We’re in very good shape, says head of US Czech and Slovak museum

Cecilia Rokusek being awarded with Gratias agit

Founded in 1974, the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids, Iowa is the most important institution of its kind in the US. For the last four years it has been headed by Cecilia Rokusek, who herself has deep Czech roots and was recently presented with Czechia’s Gratias Agit award for promoting the good name of the country abroad. We spoke at our studio in Prague the same week she received the annual prize.

Could you please tell us something about your own background? Is Rokusek Czech or Slovak?

Cecilia Rokusek and the Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs Jan Lipavský | Photo: Martin Vaniš,  Radio Prague International

“Rokusek is a Czech name.

“My father’s family came from the Tábor and Písek region of the Czech and they emigrated to America 150 years ago – they just celebrated the 150th year of the family’s emigration.

“And they moved to the little town of Tabor [pronounced Tay-br], South Dakota.

“A group of settlers, around 30 of them, started this small town. They even brought the priest with them from Tábor here.

“My father grew up in this small town. He married my mother, a Fiala; she was from the Třebíč region here.

“She actually was born in Nebraska and moved to North Dakota, and then subsequently to South Dakota, where she met my father.

“So my families, both sides, are Czech. But I’m fourth generation, from the immigrant families.”

What kind of things did your ancestors do in terms of work? Was it a rural part of America?

“It was very rural. In fact a funny story... because now we live in Cedar Rapids, Iowa: My husband’s father emigrated at age eight years old to Cedar Rapids, because of jobs.

“Iowa had farms. With the Homestead Act you would get 40 acres of land.

“You could also have a job in meat-packing or in the factories.

“There was a big oats factory, which is now called Quaker Oats.

“So everybody could get a job.

“My father’s family, interestingly, came to Iowa but they didn’t like it.

“They wanted to move farther west, so they moved to South Dakota; ironically the land in Iowa is much better in terms of farmland.

“And my great-great-grandfather Mathew Petrik, or Petřík, and my great-great-grandmother lived in a covered wagon for two years, in Tabor.


“Then they built a house and became very successful farmers.

“It always amazing to me, what drew those immigrants to come to a land that they knew nothing about and to build very nice farms and to become very successful?

“Again, my mother’s family emigrated to Nebraska and Nebraska has the highest per capita number of Czechs right now.

“The highest number of Czechs in the US is of course in Texas. Iowa has the fifth-highest per capita and South Dakota is farther down the list.

“But if we look at immigration patterns, the Czechs really came to the central part of the US.

“The Slovaks came more to Pennsylvania, because of the mining and steel industry, and to New Jersey and Cleveland, and some to Chicago.

“But the Czechs really came to that middle part, I think because of the opportunities for land and for working in factories.”

But if we look at immigration patterns, the Czechs really came to the central part of the US.

And what led you to the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids?

“Growing up in Tabor, South Dakota, from day one the Czech culture and heritage were very much a part of me.

“That’s very important for me to stress, and my job now is to keep that culture alive and to promote it to the children.

“My parents were very insistent that I speak the language and that the customs, the holidays like Christmas and Easter, all be kept – and we still do keep those traditions.

“I had a kroj, our folk-wear, at age three.

“So, what led me to this job? My life was in academics. I was a professor, a dean and a provost of a university in Florida, Larkin University, and enjoying it.

“I got a call one day saying, You’ve been nominated for this position in Iowa.

“I said, No thank you, I’ve very happy at what I’m doing, but I’m honoured.

“I had a kroj, our folk-wear, at age three.”

“I got another call. They were very persuasive and said, Just put your name in the hat.

“So I did – and here I am.

“When I interviewed for the job and took the job it was, for me, a reaffirmation of my culture and a tribute to my parents and what they taught me.

“And then I’m very close to the Czech and Slovak cultures and I come here a lot.

“I see how important cultural relevance and cultural impact is to different cultures.

“We just recently had an exhibit at the museum on George Halas.

“He was the father of the Chicago Bears and co-founder of American football – he’s Czech!

“He’s the son of Czech immigrants, from Moravia. People had no idea – here is this figure of American football and he’s Czech.”

If I were to visit your museum and library, what are some of the main attractions or exhibits that you have on show?

“We have five galleries. We have one permanent gallery, called Faces of Freedom, and then we have four temporary galleries that change a couple of times in the year.

“For example, in one of our temporary galleries we have the story of Vendulka, who was a Holocaust survivor and was Czech.

“In another one of our temporary galleries we have the history, in photography, of Sokol.

“That’s what bounded people: the Church, Sokol and the fraternal insurance groups.”

“When Czech and Slovak immigrants came to America there were things that really bonded them.

“One was religion. Most of them were Catholic but we also had Lutherans and others.

“Another were these fraternal groups. Fraternal groups provided insurance.

“Then the Sokols, which was an athletics group and still goes on today.

“That’s what bounded people: the Church, Sokol and the fraternal insurance groups.

“That is, I think, the key to what made the Czechs and Slovaks successful in the US, and I think what allows them to flourish even now.

“The fraternals have really decreased, but we still have a lot of Czech and Slovak churches around, especially in the Midwest.

“When I was growing up we went to mass at St. Wenceslas Catholic Church in Tabor, South Dakota – and it was in Czech, the whole thing.

“We went to confession in Czech. So that certainly has changed a little bit.

“When I was growing up we went to mass at St. Wenceslas Catholic Church – and it was in Czech.”

“In our third temporary exhibit you’ll see the George Halas exhibit.

“And in our fourth hall you’ll see something that has never been shown before in the US.

“It was a curator who put it together, with assistance from our National Museum here in Prague and the National Museum in Slovakia, as well as museums in New Orleans and the south.

“It’s called Mardi Gras, or Carnival or Masopust, and it’s a display on the influence of Czech beads on costumes for Mardi Gras.

“The early beads that they used to throw out for Mardi Gras in New Orleans were Czech beads!

“And in our permanent gallery is The Faces of Freedom.

“That’s a very poignant exhibit. You go in and you hear oral histories, you hear a lot of oral histories about immigrants that came to the US, why they left, the hardships – going and living in camp in Vienna for many years before they could emigrate.

“So we have over 300 oral histories and many of them are available on our website.”

“The early beads that they used to throw out for Mardi Gras in New Orleans were Czech beads.”

It’s the Czech “and Slovak” Museum and Library. Does either dominate?

“I think that we were probably a bit more Czech-centric, because of the fact that the early immigrants that came to Iowa… 43 percent of the population of Cedar Rapids in 1914 was Czech!

“But I think over the past few years we’ve balanced it out very well.

“Certainly in some areas we might be a bit more Czech-centric, but I think we balance it out very well.

“Also the one thing to point out is that a lot of people still perceive Czechoslovakia – a lot of the older people say, Well that’s Czechoslovak.”

The institution has been around for nearly 50 years now. What shape is it in financially? Are you confident for the future of the Museum and Library?

“Unlike national museums here in the Czech Republic or Slovakia, we do not get federal support.

“Donors are our number one support, so we have to each year attract donors.

“Number two are fundraising initiatives, special programming, special events – like we have a huge beer festival.

“Then we also have a gala and the museum store, which really has done a great job in terms of bringing to America Czech and Slovak items.

“And then grants – we write a lot of grants.

“Also we hope that people in their legacies and in their wills at least contribute something to the museum.

“We do need to build our endowment. That’s the biggest challenge for the future – endowments are something we see in higher education, we have to make it relevant now for museums.

“We’re in very good shape.”

Author: Ian Willoughby
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