Remembering Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Korbel Albright ’59

Madeleine K. Albright ’59 MKA surrounded by 2020 Albright Fellows during the closing dinner dialogue.
Author  Shannon O'Brien
Published on 

Madeleine Korbel Albright ’59, a refugee who became the first female U.S. secretary of state and was the highest-ranking woman in the U.S. government at the time of her appointment, died March 23 at the age of 84. “While the world mourns the loss of a towering figure in international relations and the first woman to serve as U.S. secretary of state, at Wellesley College we also mourn the loss of a tremendously devoted alumna and a dear friend,” President Paula A. Johnson wrote to the College community.

Albright returned to Wellesley regularly. She attended reunion, leading the class of ’59 in the alumnae parade sporting a yellow fedora and staying in the residence hall with her class, rooming with her dear friend Winifred “Wini” Shore Freund ’59. She gave commencement speeches in 1995 and 2007, and she routinely participated in Wintersessions at the eponymous Albright Institute for Global Affairs.

When she was a child, her family fled Czechoslovakia twice—to escape first the Nazi occupation and then the 1948 Communist seizure of power. They eventually arrived in the U.S. “My father defected, asked for political asylum, and we were refugees,” she recounted in a 2016 College video. “He was known as a displaced person.” The Rockefeller Foundation found her father a job at the University of Denver in Colorado, and the family relocated. “We had no idea where Denver was,” she said.

As a student, Albright lived in Severance Hall and worked for El Table (when it was just a table by the elevator) and the Wellesley College News. She dreamed of becoming a journalist. In October 1958, she covered Sen. John F. Kennedy’s stop at the Wellesley railroad station that was part of a “whistle-stop campaign” for his reelection. “The Senator was surrounded by autograph hunters. Smiling, he signed a great many for them. One for me too,” she wrote for the News. She described her time at Wellesley as formative, crediting it as the place where “I learned to think. I learned to question. And I learned the power of friendships. I would not be where I am if I hadn’t gone to Wellesley.”

Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Council advisor, was one of Albright’s professors when she was in graduate school at Columbia, and he asked her to join the council. After Carter left office, she joined Georgetown’s faculty and advised Democratic candidates on foreign policy. President Bill Clinton named her U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 1993, and in 1996 he nominated her to be the 64th U.S. secretary of state.

Albright said that the men around her had a hard time accepting a woman as the top diplomat. “They would kind of look at me in meetings and I could just tell they thought, ‘How did she get to be secretary of state when I should be secretary of state,’” she said. Albright credited then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton ’69 with keeping her name in the forefront of the president’s mind.

Albright embodied her love for Wellesley and the leaders it shaped by opening the Albright Institute for Global Affairs in 2010, with the goal of educating and inspiring a cadre of women committed to creating a more just world. Since then, more than 500 Wellesley students have become Albright fellows, studying global issues and discussing them with world leaders such as Wendy Sherman, now U.S. deputy secretary of state, and Atifete Jahjage, the first female president of Kosovo. The fellows often presented their projects to Albright herself. After hearing the news of her death, many Albright alums took to Twitter to note how much that experience meant. Sabrina Leung ’18 wrote, “Very sad to hear this news. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to learn about international affairs and U.S foreign policy from Secretary Albright as an Albright Fellow @Wellesley.” Yaffa Frederick ’11 tweeted, “Madeleine Albright was a major reason I became a political journalist. 10 years ago, when I told her I was intimidated by this historically male-dominated field, she said, ‘Get ready to break the glass ceiling.’ I will miss her immeasurably.”

“Madeleine modeled for all of us what a life of engagement really is,” Johnson wrote in her letter to the community. “We will miss her presence on campus, her warmth, her humor and humanity, and her advice and her friendship.” Stacie Goddard, director of the Albright Institute, said, “The Albright Institute doesn’t just bear Secretary Albright’s name. It carries her spirit. Madeleine Albright taught us that being a diplomat means approaching even the most difficult problems with empathy and humor, without abandoning your principles along the way. She showed us that good leadership isn’t about any single individual, but about collaboration and cooperation across our differences.”

Albright’s spirit will live on in future Albright Institute Fellows, as well as its alumnae. As Johnson wrote in a CNN op-ed about Albright, “One of her lasting gifts will be the students from around the globe who will live by the wisdom they learned from Madeleine.”