In 1976 my father was working on his thesis towards an advanced degree in veterinary medicine. His thesis dealt with the pathological contamination of ground water from effluent generated by Romania’s huge cooperative ranches. Unlike most ranches in the West, these ranches confined into a few acres of land hundreds of thousands heads of cattle, pigs and chickens each. The thesis described in scientific detail how this contamination was responsible for unusually high numbers of varying types of microbiological diseases plaguing the populations of surrounding towns and villages.
The thesis made its way to the West, where environmentalist groups used it to highlight the dangers inherent to large concentrations of livestock, and in particular to stem a trend of centralization among ranchers who were looking for ways to save on fuel for transportation and other similar logistics. Central planning authorities in Romania soon took objection to my father’s work and listed him on their political black-list.
Meanwhile, President Jimmy Carter took office and through the State Department obtained Romania’s black-list. He required Romania to address each individual on that list via Amnesty International guidelines before renewing Romania’s Favorite Trading Nation status. Common prisoners were not subject to the same guidelines as political prisoners, and the Romanian authorities tried to exploit this. Their strategy was to turn all the prisoners on the black-list into criminals guilty of a crime, no matter how small. They reasoned that names on this list would simply disappear and President Carter’s request thus fulfilled, Romania could increase its exports to the US.
As this strategy unfolded, our family was subject to months of interrogation, punishment, humiliation and other hardships aimed at exhausting us and to catch my father in some crime. Guided by God, Radio Free Europe, and some unlikely underground allies, my father managed to keep clear of any wrongdoing. With President Carter’s imposed deadline upon them, the Romanian communist government removed my father’s name from the list by stripping our family of citizenship and exiling us to the West.
We lived in an Austrian refugee camp for almost one year with other refugee families like our own. In the camp we heard stories of others who were also on that black-list but who were not as fortunate. Husbands and fathers disappeared in the night, entire families were torn apart and only those who told the stories remembered the names and faces that were lost. One by one, each family was sponsored by global social groups to move and live in Germany, Canada, Australia, America and other such Promised Lands throughout the free world. Our turn came, and with sponsorship from the Romanian Orthodox Church in New York we set out to build a new life in America.
Some twenty years later, after Romania’s communist government collapsed and the Iron Curtain was no more, we reunited with our uncles, cousins, grandparents and friends left behind in 1977. Childhood friends that I had played with in the streets of Romania were said to be buried somewhere in mass graves for their part to curb Communism in my home town of Timishoara. Over time and with every passing blessing and opportunity presented to me in America, I was filling up with a solemn sense of gratitude towards my father and President Jimmy Carter that my sisters and I were not among the dead. This gratitude pushed me to achieve so that in my achievement I can somehow honor them and those who where gone.
I had fashioned a career in the high-tech industry from the opportunities that came my way over the many years that passed since then. One day I found myself on the show floor of Computer Associates’ “CA World ‘98” in New Orleans representing my company. The keynote speaker at this event was President Jimmy Carter. I worked with my colleagues and partners at Computer Associates to clear up my schedule of business meetings so I can attend President Carter’s speech. To my associates this was uncommon coming from me, since I was the one who always seemed to fastidiously stick to schedules and meetings. My counterpart at Computer Associates approached me and had to know why I was so insistent on seeing President Carter. Over lunch I casually relayed my family’s story to him, and oddly enough he was taking notes between bites of his meal. Later that evening his manager, the Executive Vice President of Strategic Relations, came up to me and said that he too was an admirer of President Carter, and offered to go together to the keynote so he can get me into the VIP area close to the stage where we can see President Carter better. Thinking nothing of it, I eagerly signed on to his offer and we made our way past the crowds. We sat right up front and listened to President Carter’s plea to us high-tech professionals to not leave behind those who have difficulty in transitioning to the Information Age we were creating. At the end of his address and before leaving the stage, Chairman Charles Wang went up to the podium and took a crinkled piece of paper from his pocket. There, in 1998, in New Orleans, in front of over 30,000 high-tech professionals and the local media, with video cameras recording, President Jimmy Carter was reminded of a family he once helped many years ago. Chairman Wang called me up to the stage to personally thank the President on behalf of my father and my family.
A few months later that year, while the laughter of grandchildren filled his house, I pulled my father away and we retreated to a quiet room to catch up. I told him the year was good to me, and that I wanted to show him something from one of the trade shows I attended earlier that year. “Don’t bother with that, let’s just sit and talk” he said as the video tape’s “CA World ‘98” edge title disappeared into the player. Moments later, the whole family was gathered in the room hugging, crying, and honoring one another as the tape played again and again.
In our lives we are rarely presented with an opportunity to truly thank someone for their sacrifice, suffering and strength. In 1998 I had the unique opportunity to thank the two people that are profoundly responsible for the person I became: President Jimmy Carter and my father. President Carter’s plea not to leave anyone behind, whether in the Information Age or in any other way resonated with me, and my family’s own experience showed me that it is possible for someone in a position of responsibility to reach out to tiny corners of the world and make a difference by establishing and following through with global programs and policies. It is for this reason that I am driven to learn how to enable programs, policies and strategies so which reach out to voiceless global audiences. My experience gives me hope that in turn I too can help a family somewhere deep in a small corner of the world to find their way.