Old website version during the first term of office of President Valdas Adamkus (1998 02 26-2003 02 25)

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Behind the scenes. The nation's First Lady plays a vital role in her husband's career

Alma Adamkiene, The First Lady 
Jovita Girlevičiūtė

I'm a very lucky woman. I know that I've won in the lottery called life," says Alma Adamkienė, the wife of the president. "However, nothing in life comes easily."

In her youth she dreamed of being a paediatric doctor, but fate has given her another role. Nevertheless, she has still found a way to take care of the next generation.

When Adamkienė walks resolutely into the hall of the President's Office she looks even tinier and more fragile in this big and spacious chamber than she really is. The 75-year-old woman radiates warmth, which makes her extremely easy to speak to.

 A Latvian guard of honour salutes the Lithuanian First Lady. Riga, 1999
When asked if the reason she so seldom gives interviews to the press is because she is simply reluctant to open her heart to strangers, she replies: "You're right. I talk to journalists only as much as is necessary. I like my privacy. I don't like being in the limelight, or having to disclose my inner secrets to the rest of the world.

"My life belongs to no one but me. I believe that a lot of openness and empty talk can make a human being a much poorer one."

As First Lady, Adamkienė has to take part in a lot of official meetings and receptions. This is not something new to her. Her husband Valdas, before becoming president in 1998, held the post of administrator of one of the largest regions at the Environmental Protection Agency of the United States.

However, she has never learned to enjoy the attention showered upon her. The president's wife is recognised everywhere, observed and inevitably commented on, and because of this she feels constricted.

Alma and Valdas Adamkus on an official visit to Kazakhstan in 2000 
"I've lost one of my greatest pleasures: driving a car," she smiles. "I used to get behind the wheel and just go for a ride whenever I felt like it; but in Lithuania I'm not allowed to drive alone. They decided that it's not safe.

"I sold my car to a friend in Chicago, and now I can only drive alone when I'm staying there. The friend then lends me back my old car."


BACK TO LITHUANIA

 Traditional Easter games with eggs in the courtyard of the President's Office
Before the war her father was a businessman, a representative for Telefunken, Siemens and Philips. In 1944 the family had to flee to the West to escape the Soviet occupation.

"According to the list, that Sunday when the war broke out we were to be arrested. The most terrible thing was that they were planning to separate my mother from my father, my sister and me, as all our property was in her name. My father used to buy everything for her."

The family left their home in the middle of the night, with just two suitcases. They had planned to go to Sweden, but instead found themselves in a refugee camp in Germany. There she met her future husband, Valdas. The president today makes no secret of the fact that when he saw the blue-eyed fair-haired girl on the steps of the school he thought to himself: "If I ever marry, it will be this girl."

She recalls her life in Germany with sadness. The young girls in the boarding school used to discuss not boys or parties but their favourite food, because they were hungry.

 At a party in Kudirkos Naumiestis in 1998
"Despite that, everything looked more romantic than it does today. Even in those particularly difficult times I knew that first I had to finish school and achieve something, and only then think about family life. I felt I had all the time in the world before me, so I did not want to get involved, even with Valdas. However … life sorts things out."

Her family obtained visas for America, and took a ship to New York. School then had to be replaced by work. At the beginning, Alma worked in a factory making socks, earning 38 dollars a week.

Her father fell seriously ill. "No one got any benefits in those days, we had to look after ourselves. I know what a hard life is. I'm no stranger to exhaustion," she says.

In America she met Valdas again, who was a constant admirer. She remembers well what he said when he asked her to marry him: "I cannot promise you much. I don't have anything at all. But I can promise one thing: I will love you to the end of my days."

They bought a summer holiday home with a golf course in Michigan by the St Joseph River, which accommodated up to 200 guests per week, or 3,000 people in a season. For 23 years she was the hostess and housekeeper there. Her day would begin at six in the morning and end at 1.30 at night, from April until late September. She would return exhausted, but Adamkus always called his wife the "creative spirit of the estate".

They would go on holiday after the New Year, first to Florida and then to Mexico, a tradition that they have observed up till now.

After returning to Lithuania, Adamkienė travelled with her husband throughout the entire country during the election campaign. She got to know her homeland again. She saw a lot of poverty and unhappiness, and a lot of disillusioned people in the countryside.

"I felt most sympathy for the children," she says. "I thought that, despite being dirty and shabby, they were so beautiful. I racked my brains to find something to do so that they would attend school, achieve something in life, and not remain in poverty and disillusion all their lives.

"Many of Lithuania's most accomplished intellectuals before the war came from the countryside," she points out. "It is also country people that have preserved the language and traditions."


HALF A CENTURY TOGETHER

President Valdas Adamkus and his wife Alma have been married for 50 year 
Last year Lithuania's first couple celebrated their golden wedding. In an interview given to mark the occasion, the president admitted: "Fate has been extremely generous to me, because I have enjoyed a very happy marriage for five decades."

And Adamkienė said: "What can I say about my husband? My life, my only love. I hope that we will both end our lives together, the same way as we started."

She does not regret abandoning her plans for a career, and does not feel that she has sacrificed her life for her husband.

"The beginning was difficult. When we got married, we had to choose which of us would continue to study and which would work, as we couldn't afford it if we both studied. It wasn't a sacrifice. We simply did what was most practical.

"I don't begrudge Valdas his career. I'm proud of him. I'm pleased that at least one of us has achieved something in life."

She believes that her husband has had to pay a high price for taking on the job of president.

"You need a lot of strength to hold your ground, not to give in to interest groups, and at the same time to endure all the criticism," she says. "I too suffer when I see how his critics do not understand what he is trying to do and criticise it all.

"It's much easier for me though. I never forget that people elected him rather than me. I'm only a private individual who lives by his side."


TO HELP THE WEAKEST

 Valdas Adamkus and Alma Adamkiene
The wife of the president can often be found in places where something is happening for the benefit of children: when expensive equipment is being donated to a children's hospital, a charitable campaign to collect Christmas gifts for children on social security is launched, or an exhibition of children's drawings is opened.

On her initiative, in 1999 the Alma Adamkienė Charity and Assistance Foundation was set up. Over several years she and her assistants have visited a great number of country schools, families, orphanages and boarding schools.

From her conversations with village teachers, she learnt that children often do not have the right conditions for doing their homework after they come home from school.

In 30 schools all over the country the foundation has organised special classrooms where children from low-income families can play and work after classes. Many who do not necessarily need it even ask the teachers if they can be admitted to these classrooms, and there are waiting lists to get into them.

"One little boy told me," she recalls, "that he made a promise to be very good, because he dreamed of being admitted to the classroom."

She receives many letters with requests for assistance. "We bought a cow for a woman who was raising three children. Their cow had been stolen, and the children needed milk.

"There are many people who need our help. However, we also have quite a number of supporters, so our funds are never depleted. We have some valuable contacts, and a good reputation."

Adamkienė believes it is important to take an initiative, to wake people up. Her foundation provides assistance to the Kaunas Medical University Children's Clinics and the Vilnius Santariškės Children's Hospital. The sponsors are usually well-known people in Lithuania, such as the surgeon Kęstutis Vitkus, the basketball player Arvydas Sabonis, and the conductor Gintaras Rinkevičius.

"When kids from children's homes gather in the White Hall at the President's Office for a traditional Christmas celebration, I find it almost impossible to watch the show, no matter how good it is. I can hardly take my eyes off the faces of the children sitting on the floor … It's the most beautiful sight. They look as if they've seen a miracle."

When meeting official visitors to Lithuania, Adamkienė always reminds them that, despite its long history, the reborn country is also like a child. Its shortcomings should be viewed with understanding. She points out with sincerity and pride that Lithuanians are well educated, and that many are extremely gifted. She cannot stop marvelling at the florists who make flower arrangements that exceed each other in their beauty.

Asked whether it is difficult to be the First Lady, she replies: "No, it isn't, because I have almost no duties."

However, her fragile shoulders are capable of bearing a lot. The president once admitted: "I must also acknowledge the contribution of my wife, her endurance and patience, to the success of my career."

Maintained by the Office of the President of the Republic of Lithuania. Please specify source when quoting.