An unusually sad event happened in Paris 50 years ago this month. A group of influential cultural leaders from Atlanta travelled throughout Europe to visit museums and historic sites and thereby demonstrate the city’s commitment to ongoing cultural development. At that time the population of Georgia’s capital had reached a million people, and civic leaders felt further growth would be stymied without improvement to city museums, theater and music venues.
After visiting The Louvre, Rome’s Coliseum, the London Bridge and other treasured sites, the group gathered on June 3rd at Paris’ Orly airport to return home on their chartered Air France jet. Tragically, the plane crashed on takeoff killing all members of the Atlanta Arts Association. Only two flight attendants survived the crash.
Over 100 families grieved for their terrible losses, and the community as a whole felt the impact of losing such a cross section of revered civic leaders – artists, company executives, and the first female to be elected to the school board. The tragedy served as a catalyst for the future cultural development of Atlanta, and the Memorial Arts Center – later to become the Woodruff Arts Center in honor of major donor Robert Woodruff, was begun in 1966. Through the years, the center has expanded to include the High Museum, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Atlanta College of Art, Alliance Theatre and the 14thStreet Playhouse.
When opened in 1968, the Center received a thoughtful and generous gift from the France. To honor victims of the crash, France donated an oversized bronze casting of a man, Auguste Rodin’s sculpture, “The Shade”. An expansive circular marker of polished stone is etched with the names of those who died: “Dedicated to all who truly believe the arts are a continuing effort
of the human spirit to find meaning in existence.” Orly, France, June 3, 1962.
One cannot help but think of all of those phone calls – to children, sisters, aunts and fathers – who learned that day of the life-changing losses of loved ones. One man who was 12 years old, when his parents died, recently said, “I’m glad that we have these anniversaries, because I like to think that my parents’ legacy will last forever.”
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