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COLLEGE OF THE OZARKS
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ELIZABETH ANDREWS HUGHES
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April 13, 2012

Subject: Inspiration Through Overcoming Adversity

Mr. Louis Zamperini, American Olympian and World War II prisoner of war survivor, has had 95 years of living to practice his humor, which he perfectly demonstrated for College of the Ozarks students Thursday night during the Spring Patriotic Forum.  Listening to Zamperini, one would never guess he went through more than two years of torture in a Japanese POW camp or that he drifted at sea on a life raft for 47 days starving to death.  His words are not bitter but that of a man whose heart and life are filled with love, mercy and forgiveness, with wit that further seasons his sweetness. 

He told students that giving up when faced with adversity is not an option, at least not for him. “Giving up to me,” Mr. Zamperini said, “is cowardly. So I would never give up on anything.  Isn’t one minute of pain worth a lifetime of glory? The secret is to never give up if you’re going in the right direction.”

College of the Ozarks recognizes Mr. Zamperini as a great American and bestowed to him the “Great American Award,” which it presents to individuals who exemplify hope, faith, and hard work.   “Mr. Louis Zamperini is one of the world’s greatest living examples of bravery and perseverance,” College of the Ozarks President Jerry C. Davis said.

Best-selling books Devil at My Heels (an autobiography) and most recently Unbroken (by Laura Hillenbrand, best-selling author of Seabiscuit) recounts the tremendous victories and obstacles Mr. Zamperini has seen during his life.

Raised in Torrance, Calif., in an Italian family, Zamperini characterized himself as a “rocky kid” who often got entangled in mischief and found himself running from the local police.  That’s how he learned to run he said.  As he grew in to a young adult his brother encouraged him to channel that energy and ability into formal running career.  Zamperini embraced the idea, awing his spectators who called him the “Torrance Tornado.”  In 1935 at age 19, he qualified for the 1936 Olympics that were to be held in Berlin.

After competing in the 1936 Olympics and earning 8th in the 5000 meter race, Mr. Zamperini returned to his hometown of Torrance, and in 1941 enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces.  During a search mission, “The Green Hornet” plane experienced mechanical failures causing it to go down in the Pacific; eight of 11 crew members died in the crash.  Mr. Zamperini, along with pilot Russel Allen "Phil" Phillips and tail-gunner Francis McNamara, with little food and no water, subsisted on captured rainwater and small fish eaten raw. After fending off constant shark attacks, nearly being swallowed by a storm, and strafing by a Japanese bomber that punctured their life raft, they continued to drift at sea. McNamara died after 33 days.

On the 47th day, Zamperini and Phillips finally reached the Marshall Islands and were subsequently captured by the Japanese Navy. Both were held in captivity and severely tortured until the end of the war.  He was especially tormented by sadistic prison guard Mutsuhiro Watanabe (nicknamed "The Bird"), who was later included in General Douglas MacArthur's list of the 40 most wanted war criminals in Japan.

During his imprisonment, he had been declared killed in action a year and a day after his disappearance; when he eventually returned home he received a hero's welcome.  In 1946, he married his wife, Cynthia Applewhite, who he remained married to until her death in 2001. After the war and suffering from severe post traumatic stress disorder, Mr. Zamperini made a confession of faith at a Billy Graham revival.  From that day, he said that the effects of the PTSD ceased and he was able to move on.

After accepting Christ, Zamperini returned to Japan to visit the POW guards who now were behind bars for their war crimes, so that he could let them know that he forgave them and it was because of Jesus Christ. The former POW also received the honor of carrying the Olympic torch for the 1998 Olympics held in Japan.  He ran, with torch in hand, pass the Naoetsu POW camp, where he was once imprisoned and tortured.

Mr. Zamperini has inspired hundreds of thousands with his tremendous story of survival against unthinkable odds.

“I could sit and listen to him for hours on end,” said C of O junior Chelsea Kliethermes, who attended the forum.  “He incorporated humor, which made his story and personality more intriguing.  Hearing from him made me appreciate all that veterans from that era went through, and hearing that he forgave all those who abused him, demonstrates what a strong and courageous man he is.”

During the forum students also listened to stories of overcoming adversity from three plenary speakers: former Lees-McRae College President and Distinguished Visiting Professor to College of the Ozarks Dr. Brad Crain, Missouri’s only living Medal of Honor recipient Colonel Donald Ballard and Holocaust survivor Dr. Judita Hruza.

The College of the Ozarks Keeter Center for Character Education hosts a forum each spring. In this gathering, prominent national leaders discuss important issues. Forum themes rotate among the topics of character, citizenship, and the work ethic, which are core values of College of the Ozarks. Students, faculty, staff, and visitors participate in the exchange of ideas during lectures and small group discussions.

Thanks to a generous endowment from the Thoreson Foundation, the Center hosts cadets from each of the nation’s U. S. Military Academies at the forums. Along with College of the Ozarks students, their discussions focus on the importance of character in developing leadership skills.

Last April, the College hosted President George W. Bush at the 2011 Leadership and Character Forum. Other former Forum speakers include President Gerald Ford, Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich, and Ben Stein.

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