After fleeing their homeland and hiding their Jewish roots from the Nazis during World War II, the Korbel family returned to Prague after waiting out the war in England. A few short years later, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia seized power, the family of refugees, including an 11-year-old Marie Jana “Madeleine” Korbelová, arrived at Ellis Island in 1948 and eventually made their way west to settle in Denver, Colorado.
She graduated from Kent Denver School in Cherry Hills Village and earned her political science degree from Wellesley College in Massachusetts in 1959. That summer, she married journalist Joseph Albright who she met while interning at The Denver Post. By 1975, Albright had earned her Ph.D. in Philosophy from Columbia University before the family relocated to Washington, D.C.
Active in politics and global affairs, Albright was recruited to work in the West Wing under Jimmy Carter, taught Eastern European studies at Georgetown University, and served as a foreign policy advisor. In 1993, Albright was appointed as the Ambassador to the United Nations during Bill Clinton’s first term in office; four years later, he appointed Albright to be the United States’ first female Secretary of State.
“Few leaders have been so perfectly suited for the times in which they served,” Clinton said in a statement after her recent passing. “As a child in war-torn Europe, Madeleine and her family were twice forced to flee their home. When the end of the Cold War ushered in a new era of global interdependence, she became America’s voice at the UN, then took the helm at the State Department, where she was a passionate force for freedom, democracy, and human rights.”
Her legacy as Ambassador and Secretary of State was mixed with both success and regret including neglect of the genocide in Rwanda. Possibly her most significant actions during her time in the State Department were to ending violence in the Balkans and intervention in Kosovo to prevent a genocide against ethnic Muslims in 1999.
“I think that there were real questions as to … whether a woman could be secretary of state. And not just in terms of dealing with the issues, but in terms of dealing with the people, especially in hierarchical societies. … I found, actually, that I could do that,” she told CNN in 2005. “And people, I think, now can understand that is perfectly possible for a woman to be secretary of state, and I am delighted that there is second one,” a reference to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
She remained sharp, politically active, and a fierce defender of democracy until her recent death this month from cancer; Albright even weighed in on the Russian invasion of Ukraine just days before she passed. She was 84.