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By McKenzie Melvin ‘17
Groton, MA -- Earlier this term, on February 6-7, Lawrence Academy was fortunate enough to have Mr. Francis Gary Powers Jr. as the sixth annual J. William Mees Visiting Scholar.
When Mr. Powers was a child, he wanted to be a garbage man, then he wanted to be an astronaut, and then he wanted to be a real estate developer. In fact, throughout his childhood, and like any other boy his age, he had a slew of imagined futures.
Until 1977, Francis thought everyone’s dad had been shot down before, and that his father’s “business trips” as a pilot were nothing out of the ordinary. Unlike the rest of the world, who saw the elder Francis Gary Powers as a historical figure, he saw his dad as “a Virginia gentleman” who was very reserved and shy, and just wanted to fly planes.
However, after the death of his father in a helicopter crash, he realized that not everyone got to be buried at the Arlington National Ceremony and no one else’s relatives had services as well-publicized as his father’s. After coming to terms with the work that his father once did -- that of a CIA spy plane pilot -- he dedicated his life to educating students about the Cold War.
Before Mr. Powers founded the Cold War Museum, there was one main issue that struck him about the high school students he had talked with, they didn’t know enough about the Cold War.
“Kids in the 90’s didn’t know much about the Cold War,” he said, joking that “they thought the U2 incident [in which his father was shot down over the Soviet Union in a story recently used as the basis for the movie Bridge of Spies] had something to do with the rock band.
“I knew we had to do something to preserve Cold War history, so we founded the museum, and was able to hand pick a board of directors to help me.”
Mr. Powers has dedicated his life to educating people about the real truth of his father’s life during the Cold War. He founded the Cold War Museum in 1996 to honor Cold War Veterans and preserve the true history. Located in Vint Hill Virginia, visitors of the museum can not only learn about Cold War history, but also take spy tours organized with the Smithsonian in DC and sit in on Lectures on various topics regarding the war.
Given the long-standing “Nukes and Commies” class taught by Mr. Curran, Mr. Powers visit was a natural fit.
On his first day at LA, Monday (Feb. 6), as a means of giving context to his presentations, Mr. Powers handed out pamphlets that were given to US citizens during the Cold War about how to prepare for a nuclear attack (including instructions for building bunkers); a comical children’s cartoon featuring a turtle showed school children how to “duck and cover” in case a nuclear bomb dropped in their vicinity.
That evening, Mr. Powers held a presentation in the Richard-Mees Performing Arts Center (RMPAC) for the Lawrence Academy and Groton Community at large to hear about his out-of-the-ordinary bedtime stories his dad would tell him about the missions he had gone on. Mr. Powers discussed his realization of how incredible and dangerous his father’s life and job had been.
The next day (Feb. 7), students in Mr. Curran’s Senior Honors History class were able to sit down with Mr. Powers again and have a seminar-style discussion about US propaganda videos that were aired during the time of the Cold War. As they watched, they looked for hidden messages about Communism and foreign relations.
Powers then encouraged students to ask him questions and “pick his brain”.
“The students here are very involved in their very small classroom settings,” said the historian of the ensuing LA conversations about the Cold War, his father, and espionage. “There was a lot of one-on-one that I was able to do with the classes that I taught.
“The kids were very engaging and I had some very good questions,” he added. “Overall it went very well.”