As we have seen time and again, good can come from tragedy. Gain from loss. New beginnings from heartbreaking endings. We in America experienced this as we came together in the days and months after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Rather than cowering in fear we showed strength and determination like never before.
My home city of Atlanta, Georgia, has experienced two great losses over the years. During the Civil War, the city was virtually burned to the ground by the Union Army as they marched through the state toward the coastal city of Savannah and its crucial port. Atlanta rebuilt and re-emerged as a vital regional — and ultimately international — center for transportation and commerce, at the crossroads of interstate highways and railroads and as home of the world’s busiest airport.
With its thriving businesses and growing population, Atlanta is also home to a wonderful arts community. This is in many ways due to another deep tragedy that struck the city 50 years ago this weekend. On June 3, 1962, an Air France jet carrying 133 people, including over 100 of Atlanta’s most prominent citizens of the time, crashed on takeoff in Paris.
If you can imagine over 100 of your city’s leaders and greatest benefactors being taken in a moment ….
That’s what happened to Atlanta.
The group had traveled to Paris to tour museums and meet with members of France’s and Europe’s art and music community, forming relationships and discovering ways to enhance arts in Atlanta. I was only two years old and, of course, have no memory of that day. However I have heard the story through the years as the city has marked the sad anniversary each year. My parents vividly remember the tragic news. An aunt and uncle of my mother’s best friend were among the victims.
In the aftermath, the city and a new arts community immediately came together to pick up the pieces and launch a massive fundraising effort to memorialize those lost. Within four years the beautiful Memorial Arts Center was built. In addition, contributions brought the High Museum of Art, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Atlanta Ballet, among other arts groups, that have gained worldwide acclaim.
Atlanta’s symbol is the phoenix, the mythological bird. According to legend among several cultures, a phoenix would live for 500 to 1000 years then would ignite, being destroyed by fire and reduced to ashes. From the ashes a young phoenix would emerge and the cycle of life to death to life would begin again. It’s the perfect symbol. As Atlantans, Americans, and world citizens we have witnessed local and national tragedy, experienced the pain of loss among families and friends. And, as we have seen time and again, we emerge stronger, more united, more committed.
With the Paris crash, Atlanta experienced the greatest loss and yet received the greatest gifts. Not only gifts of art, music and dance but more importantly the gift of renewed community. A true gift of life begun again.