Dr. Benjamin B. Dunlap
President, Wofford College
This editorial first appeared in The Charlotte Observer on August 13, 2000.
Word of Sandor Teszler's death last month in Spartanburg brought back a wave of memories, including one that took place in a classroom five or six years ago. He was then a youthful 92.
We were screening the opening scene of Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal," in which a knight returned from the Crusades slumps wearily on a rocky Scandinavian shore. At that moment, a black-clad Death appears in classic theatrical guise, holding out his cloak to envelope the knight.
A tremulous Hungarian accent broke the heavy silence. "Uh-oh," it said, "this doesn't look so good."
But Mr. Teszler needn't have worried. He was still good for a number of years at that point, years full of the kindness and generosity that had marked his life for virtually all of the 20th century.
He'd been born in the old Austro-Hungarian empire, ostracized from childhood not so much because he was a Jew as because he was afflicted with club feet, requiring many painful operations.
From an early age he loved music, especially opera, and later in life would befriend his fellow exile, the composer Bela Bartok.
Extremely successful in the textile business, Teszler supposed his contributions to society would protect him from the Nazis. He was wrong, almost fatally so, for he and his wife and two sons were taken to a death house on the Danube, where victims were systematically beaten to death.
Midway through the beating, one of his sons pointed to the poison capsule each of them bore in a locket about his neck. "Is it time to take the pill now, Papa?" he asked.
Inexplicably, one of their tormentors leaned down to whisper in Teszler's ear, "Don't take the capsule. Help is on the way."
Shortly afterwards, the family was rescued by an official from the Swiss embassy and taken to safety.
In Bergman's film, the knight stalls for time by challenging Death to a game of chess. If he wins, the knight will be spared. But the knight knows better than that. He merely seeks a reprieve that will allow him to commit a meaningful act.
Teszler's life had been full of meaningful acts. But after coming to this country and making another fortune, he set about improving the lives of everyone he met.
In the aftermath of the Brown versus Board of Education desegregation ruling -at about the time Ingmar Bergman was making his movie - Teszler noted the escalating rhetoric around him.
"I have heard this talk before," he said. And, with a combination of shrewdness and saintliness worthy of Gandhi, he decided be the first in this region to integrate the work force in his mills.
Setting up heavy equipment in an unused high school gym, he took a group of workers for a prospective mill in King's Mountain, N.C. to live there on the premises while learning the new operation. Half were white and half were black.
After an initial tour of this temporary facility, he asked if there were any questions. Following an uneasy silence, one of the white workers raised his hand and said he was puzzled to find there was only one dormitory and one shower room.
"That is correct," Mr. Teszler answered. "You are being paid considerably more than other textile workers in this region, and this is how we do things. Are there any other questions?"
"I guess not," the worker said.
Some weeks later, when the new mill opened, workers of both races were greeted by a group black and white foremen standing shoulder to shoulder.
"Are there any questions?" a black foreman asked. After some shuffling about, one of the white workers raised his hand.
"Let me get this straight," he queried. "Is this plant integrated?"
One of the white foremen stepped forward - the same man who'd asked a similar question some weeks earlier.
"That is correct," he said. "You're being paid a lot more than other textile workers in this region and this is how we do things. Any other questions?"
There were none.
For Teszler, such episodes served to confirm his faith that people are fundamentally good. And, in the company of this man with such persuasive cause for thinking otherwise, people did tend to discover their better selves.
In the last decade of his life, Sandor Teszler graced the campus of Wofford College, attending so many classes that the faculty, acknowledging a wisdom and experience greater than their own, honored themselves by making him an honorary professor.
To hundreds of Wofford students he was simply "Opi," Hungarian for grandfather.
The college library bears his name.
In the movie as in life, Death prevails in the end. But it doesn't win. Bergman's knight was a disillusioned Christian seeking some evidence for the existence of God in the human capacity for goodness.
Even his own determined act of charity leaves him somewhat unconvinced. Had he met Sandor Teszler, he would have had no doubt.