It is June in Paris, 1917. World War I is raging across Europe. As the Americans are drawn into the fight, the U.S. Army's First Battalion earns a place in history as the first Yankee troops to battle on European soil. Under the command of General "Black" Jack Pershing, they march along the Champs-Elysées to the first stop on their tour of duty: the tomb of the only foreigner ever to command American forces. Upon arrival, Lt. Col. Charles Stanton exclaimed, "La Fayette, nous voila!"

The famous quote '"Lafayette, we are here!"' expressed Pershing's wish to pay homage to the French aristocrat who believed so much in the cause of liberty that he traversed the Atlantic to support The American Revolution with his money and his experience as a soldier in the French Guard. Gen. Pershing and his men stood ready to repay the debt.

The Marquis de La Fayette was truly a remarkable man. At the age of 19, he joined Gen. George Washington's staff, helped defeat Lord Cornwallis, was wounded at the battle of Brandywine, and later led a small force in Virginia. He tapped his own personal wealth to provide badly needed provisions to the ragtag band of Revolutionaries. And after returning to life at home in France, he maintained his personal relationship with America's first president, naming his eldest son George Washington.

While La Fayette was unable to persuade his good friend to free his slaves in Virginia (Washington did provide for their freedom in his will, however), the Marquis set an example for other slave owners of the day by purchasing an estate in French Guiana and settled his own slaves there. As a member of the Constituent Assembly, he signed the order to tear down Bastille, the brutal prison that was stormed by peasants in 1790, leading ultimately to the end of the French monarchy. He felt it appropriate to destroy that symbol of suffering but La Fayette saved two keys and gave one to Washington, saying: "Give me leave â?¦ to present you â?¦ the main key of the fortress of despotism. It is a tribute, which I owe â?¦ as a Missionary of liberty to its Patriarch." The key hangs today at Washington's Mt. Vernon home in Virginia.

As was his wish upon his death in 1834, La Fayette's grave was covered with earth he had saved and transplanted from Bunker Hill. Throughout the century communities across America ' now 70 in all' were named in his honor, including our parish in 1823 and our city in 1836. Next year marks the 250th anniversary of La Fayette's birth and City-Parish President Joey Durel has named a commission to plan a year-long commemoration. It is co-chaired by his wife, Lynne, with Philippe Gustin, head of Lafayette Consolidated Government's international trade office, as coordinator.

"The mission is to celebrate the contributions La Fayette made to our history and our relationship with France," says Lynne. "But it is also a chance to boost international tourism, which has been down since 9-11 and Katrina." Gustin cites other economic development benefits as well: "We are partnering with the city, the university and LEDA [the Lafayette Economic Development Authority] to bring Lafayette to the attention of big corporations across the U.S., France and Canada. We want to continue international business recruitment and present Lafayette as a progressive city. And we don't think small."

More than 50 events are already slated. The commission has partnered with many organizations to schedule events appropriate to the celebration of the life of this great man, including Festival International, the Southwest Mardi Gras Association, local museums, UL Lafayette, the Performing Arts Society of Acadiana, the Acadiana Symphony Orchestra, the Washington D.C. Mardi Gras celebration and The Independent Weekly's own Lecture Series. Others are still in the works.

The schedule will be unveiled for business and community leaders at a kick-off event on Sept. 13 at The Acadiana Center for the Arts. The commission has earned a $100,000 grant from the state as well as support from Air France, The Stuller Foundation and others. Corporate sponsorships are still being sought ranging from $5,000-$50,000 as well as smaller donors in the $50-$5,000 range. Packages of benefits are available commensurate with the level of donation, including a VIP trip to Paris in late October.

It is fitting to remember that in the tradition of La Fayette, the French have been very generous to the Louisiana victims of last year's hurricanes. Corporately and individually, they have contributed more than $38 million to various relief funds. Once again, we are on the receiving end of the largesse of our distant kin. We can use this celebration of La Fayette to say, once again, merci.

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