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Betty Williams, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976 for rallying against violence in Northern Ireland, returned to U.Va. last week to talk about being an activist and her current cause, the World Centers of Compassion for Children.

Nobel Laureate Williams returns, challenges students to activism

By Dan Heuchert

She wasn't always "Betty Williams, Nobel Peace Laureate."

On Aug. 10, 1976, she was Betty Williams, a 34-year-old mother of two living in Belfast. The events of that afternoon, when she witnessed the senseless deaths of a mother and her three children in yet another instance of sectarian violence, thrust her into a lifetime of peace-making.

It's a point she feels is important, she said during an Oct. 28 return visit to the Grounds. Nobel peace laureates are not demigods placed on the Earth to solve its problems, but real people who see and take on challenges, and make a difference.

"There's not a woman in this room who could have seen that and not acted," she told a large, mostly female audience at the McLeod Hall Auditorium, in a speech sponsored by the U.Va. Women's Center.

She returned to the University almost a year after last November's Nobel Peace Laureates Conference to attend to unfinished business. During the conference, she had lunch with a group of students assembled by the Women's Center, and remembers wishing she could have extended their discussion longer.

"So many women in that room were astounding for their age. I was offering challenges, and at the end of 30 minutes they were coming up with solutions," she said.

"I gained a lot of daughters last year, and I think I'll probably gain a few more this time."

She had challenged the women to help her find computers for a school in South Africa, and wanted to follow up. "I don't think you should come to a place, lift people up and just leave," she said.

Upon arriving back in Charlottesville last week, she also met with Greg Smith, a 10-year-old prodigy and freshman at Randolph-Macon College, who founded an organization to promote non-violence in schools. The two then conducted a 90-minute seminar with University students before her evening speech.

In her remarks, Williams recalled a life of activism, which started that August afternoon. She was driving home from having tea with her mother when she heard shots ring out. She recalled thinking how odd it was that she was able to distinguish the arms of the IRA and British soldiers based on the sound.

Nearby, an IRA squad had engaged in a drive-by shootout with a British foot patrol. The soldiers returned fire, killing the car's driver, and the car careened out of control, narrowly missing Williams before slamming into a mother and her three children out for a walk.

Williams' reaction was anger. "It was an anger that drove me to knock on the doors of Belfast to talk with women," she said. She carried a "petition for peace," and secured more than 3,000 signatures in less than seven hours.

"I hadn't a clue what I was doing," she said. "Not a clue."

She returned home and pondered what to do next. She decided to call a newspaper reporter; his resulting front-page story led to a TV interview, when she blurted out that she would hold a rally for Ireland's mothers the following weekend at the site where the tragedy occurred.

Ten-thousand people --including Maireed Maguire Corrigan, the aunt of the slain children -- showed up for the first one, and the rallies became a weekly occurrence. The number of participants steadily increased, culminating in a gathering of 250,000 in London's Trafalgar Square.

"The time was right," Williams said. "The women of Ireland had had it up to here, and then some."

Williams and Corrigan shared the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize, and Williams was thrust into a career. Now recast as an authority on the plight of children in war zones, she was invited to visit war-torn nations around the globe and witness firsthand the horrors to which children have been subjected.

"The first time I came back from Ethiopia, I couldn't speak for two weeks," she said. "The more of it I see, the worse it hurts, and the angrier I get."

She went on to found the Florida-based World Centers of Compassion for Children, where she leads a movement to demand that children's rights be recognized by the United Nations. She speaks passionately and bluntly on any number of topics: excessive military spending ("It makes me want to scream"); the continued U.S. bombing sorties in Iraq's no-fly zone ("You are creating a new generation of terrorists"); and the plight of Tibet ("I will work with His Holiness [the Dalai Lama] for the freedom of Tibet while I have breath in my body"); and even racial self-segregation at colleges and universities ("diabolical").

She admits that the world's response to her efforts can be frustrating and depressing at times. Then, she plays herself a tape of Martin Luther King Jr.'s inspiring "I Have a Dream"speech and pushes on.

"When we started all this, it wasn't to get glory," she said. "It was like eating Quaker Oats -- it was the right thing to do."


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