Friday, January 20, 2006
Gabor Miskolczy: The Minuteman from Hungary
Thus began an unusual journey, with origins in Budapest, education and work in New England, and ultimately roots in Carlisle. Miskolczy, who has lived on Cross Street with his wife Bonnie for almost 40 years, is a man of great charm and intellect, soft-spoken in accented English, with an impish sense of humor. For example, when he tells me his stepfather's last name was Szent-Gyorgyi, I ask how it is pronounced. "Saint George," he deadpans.
Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, Miskolczy's stepfather, was an esteemed biologist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1937 for the discovery that Vitamin C was abundant in Hungarian paprika. In 1947, he and Miskolczy's mother Marta came to the United States, where he became director of research at the Institute of Muscle Research in Woods Hole. Two years later Gabor and his younger sister arrived from Hungary.
From Hungary to America
Gabor Miskolczy was born in Budapest and attended boarding school in Szeged in the southern part of Hungary. He explains that during the first and second World Wars, Szeged changed from Yugoslavia to Hungary and back to Yugoslavia; it is now part of Serbia. "The name Miskolczy refers to a town in northeastern Hungary," he explains. The "y" at the end means "of." When his father, a doctor, was still alive, Miskolczy asked him about the origin of the name, expecting that the family might be part of the nobility. "But he said no, this Miskolczy family had no nobility and we were descended from a long line of farmers and ranchers." Miskolczy says he has been "poking around trying to get some family facts" and has received calls from people claiming to be from the noble branch, "but I have never been able to find this noble branch." His tone suggests that it doesn't exist.
When Miskolczy arrived in this country, "Hungary was still very much a place where you could bribe the right people to get the right things done. I had an immigrant visa from the U.S. consulate and a visitor's visa for only two weeks on my passport. Needless to say, I stayed longer than the two weeks."
On the path to education
Miskolczy was immediately set on the path to education with a little help from new friends."Two days after we got off the plane, my mother talked to a whole bunch of people, including Clara W. Mayer, who founded the New School in New York. She interviewed me and my sister and said, 'Okay, they have to go to school. He is going to Exeter, she is going to the Cambridge School [of Weston]."
His immediate entrance to Exeter was equally swift, also orchestrated by Miskolczy's determined mother. William G. Saltonstall was the head of school at Exeter and had a summer home in Marion, Mass., near Woods Hole. An interview was arranged immediately at the Saltonstall home. "After the interview Saltonstall said, 'He's going to summer school starting tomorrow.' My mother said, 'How can I sew all those name tags in one day?' To which he replied, 'Okay, next day is fine.'"
Miskolczy points out that he took intensive English in his Hungarian school, which was an enormous help in attending Exeter. "I spent three years at Exeter, after that I went to Harvard for two years where I thought I was concentrating in medicine, but that wasn't such a good idea! I was much more interested in machinery and taking things apart." He left Harvard, went to the University of Toronto, and then entered MIT where he earned a master's degree in mechanical engineering in 1958.
As a student at MIT, Miskolczy was a research assistant at its Gesthoven Laboratory. When he graduated, he was offered a job at a small start-up company founded by one of the professors at the laboratory. The company became Thermo Electron in Waltham, specializing in energy conversion by diverse methods, and Miskolczy was its first employee. Describing his work there, he says, "I did mostly experimental work. We had a big machine shop with lots of technicians." He holds eight patents, "one is for a magnetic fluid to be used for various insignificant projects. Nobody became rich as a result of it." Another patent is for an energy-saving cement kiln, but the Japanese developed another method around the same time and had closer ties to the cement manufacturers. "So their product is on the market and ours is sitting on the shelf of the Smithsonian somewhere," Miskolczy reports.
When Bonnie and Gabor met
Miskolczy was an avid skier and met his future wife, Bonnie Orr, at Stowe. They were guests of a mutual friend who had a ski house there. Before dinner one night, they were side by side preparing salad, and chopping mushrooms, to be precise. "I looked over at her," recalls Gabor, and said, "You're cutting those the wrong way." "No, you're cutting them the wrong way," Bonnie shot back. To this day they each maintain their own method of mushroom-chopping and mushrooms are still an important part of their lives. "I'm a member of the Boston Mycological Club; we have mushrooms on our property; we have mushroom books; we have mushroom friends."
Bonnie and Gabor were married in March 1965 and rented an apartment in Cambridge, behind the Radcliffe Quad. They decided they needed more space and began looking around. "We actually put money down on a house near Carlisle center," says Miskolczy, "but somehow it wasn't quite right. We were novices at real estate and that house fell through. Finally, in August 1966, we found this place on Cross Street." A professor from Boston University and his young bride had used it as a weekend retreat, but it was a one-room house with no bedroom, just a concealed bed in the loft. In January 1970, the Miskolczys' daughter Marta was born and the next year, they built an addition to the house.
Both Gabor and Bonnie got involved in their new town right away. They joined the Fair Practices Committee, which encouraged minorities to move into Carlisle. "As you can see, there was tremendous progress in the last 30 years," says Miskolczy with a smile that underscores the irony. When Paul Tsongas ran for County Commissioner, the Miskolczys were strong supporters; "then he became a State Rep. and finally a Senator. We supported him until he died." Miskolczy was elected to the Democratic Town Committee and recalls that "when we moved into town there were four Democrats on the committee. The farmers were Republicans. Lots of people just ignored us."
In 1980 he was elected to the Board of Health. "Nobody else wanted to run," Miskolczy comments, "and at that time the Board of Health was an insignificant committee. So I beat Mr. Blank!" His dozen years as a BOH member were marked with "continuous fights among committees about subdivision control. We always felt that developers were treated too leniently, and it wasn't fair, I thought. We tried to treat everyone the same, which is hard to do. At the end of my service, Title 5, which governs sewerage, was changed." Just at that time there was a plan to move Miskolczy's operation at Thermo Electron to the west coast, and he decided not to run for office again. "It turned out that I didn't go to the west coast, but I didn't feel like relearning all the Title 5 regulations," he says.
Joining the Minutemen
Miskolczy joined the Minutemen for the nation's bicentennial activities in 1975, but even before that he and Bonnie would join the traditional Patriots Day march through Estabrook Woods to Concord. "Someone provided a costume for our daughter Marta, and then invited her to join the Minutemen," Miskolczy remembers. "Gradually I too got a costume, starting with the hat. I dressed in discarded clothes of other Minutemen. Betty Lang, who used to live in the center, made the shirt I was wearing, and Bonnie undertook to make the trousers and vest, which was very difficult to do."
Three years ago, Miskolczy retired from Thermo Electron and since then has found new activities he enjoys. "My newest fun thing to do is work for the Science Discovery Museum in Acton. Once a month kids can bring in any kind of electronic apparatus, except monitor tubes, to be taken apart and see how they work. I'm very good at taking things apart. It's amazing how little kids of four or five can take apart a tape drive without any hesitation. Of course, we don't have to put it back together."
Pottery is another diversion that Miskolczy enjoys as both physical and mental therapy. His instructor is Karen Lemmermann of Carlisle, who offers classes at Concord-Carlisle Adult Education. "We make funny things," he says. For recreation, both Bonnie and Gabor ski, and he takes part in foot races — "very slowly," he points out.
When the Miskolczys are not in Carlisle, they can often be found in Santa Fe, New Mexico, at the house Bonnie inherited from her father. Added to the attraction of a beautiful, large house in the foothills of the Sangre de Christo mountains are the Miskolczys' daughter and their four-year-old grandson who live nearby.
Cross Street then and now
Looking back on his 40 years in Carlisle, Miskolczy still enjoys the special qualities that initially brought him and his wife to town. "One of the reasons we moved here was, after the realtor showed us the house, we came back the next day to look it over, and we couldn't find the house. We wandered around Carlisle looking for it." In addition, he remembers the pleasure of picnicking at Towle Field, and being observed by a few cows that had wandered in through the cow tunnel under Westford Street. "That was another reason to live here," he notes.
Asked about the development activities on Cross Street, Miskolczy tells of his surprise when he learned that he did not own the land at the end of the driveway. It had been improperly surveyed and their neighbors, the Macones, owned a good part of it. Although it wasn't a major issue, the Miskolczys bought the piece of land in order to complete their property. Referring to the Cross Street housing plans underway by developer Bill Costello, Miskolczy says, "We're trying to keep some of the paths through the woods open and available to the public."
Looking toward the future, Miskolczy muses, "In my old age I wouldn't mind living in a city, either in Europe or in the United States, but I couldn't afford it." To the suggestion that the Miskolczys divide their time between Carlisle, Santa Fe and "any kind of a city," he acknowledges that "it's confusing enough to have a house in Santa Fe and one here, because you never know where anything is."
ę 2006 The Carlisle Mosquito