June 29, 1998 12:00 PM

Alma Adamkus was skeptical of her husband’s retirement plans. After almost three decades as a high-level bureaucrat in the Environmental Protection Agency’s midwestern division, Valdas Adamkus professed that he wanted to live out his golden years working on his golf swing and puttering about the couple’s three-bedroom home in the Chicago suburb of Hinsdale. His wife didn’t buy it for a second. “He’s the kind of person,” she says, “who can’t just sit home and do nothing.”

Alma, 71, knows her man. Just one year after leaving the EPA, Adamkus, 71, is now four months into his term as president of Lithuania, the former Soviet state he reluctantly fled as a refugee freedom fighter half a century ago, dreaming that some day he would return. (Much to the chagrin of his political rival, a 44-year-old prosecutor, a Lithuanian court ruled that Adamkus’s many visits over the years fulfilled the three-year residency required of candidates.) But his victory, albeit by a slim margin, seemed nothing short of remarkable. “I doubted he could win,” says longtime friend and Chicago resident Algimantas Kezelis, 64, “but his desire to serve the people came through.”

For Lithuanians, whose troubled republic of 3.8 million has suffered a half century of invasion, communism and political corruption, the sturdy Adamkus appeared to offer stability. “He ran as someone who could quiet the country’s political conflicts,” says Jurate Novagrockiene, a professor of international relations at Vilnius University in the Lithuanian capital. “So far it has worked out.” As for himself, Adamkus concedes to being a bit overwhelmed. “I’m still too full of enthusiasm to have a real sense of the difficulties ahead,” says Adamkus, who hopes to restore the nation’s social and economic fabric to a level that might someday secure membership for Lithuania in NATO and the European Union.

Since his inauguration on Feb. 26 (one day after giving up his U.S. citizenship), Adamkus has applied his austere personal style to his lofty new office. Though the 14th-century palace where he will work once housed Russian czars, Adamkus’s car is a practical Volvo and the first lady prefers to shop on foot. And they rarely venture out at night, Alma explains, because Adamkus believes his six bodyguards “would be happier at home with their families.”

The son of a military officer and a government worker who divorced when he was young, Adamkus grew up in a quiet middle-class neighborhood in the city of Kaunas. But then Lithuania became a revolving door in the Second World War, invaded first by Soviet troops, who were chased out by Hitler’s army, only to return as Germany fell. During the Nazi occupation, 15-year-old Adamkus edited an underground newspaper—Youth, Be On Guard!—and later tried to assemble a group to fight Stalin’s Red Army. “We knew we’d face the firing squad if we were caught,” he recalls.

As Vilnius fell to the Soviets, Adamkus hid under a tank on the last German train out and was reunited in Germany with his mother, stepfather and their two children in a refugee camp. He emigrated to America in 1949, arriving with one suitcase, five dollars and his relatives. He was later joined by Alma, whom he had met in the camp, and they married, settling in Chicago, where there was already a strong Lithuanian community. Adamkus worked in a car plant while earning a civil-engineering degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology at night, and he became active in the local Lithuanian independence movement. Later, with the EPA, he took every chance to return to his homeland on environmental projects and to address compatriots over the Voice of America. “I knew the day would come,” he says, “when my country would be free.”

That day dawned in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1993, while on leave from the EPA, Adamkus heard the first whisper of his new calling while managing a friend’s unsuccessful campaign for president. “Wherever I showed up,” he recalls, “people asked me why I was campaigning for someone else.”

Despite the social and fiscal strife that gnaws at his tiny nation, Adamkus, who has no children of his own, sees cause for optimism in Lithuania’s youth, who have retained their language and culture despite the Soviet occupation that he fought as a young man. “These people,” he says proudly, “will never give up.” Which makes it all the sweeter to be home.

Anne-Marie O’Neill

Craig Mellow in Vilnius and Barbara Sandler in Chicago

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