Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Happy to be part of oral history

The National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library (, located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is the "center of gravity" of immigrants, and their descendants, from the former Czechoslovakia. The NCSML runs interesting programs throughout the year, has a great online gift shop, and its library is the depository of many valuable books and documents. Despite the fact that the library was destroyed a couple of years ago in Iowa's disastrous flood, the treasures were saved and the building has now been rebuilt.

The Museum's current major project consists of collecting oral histories of Czech and Slovak immigrants. I was lucky enough to be selected to participate, and I was interviewed during the summer. The result of the interview was posted just last week on the Museum's web site. You can access it directly on:

Alternately, you can go on YouTube, enter "Charles Heller," and view several of the clips from the interview. Thanks for your interest -- and welcome to my blog!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Invisible Bridge

I began reading a novel called The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010) as part of my research on World War II, as I edit my memoir of life as a "hidden Child" during Nazi occupation. Only a few pages in, I was totally absorbed in this wonderful love story. Judging from her photo, Julie Orringer is a young woman. Thus, I find it amazing that she has been able to describe so vividly and accurately the horrors wrought by the Germans and their collaborators. Reading between the lines of the Acknowledgement leads me to think that the book may be based on the story of the author's family. Is this true? I don't know. I do know that, while the book is long -- some 600 pages -- and it took me two weeks to read it, I became totally absorbed in it. For the entire period, I was living with Andras, Klara, and the other characters. Now that I've completed the book, I feel that something is missing from my day. I'll have to wait for the movie.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Much harder than I had thought...

It has been more than a month since my last blog. The reason? I underestimated the amount of work that would be required to get my book, Out of Prague: A Memoir of Survival, Denial, and Triumph, translated into Czech. The publisher, Mlada Fronta, asked me to make a few changes so that the book would be more suitable for the Czech reader. My original estimate was that it would take me perhaps three weeks to make these changes, before sending them to my translator in Prague.

The process has turned out to be considerably more difficult and time-consuming. First, I modify each chapter and perform several edits. Then, I e-mail it to Prague. Perhpas a week later, I receive the translated chapter, at which time I edit this Czech version. The latter is the tough part. It is very unusual for an author to know the foreign language into which his book is being translated. Czech is my native language. I know it quite well -- not well enough to do my own translation, but well enough to understand every word. Therein lies the problem. Occasionally, there are nuances and subtle meanings which get lost in translation, and my Czech collaborator and I must work through these. My knowledge of Czech turns out to be both a blessing and a curse.

The good news is that we're making progress. So far, we've completed the Preface and seven of 18 chapters. We're on schedule to meet our target completion date. As I mentioned in a previous blog, the Czech book will launch the first week of May 2011, at the Prague Book Fair, with a book tour to follow.

In the meantime, the search for a U.S. publisher for the English version goes on...

Thursday, August 19, 2010

An unforgettable book

Sue and I returned last night from our annual reunion of Oklahoma State University friends. On alternate years, we meet at the "cabin" of my college roommate, Don Gafford, and his wife, Sondra. Their home is located in spectacular country -- the High Sierras -- in the least populated county in the state of California. Sierra County has a population of only 3,300 people, but a multitude of snow-capped mountains, crystal-clear lakes, and green forests.

While relaxing in a hammock at the edge of Lusk Meadow, I had the pleasure of reading one of the finest Holocaust-era novels in print. Because of my own to-be-published memoir on the subject, I try to read any and all books on this subject -- fiction and nonfiction. Some are good, some are fair, others are outstanding.

Taking its place in the latter group is Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay. It is a fictional account of a young girl's separation from her parents, following a real event: the round-up of thousands of French Jews and their children -- not by Germans, but by French police. Ms. de Rosnay teaches us about this shameful and little-known crime by skillfully interweaving two story lines -- those of Sarah, the Jewish girl who holds a terrible secret and Julia, an American journalist, who uncovers the secret. The story is powerful and compelling. At the same time, it is so terrifying that -- on many occasions -- I wanted to stop reading. But, I couldn't.

I am grateful to St. Martin's Press, and its Griffin imprint, for publishing one of the finest books in this genre. Go out and buy this book. It will make you cry, but you will never forget it.

Monday, July 26, 2010

A book deal!

After parting company with my literary agent several weeks ago, I implemented a new strategy for getting my book -- Out of Prague: A Memoir of Survival, Denial, and Triumph -- published. Following the example of several other first-time American authors of books dealing with the Second World War and/or the Holocaust, I decided to try to get my book published in Europe first. The writers whose paths I followed found European publishers, had their books translated into the respective native languages, and saw their books have successful sales runs. Book deals made in Europe caught the interest of American publishers, who -- based on this new credibility -- signed the authors to contracts for the U.S. market.

For me, the natural target was my native country -- the Czech Republic. I queried one of the largest publishers in the nation, Mlada Fronta -- a firm which owns one of the country's major newspapers, 45 magazines, and publishes more than 200 book titles each year. Within a week, I received an expression of interest and a request for the full manuscript. I sent it immediately and, one week later, we were discussing specifics. One month ago, we met in Prague and came to an agreement.

Currently, I am making a few modification to make the book more suitable to Czech readership. As I finish editing each chapter, I send it to Prague for translation. We will launch the book (with the same subtitle as the English version, but with a different title -- most probably, Long Way Home) at the Prague Book Fair, in early May 2011. A book tour in the Czech Republic will follow. More good news: one of the finest, and most beloved, contemporary Czech writers -- Arnost Lustig -- has agreed to write the Foreword of the book. I am honored and extremely pleased.

Naturally, I am excited and anxious to see my memoir on the bookshelves of my native country. At the same time, I hope to find an American publisher who will bring Out of Prague to American readers.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

I can't resist!

Everyone else in America is writing about the LeBron James debacle, and I can't resist chiming in. Up front, I must say that I love basketball too much to be able to watch the game played by today's National Basketball Association. There was a time -- that of Bob Cousy, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, and all the way up to that of Larry Bird -- when professional basketball in the US was as exciting, and as well played, as the game's college version. All that changed with a guy named Michael Jordan. Enormously talented, he was permitted to change the rules. He palmed the ball, he double-dribbled, he drove through the lane while taking three steps without dribbling, and his defense consisted of waving an arm at his man as the latter drove by. The game became a sham -- and it continues so.

The poor quality of the NBA game is surpassed only by that of the character of some of its players. Coddled and managed from their early teens, these guys have been convinced by their adoring hangers-on and the cooperating sports press that the world revolves around them. There is no better example than the man-child who appointed himself "The King" -- LeBron James. This selfish oaf, with full cooperation from newspapers, magazines, and ESPN, deserted the city of Cleveland accompanied by fanfare which displaced news of deaths in Afganistan, oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico, and the excitement of the World Cup.

Why does this disturb me so? It's the fact that people actually care about a jerk like LeBron James -- a guy who couldn't carry Bill Russell's jockstrap.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Big Twelve Lives!

My last blog, "Goodbye, Big Twelve!" lamented the death of "my" collegiate conference. Just a few short days ago, it looked as though the top football and basketball conference in the nation was about to dissolve, following the departure of the Universities of Colorado and Nebraska. But, not so fast! When the "big dog" of our league -- the University of Texas -- decided to stay, instead of jumping to the Pac-10, the remaining schools followed. The outcome -- and twisted irony -- is that the Big Twelve now has ten teams, while the Big Ten has 12 teams. Go figure.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Goodbye, Big Twelve!

How sad that money drives college sports -- particularly football and basketball! The Big Ten (which is really an "Eleven") has its own TV network and, consequently, millions of dollars in revenues. At the same time, it is very weak in the two big revenue sports. In football, it has two powers and nine also-rans and, in basketball, it has one consistently good team. However, its powers-that-be are smart enough to distribute revenues evenly, meaning that even such major-sport midgets as Northwestern get the big bucks.

On the other hand, the Big XII -- "my" conference (that is, the conference of my alma mater, Oklahoma State University) -- was the most powerful football league in the country this past season (by a count of the number of teams in the top 25 and in bowl games) and had the highest RPI rating among conferences in basketball. Its powers-that-be can be said to have the "New York Yankee syndrome." Instead of distributing revenues evenly, the majority have gone to the winners. Thus, Texas has gotten richer and richer, while Iowa State has gotten poorer and poorer. This has made for unhappy "campers."

The Big Ten needs more competitve (and more attractive to TV) teams. Thus, it has coveted Notre Dame and Nebraska. The Irish have their own network and won't share money with anyone; they'll stay independent. But, Nebraska couldn't resist when it was asked to jump. Last week, it announced that it'll jump to the Big Ten. Colorado followed by deciding to align with the Pac-10.

That leaves ten schools in the Big XII -- only four in the northern division. My solution would be to move OSU and Oklahoma to the North and to add two schools (perhaps TCU and one other) to the South. But, apparently, that won't fly. The Pac-10 has made overtures to OSU, OU, Texas, Texas Tech, and Texas A&M. All but A&M (which seems to favor jumping to the SEC) are ready to jump. If A&M decides to join its fellow Big XII movers, or if the Pac-10 finds another school to jump, the Pacific Coast league will not only extend to the prairies of Texas and Oklahoma, but it will be the most powerful conference -- by far -- in the land. Interestingly, the three schools which have won the most NCAA championships are Pac-10 members UCLA, Stanford, and USC. The fourth? Oklahoma State.

For OSU, this would be the fourth conference since my freshman year there. When I matriculated, we were members of the Missouri Valley Conference. In my junior year, we made the Big Seven, the Big Eight. Later, after the breakup of the Southwestern Conference, we took in the four Texas schools (Texas, Tech, TAMU, and Baylor) and became the Big XII. What a shame that it has to end this way! I wonder if any of the university presidents and athletic directors ever think of the students. Do they ever think about the fact that kids aren't going to drive from Stillwater to Pullman, Washington, or Los Angeles, the way they did to away games in Lawrence, Kansas, or Waco, Texas? Oh, but the students don't matter. It's about hard cash. What a pity!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Another book by another friend

It seems that many of my writer friends are busy publishing these days. In recent blogs, I've talked about books by Lillian Lincoln Lambert, as well as Jim Rosapepe and Sheilagh Kast. This week, I finished a provocative book by one of my newest friends, Peter Hruby, a distinguished historian.

Peter and I have a couple of things in common. Both of us escaped from Communist Czechoslovakia in 1948, and both of us now live in or near Annapolis, Maryland. Where our stories diverge is in the period between those two end points. Whereas I came to America, via refugee camps, soon after our escape, Peter spent the majority of his life in exile in Australia. His book, Dangerous Dreamers: the Australian Anti-democratic Left and Czechoslovak Agents reveals a little-known saga of the Cold War.

While living Down Under during the period of the east-west struggle, Peter was dismayed by the activities and provocations of Australian leftists, such as Wilfred Burchett and Ian Millner. They, and many of their leftist comrades -- the "dangerous dreamers" -- worked toward turning Australia into another state under the domination of the Soviet Union. Following the Velvet Revolution, Czechoslovakia opened up the archives of its Communist secret police. Hruby went to Prague and spent many weeks combing the records which showed the connection between Czechoslovak Communists and their Australian cohorts, and their joint efforts to subvert a democratic government and society. Chilling!

If you're interested in a little-known aspect of the Cold War, you'll find Dangerous Dreamers both fascinating and disturbing. I recommend it highly. It is available from and

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Road to Someplace Better

I've been derelict in that I've failed to blog for an entire month. The main reasons: I've been attending board meetings, writing -- and reading (o.k., I admit to the fact that I've played a little golf, too). Interestingly, most of the books I've read recently have been written by friends. I've reported on a couple of these in recent blogs, and I hope that some of you have had the opportunity to read and enjoy them.

The book I just completed was written by a good friend whom I met while running the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship. I found her such an impressive, intelligent, knowledgeable -- and charming -- lady that I asked her to join the Center's board of directors immediately after meeting her. To my delight, and great benefit to the entrepreneurs whom we served, she accepted. I knew a little about her background, and a lot more about her business successes, back then. Now, I've read her memoir, and -- as the man said -- I know "the rest of the story." I think you'll want to know it, too.

Lillian Lincoln Lambert grew up very poor on a small family farm in southern Virginia. In her early years, she studied by the light of a kerosene lamp because there was no electricity. But, there was something in her genes, perhaps coming from her pioneering mother -- an African-American woman who earned a college degree in the 1920s -- that drove Lillian toward great accomplishments. She left home after high school to make her fortune, but she ended up in menial jobs in New York and Washington. In order to improve her lot, she began attending Howard University on a part-time basis. Eventually, she became a full-time student and received her degree. Her Howard mentor, H. Naylor Fitzhugh, convinced Lillian to apply for admission to Harvard Business School.

HBS was something of a shock. She discovered that she was an anomaly in a world of white men from ritzy private schools. She was the odd person out -- female, black, and poorly prepared for the competitive world of HBS. But, she not only managed to persevere, but to thrive. Now, she has taken her place in the history of Harvard as its first African-American woman to have received an MBA. Eventually, Lillian went into a business she knew best: maintenance of office buildings. Before cashing out, she built Centennial One into a $20-million, 1,200-employee company with top-tier clients.

With the assistance of Rosemary Brutico, Lillian has given us her life story in The Road to Someplace Better: From the Segregated South to Harvard Business School and Beyond, published by Wiley. It's an inspirational story of a remarkable lady. Read it -- you won't regret it!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Seeing one's name in print

One of my favorite writers, Anna Quindlen, says that "the stages of a writer's professional life are marked not by a name on the office door, but a name in ink." For some 30 years -- as CEO of two software companies and later head of a nonprofit organization -- I had my "name on the office door." But that recognition didn't provide me with the same thrill and, yes, the same ego trip, as seeing my byline and photo at the head of my newspaper columns.

The exhiliration didn't come without a great deal of anxiety. For many years, every Sunday morning would begin with an early walk out to the mailbox for the newspaper. My hands would shake as I would search for my column. By the time I would walk through the front door, my wife, Sue, would know by the expression on my face what I had uncovered. About two-thirds of the time, I would be smiling, indicating that the powers-that-be had faithfully reproduced my work of art. The other times, my disgusted look and accompanying cuss words would tell her that the headline writer had completely missed the point with his/her clever choice of phrase or the typesetter had misspelled my carefully chosen words, or both.

In a previous gig with a biweekly newspaper, I faced an additional problem. The publisher was an Anglophile who applied British spellings to my American words. Thus, my "neighbor" became "neighbour," "color" turned into "colour," and "realize" was changed to "realise." In my final pre-submission edit, I would attempt to purge each column of all words which might be subject to such translation. Yet, invariably, I would miss one or two. Post-publication, I would flog myself for allowing such perversion under my byline.

Today, I still get a kick out of seeing my name appear atop my writing. However, seeing it on a computer screen is not the same as seeing it on real paper. Anyone can write a blog. Moreover, the thrills I experienced in 18 years of seeing my byline in newspapers and magazines were nothing compared to the exhiliration I can only anticipate to come from seeing my name on the cover of a BOOK! I can only hope that day will come soon for Out of Prague: A Memoir of Survival, Denial, and Triumph.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Dracula Is Dead

I am privileged to know some wonderful and accomplished people. In my last blog, I wrote about Bernie and Rita Turner, and the book about their founding of Walden University. I had just finished reading Aspire toward the Highest at the time.

Yesterday, I completed another wonderful book by yet another terrific married couple I know. The book has a great title, Dracula Is Dead, with the subtitle, How Romanians Survived Communism, Ended It, and Emerged since 1989 as the New Italy. The authors are Jim Rosapepe and Sheilah Kast. Jim was the American Ambassador to Romania during the Clinton administration. Today, he is still active in Romania and serves in the Maryland House of Delegates. I first met Jim while I was running the entrepreneurship center at the University of Maryland; he is one of the school's biggest supporters and serves on its Board of Visitors. Jim's wife, Sheilah Kast, is a well-known TV and radio journalist, with her own show on National Public Radio. In the past, she could be seen on ABC and CNN.

In Dracula Is Dead, Jim and Sheilah describe their experiences in Romania in the style of a travelogue. For a memoir writer, this is a fascinating format for a book in our genre -- and it works very well. Their stories and anecdotes give a clear and insightful picture of a country which has transitioned from a Communist satellite state to a vibrant, market-driven, democracy in a relatively short time. I found them particularly fascinating because many mirror those I have encountered in my own native Czech Republic since 1998. I highly recommend the book -- it's a great read.

You'll find a link to Jim's and Sheilah's book web site under "Links" on my site,

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Aspiring toward the highest degree and purpose

For several years now, I have served on the Board of Directors of Walden University, a unique international institution. Walden is a for-profit, accredited, university which -- by virtue of offering all its courses online -- is designed for the nontraditional student, typically a professional who is working full-time, has a family, is looking to improve his/her job opportunities, and needs the flexibility of attending lectures and studying on his/her own schedule.

From my position as a director and chair of the board's financial affairs committee, I have marvelled at the accomplishments of Walden's management team, the quality of the faculty, and state-of-the-art technology used to deliver courses throughout the world to some 40,000 doctoral, master's, and undergraduate students in disciplines from engineering to education to nursing, and beyond.

Sitting on stages at commencements in Bloomington, Minneapolis, and Dallas, I have seen men and women my age receive their diplomas to the cries of "'Way to go grandma!" from the audience. I've shed tears during touching scenes such as a quadraplegic man wheeled onto the stage by his mother, who had labored for years typing on a computer keyboard as he dictated his assignments, and a black daughter of a poor family receiving her master's degree in education -- the first person in her family to go past the eighth grade.

But, I never appreciated the innovative minds which conceived this revolutionary educational concept, nor the difficulty of getting such an institution off the ground and having it recognized and accredited by the conservative and self-preserving education community, until recently. A few weeks ago, I received in the mail a book titled, Aspire toward the Highest: Bernie and Rita Turner and the Founding of Walden University by Wade Keller.

The book was sent to me by one of the two co-stars of the book, Bernie Turner, a man I am very proud to call my friend. (As a personal aside, I discovered that Bernie, as a very young Army private, was one of our liberators when George Patton's division routed the Germans and entered the western part of the Czech Republic in 1945.) Bernie and his beautiful wife, Rita, came up with the Walden concept in 1970, long before the advent of the Internet.Their story, and the tale of Walden University, make for a great read for anyone (like me) who gets excited by stories of American ingenuity, entrepreneurship, and enterprise, and who appreciates the premise that, in America, anyone who wants it badly enough, has the right and opportunity to pursue "a higher degree..a higher purpose" (Walden's motto). The book is available from Keller Publishing,

Monday, March 1, 2010

An "Orange Power" weekend

What a weekend for my alma mater! On Saturday, the Oklahoma State Cowboys took on the number one basketball team in the nation, the Kansas Jayhawks, in Stillwater. In no time, we led by 16 points, as James Anderson, Keiton Page, and Obi Muonelo destroyed KU with their sharpshooting. We handed the Jayhawks their second loss of the season and assured ourselves of a spot in March Madness. The next day, the OSU Cowgirls, who had hit a dryspell after reaching a record of 18-3 and a top-ten ranking, knocked off Texas Tech. Both the men's and women's teams now are 20-8 -- peaking and rolling.

Meanwhile, a few hundred miles to the west -- in Phoenix -- Cowboy alumni were blowing away the opposition on the golf course. In an incredible showing for one university, OSU Cowboys captured three of the first six places in the PGA Phoenix open: Hunter Mahan was first, Rickie Fowler finished second, and Charles Howell came in sixth. Wow! Surely, that must be a first for one school.

Actually, I had hoped that it would be both an orange and a red-white-and-blue weekend. Without question, the most important sporting event of the year was Sunday's Olympic finals game between Canada and the United States. Despite the fact that our guys had beaten Canada a week before, they were derided as flukes and nobodies. One of the NBC announcers stated before the game that only two players on the American team would be good enough to make the Canadian squad. What arrogance and idiocy! Our guys skated beautifully, Ryan Miller was fantastic in goal, and they tied the score in the last minute to send it into overtime. Sadly, they lost on a sudden-death goal. But, they have absolutely nothing of which to be ashamed. They should hold their heads high and be proud of their silver medals. By the way, my fearless prediction: while Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby will continue (deservedly) to receive the accolades, the next big hockey star will be an American. His name is Zach Parise.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Writing While Snowed In

I've been a skier since the age of three, so it's frustrating to sit inside and watch a blizzard here in the flatlands of the Chesapeake Bay, rather than being out on the slopes or the trails. But, a 25-inch dump is good reason to do some serious writing. I am working on my second memoir -- the working title: Cowboy from Prague -- which deals with my life in the U.S. after coming here from Czechoslovakia at the age of 13.

This snowy weekend, I am working on a chapter titled "A Life-Altering Scandal." It deals with my love affair with the sport of basketball. Although my high-school coach in New Jersey wasn't enamoured with me or my play, I managed to do well enough in various summer and semi-professional leagues to attract interest among some college coaches. In those days, some of the best basketball in the country was being played in the New York metropolitan area. NYU, CCNY, LIU, St. John's, and Manhattan College were national powerhouses. I dreamed of playing for one of them.

But, then it all came crashing down. Players from those schools -- as well as others from Kentucky and Bradley -- were implicated in a gambling scandal. They had been taking bribes from big-time gamblers to shave points such that final scores would be within established point spreads. I was heartbroken -- and my dream was dead.

Then, one day, I happened to pick up a copy of my parents' Life magazine. I opened it to a two-page spread. The left page was headlined, "Basketball at its Worst," and it showed some of my former heroes in handcuffs, being led off to a courtroom. The right page was headlined, "Basketball at its Best." It had a photo of a stern-looking man named Henry Iba, accompanied by several action shots of his Oklahoma A&M Aggies. I read about the school and its squeeky-clean program, and my dream was restored. This time, it was a dream of one day playing for the man known to everone as Mr. Iba.

Thanks to the point-shaving scandal, and to having been lucky enough to pick up my parents' magazine, my life was altered forever. I did play for Mr. Iba, and today I "bleed orange" as a proud alumnus of Oklahoma State University -- formerly Oklahoma A&M College.

Monday, January 4, 2010

THE GLASS ROOM by Simon Mawer

The best thing about going on a big-ship cruise is the opportunity to read books, uninterrupted by phones, e-mails, or pressures of deadlines. We returned yesterday from such a cruise on board the "Carnival Pride" -- from Baltimore to Port Canaveral to Nassau to Freeport and back to Baltimore. The first day out in the North Atlantic, we encountered westerly winds of 55 knots, gusting to 62, and rough seas. Thus, it was appropriate that I spent a good part of the day in my bunk, finishing The Proving Ground, G. Bruce Knecht's story of the 1998 Sydney-Hobart sailboat race, during which boats sank and men died in a cyclone.

After completing this excellent, thoroughly-researched, true adventure, I switched from a subject out of my recent past -- sailboat racing -- to one from my more distant past -- my native country in the heart of Europe, Czechoslovakia. For Christmas, my wife Sue had given me a novel called The Glass Room by Simon Mawer. The center of gravity of the book is a modern house of glass and steel, the home of two members of the country's pre-war upper crust, a Jewish husband and a Catholic wife -- just like my own parents. The house becomes a gathering place for artists, thinkers, and businesspersons who have discarded old-world thinking in order to build "a state in which being Czech or German or Jew would not matter, in which democracy would prevail and art and science would combine to bring happiness to all people." If I had not known that this was a work of fiction, I would have been certain that Rudolph and Ilona Heller had been frequent visitors to the Glass Room of this house.

Simon Mawer, an Englishman, shows a wonderful grasp of Czech culture, of the time and place, and he uses the Glass Room masterfully to portray people who struggle to live and love during a period which is frightening and irrational. A great read!