“I am truly proud to have the honour of welcoming you all to this first European Conference of ECHA.”

Those were the first words of Opening Address of the President of ECHA at that time, Dr Joan Freeman. She looked back on the start of ECHA and looked forward to what they hoped would happen in the future:

“It was only about 18 months ago that a few people met in Utrecht to discuss how we might form a European association for the highly able. (…) This conference in Zurich is intended both to launch ECHA as a clearly effective organisation, to firm-up network where it has already spread, as well as acting as a focus for making more links. (…)

You may have heard it on the grapevine that our next major conference is to be in Budapest. This beautiful city, either side of the Danube, was the natural choice. It fits into the original ECHA plan to have a European conference, alternately in the West and the East of the continent, in the quiet years either side of the conferences of the World Council for Gifted and Talented Children. (…)

Those of us here at this first conference of the European Council for High Ability are privileged to be in at the start of a movement which is already growing very fast indeed. (…)

ECHA is the only association covering all Europe, which is specifically concerned with high ability. We have a daunting amount to accomplish in the next few years in getting these outlined ideas and plans into action. I am excited by ECHA, because I believe it is a sound venture which will soon bear fruit for the highly able, and that is why we are here, to start the ball rolling.”
(Opening address From the President of ECHA, Dr. Joan Freeman 10th Nov 1988)

After 30 years we can say that these words have been – and still are – very true. The ball has started rolling, and is still rolling on after all these years!

Before these words were spoken in the Grand Ballroom of the Zürich Hotel, a lot had happened.

It wasn’t even sure the conference would be held in the first place. It was a big risk at that time: ECHA just started a year before as a new organization. The organizing committee had to book an expensive hotel and pay in advance for a lot people, including meals - not knowing whether anyone would want to come and pay for this unknown conference. In fact, Joan Freeman and Pieter Span would pay the hotel on their own expenses without even telling their family!

The fundraising didn’t go as well as hoped and ECHA’s Executive Committee asked in a meeting about the possibility to cancel. Due to all kinds of obligations the EC decided to continue.

first ECHA news
In the first ECHA news ever – volume 1, number 1, December 1987 – the conference was announced
Photo of Hotel Zurich
Hotel Zurich

And so the conference ‘High Ability – a European Perspective’ took place from 10-13 November 1988 in Hotel Zurich.

Fortunately the conference did work out, enough people showed up and the conference was a success!

In fact, 225 participants from 25 different countries were registered: for example from DDR, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and the USSR; but foreign countries like China, Australia, Liechtenstein and Canada were also represented. Remarkable in a time, where the Iron Curtain was still dividing Western and Eastern Europe, and there was no internet and quick communication!

Welcome to Zurich by Joan
Welcome to Zurich
by Joan Freeman

The Opening Address was not sure to be held either: Joan Freeman was waiting in her room, thinking it all would start at 18:30 p.m. All of a sudden Ulrike Stedtnitz, who chaired the conference, knocked on her door that everyone was waiting for her!

“The first conference was chaired by Ulrike Stedtnitz (see ECHA News, special issue 2012) and having an opening night at 18.00 p.m. The grand ballroom of the hotel Zurich was overcrowded. Participants were waiting. No Joan. I asked Ulrike: go and find out. After five minutes Ulrike returned: Joan had the time wrong. But then Joan appeared: strided to the front and gave a magnificent speech, by which ECHA was really founded. Main characteristic of the conference since that moment was: everyone felt at home.“
(Pieter Span, Source)

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Sebastian Coe, Zurich 1988

The conference was opened by Sebastian Coe, the British five times Olympic gold medal runner. He not only came, but even paid his own fare.

Another invited speaker, prof. Matuschkin, did not speak any English. Therefore ECHA had to pay for his fare, flight and stay and the translator’s; quite a cost, since there only was one plane a week, flying from Moscow to Zurich in those days.

Zurich conference flyer 1988
Flyer Zurich
Zurich flyer 2
Flyer Zurich