationally known health measures. There is no true measure of the tremendous impact his health leadership will have on the world population. It has been written that he helped lead the nation in war and peace and politically led measures to provide better health care and inspired new generations of leaders.
I had a few personal contacts with Mr. Laird. The first was in 1962 when I was among a group of 4-H-minded men and women who were in Washington, D.C., for a two-week training period preparing for six-month assignments as exchange students. We were encouraged to contact our state politicians to share viewpoints of our country and the country we were being assigned to visit. I decided to call on our Congressman Laird. He was very personable and invited me to join him for lunch in the congressional lunch dining area so we could expand our visit.
In more recent years I recall attending the dedication of the Laird Center for Medical Research, which is named after him. My final visit with him was in 2008 when he was a patient at Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Marshfield. While visiting, we had pictures taken of Mr. Laird autographing the book “With Honor,” his biography penned by Dale Van Atta. To this day I still consider that book as one of the finest biographies I have ever read. It deals with Laird’s handling of responsibilities in war, peace, and politics.
The other death of measured consequences is that of Fidel Castro, the leader of Cuba for more than 50 years. Castro’s approach to leading Cuba was strictly that of a dictator.
My diary takes me back to a two-week living experience with a Peruvian family in the jungle area of La Merced, Peru. We were harvesting oranges, pineapple, papayas, and avocados during the week of Oct. 16-23, 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. My host family’s concern was if the large country of USA would overtake the small country of Cuba, what would happen to their Spanish-speaking friends.
In later years I recall being in Tuxpan, Mexico, for a Lions Club free eyeglass distribution, and my host family took me on a boat tour of the bordering body of water and an island claimed to be utilized by Castro in providing military training for his troops before their overthrow of the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, turning Cuba into a socialistic state.
Two leaders during their prime of life, one a dictator with extreme oppressive measures, the other, as the book “With Honor” states, a leader who served his country well in war, peace, and politics. As a bonus, Laird promoted many improved measures of health that will benefit people throughout the world. History will judge them both.