Behind the scenes – UNICEF and the 1965 Nobel Peace Prize Award – UNICEF (press release) (blog)

50 years ago today UNICEF was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. I still remember very well how I was informed about the prize. I was in a car with the Executive Director, Henry R. Labouisse, returning to the office from LaGuardia Airport when we received the call. We had just waved goodbye to Goodwill Ambassador Danny Kaye as he started to fly his small Lear jet across the U.S., stopping at half a dozen cities to promote Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF on the occasion of Halloween.

The person calling Henry R. Labouisse had a Norwegian accent and he informed him that UNICEF was awarded the 1965 Nobel peace Prize. The winner of the prize is always announced in October and the ceremony itself is always December 10th in Oslo on the birthday of Alfred Nobel. This meant we had less than two months to decide who should go to Oslo and receive the prize on behalf of UNICEF.

Jack with a replica of the Nobel medallion .
© UNICEF/NYHQJack with a replica of the Nobel medallion .

The phone call was confirmed by telegram. Young people who live with internet and cell phone might not know what a telegram is, but that was how important news could travel fast back in the days. Short sentences were carried along wires and delivered to the recipient. And that was how UNICEF was informed about being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1965.

But we had to jump for joy quietly because the news was scheduled to be officially revealed in Oslo the next day. My knees are not fit for jumping anymore, but I still get goosebumps thinking about how this was a game changer for UNICEF and a bit nervous thinking about the social disaster I almost caused (more about that later).

A special Board meeting was convened to discuss the acceptance of the Prize and the composition of the UNICEF team that would go to Oslo. They agreed that the Executive Director should accept the Prize on behalf of the organization. Ms. Zena Harmon, Chair of UNICEF’s Board, was given the task of delivering the Nobel Lecture on the day after the award ceremony. Goodwill Ambassador Danny Kaye was also invited as a special guest.

Nobel drawing
© Facsimile VG 09.12.1065A cartoon about Danny Kaye’s participation.

At this time I was number two in the communication division and handled all the media queries for the Nobel Prize in New York. Although UNICEF enjoyed generally positive press coverage on health and child-care topics, the Nobel announcement gave us a golden passage to the front pages of major newspapers and primetime news shows. There was coverage in all the major dailies and broadcast networks.

For the December Nobel ceremony, I was chosen to be a part of the UNICEF team going to Oslo. I was to handle all public information matters. The Nobel Committee of the Norwegian Parliament handled the annual event with aplomb. Media access was limited to one press conference with 12 tickets for reporters. Quietly I arranged for a film crew to record the ceremony; negotiated a doubling of the number of passes for the press conference; and scheduled additional interviews at the hotel where the UNICEF delegation was staying. Danny Kaye also did his part by starring in a special theatrical event with a number of Norwegian performers, organized by the Norwegian UN Association, to raise funds to match the Nobel Prize money.

The Norwegian press loved Danny Kaye. They were accustomed to the annual Nobel ceremony and found the Hollywood star a far more interesting story. There was so much publicity about Danny that on the day before the ceremony one Oslo afternoon paper carried a cartoon showing Kaye waving happily and Labouisse in a quiet corner, the legend saying What is Labouisse doing here? Thinking this would surely offend my boss, I bought all copies of the paper from the newsstand in the hotel entrance. I don’t think he ever found out about the cartoon!

UNICEF Executive Director Henry Labouisse (left), receives the Nobel Peace prize medal on behalf of UNICEF, presented by Nobel Committee Chairman of the Norwegian Parliament, Gunnar Jahn in 1965.
© UNICEF/NYHQ1965-0002crop/UnknownUNICEF Executive Director Henry Labouisse (left), receives the Nobel Peace prize medal on behalf of UNICEF, presented by Nobel Committee Chairman of the Norwegian Parliament, Gunnar Jahn in 1965.

Ahead of the ceremony I also almost got into some serious trouble. En route to Oslo I stopped off in Paris at UNICEF’s European office. The Chair of the Norwegian National Committee for UNICEF asked me whether I could bring her Parisian gown, specially ordered for the event, to Oslo. I readily agreed and packed the dress in one of my suitcases. When I got to Oslo, that suitcase was nowhere to be found – it had been mistakenly sent to a destination in Asia! With three days before the event, I had to spend hours shuttling between the hotel and the airport to retrieve it. The dress did turn up the night before the event, and I was saved from a social catastrophe.

The Nobel Peace Prize became a game changer for UNICEF because we utilized the public stage and the status we were given and used it to elevate UNICEF to what it is today: The world’s largest humanitarian organization for children. Working in almost every country in the world we advocate for children’s rights and deliver services where they are needed. In the last 50 years the world has become a better place for children and I know UNICEF is a big part of that and I’m proud to say that I was part of UNICEF. In a world of growing turmoil the need for UNICEF will be greater than ever and the rationale behind the Prize in 1965 must be reiterated. Investing in children is investing in peace and a better future.

Jack C. Ling was the UNICEF Director of the Information Division and worked for UNICEF for 35 years.