Caroline, Senator Kennedy, members of the Kennedy family, trustees, members of the selection committee, and friends, thank you very much for bestowing on me the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award. And what an honor to share this event with the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr. Kofi Annan, an exemplary leader and servant to the world, and also with the public servants who demonstrated extraordinary courage and heroism in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
I stand in awe of this whole event! When the phone call came to our home, my wife said it was Caroline Kennedy. I wondered who would have the same name as “THE" Caroline. When she identified herself and told me I was the recipient of the JFK Profile in Courage Award, I interrupted her and said, you mean "THE" Caroline Kennedy? She laughed and said, “Yes, that Caroline Kennedy," and added that she loved making these kind of phone calls. I was stunned, and to my wife's surprise, speechless—which was a good thing because I couldn't talk about it for days until they could locate Mr. Annan to tell him that he too was a recipient of the JFK Award. When the press later asked me, "Well, where was he?” I said, “I guess he’s busy attending to world business." – something he does so well!
This morning, I'm honored to be here due to a time when I wasn't speechless but spoke out against religious intolerance, an ideal close to John F. Kennedy's heart. I remember when he announced his candidacy for the presidency. One of the remarks I heard against him was that he was Catholic and would be a puppet of the Pope. Religious intolerance is nothing new. When he was warned not to bring up the religious issue, he answered, "Nobody asked me if I was Catholic when I joined the U.S. Navy. Nobody asked my brother if he was a Catholic or Protestant before he climbed into an American bomber plane to fly his last mission." I admired him for his ability to step forward in courage and confront the issues head on.
The old story of religious intolerance reared its ugly head in my city. When the Al Salam Mosque Foundation came to our City of Palos Heights to purchase a church that was for sale, I thought that it was and should have been a simple real estate transaction that would be reported in the local newspaper. Instead it took on national and international attention because many residents spoke against it at various city council meetings.
After that, five of the eight aldermen saw a "sudden" need to purchase the church for the city's recreation department—even though two years earlier they let the proposal to buy the church die in committee, and after a three-month study yielded NO motions to buy the church.
The city council then moved to authorize the city attorney to offer the Al Salam Mosque Foundation $200,000 to cover its expenses and allow the city to purchase the church. I immediately spoke out against such an offer and wrote a letter of apology to the people of the Islamic community .I called it an embarrassment and an insult to them and encouraged them to proceed with the purchase of the church.
At the city’s next regularly scheduled meeting I delivered my veto message pointing out that "the government had NO place in this matter,” not to mention that it was not fiscally responsible. The council did not override my veto. But the foundation chose not to proceed with the purchase.
When reporters asked how I arrived at this decision, I told them, "it was a no-brainer." I learned in grammar school about the First amendment in which the first part of it says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” and Jesus' command in the Bible when he says to "love your neighbor". The decision was easy. You don't need to think it over. You know what’s wrong, so you know what is right.
There is much more to tell but ultimately, I was voted out of office.
I remember what JFK said to the nation after the confrontation with the governor of Alabama over court-ordered desegregation. He said, " We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and it is as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities; whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated."
He was a President who stood the test and made his mark in history for civil rights. And his message needs to be heard today.
During this controversy, the Federal Justice Department called on me to offer its services to start a dialogue group of Muslims and non-Muslims. I am sure that Senator Kennedy would be glad to hear that this is one time that a government agency offered its services without any strings attached. There were no penalties if we refused. Naturally the community thought that I brought the "Feds" in to further complicate this controversy. The good news is, this dialogue group is still meeting on a monthly basis at a college that is located in our city. Dialogue is important to relieve the fears that we have of each other for whatever reasons we have. Some churches in our city are also having study groups to better know our Muslim neighbors, especially the young people's groups. My thanks to the Justice Department for initiating this dialogue group in our city.
Besides all my immediate family and nine of my ten grandchildren present here today, along with some close friends, there is a special friend here also. He is Father Edward Cronin, of the St. A1exander's Catholic Church in Palos Heights. Father Cronin supported me throughout the whole Mosque/Church controversy. I heard from his parishioners that he gave some very eloquent homilies on the community’s behavior. He met with me and members of the Muslim community to welcome them into our city. He was very courageous on his beliefs. He became a family friend at a very difficult time in my life. And that time was when my 35-year-old son, Don, died of cancer at the very height of the controversy. This Award has special meaning for Don's memory too. As Caroline has said, "after people die, they really do live on through those who love them."
Caroline, Senator, and Kennedy family members, it is evident by your involvement in this Award that your love for John F. Kennedy carries on his memory and his courage.
I want to thank all of my family and close friends for their support throughout this controversy.
I feel deeply honored and humbled to accept this award, and I thank you.
Remarks by Dean Koldenhoven, former Mayor, Palos Heights, Illinois, on receiving the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, May 6, 2002.