Which musician/politician was the biggest early donor to the Legion’s Endowment Fund?
Ignace Jan Paderewski. Born in what had formerly been part of Poland, but was then part of Russia (and is today part of Ukraine) in 1860, Paderewski’s gifts in the first of the several fields in which he would distinguish himself were apparent in childhood: in 1863, at the age of 3, he "started piano by my own intuition." In 1872, he entered the Warsaw Conservatorium; he graduated in 1878, and began teaching at the school himself. After further study in Vienna, he made his debut there in 1887. His intense, improvisational style made him a celebrity in Europe, and also in the United States after he played there for the first time in 1891.
Another of Paderewski’s passions was for his homeland of Poland. During his early childhood, his father spent several years in prison for participating in the anti-Russian Empire January Uprising, and Paderewski inherited his father’s patriotism. During World War I – by then a highly regarded public figure and musical celebrity – Paderewski was a member of the Polish National Committee, based in Paris. He represented Poland at the Versailles Treaty negotiations, and took further time off from his musical career to serve as prime minister and minister of foreign affairs of the country, resigning in 1919 after less than a year in office.
Although Paderewski never stopped loving – and fighting for – his native homeland, he adopted another one after becoming famous: the United States. When World War I broke out, he had temporarily settled in California. He had grown to love both the country and its soldiers, who were also fighting overseas for a free Poland. This led to his support of The American Legion: in 1925, he put on a concert tour and pledged the proceeds to the Legion’s new Endowment Fund (learn more here). Although his grand plans for the tour were scuppered when he became seriously ill after playing only four cities, he still raised $28,500 and donated it all to the fund, making him the single largest donor in its history. His donation helped reach the initial fundraising goal, on the base of which the Endowment Fund still supports Legion programs like Temporary Financial Assistance. In appreciation of his hard work and generosity, the Legion responded by awarding Paderewski the Distinguished Service Medal in 1926; it was presented to the still-sickly musician in his hotel room. Due to his accomplishments in two very different fields, he earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.
Paderewski switched from musician to patriot mode again when World War II broke out – after Germany invaded Poland in 1939, he served as president of the national council of the Polish government-in-exile and participated in PR and fundraising campaigns. He died unexpectedly in June 1941. He was first buried in Arlington National Cemetery; the Legion had an honor guard around his casket. But in 1992, when Poland was at long last a sovereign and independent nation – a goal Paderewski had worked in support of for most of his life – his body was moved to St. John’s Cathedral in Warsaw. True to his ultimately dual patriotisms, however, his heart is still in the United States – literally, in a bronze sculpture within the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa outside Doylestown, Pa.