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Medal of Honor recipient to speak, receive honorary degree

Vernon Baker
2008-08-05

Vernon Baker to receive Sandor Teszler Award for Moral Courage and Service to Humankind from Wofford College Sept. 11

SPARTANBURG, S.C.
– Vernon Baker, the only living African-American recipient of the Medal of Honor for valor during World War II, will receive the Sandor Teszler Award for Moral Courage and Service to Humankind and an honorary degree from Wofford College on Thursday, Sept. 11, during the college’s opening convocation.

Baker will speak at the 11 a.m. convocation honoring him, to be held in Leonard Auditorium in Wofford’s Main Building. The event will be free and open to the public.

The Sandor Teszler Award for Moral Courage and Service to Humankind represents the highest ideals that the Wofford community espouses, and it carries with it an honorary degree, a citation and a $10,000 cash award.

The 89-year-old Baker, who now lives in St. Maries, Idaho, earned the Medal of Honor 52 years before he and six of his comrades actually received the award in 1997 from then-President Bill Clinton. Baker was the only one still living to accept the honor, the military’s highest award for bravery in battle, in person. “They helped America to become more worthy of them and more true to its ideals,” Clinton said at the White House ceremony then.

Baker, who served as a lieutenant with the 370th Infantry Regiment, was cited for his “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his own life” for his actions on April 5 and 6, 1945, when he destroyed four German machine gun nests near Viareggio, Italy, at Castle Aghinolfi, a German mountain strong point on the high ground. He killed nine enemy soldiers with a gun and hand grenades.

A native of Cheyenne, Wyo., Baker also earned the Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and the Distinguished Service Cross for his service in Italy.

Sandor Teszler was born in the old Austro-Hungarian empire, where he was ostracized from childhood not so much because he was a Jew, but because he was afflicted with club feet that required many painful operations. He is said to have loved music, especially opera, from an early age. Later in life, he befriended his fellow exile, composer Bela Bartok.

During World War II, a successful businessman in textiles, Teszler and his family – his wife and two sons – were taken to a death house on the Danube, where victims were systematically beaten to death. They were prepared to die, prepared to take a poison capsule that would allow them to escape further torture, but they were saved when one of their tormentors inexplicably advised them not to take the pills, saying “Help is on the way.” Shortly thereafter, they were rescued by an official from the Swiss embassy.

Coming to the Carolinas, Teszler again joined the textile industry, and was one of the first to desegregate his mills.

In the last decade of his life, Teszler graced the Wofford campus, “attending so many classes that the faculty, acknowledging a wisdom and experience greater than their own, honored themselves by making him a professor,” Wofford President Benjamin B. Dunlap wrote in a tribute to Teszler that appeared in the Charlotte Observer in August 2000.

To Wofford students, Teszler was known simply as “Opi,” Hungarian for grandfather. The college library bears his name.

“With the Sandor Teszler Award, we seek to commemorate the life and career of Sandor Teszler, who was for many years associated with Wofford and who in his own life and career embodied the ideals of the award being made in his name,” Dunlap says. “We also seek to celebrate the contributions of a figure of both national and international renown. It is our intention to assure that everyone in the Wofford College community is fully aware of the recipient’s achievement. The faculty will process in full academic regalia, and the honoree will address the college as the main speaker for this occasion.”