My blog posts are going to be something different the next five days. This is the week we are moving so time is short. I am going to post one of my published stories each day this week. When you read each one, ask yourself what makes this story publishable?
Today's story is one that has been published more than once. It's about a friend of ours, who is now deceased. His story always seemed like a Fairy Tale that was real, thus the title. I gathered the information over many conversations around the dinner table with Joe and his wife.
The picture above is Joe's castle. In his country, a castle is more like a grand manor estate rather than the castles we think of in the UK, for instance. You can read another story about our visit to the castle here, or listen to me read it at this site, as well.
A True Fairy Tale
By Nancy Julien Kopp
Children have been enchanted by fairy tales penned by the Grimm brothers and Hans Christian Andersen for centuries. Aristocrats and castles, trolls and witches fill the pages eagerly turned by little hands. Good versus evil is often the theme, and suspense captures the reader’s attention. But can such stories really happen? Yes they can, for I am acquainted with a man who starred in a real-life fairy tale.
I know him as my friend, Joe. He retired after a long career as a professor in the
college of Business at where all knew
him as Joseph Barton-Dobenin, American citizen. But once upon a time, he was
the Baron Joseph Barton-Dobenin of Kansas State
Joe was the eldest of three sons. The three boys grew up in a castle surrounded by lush, park-like grounds. Their family owned a brewery that stood within sight of their home, as well as a great deal of property in and around
Rumbles of possible war in Europe cast a
shadow over Joe’s high school years. When his father died, Joe inherited the
title of Baron, and responsibility weighed heavily on his shoulders. With his
mother’s guiding hand, he carried on in his father’s place.
Before he could enter university, Hitler invaded
and German officers moved into the castle. The family worked in the fields each
day along with the people of their village. Life was hard, but they managed to
survive until the end of the war. Then, at
ended up in the hands of Russia.
With no choice, the people now lived under Communist rule. A baron could be no
part of the communist life, so Joe landed in prison.
One of his brothers was sent to work in a uranium mine, and Joe’s mother and youngest brother moved to a tiny apartment in
Prague when the castle was seized and turned
into a national museum. The real estate and businesses the family owned were
confiscated, too. They’d endured and survived the grim war years, but this
proved even more forbidding. Hope disappeared like smoke from a chimney.
The Russians finally released Joe. He’d had plenty of time in prison to consider his options in this new world. He decided to leave his homeland and find a way to bring the family together again in a free country. His mother sewed the jewels she’d managed to save into his coat, and an escape plan emerged from long nights of talking. To this day, many of the details remain a secret. Joe hid in the men’s’ restroom at the big train station, away from the Russian soldiers who marched the halls. Despite a few frightening moments, the escape plan worked, and Joe made his way to
and then to Tunisia,
where he toiled in the fields. He’d had plenty of agricultural experience
during the war in his own fields.
A year later, his days were monotonous, and the future looked bleak. One night he thought about an American banker who had visited the castle in pre-war days. When the visitor left, he clapped Joe on the shoulder and said to look him up if he ever came to
America. More and more Joe thought
about the banker’s words, until he knew he must
set sail for the
United States. He’d saved enough
money for his passage to New York.
Though he spoke several languages, he knew no English, but that did not deter
him. His mother and brothers still lived in a communist controlled land, and
his aim was to get them out, too.
He arrived in
York, a stranger in a land where he could not
understand a word spoken to him. Was it luck or an angel who put him in the
path of a woman who spoke German, a language he spoke fluently? She helped Joe
make a phone call to the American banker he’d met years earlier. No doubt
surprised to hear from Joe, the man instructed him to have the woman help him
buy a train ticket to Nebraska.
The man operated properties taken over by his bank, and he put Joe to work managing these repossessed farms. It wasn’t long before Joe knew he would not earn enough to bring his family to
America. A college education would
help. He qualified as a displaced person so was able to enter the at no cost. He earned both his
undergraduate and master’s degrees in business, and he married a girl from University of Nebraska Nebraska.
He started teaching in the Business Education department at
University, returned to Nebraska for his doctor’s degree and spent the remainder
of his career at . Kansas
During the many education years, he received word that his mother had passed away. He dared not return to his homeland for fear of being imprisoned again. How his heart ached at not being able to say good-bye to his strong and beautiful mother. He thought often of her portrait which adorned a wall in one of the dining rooms in the castle.
Joe told his wife, Elizabeth, that he would never return to
until it was free again. By the time the Communist rule came to an end, Joe’s
brothers and their families had immigrated to the United States, too, and Joe had
retired. He and Elizabeth made plans to visit his home country. He’d related
stories for so long about the castle and all the precious things in it, his
family, and friends in his home . Now he would
show it to her. village
When they arrived in
Joe’s heart nearly broke upon seeing the deterioration of the beautiful city
he’d once known. Neglect was evident in the once-magnificent buildings, and the
people walked with heads down, no smiles upon their faces. Pride had somehow
been destroyed. What would he find when they visited the castle? He and
Elizabeth secured transportation to the small village where he’d once lived so
happily. The castle remained a museum for the forty-some years of Joe’s absence.
When he climbed the steps and entered his old home, his heart beat faster, and he
was both fearful and eager to see what it looked like inside. Nothing had
changed. Every piece of furniture, every rug, every piece of porcelain
remained. When he walked into the dining room, his feet could carry him no
further. He faced his mother’s portrait, painted in the days when she ruled as
Baroness. The tears he had not been able to shed at her funeral came in earnest
as he gazed at the beautiful young woman wearing a froth of a dress.
Joe introduced his American wife to several old family friends. He learned that many of the valuable paintings the family had left with friends remained hidden by the villagers. Not all of them, however. Some were sold to keep families alive but others
remained stashed in attics. Joe discovered that the new government returned confiscated properties if ownership could be proven. Never dreaming he would have any of the family property again, he began the legal process to see if he might get some of the holdings back. As if by magic, he became the owner of a castle and real estate in downtown
But he had no intention of moving back to the .
He had given up being the Baron long before. He was an American now. He knew he
must return to his homeland to oversee the many business details, and so their
retirement years slipped into a new routine. Four times a year Joe and
Elizabeth journeyed to the Czech Republic Czech Republic
for three weeks at a time, and the rest of the year they spent in America.
But now Joe had a problem. What was he to do with the profits from these newfound businesses? He devised a plan which would help the youth in the
and to also benefit the
American university where he’d taught so many years. He started a scholarship
program for Czech students to come to Czech Republic for one or two
semesters. And come they did. After the first group completed their time, word
spread around Kansas State
like wildfire. Students at Czech Tech and
learned that not only could you spend a wonderful year at an American
university, but the man and his wife who made it possible also invited you to
their home for dinner, became your American family. More students came each
year, and now some of the Charles University Kansas State students have gone to Prague in a reverse exchange. The American
students on the exchange program now see a revitalized Prague, a city that shines once again and
people who have once again found pride in living there.
Each year, Joe told the young Czech students that they are the future of their country. “Study hard,” he said to each new group. “Go home and help the
.” And they
listened to this man who lost so much and then regained it almost fifty years
Fairy tales often end “…and they lived happily ever after.” I think Joe would agree that is the way his story ended, too.