Bernie Dunlap: The life-long learner

Recorded atMarch 03, 2007
Duration (min:sec)18:40
Video TypeTED Stage Talk
Words per minute199.61 fast
Readability (FK)57.07 medium
SpeakerBernie Dunlap

Official TED page for this talk


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

Text Highlight (experimental)
100:18 "Jó napot, pacák" Which, as somebody here must surely know,
200:24 means "What's up, guys?" in Magyar,
300:27 that peculiar non-Indo-European language spoken by Hungarians
400:30 for which, given the fact that cognitive diversity is
500:33 at least as threatened as biodiversity on this planet,
600:36 few would have imagined much of a future even a century or two ago.
700:40 But there it is: "Jó napot, pacák"
800:42 I said somebody here must surely know, because
900:46 despite the fact that there aren't that many Hungarians to begin with,
1000:49 and the further fact that, so far as I know, there's not a drop
1100:52 of Hungarian blood in my veins, at every critical juncture of my life
1200:56 there has been a Hungarian friend or mentor there beside me.
1301:00 I even have dreams that take place in landscapes
1401:02 I recognize as the landscapes of Hungarian films,
1501:06 especially the early movies of Miklos Jancso.
1601:09 So, how do I explain this mysterious affinity?
1701:13 Maybe it's because my native state of South Carolina,
1801:18 which is not much smaller than present-day Hungary,
1901:21 once imagined a future for itself as an independent country.
2001:24 And as a consequence of that presumption,
2101:26 my hometown was burned to the ground by an invading army,
2201:30 an experience that has befallen many a Hungarian town and village
2301:34 throughout its long and troubled history.
2401:37 Or maybe it's because when I was a teenager back in the '50s,
2501:40 my uncle Henry -- having denounced the Ku Klux Klan
2601:43 and been bombed for his trouble and had crosses burned in his yard,
2701:47 living under death threat -- took his wife and children to Massachusetts for safety
2801:51 and went back to South Carolina to face down the Klan alone.
2901:54 That was a very Hungarian thing to do,
3001:57 as anyone will attest who remembers 1956.
3102:01 And of course, from time to time Hungarians
3202:04 have invented their own equivalent of the Klan.
3302:06 Well, it seems to me that this Hungarian presence in my life
3402:13 is difficult to account for, but ultimately I ascribe it to an admiration
3502:19 for people with a complex moral awareness,
3602:22 with a heritage of guilt and defeat matched by defiance and bravado.
3702:27 It's not a typical mindset for most Americans,
3802:30 but it is perforce typical of virtually all Hungarians.
3902:34 So, "Jó napot, pacák!"
4002:36 I went back to South Carolina after some 15 years amid the alien corn
4102:41 at the tail end of the 1960s,
4202:44 with the reckless condescension of that era
4302:47 thinking I would save my people.
4402:49 Never mind the fact that they were slow to acknowledge they needed saving.
4502:53 I labored in that vineyard for a quarter century before
4602:56 making my way to a little kingdom of the just in upstate South Carolina,
4703:00 a Methodist-affiliated institution of higher learning called Wofford College.
4803:04 I knew nothing about Wofford
4903:06 and even less about Methodism,
5003:08 but I was reassured on the first day that I taught at Wofford College
5103:12 to find, among the auditors in my classroom,
5203:14 a 90-year-old Hungarian, surrounded by a bevy of middle-aged European women
5303:21 who seemed to function as an entourage of Rhinemaidens.
5403:23 His name was Sandor Teszler.
5503:26 He was a puckish widower whose wife and children were dead
5603:30 and whose grandchildren lived far away.
5703:33 In appearance, he resembled Mahatma Gandhi,
5803:36 minus the loincloth, plus orthopedic boots.
5903:39 He had been born in 1903 in the provinces
6003:43 of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire,
6103:45 in what later would become Yugoslavia.
6203:48 He was ostracized as a child, not because he was a Jew --
6303:51 his parents weren't very religious anyhow --
6403:52 but because he had been born with two club feet,
6503:55 a condition which, in those days, required institutionalization
6604:00 and a succession of painful operations between the ages of one and 11.
6704:04 He went to the commercial business high school as a young man
6804:07 in Budapest, and there he was as smart as he was modest
6904:12 and he enjoyed a considerable success. And after graduation
7004:15 when he went into textile engineering, the success continued.
7104:18 He built one plant after another.
7204:20 He married and had two sons. He had friends in high places who
7304:23 assured him that he was of great value to the economy.
7404:26 Once, as he had left instructions to have done,
7504:31 he was summoned in the middle of the night by the night watchman at one of his plants.
7604:34 The night watchman had caught an employee who was stealing socks --
7704:39 it was a hosiery mill, and he simply backed a truck up to the loading dock
7804:42 and was shoveling in mountains of socks.
7904:43 Mr. Teszler went down to the plant and confronted the thief and said,
8004:47 "But why do you steal from me? If you need money you have only to ask."
8104:52 The night watchman, seeing how things were going and waxing indignant,
8204:56 said, "Well, we're going to call the police, aren't we?"
8304:58 But Mr. Teszler answered, "No, that will not be necessary.
8405:01 He will not steal from us again."
8505:03 Well, maybe he was too trusting, because he stayed where he was
8605:08 long after the Nazi Anschluss in Austria
8705:10 and even after the arrests and deportations began in Budapest.
8805:15 He took the simple precaution of having cyanide capsules placed in lockets
8905:19 that could be worn about the necks of himself and his family.
9005:22 And then one day, it happened: he and his family were arrested
9105:26 and they were taken to a death house on the Danube.
9205:29 In those early days of the Final Solution, it was handcrafted brutality;
9305:33 people were beaten to death and their bodies tossed into the river.
9405:37 But none who entered that death house had ever come out alive.
9505:41 And in a twist you would not believe in a Steven Spielberg film --
9605:45 the Gauleiter who was overseeing this brutal beating was the very same thief
9705:50 who had stolen socks from Mr. Teszler's hosiery mill.
9805:54 It was a brutal beating. And midway through that brutality,
9905:59 one of Mr. Teszler's sons, Andrew, looked up and said,
10006:02 "Is it time to take the capsule now, Papa?"
10106:05 And the Gauleiter, who afterwards vanishes from this story,
10206:09 leaned down and whispered into Mr. Teszler's ear,
10306:12 "No, do not take the capsule. Help is on the way."
10406:15 And then resumed the beating.
10506:17 But help was on the way, and shortly afterwards
10606:19 a car arrived from the Swiss Embassy.
10706:22 They were spirited to safety. They were reclassified as Yugoslav citizens
10806:26 and they managed to stay one step ahead of their pursuers
10906:29 for the duration of the War, surviving burnings and bombings
11006:33 and, at the end of the War, arrest by the Soviets.
11106:35 Probably, Mr. Teszler had gotten some money into Swiss bank accounts
11206:39 because he managed to take his family first to Great Britain,
11306:43 then to Long Island and then to the center of the textile industry in the American South.
11406:47 Which, as chance would have it, was Spartanburg, South Carolina,
11506:51 the location of Wofford College.
11606:53 And there, Mr. Teszler began all over again and once again achieved immense success,
11706:59 especially after he invented the process
11807:01 for manufacturing a new fabric called double-knit.
11907:04 And then in the late 1950s, in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education,
12007:11 when the Klan was resurgent all over the South,
12107:14 Mr. Teszler said, "I have heard this talk before."
12207:18 And he called his top assistant to him and asked,
12307:23 "Where would you say, in this region, racism is most virulent?"
12407:26 "Well, I don't rightly know, Mr. Teszler. I reckon that would be Kings Mountain."
12507:31 "Good. Buy us some land in Kings Mountain
12607:35 and announce we are going to build a major plant there."
12707:37 The man did as he was told, and shortly afterwards,
12807:40 Mr. Teszler received a visit from the white mayor of Kings Mountain.
12907:44 Now, you should know that at that time,
13007:47 the textile industry in the South was notoriously segregated.
13107:50 The white mayor visited Mr. Teszler and said,
13207:54 "Mr. Teszler, I trust you’re going to be hiring a lot of white workers."
13307:57 Mr. Teszler told him, "You bring me the best workers that you can find,
13408:01 and if they are good enough, I will hire them."
13508:03 He also received a visit from the leader of the black community,
13608:08 a minister, who said, "Mr. Teszler, I sure hope you're going to
13708:10 hire some black workers for this new plant of yours."
13808:12 He got the same answer: "You bring the best workers that you can find,
13908:16 and if they are good enough, I will hire them."
14008:19 As it happens, the black minister did his job better than the white mayor,
14108:22 but that's neither here or there.
14208:23 Mr. Teszler hired 16 men: eight white, eight black.
14308:27 They were to be his seed group, his future foremen.
14408:30 He had installed the heavy equipment for his new process
14508:33 in an abandoned store in the vicinity of Kings Mountain,
14608:36 and for two months these 16 men would live and work together,
14708:39 mastering the new process.
14808:40 He gathered them together after an initial tour of that facility
14908:44 and he asked if there were any questions.
15008:46 There was hemming and hawing and shuffling of feet,
15108:48 and then one of the white workers stepped forward and said,
15208:53 "Well, yeah. We’ve looked at this place and there's only one place to sleep,
15308:56 there's only one place to eat, there's only one bathroom,
15408:59 there's only one water fountain. Is this plant going to be integrated or what?"
15509:05 Mr. Teszler said, "You are being paid twice the wages of any other textile workers in this region
15609:10 and this is how we do business. Do you have any other questions?"
15709:14 "No, I reckon I don't."
15809:15 And two months later when the main plant opened
15909:19 and hundreds of new workers, white and black,
16009:21 poured in to see the facility for the first time,
16109:23 they were met by the 16 foremen, white and black, standing shoulder to shoulder.
16209:29 They toured the facility and were asked if there were any questions, and
16309:33 inevitably the same question arose:
16409:34 "Is this plant integrated or what?"
16509:36 And one of the white foremen stepped forward and said,
16609:39 "You are being paid twice the wages of any other workers
16709:43 in this industry in this region and this is how we do business.
16809:47 Do you have any other questions?"
16909:49 And there were none. In one fell swoop,
17009:53 Mr. Teszler had integrated the textile industry in that part of the South.
17109:57 It was an achievement worthy of Mahatma Gandhi,
17210:00 conducted with the shrewdness of a lawyer and the idealism of a saint.
17310:04 In his eighties, Mr. Teszler, having retired from the textile industry,
17410:10 adopted Wofford College,
17510:12 auditing courses every semester,
17610:14 and because he had a tendency to kiss anything that moved,
17710:18 becoming affectionately known as "Opi" -- which is Magyar for grandfather --
17810:22 by all and sundry. Before I got there, the library of the college
17910:26 had been named for Mr. Teszler, and after I arrived in 1993,
18010:31 the faculty decided to honor itself by naming Mr. Teszler Professor of the College --
18110:36 partly because at that point he had already taken
18210:39 all of the courses in the catalog, but mainly because
18310:42 he was so conspicuously wiser than any one of us.
18410:47 To me, it was immensely reassuring that the presiding spirit
18510:51 of this little Methodist college in upstate South Carolina
18610:55 was a Holocaust survivor from Central Europe.
18710:59 Wise he was, indeed, but he also had a wonderful sense of humor.
18811:03 And once for an interdisciplinary class,
18911:06 I was screening the opening segment of Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal."
19011:10 As the medieval knight Antonius Block returns from the wild goose chase
19111:14 of the Crusades and arrives on the rocky shore of Sweden,
19211:17 only to find the specter of death waiting for him,
19311:20 Mr. Teszler sat in the dark with his fellow students. And
19411:24 as death opened his cloak to embrace the knight
19511:28 in a ghastly embrace, I heard Mr. Teszler's tremulous voice:
19611:32 "Uh oh," he said, "This doesn't look so good." (Laughter)
19711:36 But it was music that was his greatest passion, especially opera.
19811:43 And on the first occasion that I visited his house, he gave me
19911:46 honor of deciding what piece of music we would listen to.
20011:50 And I delighted him by rejecting "Cavalleria Rusticana"
20111:54 in favor of Bela Bartok's "Bluebeard's Castle."
20211:57 I love Bartok's music, as did Mr. Teszler,
20312:00 and he had virtually every recording of Bartok's music ever issued.
20412:04 And it was at his house that I heard for the first time
20512:06 Bartok's Third Piano Concerto and learned from
20612:09 Mr. Teszler that it had been composed in nearby Asheville, North Carolina
20712:14 in the last year of the composer's life.
20812:16 He was dying of leukemia and he knew it,
20912:19 and he dedicated this concerto to his wife,
21012:22 Dita, who was herself a concert pianist.
21112:25 And into the slow, second movement, marked "adagio religioso,"
21212:29 he incorporated the sounds of birdsong that he heard
21312:33 outside his window in what he knew would be his last spring;
21412:36 he was imagining a future for her in which he would play no part.
21512:42 And clearly this composition is his final statement to her --
21612:48 it was first performed after his death --
21712:50 and through her to the world.
21812:52 And just as clearly, it is saying, "It's okay. It was all so beautiful.
21912:59 Whenever you hear this, I will be there."
22013:03 It was only after Mr. Teszler's death that I learned
22113:08 that the marker on the grave of Bela Bartok in Hartsdale, New York
22213:12 was paid for by Sandor Teszler. "Jó napot, Bela!"
22313:17 Not long before Mr. Teszler’s own death at the age of 97,
22413:22 he heard me hold forth on human iniquity.
22513:26 I delivered a lecture in which I described history
22613:28 as, on the whole, a tidal wave of human suffering and brutality,
22713:32 and Mr. Teszler came up to me afterwards with gentle reproach and said,
22813:37 "You know, Doctor, human beings are fundamentally good."
22913:43 And I made a vow to myself, then and there,
23013:47 that if this man who had such cause to think otherwise
23113:51 had reached that conclusion,
23213:53 I would not presume to differ until he released me from my vow.
23313:57 And now he's dead, so I'm stuck with my vow.
23414:01 "Jó napot, Sandor!"
23514:03 I thought my skein of Hungarian mentors had come to an end,
23614:07 but almost immediately I met Francis Robicsek, a Hungarian doctor --
23714:14 actually a heart surgeon in Charlotte, North Carolina, then in his late seventies --
23814:18 who had been a pioneer in open-heart surgery,
23914:20 and, tinkering away in his garage behind his house,
24014:24 had invented many of the devices that are standard parts of those procedures.
24114:29 He's also a prodigious art collector, beginning as an intern in Budapest
24214:34 by collecting 16th- and 17th-century Dutch art and Hungarian painting,
24314:38 and when he came to this country moving on to Spanish colonial art,
24414:43 Russian icons and finally Mayan ceramics.
24514:46 He's the author of seven books, six of them on Mayan ceramics.
24614:49 It was he who broke the Mayan codex, enabling scholars to relate
24714:53 the pictographs on Mayan ceramics to the hieroglyphs of the Mayan script.
24814:57 On the occasion of my first visit, we toured his house
24915:00 and we saw hundreds of works of museum quality,
25015:03 and then we paused in front of a closed door and Dr. Robicsek said,
25115:08 with obvious pride, "Now for the piece De resistance."
25215:11 And he opened the door and we walked into a
25315:14 windowless 20-by-20-foot room with shelves from floor to ceiling, and
25415:20 crammed on every shelf his collection of Mayan ceramics.
25515:22 Now, I know absolutely nothing about Mayan ceramics,
25615:24 but I wanted to be as ingratiating as possible so I said,
25715:27 "But Dr. Robicsek, this is absolutely dazzling."
25815:31 "Yes," he said. "That is what the Louvre said.
25915:34 They would not leave me alone until I let them have a piece,
26015:38 but it was not a good one." (Laughter)
26115:40 Well, it occurred to me that I should invite Dr. Robicsek
26215:44 to lecture at Wofford College on -- what else?
26315:47 -- Leonardo da Vinci. And further, I should invite him to meet
26415:51 my oldest trustee, who had majored in French history at Yale
26515:55 some 70-odd years before and, at 89, still ruled the world's
26616:00 largest privately owned textile empire with an iron hand.
26716:05 His name is Roger Milliken. And Mr. Milliken agreed,
26816:09 and Dr. Robicsek agreed. And Dr. Robicsek visited
26916:12 and delivered the lecture and it was a dazzling success.
27016:15 And afterwards we convened at the President's House with Dr. Robicsek
27116:19 on one hand, Mr. Milliken on the other.
27216:20 And it was only at that moment, as we were sitting down to dinner,
27316:24 that I recognized the enormity of the risk I had created,
27416:27 because to bring these two titans, these two masters of the universe
27516:30 together -- it was like introducing Mothra to Godzilla over the skyline of Tokyo.
27616:35 If they didn't like each other, we could all get trampled to death.
27716:38 But they did, they did like each other.
27816:40 They got along famously until the very end of the meal,
27916:43 and then they got into a furious argument.
28016:45 And what they were arguing about was this:
28116:47 whether the second Harry Potter movie was as good as the first. (Laughter)
28216:52 Mr. Milliken said it was not. Dr. Robicsek disagreed.
28316:57 I was still trying to take in the notion that these titans,
28417:01 these masters of the universe, in their spare time watch Harry Potter movies,
28517:05 when Mr. Milliken thought he would win the argument by saying,
28617:08 "You just think it's so good because you didn't read the book."
28717:11 And Dr. Robicsek reeled back in his chair, but quickly gathered his wits,
28817:15 leaned forward and said, "Well, that is true, but I'll bet you went
28917:18 to the movie with a grandchild." "Well, yes, I did," conceded Mr. Milliken.
29017:23 "Aha!" said Dr. Robicsek. "I went to the movie all by myself." (Laughter) (Applause)
29117:28 And I realized, in this moment of revelation,
29217:33 that what these two men were revealing was the secret
29317:37 of their extraordinary success, each in his own right.
29417:40 And it lay precisely in that insatiable curiosity,
29517:44 that irrepressible desire to know, no matter what the subject,
29617:48 no matter what the cost,
29717:50 even at a time when the keepers of the Doomsday Clock
29817:53 are willing to bet even money that the human race won't be around
29917:56 to imagine anything in the year 2100, a scant 93 years from now.
30018:01 "Live each day as if it is your last," said Mahatma Gandhi.
30118:05 "Learn as if you'll live forever."
30218:07 This is what I'm passionate about. It is precisely this.
30318:12 It is this inextinguishable, undaunted appetite for learning and experience,
30418:21 no matter how risible, no matter how esoteric,
30518:23 no matter how seditious it might seem.
30618:26 This defines the imagined futures of our fellow Hungarians --
30718:32 Robicsek, Teszler and Bartok -- as it does my own.
30818:37 As it does, I suspect, that of everybody here.
30918:41 To which I need only add, "Ez a mi munkank; es nem is keves."
31018:47 This is our task; we know it will be hard.
31118:52 "Ez a mi munkank; es nem is keves. Jó napot, pacák!" (Applause)