“Fighter for Freedom” Chronicles Human Rights and Prisoner Exchange Efforts of Congressman Ben Gilman

PHOTO: Ben Gilman waves to the audienceMIDDLETOWN, N.Y. – Nearly 150 people shared an early birthday celebration with Congressman Ben Gilman and helped open “Fighter for Freedom,” the latest exhibition from the Gilman Collection at SUNY Orange, during an afternoon reception Thursday in the Gilman Center for International Education on the College’s Middletown campus.

Gilman was on hand to herald the opening of “Fighter for Freedom,” an exhibition of photographs, documents and artifacts that chronicles the highlights of his 32-year career in Washington. The current exhibition, culled from the vast Gilman Collection that the Congressman donated to the College upon his retirement, was coordinated by Richard Heppner, former vice president of academic affairs, and Mary Ann VanBenschoten, former SUNY Orange archivist.

Thursday’s reception included an explanation from Heppner and VanBenschoten of how the exhibit came to fruition, along with remarks from Joan Wolfe, chair of the SUNY Orange Board of Trustees; Ed Diana, Orange County Executive; Robert Polhamus III, a SUNY Orange student; and Dr. Richard Garon, former chief of staff of the House International Relations Committee who also interned under Gilman.

Gilman and his wife Georgia also offered their thanks to those in attendance before distributing pieces of birthday cake in honor of the Congressman’s upcoming 90th birthday in December. The SUNY Orange Madrigal Singers sang a peppy version of “Happy Birthday” to Gilman and offered a touching rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from the “Wizard of Oz.”

PHOTO: Ben Gilman's World Peace Medal is on display“Georgia and I can’t tell you how much we appreciate you taking the time to be here with us today,” Gilman said. “There are so many of you, staff members, friends, legislators, who helped us over the years, and I can’t thank you enough for all of your help. We are so happy to know that all of our documents have a good home and that the College is taking care of them and providing them for people to see.”

During his years in Congress, Gilman fought tirelessly for human rights around the globe. His efforts, many of which were behind the scenes and without publicity, focused on such causes as gaining the release of political prisoners in the Soviet Union. Over 100 “case files” relating to the individual plights of Russian “refuseniks” are housed within the Gilman Collection. Though many would languish for years inside Soviet prisons, the work of Gilman and his staff offered, for many, the only beacon of hope they had.

Gilman also worked to insure a full accounting was made of all POWs and MIAs lost in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Perhaps one of the more striking images of the exhibit, and emblematic of Gilman’s commitment to the cause, is the photo depicting him carrying the remains of an American soldier up the stairs of a plane in Hanoi in preparation for the final homecoming of an American hero.

PHOTO: People file into the Gilman Center“Fighter for Freedom” includes nearly 75 photos along with documents and other items associated with the Congressman’s human rights efforts. In conjunction with “Fighter for Freedom,” the College has created a smaller photographic exhibit “Ben Gilman - The Early Years” located in the Gilman Center classroom. Included within that display are images depicting Gilman’s entry into politics, including his first campaign for Assembly and his time spent in Albany.

The Gilman Collection covers the remarkable career of Gilman, from his early days as a State Assemblyman in Albany to his three decades in the United States Congress. Within the collection, visitors will find a vast assortment of papers, artifacts, and images that offer testament to the more than half-century of service by the Congressman to his community, his state and his nation. From his war years in the Pacific, where he flew 35 missions over Japan, to his rise to height of power in our national government as chairman of the House International Relations Committee, the Gilman Collection offers researchers the opportunity for a detailed look at his legislative efforts, correspondence, personal notes, his fight for human rights, and his relationships with seven United States Presidents and a multitude of world and national leaders.

The Gilman Center for International Education is located at the SUNY Orange Library on the College’s Middletown campus. The “Fighter for Freedom” and “Ben Gilman -- The Early Years” exhibitions are open for viewing during normal Library hours. The Library’s summer hours are from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday and Thursday, and 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday. The Library is closed on Fridays from June through July.

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Mike Albright
Communications Officer
115 South Street
Middletown, NY 10940