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Hidden Heroes at the Junior League of Fort Worth

One of the most rewarding parts of my job is when archives reveal stories about an organization that are not generally known to the public. Digitizing that information and making it accessible to everyone is part of how HistoryIT saves history.

Our collaboration with the Junior League of Fort Worth (JLFW) involved HistoryIT teams digitally preserving their vast historical archive, creating detailed records and tags and building their digital museum. During the process, we unearthed the fascinating history of their community involvement, one that spans far beyond the confines of Fort Worth and includes their efforts to help thaw Cold War tensions. Many people think of the Junior League as “ladies who lunch,” but even a cursory look through the JLFW digital museum quickly reveals that these women were far too busy volunteering their time, expertise and energy to sit around having long lunches. 

First, a little history.

In 1929 ten charter members founded the Junior League of Fort Worth. For more than ninety years, while the League helped build and support numerous local efforts, its members also preserved photographs, letters, meeting minutes, scrapbooks and more. These resources document the League’s community projects, fundraisers and overall commitment to improving Fort Worth. Through their new digital museum, we are all able to better understand the efforts of the League over almost a century. 

The digital museum presents portals for photos, scrapbooks, publications, documents, fundraisers and ephemera, such as programs, brochures, tickets and flyers from JLFW community projects and fundraisers. It also features a timeline that allows users to filter by categories, such as community projects, JLFW milestones and more.

The community partnership section of their digital museum lists over 250 projects, many of them spanning several years. One such project was the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. The more I learned about the competition and the role JLFW played in supporting it, the more I wanted to share the story with people. Good thing we have a blog where I can do just that!

Van Cliburn was a 23-year-old Texan who left the United States for the first time in spring of 1958 to compete in the International Tchaikovsky Competition, the first international music competition ever held in the Soviet Union. It was the height of the Cold War, and the judges sought the approval of Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschchev before awarding Cliburn the top prize. As the story goes, when approached, Kruschchev asked the judges, “Is he the best?” When they affirmed that he was, Kruschchev responded,“Then give him the prize.” 

Cliburn’s victory cleared the way for a new era of cultural relations between East and West. He was the first musician granted a ticker-tape parade in New York City, and quickly became a household name, an unprecedented status for an American concert pianist.

At a banquet in Fort Worth later that year, Dr. Iri Allison, the founder of the National Guild of Piano Teachers, surprised Cliburn and the other attendees by announcing his intention to offer a $10,000 first-place award for an international piano competition they would hold in Cliburn’s honor. The goals of the competition were to further cultural diplomacy and perpetuate Cliburn’s legacy of using classical music to extend across even the most sealed-off borders. 

This was a tall order for the town of Fort Worth, at the time still known as “Cowtown” and not exactly a hub for international cultural exchange. That didn’t stop the citizens of Fort Worth from diving in, though, and the first Van Cliburn International Piano Competition took place in 1962. 

Still in operation today, Van Cliburn International Piano Competition is one of very few musical events that arranges for competitors to stay with host families and has resulted in numerous lifelong friendships across borders. The most recent competition reached more than 4.6 million people in 169 countries, something which would have seemed impossible back in 1958. 

Since the beginning, JLFW volunteers have worked behind the scenes to ensure the smooth running of the event. JLFW pays the salary of the volunteer coordinator and provides volunteers who manage electrical and technical equipment, organize packets of materials for the press, produce name tags, serve as ushers and much more. You can learn more about the Van Cliburn competition and their next event in June 2022 on their website

It’s incredible that such a major, international event might not still be in existence if it weren’t for the charitable contributions of an unassuming organization. These are the untold stories that we work so hard to preserve — I’m just lucky enough to get a front-row seat to the history saving action. Browse the JLFW digital museum and discover archive materials related to their involvement in and support of the competition, plus so much more. 

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