When Cedar City Mayor Gerald Sherratt mentioned building a statue to honor the memory of Helen Foster Snow last spring, it was off the cuff. He had statues on the brain, since the city had just dedicated a few, and he was simply making conversation about a woman he didn't know with someone who did.
But when Sherratt heard a couple of months later that the U.S.-China Cultural Exchange Committee would be sending a 7-foot-tall bronze sculpture of their heroine to be dedicated in her small hometown, the mayor hit the books.
Now, on the eve of a day-long celebration planned to honor Snow's life's work and welcome a delegation of 21 prestigious representatives from China, Sherratt understands: one of Cedar City's native daughters is finally coming home to the recognition she never received in Utah when she was alive.
"I had no idea about how important she is," Sherratt said as he rattled off Snow's biography and told stories of her forays into pre-Communist China in the early 1930s. "I think the vast majority of people in Cedar City don't know anything about her."
That's not the case in China.
Snow, born in 1907, originally went to China as a single, 23-year-old woman in the summer of 1931. She wanted to make a name for herself and write the great American novel. Instead, she was confronted with the images of hungry and destitute Chinese struggling under a government she didn't think supported them.
She married another well-known journalist and author of "Red Star Over China," Edgar Snow, and began writing about the things she saw, including a Japanese attack on Shanghai in 1932. As her interest in Chinese politics grew, her relationships with the Chinese people deepened and her willingness to expose the rising political conflict boiling in the country intensified.
In 1937, Snow traveled alone and in secrecy to Yenan, a dangerous and remote stronghold for the fledgling Chinese Communist Party and kept isolated by the ruling Nationalist government. She lived for four months in the encampment with harsh conditions, disease and insufficient food supply as she interviewed key leaders of the Communist Party, including Mao Zedong.
Later, Snow became a key developer of the Committee for the Promotion of Industrial Cooperatives in China, a program that put refugees and widows in the war-torn country to work by manufacturing small goods in their homes. The program — whose motto "Gung Ho" (work together) became a common American saying — allowed the people to be self-sufficient over time.
Snow was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize twice for her efforts.
"What I keep being struck by, looking back, is she really was just an ordinary woman," said Kelly Long, Snow's biographer and author of "Helen Foster Snow: An American Woman and Revolutionary China."
"She took every day human risk, and she was in the right place and of the right temperament and intellect ... to motivate her to keep on doing things that were rather extraordinary and exceptional."
History books in China still teach students about Snow's role in the country's history, though she returned to the United States in 1941. Her writings, including some 300 photos taken by her during her stay at the communist encampment, are now housed in the L. Tom Perry Special Collections at Brigham Young University.
Delegations of Chinese officials continued to visit Snow throughout the rest of her life, and when she died in Connecticut in 1997, a memorial service was held in her honor in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
For Snow, who was hardly known in her own country, and who has largely been forgotten in her home state, Wednesday's celebration will be the culmination of a century of Snow's work. Were she alive to see it, she would have been pleased, Snow's niece, Sheril Bischoff, said.
"Helen would just be happy to know that the place of her birth and China are getting together to honor her and in a sense, it brings full circle the bridge of friendship that she dedicated her life to building."
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