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TED2007

Ben Dunlap: The life-long learner

March 3, 2007

Wofford College president Ben Dunlap tells the story of Sandor Teszler, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who taught him about passionate living and lifelong learning.

Ben Dunlap - College president
Ben Dunlap is a true polymath, whose talents span poetry, opera, ballet, literature and administration. He is the president of South Carolina’s Wofford College. Full bio

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"Yo napot, pacak!" Which, as somebody here must surely know,
00:18
means "What's up, guys?" in Magyar,
00:24
that peculiar non-Indo-European language spoken by Hungarians
00:27
for which, given the fact that cognitive diversity is
00:30
at least as threatened as biodiversity on this planet,
00:33
few would have imagined much of a future even a century or two ago.
00:36
But there it is: "Yo napot, pacak!"
00:40
I said somebody here must surely know, because
00:42
despite the fact that there aren't that many Hungarians to begin with,
00:46
and the further fact that, so far as I know, there's not a drop
00:49
of Hungarian blood in my veins, at every critical juncture of my life
00:52
there has been a Hungarian friend or mentor there beside me.
00:56
I even have dreams that take place in landscapes
01:00
I recognize as the landscapes of Hungarian films,
01:02
especially the early movies of Miklos Jancso.
01:06
So, how do I explain this mysterious affinity?
01:09
Maybe it's because my native state of South Carolina,
01:13
which is not much smaller than present-day Hungary,
01:18
once imagined a future for itself as an independent country.
01:21
And as a consequence of that presumption,
01:24
my hometown was burned to the ground by an invading army,
01:26
an experience that has befallen many a Hungarian town and village
01:30
throughout its long and troubled history.
01:34
Or maybe it's because when I was a teenager back in the '50s,
01:37
my uncle Henry -- having denounced the Ku Klux Klan
01:40
and been bombed for his trouble and had crosses burned in his yard,
01:43
living under death threat -- took his wife and children to Massachusetts for safety
01:47
and went back to South Carolina to face down the Klan alone.
01:51
That was a very Hungarian thing to do,
01:54
as anyone will attest who remembers 1956.
01:57
And of course, from time to time Hungarians
02:01
have invented their own equivalent of the Klan.
02:04
Well, it seems to me that this Hungarian presence in my life
02:06
is difficult to account for, but ultimately I ascribe it to an admiration
02:13
for people with a complex moral awareness,
02:19
with a heritage of guilt and defeat matched by defiance and bravado.
02:22
It's not a typical mindset for most Americans,
02:27
but it is perforce typical of virtually all Hungarians.
02:30
So, "Yo napot, pacak!"
02:34
I went back to South Carolina after some 15 years amid the alien corn
02:36
at the tail end of the 1960s,
02:41
with the reckless condescension of that era
02:44
thinking I would save my people.
02:47
Never mind the fact that they were slow to acknowledge they needed saving.
02:49
I labored in that vineyard for a quarter century before
02:53
making my way to a little kingdom of the just in upstate South Carolina,
02:56
a Methodist-affiliated institution of higher learning called Wofford College.
03:00
I knew nothing about Wofford
03:04
and even less about Methodism,
03:06
but I was reassured on the first day that I taught at Wofford College
03:08
to find, among the auditors in my classroom,
03:12
a 90-year-old Hungarian, surrounded by a bevy of middle-aged European women
03:14
who seemed to function as an entourage of Rhinemaidens.
03:21
His name was Sandor Teszler.
03:23
He was a puckish widower whose wife and children were dead
03:26
and whose grandchildren lived far away.
03:30
In appearance, he resembled Mahatma Gandhi,
03:33
minus the loincloth, plus orthopedic boots.
03:36
He had been born in 1903 in the provinces
03:39
of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire,
03:43
in what later would become Yugoslavia.
03:45
He was ostracized as a child, not because he was a Jew --
03:48
his parents weren't very religious anyhow --
03:51
but because he had been born with two club feet,
03:52
a condition which, in those days, required institutionalization
03:55
and a succession of painful operations between the ages of one and 11.
04:00
He went to the commercial business high school as a young man
04:04
in Budapest, and there he was as smart as he was modest
04:07
and he enjoyed a considerable success. And after graduation
04:12
when he went into textile engineering, the success continued.
04:15
He built one plant after another.
04:18
He married and had two sons. He had friends in high places who
04:20
assured him that he was of great value to the economy.
04:23
Once, as he had left instructions to have done,
04:26
he was summoned in the middle of the night by the night watchman at one of his plants.
04:31
The night watchman had caught an employee who was stealing socks --
04:34
it was a hosiery mill, and he simply backed a truck up to the loading dock
04:39
and was shoveling in mountains of socks.
04:42
Mr. Teszler went down to the plant and confronted the thief and said,
04:43
"But why do you steal from me? If you need money you have only to ask."
04:47
The night watchman, seeing how things were going and waxing indignant,
04:52
said, "Well, we're going to call the police, aren't we?"
04:56
But Mr. Teszler answered, "No, that will not be necessary.
04:58
He will not steal from us again."
05:01
Well, maybe he was too trusting, because he stayed where he was
05:03
long after the Nazi Anschluss in Austria
05:08
and even after the arrests and deportations began in Budapest.
05:10
He took the simple precaution of having cyanide capsules placed in lockets
05:15
that could be worn about the necks of himself and his family.
05:19
And then one day, it happened: he and his family were arrested
05:22
and they were taken to a death house on the Danube.
05:26
In those early days of the Final Solution, it was handcrafted brutality;
05:29
people were beaten to death and their bodies tossed into the river.
05:33
But none who entered that death house had ever come out alive.
05:37
And in a twist you would not believe in a Steven Spielberg film --
05:41
the Gauleiter who was overseeing this brutal beating was the very same thief
05:45
who had stolen socks from Mr. Teszler's hosiery mill.
05:50
It was a brutal beating. And midway through that brutality,
05:54
one of Mr. Teszler's sons, Andrew, looked up and said,
05:59
"Is it time to take the capsule now, Papa?"
06:02
And the Gauleiter, who afterwards vanishes from this story,
06:05
leaned down and whispered into Mr. Teszler's ear,
06:09
"No, do not take the capsule. Help is on the way."
06:12
And then resumed the beating.
06:15
But help was on the way, and shortly afterwards
06:17
a car arrived from the Swiss Embassy.
06:19
They were spirited to safety. They were reclassified as Yugoslav citizens
06:22
and they managed to stay one step ahead of their pursuers
06:26
for the duration of the War, surviving burnings and bombings
06:29
and, at the end of the War, arrest by the Soviets.
06:33
Probably, Mr. Teszler had gotten some money into Swiss bank accounts
06:35
because he managed to take his family first to Great Britain,
06:39
then to Long Island and then to the center of the textile industry in the American South.
06:43
Which, as chance would have it, was Spartanburg, South Carolina,
06:47
the location of Wofford College.
06:51
And there, Mr. Teszler began all over again and once again achieved immense success,
06:53
especially after he invented the process
06:59
for manufacturing a new fabric called double-knit.
07:01
And then in the late 1950s, in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education,
07:04
when the Klan was resurgent all over the South,
07:11
Mr. Teszler said, "I have heard this talk before."
07:14
And he called his top assistant to him and asked,
07:18
"Where would you say, in this region, racism is most virulent?"
07:23
"Well, I don't rightly know, Mr. Teszler. I reckon that would be Kings Mountain."
07:26
"Good. Buy us some land in Kings Mountain
07:31
and announce we are going to build a major plant there."
07:35
The man did as he was told, and shortly afterwards,
07:37
Mr. Teszler received a visit from the white mayor of Kings Mountain.
07:40
Now, you should know that at that time,
07:44
the textile industry in the South was notoriously segregated.
07:47
The white mayor visited Mr. Teszler and said,
07:50
"Mr. Teszler, I trust you’re going to be hiring a lot of white workers."
07:54
Mr. Teszler told him, "You bring me the best workers that you can find,
07:57
and if they are good enough, I will hire them."
08:01
He also received a visit from the leader of the black community,
08:03
a minister, who said, "Mr. Teszler, I sure hope you're going to
08:08
hire some black workers for this new plant of yours."
08:10
He got the same answer: "You bring the best workers that you can find,
08:12
and if they are good enough, I will hire them."
08:16
As it happens, the black minister did his job better than the white mayor,
08:19
but that's neither here or there.
08:22
Mr. Teszler hired 16 men: eight white, eight black.
08:23
They were to be his seed group, his future foremen.
08:27
He had installed the heavy equipment for his new process
08:30
in an abandoned store in the vicinity of Kings Mountain,
08:33
and for two months these 16 men would live and work together,
08:36
mastering the new process.
08:39
He gathered them together after an initial tour of that facility
08:40
and he asked if there were any questions.
08:44
There was hemming and hawing and shuffling of feet,
08:46
and then one of the white workers stepped forward and said,
08:48
"Well, yeah. We’ve looked at this place and there's only one place to sleep,
08:53
there's only one place to eat, there's only one bathroom,
08:56
there's only one water fountain. Is this plant going to be integrated or what?"
08:59
Mr. Teszler said, "You are being paid twice the wages of any other textile workers in this region
09:05
and this is how we do business. Do you have any other questions?"
09:10
"No, I reckon I don't."
09:14
And two months later when the main plant opened
09:15
and hundreds of new workers, white and black,
09:19
poured in to see the facility for the first time,
09:21
they were met by the 16 foremen, white and black, standing shoulder to shoulder.
09:23
They toured the facility and were asked if there were any questions, and
09:29
inevitably the same question arose:
09:33
"Is this plant integrated or what?"
09:34
And one of the white foremen stepped forward and said,
09:36
"You are being paid twice the wages of any other workers
09:39
in this industry in this region and this is how we do business.
09:43
Do you have any other questions?"
09:47
And there were none. In one fell swoop,
09:49
Mr. Teszler had integrated the textile industry in that part of the South.
09:53
It was an achievement worthy of Mahatma Gandhi,
09:57
conducted with the shrewdness of a lawyer and the idealism of a saint.
10:00
In his eighties, Mr. Teszler, having retired from the textile industry,
10:04
adopted Wofford College,
10:10
auditing courses every semester,
10:12
and because he had a tendency to kiss anything that moved,
10:14
becoming affectionately known as "Opi" -- which is Magyar for grandfather --
10:18
by all and sundry. Before I got there, the library of the college
10:22
had been named for Mr. Teszler, and after I arrived in 1993,
10:26
the faculty decided to honor itself by naming Mr. Teszler Professor of the College --
10:31
partly because at that point he had already taken
10:36
all of the courses in the catalog, but mainly because
10:39
he was so conspicuously wiser than any one of us.
10:42
To me, it was immensely reassuring that the presiding spirit
10:47
of this little Methodist college in upstate South Carolina
10:51
was a Holocaust survivor from Central Europe.
10:55
Wise he was, indeed, but he also had a wonderful sense of humor.
10:59
And once for an interdisciplinary class,
11:03
I was screening the opening segment of Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal."
11:06
As the medieval knight Antonius Block returns from the wild goose chase
11:10
of the Crusades and arrives on the rocky shore of Sweden,
11:14
only to find the specter of death waiting for him,
11:17
Mr. Teszler sat in the dark with his fellow students. And
11:20
as death opened his cloak to embrace the knight
11:24
in a ghastly embrace, I heard Mr. Teszler's tremulous voice:
11:28
"Uh oh," he said, "This doesn't look so good." (Laughter)
11:32
But it was music that was his greatest passion, especially opera.
11:36
And on the first occasion that I visited his house, he gave me
11:43
honor of deciding what piece of music we would listen to.
11:46
And I delighted him by rejecting "Cavalleria Rusticana"
11:50
in favor of Bela Bartok's "Bluebeard's Castle."
11:54
I love Bartok's music, as did Mr. Teszler,
11:57
and he had virtually every recording of Bartok's music ever issued.
12:00
And it was at his house that I heard for the first time
12:04
Bartok's Third Piano Concerto and learned from
12:06
Mr. Teszler that it had been composed in nearby Asheville, North Carolina
12:09
in the last year of the composer's life.
12:14
He was dying of leukemia and he knew it,
12:16
and he dedicated this concerto to his wife,
12:19
Dita, who was herself a concert pianist.
12:22
And into the slow, second movement, marked "adagio religioso,"
12:25
he incorporated the sounds of birdsong that he heard
12:29
outside his window in what he knew would be his last spring;
12:33
he was imagining a future for her in which he would play no part.
12:36
And clearly this composition is his final statement to her --
12:42
it was first performed after his death --
12:48
and through her to the world.
12:50
And just as clearly, it is saying, "It's okay. It was all so beautiful.
12:52
Whenever you hear this, I will be there."
12:59
It was only after Mr. Teszler's death that I learned
13:03
that the marker on the grave of Bela Bartok in Hartsdale, New York
13:08
was paid for by Sandor Teszler. "Yo napot, Bela!"
13:12
Not long before Mr. Teszler’s own death at the age of 97,
13:17
he heard me hold forth on human iniquity.
13:22
I delivered a lecture in which I described history
13:26
as, on the whole, a tidal wave of human suffering and brutality,
13:28
and Mr. Teszler came up to me afterwards with gentle reproach and said,
13:32
"You know, Doctor, human beings are fundamentally good."
13:37
And I made a vow to myself, then and there,
13:43
that if this man who had such cause to think otherwise
13:47
had reached that conclusion,
13:51
I would not presume to differ until he released me from my vow.
13:53
And now he's dead, so I'm stuck with my vow.
13:57
"Yo napot, Sandor!"
14:01
I thought my skein of Hungarian mentors had come to an end,
14:03
but almost immediately I met Francis Robicsek, a Hungarian doctor --
14:07
actually a heart surgeon in Charlotte, North Carolina, then in his late seventies --
14:14
who had been a pioneer in open-heart surgery,
14:18
and, tinkering away in his garage behind his house,
14:20
had invented many of the devices that are standard parts of those procedures.
14:24
He's also a prodigious art collector, beginning as an intern in Budapest
14:29
by collecting 16th- and 17th-century Dutch art and Hungarian painting,
14:34
and when he came to this country moving on to Spanish colonial art,
14:38
Russian icons and finally Mayan ceramics.
14:43
He's the author of seven books, six of them on Mayan ceramics.
14:46
It was he who broke the Mayan codex, enabling scholars to relate
14:49
the pictographs on Mayan ceramics to the hieroglyphs of the Mayan script.
14:53
On the occasion of my first visit, we toured his house
14:57
and we saw hundreds of works of museum quality,
15:00
and then we paused in front of a closed door and Dr. Robicsek said,
15:03
with obvious pride, "Now for the piece de resistance."
15:08
And he opened the door and we walked into a
15:11
windowless 20-by-20-foot room with shelves from floor to ceiling, and
15:14
crammed on every shelf his collection of Mayan ceramics.
15:20
Now, I know absolutely nothing about Mayan ceramics,
15:22
but I wanted to be as ingratiating as possible so I said,
15:24
"But Dr. Robicsek, this is absolutely dazzling."
15:27
"Yes," he said. "That is what the Louvre said.
15:31
They would not leave me alone until I let them have a piece,
15:34
but it was not a good one." (Laughter)
15:38
Well, it occurred to me that I should invite Dr. Robicsek
15:40
to lecture at Wofford College on -- what else?
15:44
-- Leonardo da Vinci. And further, I should invite him to meet
15:47
my oldest trustee, who had majored in French history at Yale
15:51
some 70-odd years before and, at 89, still ruled the world's
15:55
largest privately owned textile empire with an iron hand.
16:00
His name is Roger Milliken. And Mr. Milliken agreed,
16:05
and Dr. Robicsek agreed. And Dr. Robicsek visited
16:09
and delivered the lecture and it was a dazzling success.
16:12
And afterwards we convened at the President's House with Dr. Robicsek
16:15
on one hand, Mr. Milliken on the other.
16:19
And it was only at that moment, as we were sitting down to dinner,
16:20
that I recognized the enormity of the risk I had created,
16:24
because to bring these two titans, these two masters of the universe
16:26
together -- it was like introducing Mothra to Godzilla over the skyline of Tokyo.
16:30
If they didn't like each other, we could all get trampled to death.
16:35
But they did, they did like each other.
16:38
They got along famously until the very end of the meal,
16:40
and then they got into a furious argument.
16:43
And what they were arguing about was this:
16:45
whether the second Harry Potter movie was as good as the first. (Laughter)
16:47
Mr. Milliken said it was not. Dr. Robicsek disagreed.
16:52
I was still trying to take in the notion that these titans,
16:57
these masters of the universe, in their spare time watch Harry Potter movies,
17:01
when Mr. Milliken thought he would win the argument by saying,
17:04
"You just think it's so good because you didn't read the book."
17:08
And Dr. Robicsek reeled back in his chair, but quickly gathered his wits,
17:11
leaned forward and said, "Well, that is true, but I'll bet you went
17:15
to the movie with a grandchild." "Well, yes, I did," conceded Mr. Milliken.
17:18
"Aha!" said Dr. Robicsek. "I went to the movie all by myself." (Laughter) (Applause)
17:23
And I realized, in this moment of revelation,
17:28
that what these two men were revealing was the secret
17:33
of their extraordinary success, each in his own right.
17:37
And it lay precisely in that insatiable curiosity,
17:40
that irrepressible desire to know, no matter what the subject,
17:44
no matter what the cost,
17:48
even at a time when the keepers of the Doomsday Clock
17:50
are willing to bet even money that the human race won't be around
17:53
to imagine anything in the year 2100, a scant 93 years from now.
17:56
"Live each day as if it is your last," said Mahatma Gandhi.
18:01
"Learn as if you'll live forever."
18:05
This is what I'm passionate about. It is precisely this.
18:07
It is this inextinguishable, undaunted appetite for learning and experience,
18:12
no matter how risible, no matter how esoteric,
18:21
no matter how seditious it might seem.
18:23
This defines the imagined futures of our fellow Hungarians --
18:26
Robicsek, Teszler and Bartok -- as it does my own.
18:32
As it does, I suspect, that of everybody here.
18:37
To which I need only add, "Ez a mi munkank; es nem is keves."
18:41
This is our task; we know it will be hard.
18:47
"Ez a mi munkank; es nem is keves. Yo napot, pacak!" (Applause)
18:52

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Ben Dunlap - College president
Ben Dunlap is a true polymath, whose talents span poetry, opera, ballet, literature and administration. He is the president of South Carolina’s Wofford College.

Why you should listen

Ben Dunlap was a dancer for four years with the Columbia City Ballet, kicking off a life of artistic and cultural exploration. A Rhodes Scholar, he did his PhD in English literature at Harvard, and is now the president of Wofford College, a small liberal arts school in South Carolina. He has taught classes on a wide variety of subjects, from Asian history to creative writing.

He's also a writer-producer for television, and his 19-part series The Renaissance has been adopted for use by more than 100 colleges. He has been a Senior Fulbright Lecturer in Thailand and a moderator at the Aspen Institute.

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