Monday, December 17, 2012

The Rocket Scientist -- "Name-Droppings," Part 3

In my forthcoming memoir (second of a series), titled Ready, Fire, Aim! Tales of Entrepreneurial Terror, I describe encounters with various famous people. I hope you enjoyed the first two, "The Blonde-Haired Singer" and "The Little Educator," and I hope you will like this one:
            My so-called “office” at Douglas Aircraft Company was actually a few square feet of space within an immense hangar-like building which resembled an enormous classroom. The chief of our section, Adrain O’Neil, sat at a desk in front of the room, facing row upon row of desks at which his minions, nearly a hundred engineers, analyzed the structural integrity of rockets and spacecraft. As one of the few “rookies” in the summer of 1960, I wielded my slide rule near the back of the room.

            One morning, while eating breakfast prior to leaving home for work, I spotted an article on the second page of The Los Angeles Times. “Wernher Von Braun to Visit Southland,” read the headline. Reading further, I discovered that he would be visiting several of the area’s aerospace companies which were designing and building boosters and satellites that would constitute the genesis of America’s space program.

            Soon after I settled in for a day of computing stresses and deformations, Adrain O’Neal walked to the center of the room and rapped on a desk.

            “May I have your attention?” he requested. “We’re in for a special treat today. Around eleven o’clock this morning, the great Dr. Wernher von Braun will visit our Section. When he comes, I want all of you to stand and applaud and then come to the front of the room, where he will address us.”

            I looked around and saw smiles on the faces of my colleagues. Clearly, they felt honored to have been selected for a meeting with the world-renown rocket scientist. I buried my head in my work, pretending to analyze the stresses in the engine section of the Thor Delta rocket – my ongoing project. Instead, I closed my eyes and thought about my life as a child hiding from our German occupiers during World War II. I imagined five hundred German V-2 rockets raining terror upon the citizens of London, while their chief architect, Von Braun, sat in his office in Peenemunde, Germany, surrounded by thousands of slaves working around the clock to complete the construction of 1,500 ballistic missiles designed to bring England to her knees. Now, this man and his German team of technicians were on our side, running the American space program out of Huntsville, Alabama.

            I wanted to stand on top of my desk and to shout at my fellow engineers. But, I knew it would be futile. In my few years in the U.S., I had been shocked to discover that Americans, other than those who had personally fought so valiantly to liberate Europe, felt a strange kinship toward Germans. They seemed to hate the Japanese, their other major enemy in the war, but they appeared to have forgiven a nation which had killed millions of innocent people, as well as thousands of American GIs. I decided on my own silent protest.

            At exactly 11 a.m., a group of a dozen dignitaries, including Donald Douglas, Jr., and some local politicians, appeared at the front of our bullpen. From the vantage point of my desk, some hundred feet away, I saw that the center of everyone’s attention was a tall, distinguished-looking man with graying hair matching the color of his suit. Like an Army company when a general enters, the Strength Section of the Douglas Missiles and Space Systems Division came to attention. Then they applauded. All but one “soldier.”

            Pretending not to have noticed the commotion, I wrote nonsensical numbers and words on the quadrille pad in front of me. When my colleagues gathered around Von Braun and the visiting party, I pulled a brown bag out of the drawer of my desk and extracted a sandwich. While the leader of America’s space program gave my fellow engineers a pep talk in his German-accented English, I made a show of munching on a very European sandwich – hard salami and Swiss cheese with mustard, on rye bread. As I had hoped, I saw from the corner of my eye, heads turning toward me. On a couple of occasions, I thought that Von Braun spotted me over the heads of his audience.

After about twenty minutes, our visitors left and my colleagues returned to their respective desks. No one said a word to me, but my best friend, Don Griffin, smiled at me before he sat down in the row in front of me, indicating that he understood. Then, as I had expected, my boss approached.

“Charlie, can I talk to you a minute?”

“Sure,” I replied and followed him out into the hallway.

“What the hell was that all about?” he asked. “Don’t you realize that you just insulted the greatest rocket scientist in the world?”

“Adrain, do you know anything about my background?” I asked.

“Yeah, I heard.”

“Well, then, I hope you understand that I just insulted a goddamned Nazi murderer. I hope I didn’t cause you and Douglas any hardship, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to stand and applaud a bastard who killed or maimed nearly ten thousand Brits.”

With that, I walked back to my desk, where I finished my lunch.


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

"Name-Droppings," Part 2

A chapter in my forthcoming memoir (second of a trilogy) describes encounters with some famous people I have met during my life as a student, athlete, engineer, academic, entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and author. I hope you enjoyed Part 1, titled "The Blonde-Headed Singer," and I hope you will like Part 2:

            In the late 1990s, while running the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland, I developed a close working relationship with the National Business Incubator Association. Despite the word “National” in its name, the NBIA is an international organization of nearly 2,000 incubator professionals from 60 countries. These managers run facilities – called “incubators” and “accelerators” – which house and help entrepreneurial companies during their startup stages.
            Because of my experience in starting and running companies, managing a center which provided assistance to entrepreneurs, and my positions on several Maryland incubator boards, the NBIA selected me to design and deliver two-and-a-half-day workshops for incubator managers at its semi-annual fall institutes.
            Never being one to turn down an opportunity to earn a handsome consulting fee, I had traveled to Pasadena, California, Birmingham, Alabama, and Omaha, Nebraska, to talk about my favorite subject – entrepreneurship and venture creation. Now, I was in Tennessee, in a Chattanooga hotel, where I had just completed my fourth assignment. We finished at noon, and I was anxious to get to the airport for the trip home.
            I wheeled my suitcase outside the hotel to an awaiting shuttle. After the driver placed my bag in the luggage compartment, I climbed inside the van. I noticed that all the passengers were women, and that the first and second rows were filled. So, I made my way to the rear and took one of the two empty seats, next to the window.
            Despite the fact that the van was nearly full, we were not ready to leave. The driver stood outside, apparently waiting for one more person to fill the only empty seat – the one adjacent to mine. After ten or fifteen minutes, I began to get antsy. There were not many flights out of Chattanooga, and I had to make my connection in Charlotte. I was running out of time. Other passengers were becoming impatient, too, as was clearly discernable from the tone of their quiet conversations. Then, suddenly, discussion ceased as all eyes focused on the reason for our wait. A tiny woman – less than five feet tall, with light brown hair, wearing horn-rim glasses and a dark blue suit – came out of the hotel door, followed by a bellman, lugging a suitcase nearly as large as its owner. The driver helped the lady negotiate the steps with her short legs as she entered the van. She spotted the only vacant seat, made her way to the rear, and sat down next to me.
            “Hello,” I nodded.
            “Hello,” she responded as she made herself comfortable.
            Finally, the driver jumped in behind the wheel, started the engine, threw it into gear, and we were off to the airport. As we made our way out of the hotel area, my neighbor turned to me.
            “So, where are you headed?” she asked in German-accented English.
            “Home. I’m flying to Baltimore,” I said. “How about you?”
            “I’m heading home, too. I live in New York City.”
            After a few moments of silence, she resumed her small talk. I was not anxious to continue because I had noticed that our fellow passengers were turning their heads and listening to our conversation. But, I wanted to be polite and responsive.
            “What were you doing in Chattanooga?” she asked.
            “I was giving a seminar here at the hotel for the past three days,” I answered.
            “Really? I was down here giving seminars, too. Two days ago, I was at Duke University and yesterday, I was at the University of Tennessee,” she explained. “What was the subject of your seminar?”
            “Entrepreneurship,” I said. “I was teaching a bunch of managers of business incubators how to help companies during their startup period. Most of them have never run small companies, so they didn’t understand the difficult issues entrepreneurs face.”
            “Oh,” she said. “I’m a small businesswoman myself. I wish I could have learned from you before I started.”
            Now, I was getting interested and, despite my discomfort brought about by the eavesdropping women in front of us, I wanted to know more.
            “So, what about your seminars? What was the subject?” I asked. As soon as the words left my mouth, I could hear snickering throughout the van, and one woman burst out laughing.
            “What the hell is this all about?” I wondered.
            “Sex,” my neighbor answered. “I’m a psychosexual therapist.”
            Now I seemed to be only one in the van who was not laughing. I was perplexed, embarrassed, and at a loss for words. After a long pause, the woman stuck out her hand.
            “Hi. My name is Ruth Westheimer. What’s yours?”
            I shook hands with Ms. Westheimer and responded: “I’m Charlie Heller. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Then, suddenly, the fog lifted from my brain. “Are you Dr. Ruth?”
            She laughed and clapped her hands. “Yes, I am. You’ve seen my show?”
            “I’m sorry, I haven’t,” I admitted. “But, I’ve seen you interviewed several times.”
            Now that the air was cleared, our fellow passengers seemed to lose interest in our conversation, and I felt more comfortable. Dr. Ruth was interested in my work at the Dingman Center and in my entrepreneurial career. When I told her about my passion for skiing, her face lit up.
            “I live for skiing,” she said. “One of the biggest benefits of my fame is that, whenever my husband and I want to go skiing, we have a limousine pick us up at our apartment in Manhattan, drive us to the airport, and a private airplane flies us to Colorado. It’s a tough life.”
            “I envy you,” I said, as I tried to imagine this little wisp of a woman bombing down a mogulled, black-diamond run at Aspen.
            “Where did you learn to ski?” she asked.
            I told her about starting at a very young age in Czechoslovakia, then having my skiing interrupted by the war, resuming again after my family was reunited, then not skiing again for some 15 years because I could not afford it after escaping to the United States. I explained that I was trying to make up for lost time and that my moonlighting career as a skiwriter allowed me to ski all over the U.S. and in Europe.
            “How about you?” I asked, wanting to know not only about her skiing, but about the source of her heavy Germanic accent.
            “I was born in Germany,” she explained. “But, actually, I started skiing in Switzerland.”
            She went on to tell me that she was born in Frankfurt a few years before Hitler’s ascent to power. Before the outbreak of the Second World War, her parents sent her to school in Switzerland. The great majority of the students were German Jews and, in the years that followed, the school became their orphanage. Most of the parents, including Ruth’s, perished in the Holocaust. I told Dr. Ruth about my own, and my family’s, travails during the war, and we seemed to bond instantly. After my initial embarrassment over the discovery of her profession, followed by intimidation caused by her celebrity persona, I became totally comfortable in her presence. She seemed to enjoy my company as much as I enjoyed hers.
            “What flight are you taking out of Chattanooga?” she asked as we approached the airport.
            “I’m flying to Charlotte, and I’ll connect there with a flight to Baltimore.,” I said.
            Once again, she clapped her hands and smiled. “That’s perfect. I’m on the flight to Charlotte, too. Let’s sit together.”
            The driver took Ruth’s bag to the curbside check-in and I followed with mine, while Ruth waited in the van. After tipping the driver, she joined me and we entered Chattanooga airport. Immediately, I discovered that I had been the only person in America – or at least in the state of Tennessee – who failed to recognize the famous Dr. Ruth. A guy working the Hertz rental car window literally jumped over the counter and ran up to Dr. Ruth to ask for her autograph. She obliged him and many others, as we made our way, ever so slowly, to the USAirways counter. I upgraded to first class so that I could sit with my new friend, and we began the walk to the gate, with a procession of autograph seekers in our wake. Finally, Ruth put her arm through mine, apologized to her fans, and asked me to walk faster to our airplane. Although I had discovered by now that Dr. Ruth was eight years older than I, I felt as though I was escorting my little sister to school. At six feet and one inch, I towered over her and had to bend down whenever she spoke. I was amazed at the commotion caused by this tiny package of energy walking beside me.
            Finally seated in the comfort of our first-class seats, we had privacy for the first time. Ruth told me how, after the war, she discovered that her family had been wiped out by the Nazis. Alone in the world, she and some friends traveled to Palestine, where she became a devout Zionist. She fought on the side of the Haganah for the independence of Israel and was wounded in battle. She emigrated to the U.S. via Paris, and eventually earned her master’s and doctoral degrees from Columbia University. In New York, she married a fellow Jewish refugee and ski enthusiast, Manfred.
            To my great relief, the subject of sex never came up in our conversation. Prior to landing in Charlotte, I told Ruth that my organization, the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship, was organizing a national conference for women entrepreneurs, to be held at the University of Maryland the following year. I inquired if she might be interested in being the keynote speaker.
            “I’ll be happy to do it. But, I get a lot of money for speaking,” she said.
            “Ruth, we’re a nonprofit center, part of the university,” I replied. “I’m afraid that we can’t afford to pay very much.”
            She smiled and squeezed my arm: “For you, I’ll do it for free. Just give me the date as soon as you know it.”
            I was ecstatic. We parted in Charlotte, with the promise that we would continue our discussion when we came together in College Park. Sadly, it did not happen. When I returned to the Dingman Center the next day, I gathered my associate director and assistant director – both of them women, and in charge of organizing the upcoming conference. Excitedly, I told them about Dr. Westheimer’s offer to be keynote speaker – and to do it for nothing. I expected an enthusiastic response. Instead, the two women looked at one another and shook their heads in unison.
            “Dr. Ruth?” said one. “You must be kidding! We’d be a laughing stock. This is a serious conference for serious women entrepreneurs. Do you really think they’d want to hear about sex?”
            “No way,” said her companion.
            I argued, pointing out that Dr. Ruth’s fame would be a drawing card and that she is an entrepreneur in her own right. I got nowhere. Since I had given my colleagues the authority to manage the event, I had no choice but to accept their decision. My last communication with Ruth was a letter in which I lied by explaining that, unbeknownst to me, the organizers of the conference had already engaged a keynote speaker. I thanked her for her kind offer. I was truthful and sincere when I told her that I hoped that we would meet again soon. Unfortunately, that has not happened.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Charles Ota Heller: Baltimore radio and library appearances

Charles Ota Heller: Baltimore radio and library appearances

Baltimore radio and library appearances

  • My interview with Sheilah Kast, host of "Maryland Morning," which airs on Baltimore's National Public Radio station, WYPR, will be rebroadcast on Friday, November 23. The particulars are:

                           Friday, November 23, 9:15 am, WYPR-FM, 88.1

  • I will be discussing, and reading from, Prague: My Long Journey Home, at the Enoch Pratt Free Library on Wednesday evening, November 28. If you'll be in the area, I'd love to see you there:
                           Wednesday, November 28, 6:00 pm
                           Enoch Pratt Free Library,  6310 Reisterstown Road, Baltimore
                             (410) 396-0948

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Leadership at Oklahoma State University

Oklahoma State University's Edmon Low Library
My faith in America's youth was reinforced last week on the beautiful campus of my alma mater, Oklahoma State University. When my book, Prague: My Long Journey Home, was published ten months ago, I was concerned that the only readers interested in my story would be older Americans with memories of World War II. At OSU, I had the opportunity to speak about the book and my experiences in front of a number of audiences -- sometimes alone and sometimes sharing the podium with my friend, fellow OSU Cowboy and memoirist, Chic Dambach. I was amazed and heartened by the interest in, and knowledge of, the war and the Holocaust by so many OSU students. They were amazing -- and they made me extremely proud.

Both Chic and I discussed with the students how our respective books and personal stories related to leadership. OSU not only has a Center for Ethical Leadership, but the subject of Leadership pervades the campus -- it is included in various curricula and courses. It is taken very seriously by administration, faculty, and students. I left Stillwater knowing that the future is in good hands.

Go, Pokes!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Book presentations at Oklahoma State University

I will have the opportunity to discuss my book, Prague: My Long Journey Home, at my alma mater, Oklahoma State University, on several occasions next week. In all but one, I'll be joined by my friend, Chic Dambach, the author of the wonderful memoir, Exhaust the Limits. If you'll be in Stillwater or anywhere nearby, come join us. Here is the schedule:

Wednesday, November 7
3:00 pm  -- College of Engineering, Architecture & Technology Leadership/Entrepreneurship

Thursday, November 8 (all with Chic)
10:30 am -- Leadership class, Student Union 211
3:15 pm  -- President Leadership Council, 010 Willard Hall
4:30 pm  -- Book signing at OSU bookstore

Friday, October 26, 2012

"Name Droppings," Part 1

A chapter in my forthcoming memoir describes encounters with some famous people I have met during my life as a student, athlete, engineer, academic, entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and author. I hope you enjoy Part 1, titled "The Blonde-Headed Singer."

            One fall afternoon of my freshman year at Oklahoma State University, my teammates and I were running a layup drill at one end of Gallagher Hall (today, Gallagher-Iba Arena). At the other end, carpenters and other workers were building a stage for that evening’s concert. The banging of hammers and the screeching of electric drills and saws competed with the rat-a-tat-tat of bouncing rubber basketballs, but we were too intent on preparing for an upcoming game to be distracted by the noise.
            Then, as I ran to the back of the line after shooting a layup, I was startled by the fact that the noise suddenly stopped. Basketballs and tools became quiet, as the eyes of players and workers focused on two people who had stepped on the polished hardwood floor. One was a gray-haired man wearing gray slacks and a double-breasted blue blazer with a red cravat, an outfit out of place on any college campus. But, as natty and ludicrous as he looked, he was not the object of everyone’s attention. No, everyone – now, including me – was staring at his companion.
            She was tall and slim, with blond, curly hair reaching down to her shoulders. She wore a black blouse tucked inside black slacks, and her high heels now made the only sound heard in the arena. Even from the distance of half a basketball court, I could see that she was beautiful.
            “That must be Helen O’Connell,” someone said quietly, as the pair made its way toward the stage.
            Since coming to America, I had become a huge fan of big-band music. In high school, I had listened to the records of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey, and I particularly liked the band-singers who had become famous in the ‘30s and ‘40s and were making a comeback in the ‘50s: Anita O’Day, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Chris Connor, Doris Day, Bob Eberly, Peggy Lee – and Helen O’Connell. From the moment I learned that O’Connell would be the star of the first of OSU’s annual concert series, I had looked forward to this day. I planned to be back in the arena early that night to get a good seat so that I could see and hear one of my favorites. And now she was here, inspecting the premises.
           Slowly, we resumed practice and started a shoot-around. Each time I threw up a jump shot, I stole a glance in the direction of the stage and our glamorous visitors. Finally, I saw them walking toward us. One of the assistant coaches, Gale MacArthur, holding a ball against his hip, came out to greet them. I saw them shake hands and to engage in prolonged conversation.
            Finally, the coach turned toward the team and blew his whistle. We stopped and turned toward him. He motioned for us to come closer. Unwittingly, as basketball teams tend to do whenever the whistle blows, we formed a semicircle around the trio, and we waited, all the while staring at one person. At this close range, I could see how gorgeous she was, with her turned-up nose, blue eyes, and great figure.
            “Gentlemen,” announced the coach. “This is Miss Helen O’Connell.”
            None of us knew if we were supposed to say something, so we simply smiled and nodded in unison.
            “Miss O’Connell would like to take a tour of the campus,” MacArthur continued. “I’ve volunteered one of you to do it. Who is interested?”
            I felt my right hand shoot up in the air involuntarily. Almost as soon as I raised it, I wanted to pull it down because I knew that I would not be chosen. After all, I was still a walk-on scrub and, surely, one of the scholarship guys would get the nod. I did not want to be embarrassed. But, when I looked around, I was shocked. Mine was the only hand in the air.
            “O.k., Heller,” said the coach. “You’re excused from the rest of practice. Put your sweats on, and give Miss O’Connell a nice walking tour.”
            I rushed to the side of the court and, with trembling hands, pulled my sweat pants over my sneakers and a sweatshirt over my head. I trotted back toward the trio, with my teammates having returned to the shoot-around.
            “Miss Helen O’Connell,” said MacArthur. “This is Charlie Heller.”
            “How do you do, Charlie,” said the voice I had listened to a thousand times on 78-RPM records back in New Jersey.
            “How do you do, ma’am,” I stammered.
            “I’m yours for the next hour and a half,” she said. “So, please show me your beautiful campus.”
            We walked out of the arena into the sunshine and headed past the football stadium and tennis courts toward the center of the campus. Along the way, I pointed out the sights: Bennett Hall – the largest college dormitory in the world; the armory, where hundreds of rifles carried by Army ROTC cadets were stored; the metallurgy Quanset hut; the architecture school. As we approached the library and began to encounter many students on their way to and from classes, I became very self-conscious. I felt hundreds of pairs of eyes staring at the odd couple approaching them: a thirty-something, beautiful, stylishly-dressed, blonde lady in high-heel shoes, accompanied by a gawky, l8-year-old kid, dressed in athletic-department-issue sweats and white Converse sneakers. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see heads turning, as we passed more students on our way to the library.
            I was agitated, but at the same time, I had a feeling of self-importance, from the commotion we were causing on campus. Simultaneously, I was totally intimidated in the presence of such a famous person. I had always been shy and now my bashfulness was rendering me nearly mute. Miss O’Connor broke the silence by asking if we could go inside the library. We entered and, of course, encountered the same curiosity and stares we had met outside. We walked up the center stairs, where I showed my visitor the Browsing Room.
            “Let’s go in and sit down,” she said when she saw the inviting sofas and overstuffed chairs in this pleasant room. She picked up a Life magazine from a coffee table and seated herself in one of the chairs. I sat down opposite her and watched as she thumbed through the magazine. She found an interesting story and showed me some of the photographs. I was beginning to feel a little more relaxed now. There were few students around to gawk at us, and my guest was doing most of the talking. I felt emboldened enough to tell her that I had fallen asleep in this room one night while studying and, when I woke up, the lights were out and the doors to the outside were locked. I pointed out the sofa on which I had spent the night. She found the story amusing.
            A half hour later, we were back outside in the sunshine. It was late afternoon and there were fewer students on the sidewalks. I felt at ease now, and I told Miss O’Connell everything I knew about the history and architecture of each building we passed as we continued our tour. She seemed to be genuinely interested and asked many questions. Finally, we reached Theta Pond, a pretty little lagoon at the base of the campus mall, surrounded by huge weeping willows. Miss O’Connell pointed to one of the benches near the edge of the pond and suggested that we sit down.
            “What’s a guy from New Jersey doing here, so far from home?” she asked after a while. I explained that I had come to OSU for two reasons: to study engineering under a professor who had been our “roommate” in a refugee camp in Germany and to play basketball for the greatest coach in America.
            “You were in a refugee camp?” she asked. “Why?” I explained that we had escaped from Czechoslovakia seven years before, two weeks after the communist take-over.
            “You were in Europe during the war? What was it like? What did you do?”
            I told her that my father had escaped and joined the British Army and that my mother had been taken away to a slave labor camp.
            “Because my father was fighting against them, I had to be hidden from the Germans on a farm.” I repeated what had now become my standard mantra and in such a voice that further questions were discouraged. Helen O’Connell understood and said simply:
            “You brave boy.”
            We watched ducks and geese swimming on the pond and chatted amiably for a while longer when, out of the blue, the singer said to me:
            “I noticed back there in the field house that you have very nice legs.”
            “Where the hell did that come from?” I wondered. After having become totally relaxed in the presence of this older, beautiful lady, I was once again the stammering, embarrassed, shy, 18-year-old kid.
            “Thanks,” I said, but I was smart enough to refrain from telling her that a year before, in my senior year in high school, the cheerleaders had voted me “player with the best legs” on the basketball team.
            Miss O’Connell looked at her watch and informed me that she had to return to her hotel room in the Student Union in order to begin to get ready for her concert.
            “Are you coming to the concert tonight?” she asked as we made our way across the mall to the hotel.
            “Absolutely!” I replied, happy that the subject had been changed from that of my legs. “You’re my favorite singer, and I wouldn’t miss it for anything.”
            “Thank you. That’s a wonderful compliment.”
            When we reached the front door of the hotel, I was ready to shake hands and to sprint back to Gallagher Hall. To my great surprise, Helen O’Connell stopped, put her hands on my shoulders, and kissed me on the right cheek.
            “Thank you for a wonderful afternoon, Charlie,” she said. And then she hit me with a bombshell. “After the show tonight, I’ll be in room 213,” she whispered in my ear. With that, she turned on her heel and disappeared through the hotel door.
            I stood there, totally dumfounded. Had she really said that? What did she mean? Did she – the Helen O’Connell – really invite me to her hotel room? My immature, na├»ve, mind had difficulty in processing it.
            That evening, two guys named Ronnie and George, whom I had met in a calculus class, accompanied me to the concert. We arrived early and sat in the front row. My friends had heard that I had escorted Miss O’Connell around campus in the afternoon – I was already something of a celebrity because of it. Now, as I sat there – watching and listening to Helen O’Connell sing – I wondered what they, and the other 5,000 people in the audience, would think if they knew of the invitation I had received. As she sang, “Green Eyes,” Tangerine,” and “Amapola,” I closed my eyes and imagined that she was singing them just for me, in the intimacy of room 213.
            When the show ended, my friends suggested that we go to Louie’s bar for beers. I started to make an excuse for not going with them, but stopped myself abruptly. I got cold feet. Two scenarios kept running through my mind. In one, I showed up at Helen O’Connell’s door, she opened it and said: “What the hell are you doing here?” In the other, she came to the door dressed in her nightgown, invited me in – and I had no idea of what to do next. Neither was very appealing.
            Later, at Louie’s Club 54, after downing two Busch Bavarians, I said to my friends:
            “You know, Helen O’Connell invited me to her hotel room after the show tonight.”
            Ronnie, a farm boy from western Oklahoma, looked at me and laughed: “Yeah, right. Tell me another story.”
            George, a Tulsa city boy, was more introspective: “I don’t know if you’re kidding us. But, if you’re not, you’re a dumb ass for sitting here with us instead of being in bed with Helen O’Connell.”


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Please check out this video

It's a discussion of my book at the Walden University plenary session in Orlando, Florida. (I don't know why I keep looking at the papers in my hand. They don't contain the answers to the questions. Bad habit!)

Monday, September 24, 2012

Metavivor Authors' Luncheon

A week ago, I had the pleasure and honor to participate in an annual Authors' Luncheon in Annapolis, Maryland. It was sponsored by Metavivor, a wonderful organization which advocates for research funding for MBC -- metastatic breast cancer, a terminal illness. With some ninety persons, many of them cancer survivors, in the audience, seven authors discussed their books, the art of writing, the publishing industry, etc. The attendees purchased the authors' books, with a portion of the sales going to Metavivor, and the authors held a signing session.

Pictured above with me is Stephanie Verni, a professor at Stephenson University and author of the novel, Beneath the Mimosa Tree. The other writers on the panel with us were Laura Kaye (moderator), Stacey Bolin, Janie Suss, Sharon Solomon, and Martha Vincek.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Authors' luncheon in Annapolis

On Saturday, September 15, 11:00 am – 2:30 pm, at the Doubletree Hotel on Holiday Court, off Riva Road, in Annapolis, Maryland:
I’ll be privileged to participate in an Authors’ Luncheon, sponsored by a wonderful organization – METAvivor – devoted to funding research in the field of metastatic breast cancer. This is the Annapolis group’s third such annual event, featuring authors in the region. The other authors participating will be:
Stacey Bolin
Laura Kaye
Sharon Solomon
Janie Suss
Stephanie Vernie
Martha Vincek

The authors’ books will be available for sale and signing, beginning at 11 am. Each author will then sit at a table with guests during a luncheon and will chat with them about his/her book(s). The luncheon will be followed by a panel discussion during which the authors will respond to a number of questions; Laura Kaye, local romance writer, will moderate. A silent auction will take place throughout the program.

Tickets cost $40, with proceeds of both ticket sales and portions of book sales going to metastatic breast cancer research. Registration is via the organization’s website:  If you’d like to indicate that there are friends with whom you’d like to sit, you may indicate so on the website.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Go, Cassie!!

The Paralympic Games begin today in London and go through September 9. I am rooting for (and supporting) an incredible young lady -- an engineering graduate of my alma mater, Oklahoma State University -- named Cassie Mitchell. Please check out the telecast below to learn more about a woman who, after a tragedy which would have caused most people to despair, went on to earn an engineering doctorate and to become a world-class athlete. GO, CASSIE!!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

A different view of the Olympic Games

I am a huge fan of the Olympics. While the Games -- Summer or Winter -- are going on, I become a couch potato, glued to the TV. My admiration for Olympic athletes, especially those in sports which don't bring them riches (rowing, judo, fencing, ...) knows no bounds. At the same time, the contempt I feel for the "suits" who run the world Olympic movement is as strong as my esteem for the athletes. At no time has this disdain been stronger than this year, when the IOC refused (again) to pay tribute at the opening ceremonies to the Israeli athletes murdered at the Munich Olympiad forty years ago. The son of one of the martyred Olympians tells us why there is no chance of such a tribute ever taking place as long as the movement is run by this gang and their chosen successors:  

"Recently, new information about the Munich Massacre at the 1972 Olympic Games was released by German police as a result of pressure from German investigative reporters. It was reported that the “Black September” terrorists were helped by a Nazi group in Germany to get fake IDs, weapons and access to the Olympic Village. This was not too shocking, as the head of the IOC in 1972 was Avery Brundage, a Nazi sympathizer and anti-Semite. His protege, Juan Samaranch, eventually served the second longest IOC term as president, but his support of Nazis and the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco was kept a dirty secret. Most IOC members knew the truth but stayed silent because he organized a regal lifestyle for them -- with money diverted from sport.

'I want all of you to lose your jobs and be replaced by real Olympians who care about the athletes and believe in the Olympic charter.'

Another interesting fact is that Abu Iyad, one of the co-founders of the PLO, has said publicly that the reason “Black September” chose the 1972 Olympics as the stage for their hostage plot was because the PLO's request to the IOC for inclusion of the Palestinian delegation at the Olympic Games was completely ignored. This snub from the IOC came at a time when tension was at a boiling point in the Middle East. Yet, having incited the PLO, the IOC denied the Israeli government's request for security for the athletes.

In 1996, I, along with other Munich orphans and three of the widows, were invited for the first time to the Olympic Games in Atlanta. Before the Opening Ceremony, we met with Alex Gilady. Gilady has been a member of the IOC's Radio and Television Commission since 1984 and has been the senior vice president of NBC Sports since 1996.

I have known Mr. Gilady since I was a kid; in fact, I grew up with his daughter. He had been supportive in the past regarding our plea for a moment of silence during the Opening Ceremonies, so we arrived with high hopes. Gilady informed us that a moment of silence was not possible because if the IOC had a moment of silence for the Israeli athletes, they would also have to do the same for the Palestinians who died at the Olympics in 1972.

My mother said, "But no Palestinian athletes died."

Gilady responded, "Well, there were Palestinians who died at the 1972 Olympics."

I heard one of the widows say to Gilady, "Are you equating the murder of my husband to the terrorists that killed him?"


Then Ilana Romano burst out with a cry that has haunted me to this day. She screamed at Gilady, "How DARE you! You KNOW what they did to my husband! They let him lay there for hours, dying slowly, and then finished him off by castrating him and shoving it in his mouth, ALEX!"

I looked at Gilady's face as he sat there, stone cold with no emotion. This man knew these athletes personally. This man led the Israeli media delegation at the 1972 Olympics and saw this atrocity first hand. This man saw my father's dead, naked body thrown out front of the Olympic Village for all the world to see.

Without a hint of empathy, Gilady excused himself from our meeting. That's when I understood that the IOC wasn't turning us down because of their resistance to politics. Rather, it was due to the specific politics the IOC apparently still embraces. Based on its history of Nazi support, greed and the blood on their own hands for inciting the PLO, they would never support Israeli athletes.

Now, I have a message to all the members of the IOC. The torture inflicted by “Black September” on the 11 Israeli athletes and their families took 48 hours. Your torture of the families and the memories of those esteemed athletes has lasted 40 years. I am not satisfied with a moment of silence in every Opening Ceremony of the Summer Games. Now I want all of you to lose your jobs and be replaced by real Olympians who care about the athletes and believe in the Olympic charter.

The threat of the IOC coming after me does not scare me anymore. When you have no more dignity, you have nothing to lose. So, members of the IOC -- my name is Guri Weinberg and I am the son of Moshe Weinberg, the wrestling coach murdered at the 1972 Olympics. And I am not going away."

Sunday, August 5, 2012

An upcoming gig in Orlando with 650 in attendance

Orlando Residency Keynote Session (featuring Charles Ota Heller)

Charles Ota HellerSaturday, August 18, 1 p.m. Eastern timeLocation: Peabody Orlando, Orlando, Fla.

Author Charles Ota Heller will speak at Walden University’s Orlando, Fla., residency on Aug. 18, 2012, at the Peabody Orlando. 

An entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and teacher, Dr. Heller was born in Czechoslovakia on the eve of the Nazi occupation. In his memoir Prague: My Long Journey Home, Heller chronicles his family’s harrowing story and his own journey in Czechoslovakia from innocence to war, then emigration to the United States and prosperity.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Upcoming book-signing events

I have a busy schedule of discussions and signings of my book, Prague: My Long Journey Home. In addition to various book-club appearances, three upcoming events are:

Monday, August 13, 2012, 3:30 pm, at the Easton Club East clubhouse, Easton, Maryland

Saturday, August 18, 2012, at the Plenary Session of the Walden University Residency, Peabody Orlando Hotel, Orlando, Florida

Saturday, September 15, 2012, at the Metavivors Annual Authors Luncheon, DoubleTree Hotel, Annapolis, Maryland

Monday, July 16, 2012

Indie Book Awards finalist

I was both surprised and pleased when my book, PRAGUE: MY LONG JOURNEY HOME, was selected as a finalist for the 2012 Next Generation Indie Book Award. Here I am, standing on the Annapolis waterfront, wearing the finalist medal. No, I don't wear it at any other time!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Incredible story

My e-mail penpal, Karl Okerstrom, sent me a story today. I had read it before. But it is so incredible -- yet believable -- that it was worth rereading. In case you havenot had the opportunity to read it, here it is:

August 1942. Piotrkow, Poland

The sky was gloomy that morning as we waited anxiously. All the men, women and children of Piotrkow's Jewish ghetto had been herded into a square. Word had gotten around that we were being moved. My father had only recently died from typhus, which had run rampant through the crowded ghetto. My greatest fear was that our family would be separated.

'Whatever you do,' Isidore, my eldest brother, whispered to me,
'don't tell them your age. Say you're sixteen.'

I was tall for a boy of 11, so I could pull it off. That way I might be deemed valuable as a worker.

An SS man approached me, boots clicking against the cobblestones. He looked me up and down, and then asked my age.

'Sixteen,' I said. He directed me to the left, where my three brothers and other healthy young men already stood. My mother was motioned to the right with the other women, children, sick and elderly people.

I whispered to Isidore, 'Why?'

He didn't answer.

I ran to Mama's side and said I wanted to stay with her.

'No,' she said sternly. 'Get away. Don't be a nuisance. Go with your brothers.'

She had never spoken so harshly before. But I understood: she was protecting me. She loved me so much that, just this once, she pretended not to. It was the last I ever saw of her.

My brothers and I were transported in a cattle car to Germany. We arrived at the Buchenwald concentration camp one night later and were led into a crowded barrack. The next day, we
were issued uniforms and identification numbers.

'Don't call me Herman anymore.' I said to my brothers. 'Call me 94983.'

I was put to work in the camp's crematorium, loading the dead into a hand-cranked elevator.

I, too, felt dead. Hardened, I had become a number. Soon, my brothers and I were sent to Schlieben, one of Buchenwald's sub-camps near Berlin.

One morning I thought I heard my mother's voice.

'Son,' she said softly but clearly, I am going to send you an angel.'

Then I woke up. Just a dream. A beautiful dream. But in this place there could be no angels. There was only work. And hunger. And fear. A couple of days later, I was walking around the camp, around the barracks, near the barbed-wire fence where the guards could not easily see. I was alone. On the other side of the fence, I spotted someone: a little girl with light,almost luminous curls. She was half-hidden behind a birch tree. I glanced around to make sure no one saw me. I called to her softly in German. 'Do you have something to eat?' She didn't understand. I inched closer to the fence and repeated the question in Polish. She stepped forward. I was thin and gaunt, with rags wrapped around my feet, but the girl looked unafraid. In her eyes, I saw life.

She pulled an apple from her woolen jacket and threw it over the fence. I grabbed the fruit and, as I started to run away, I heard her say faintly, 'I'll see you tomorrow.'


I returned to the same spot by the fence at the same time every day. She was always there with something for me to eat - a hunk of bread or, better yet, an apple. We didn't dare speak or linger. To be caught would mean death for us both. I didn't know anything about her, just a kind farm girl, except that she Understood Polish. What was her name? Why was she risking her life for me?

Hope was in such short supply, and this girl on the other side of the fence gave me some, as nourishing in its way as the bread and apples.


Nearly seven months later, my brothers and I were crammed into a coal car and shipped to Theresienstadt camp in Czechoslovakia.

'Don't return,' I had told the girl that day. 'We're leaving.'

I turned toward the barracks and didn't look back, didn't even say good-bye to the little girl whose name I'd never learned,the girl with the apples.

We were in Theresienstadt for three months. The war was winding down and Allied forces were closing in, yet my fate seemed sealed. On May 10, 1945, I was scheduled to die in the gas
chamber at 10:00 AM.
In the quiet of dawn, I tried to prepare myself. So many times death seemed ready to claim me, but somehow I'd survived. Now, it was over.

I thought of my parents. At least, I thought, we will be reunited. But at 8 A .M. there was a commotion. I heard shouts, and saw people running every which way through camp. I caught up with my brothers. Russian troops had liberated the camp! The gates swung open. Everyone was running, so I did too. Amazingly, all of my brothers had survived;I'm not sure how. But I knew that the girl with the apples had been the key to my survival. In a place where evil seemed triumphant, one person's goodness had saved my Life, had given me hope in a place where there was none.My mother had promised to send me an angel, and the angel had come.

Eventually I made my way to England where I was sponsored by a Jewish charity, put up in a hostel with other boys who had survived the Holocaust and trained in electronics. Then I came to America, where my brother Sam had already moved. I served in the U. S. Army during
the Korean War, and returned to New York City after two years. By August 1957 I'd opened my own electronics repair shop. I was starting to settle in.

One day, my friend Sid whom I knew from England called me. 'I've got a date. She's got a Polish friend. Let's double date.'

A blind date? Nah, that wasn't for me. But Sid kept pestering me, and a few days later we
headed up to the Bronx to pick up his date and her friend Roma. I had to admit, for a blind date this wasn't so bad. Roma was a nurse at a Bronx hospital. She was kind and smart. Beautiful, too,
with swirling brown curls and green, almond-shaped eyes that sparkled with life.

The four of us drove out to Coney Island. Roma was easy to talk to, easy to be with. Turned out she was wary of blind dates too! We were both just doing our friends a favor. We took a
stroll on the boardwalk, enjoying the salty Atlantic breeze, and then had dinner by the shore. I couldn't remember having a better time.

We piled back into Sid's car, Roma and I sharing the backseat. As European Jews who had survived the war, we were aware that much had been left unsaid between us. She broached the subject,
'Where were you,' she asked softly, 'during the war?'

'The camps,' I said. The terrible memories still vivid, the irreparable loss.. I had tried to forget. But you can never forget.

She nodded. 'My family was hiding on a farm in Germany, not far from Berlin,' she told me. 'My father knew a priest, and he got us Aryan papers.'

I imagined how she must have suffered too, fear, a constant companion. And yet here we were both survivors, in a new world.

'There was a camp next to the farm.' Roma continued. 'I saw a boy there and I would throw him apples every day.'

What an amazing coincidence that she had helped some other boy. 'What did he look like? I asked.

'He was tall, skinny, and hungry. I must have seen him every day for six months.'

My heart was racing. I couldn't believe it. This couldn't be.

'Did he tell you one day not to come back because he was leaving Schlieben?'

Roma looked at me in amazement. 'Yes!'

'That was me!'

I was ready to burst with joy and awe, flooded with emotions. I couldn't believe it! My angel.

'I'm not letting you go.' I said to Roma. And in the back of the car on that blind date, I proposed to her. I didn't want to wait.

'You're crazy!' she said. But she invited me to meet her parents for Shabbat dinner the following week. There was so much I looked forward to learning about Roma, but the most important things I always knew: her steadfastness, her goodness. For many months, in the worst of circumstances, she had come to the fence and given me hope. Now that I'd found her again, I could never let her go.

That day, she said yes. And I kept my word. After nearly 50 years of marriage, two children and three grandchildren, I have never let her go.

Herman Rosenblat of Miami Beach , Florida

There are some holes in this story. For example, prisoners were never given dates on which they were to be gassed, and there were no gas chambers in Terezin (Theresienstadt). But, people's memories are not perfect (I found this to be true when writing my memoir), so some small inaccuracies can be forgiven. As long as the essence of the story is true -- it's quite incredible.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Book signing at Annapolis street fair, Sunday, June 17

On Sunday, June 17, 3:00 - 4:00 pm, my book -- PRAGUE: MY LONG JOURNEY HOME -- will be available, and I'll be signing, in Annapolis, Maryland, at the


Beautiful Maryland Avenue, extending from State Circle to the Main Gate of the Naval Academy, will closed to automobile traffic and will be the site of festivities consisting of art exhibits, music, food, drink, and much more from 10 am to 10 pm.

I'll be signing at a stand near the Annapolis Bookstore between 3:00 and 4:00 pm. I look forward to seeing old friends, readers of my book, and new friends there!

Thursday, June 7, 2012


I have been elated and humbled by the correspondence I have received from readers of PRAGUE around the globe. This week, a note arrived from Michael Botermans, a dedicated teacher in Canada's Northern Territories. I would like to share it with you:

Greetings from Canada's Arctic! I've wanted to send this note to you last week, and so I apologize for the delay. I have finally read Prague: My Long Journey Home from cover to cover and have enjoyed it thoroughly, to say the least. Every day after school and soccer practice, I'd rush home and sit on the back veranda with your book in hand, enjoying a short-lived arctic spring and bright sunshine. Your book, your story, your family, is incredible, and I thank you so much for sharing it with me, for documenting it so that others can learn and grow from your life experience, in all its tragedy and in all its triumph. I believe your story, like so many in lfe and in literature, has a happy ending. Thanks so much, too, for signing my book; that means a lot to me.

As a teacher in the Northwest Territories (Canada's  western arctic) for over twenty years, I have made it my personal quest to teach and re-teach the story of the Holocaust to my students. I have a few friends who are Holocaust survivors and Second Generation of the Holocaust. Last March, I had one survivor by the name of Ben Lesser (whose autobiography Living Life That Matters: From Nazi Nightmare to American Dream about his experience in Auschwitz, Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps, Durnhau labor camp, Death March, hiding, resistance, starvation, torture and liberation) come to the arctic for one week to make presentations on the Holocaust (around his story line) to our young people in three northern communities. It was both heart-warming and heart-wrenching for all of us, but what education and what an inspiration! I have Ben Lesser and a female survivor, either Renee Firestone or Ben's sister, Lola Lieber (who has also written an autobiography) returning in March 2013.

Charles, I can't thank you enough and sing my praises of your accomplishments, both in writing Prague and in raising a beautiful family and the success in your career. I am very inspired, heart-warmed and appreciative of your life story, and I really benefitted from reading and reflecting on your book. I would like to say, as a practicing Roman Catholic, how truly sorry I am for any way the Church contributed to your suffering and loss. As much as I love my Church, I also know we have our weaknesses, limitations and history, and so there is always the need to improve and to be more sensitive, tolerant, understanding, helpful, and loving. Words can be so dangerous, but silence and indifference even more so, and in saying that I wish you all the peace and joy of this life and all the blessings you and your family deserve. Thank you so much, Charles, for allowing me to read a part of your life and to be a better person because of it. Prague: My Long Journey Home is a triumph!

Respectfully yours,
Michael Botermans 

Thank you, Michael -- not only for your kind words, but for your dedication to teaching children in the far-off Canadian Arctic and for keeping alive the story of the Holocaust.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


I was pleased and honored to receive the announcement that my book, Prague: My Long Journey Home, was selected as a finalist in the memoirs category for 

2012 Next Generation Indie Book Awards

presented by the Independent Book Publishing Professionals Group. Thank you!