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This holiday weekend, Americans will fire up their grills, attend patriotic parades, and be dazzled by celebratory fireworks. But when the 4th of July celebrations cool down, another celebration will heat up — specifically, Aspen, Colorado’s celebration of Albert Schweitzer’s historic 1949 visit. 

While in the U.S. for the first and only time, Schweitzer traveled to the then-obscure mining town to speak at a festival planned by Aspen Institute founders and groundbreaking philanthropists Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke. Schweitzer’s talks (his second was given in German and translated by Our Town playwright Thornton Wilder) drew an unprecedented 2,000 people to the town of 200-300—and planted the seed for what would become the Aspen Ideas Festival.

Now, 60 years after that visit, ASF, The Longwood Symphony Orchestra (LSO), the Aspen Chapel, and The Tennessee Players are launching a two-part celebration of Schweitzer’s legacy, taking place at the Aspen Chapel. The  celebrations, taking place on July 6 and July 11, will include the world premiere of the play Albert Schweitzer: Memoirs from Africa, as well as an organ performance of Albert Schweitzer Portrait — click here for the details.

In 1966, almost two decades after Schweitzer’s visit, The Aspen Institute (under the Paepckes’ leadership), The Johnson Foundation, and ASF sponsored The Albert Schweitzer International Convocation. According to its statement of purpose, the gathering of thought leaders was intended to “study the meaning of Albert Schweitzer for men, today . . . it will assess the meaning of his reaffirmation of the fullness of the power of an individual and the value of life itself . . . the goal is not eulogy; he has been eulogized around the world. The goal is intelligent understanding. Albert Schweitzer said, ‘The goal of man is to become more human.’ The Convocation will attempt to take from this statement a spark and an idea which can make a difference in our lives.”

At the Convocation’s opening, Elizabeth Paepcke gave a speech that contributed to exactly that sort of  “intelligent understanding” of Schweitzer. We’ve reproduced several brief excerpts from the speech below.

Paepcke on Schweitzer’s sanctifiers and decriers:

I have listened with interest and some heat to both sides of the debate and feel that neither do the man justice. 

Those who see Schweitzer as a modern-day saint deny him his manhood — they take away from him his humanity, his virtues as well as his faults, and in so doing erase what is the significance of his achievement. 

Those who attribute to his every act a base or stupid motive, who see in his hard work and self- sacrifice merely a search after publicity or power — or as I have heard some say that his was a psychiatric escape from the Europe which disappointed him — these people I listen to with wonder and great surprise. 

If I seem to be suffering from hubris because I have the temerity to offer an explanation for some of the motivation and character of this extraordinary man – – please be indulgent and forgiving of my poor efforts. I fear that Dr. Schweitzer would not easily have forgiven me himself — he hated to be lectured about, refused to be quoted and at all times did seek a rather humble anonymity, which for a Nobel Prize winner and a man who wrote so much, was hard to achieve. When asked by the Queen of England why he had arrived in England in a third-class coupe, he said: ‘Well, only because there was no fourth class.’

On Schweitzer’s geographical conception of Aspen:

Schweitzer would never have come to America in the first place had the great doctor not labored under an illusion. The hospital atlas at Lambaréné was silent on the subject of Aspen, so Le Bon Docteur took it for granted, after receiving my husband’s cable, that Aspen must be a suburb of Chicago. Imagine his feelings, therefore, when he was put on a train, after his lecture at the University of Chicago, to discover that he was going on another 1000 mile journey to where he would be staying at an altitude of 8000 feet! This he confessed years later and added: ‘Aspen ist zu nah an den Himmel gebaut,’ — that means that Aspen was built too close to heaven and was not good for his health.

On Schweitzer’s resemblance to Albert Einstein:

The Festival had started, we were all exhausted – – lectures all day, concerts at night, suppers afterward for hungry musicians, and to bed at 2:00 A. M. The Schweitzers were late in arriving — there had been a rock slide on the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad causing their train to detour via the Roya1 Gorge.

Incidentally, on this trip, it appears that a woman came up to Dr. Schweitzer and said: “Oh, Dr. Einstein, I am so interested in your book. I have with me your book on Relativity, would you mind inscribing it for me?” Dr. Schweitzer, taking the book, wrote on the fly-leaf: “Albert Einstein, by his good friend Albert Schweitzer.”

On the Schweitzer Hospital:

What is it that sets the Schweitzer Hospital apart from all others? I would call it — its humanity. I had spent a year and a half visiting one of our great glistening prophylactic hospitals in Chicago, before going to Africa. I had watched friends, strangers, and people I loved suffer and die. It was always tragic, depressing, and sad. 

Schweitzer’s hospital is a way of life. People come. They may die or they may recover. Babies are born. Death comes as a natural phenomenon. The families live with the patients, they have their own cook-house, they arrive in their own canoes. They go fishing on the river and sing in the evenings after the chores are done. They eat the same food they eat in their villages — they return to their villages with their tribal mores left undisturbed. The psychiatric patients are not locked up but given freedom in their own village, where ducks, chickens, goats and monkeys wander unhemmed. Only the violent are given temporary confinement in a wooden latticed room with a pad-lock on the door — large enough to be straight out of Hansel and Gretel. I later discussed this with Dr. Karl Menninger and Dr. Jervis, the head of the Kennedy Clinic – they both admired Dr. Schweitzer for his modern ideas in psycho-therapy — Dr. Jervis had visited Schweitzer on the Congo for a longer period of time and knew the hospital a good deal better than I.

. . .

Even if the Schweitzer Hospital disappears, and I don’t believe it will; but, even should it disappear — the memory of one man’s achievement in goodness and reverence for life, will remain. Our hope is that where he led, we can follow. If it was possible for him — it may be possible for us. And so we cherish our hopes and our faith in a better future for Mankind.

More than 40 years after Paepcke’s talk, the Schweitzer Hospital isn’t just still standing; it’s a leader in malaria research and treatment. And as devotees of Schweitzer gather again in Aspen this month, they, like the attendees of the 1966 Convocation, “will assess the meaning of his reaffirmation of the fullness of the power of an individual and the value of life itself.” And that’s something to celebrate.

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