Zdeněk Bažant, born 1937
Zdeněk Pavel Bažant was born in Prague in 1937. He was raised in Prague, though during WWII he spent a long period in southern Bohemia with his aunt. His father and grandfather were engineering professors ČVUT (Czech Technical University) and his mother – a junior colleague of Milada Horáková – held a doctorate in sociology. Zdeněk recalls the time following the Communist coup in 1948 as difficult for his family. He was labeled ‘bourgeois’ because of his parents’ backgrounds. His maternal grandmother had acquired a number of properties through the sale of her factory; at this time Zdeněk says that all of these buildings were nationalized. He says that it was at this young age that the idea of leaving the country began to germinate. An excellent mathematician, he was national champion of the Mathematical Olympics in 1955.
Zdeněk studied civil engineering at ČVUT and graduated at the head of the class. He was not, however, accepted into a postgraduate program, which he attributes to his decision not to accept an invitation to join the Communist Party. Instead, Zdeněk began working as an engineer for Dopravoprojekt, a state company, and was able to complete a doctorate in engineering as an external student. In 1966, after earning a postgraduate diploma in theoretical physics from Charles University, he traveled abroad on two fellowships, to Paris and Toronto, and then on a visiting appointment to Berkeley, California. Zdeněk was in Toronto during the Prague Spring in 1968. He and his wife Iva (whom he had married the previous year) were planning on returning to Czechoslovakia; however, upon hearing the news of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August, they decided to stay abroad.
In 1969, Zdeněk was appointed associate professor at Northwestern University, and is still today at this school, holding a distinguished professorial chair in civil engineering and materials science. He is a world-renowned, frequently-published researcher with much of his work focusing on structural and materials engineering. Zdeněk and Iva have two children, Martin and Eva, who, although they did not learn it at home, can both speak Czech. Zdeněk enjoys many hobbies, including skiing, tennis, and playing the piano. His passion for skiing led to his 1959 patent of a safety ski binding which was mass-produced and became very popular among Czech skiers. Although he visits Prague several times a year and says he misses the ‘beautiful landscape of Prague,’ Zdeněk says that he has been ‘very impressed with America’ and has no plans to return to the Czech Republic to live. He also has no plans to retire. Today, Zdeněk lives with his wife (a retired physician) in Evanston, Illinois.
One of Zdeněk’s earliest memories concerns his grandfather
I remember my grandpa returning from the concentration camp, which was very lucky because his good friend learned of his imprisonment and intervened with the Allies and put him on a list to be exchanged. So my grandpa and the other leaders of Sokol – he was one of the five leaders – were on transport to Auschwitz, all the others died there, but they took him out of a railroad car, cattle car in Terezín and gave him a ticket to Prague.
Zdeněk fondly recalls his first school in a village in the Czech countryside
I was largely with my aunt in southern Bohemia, and I started going to school in the village of Radějovice which was about three miles away. I had to walk across tracks and through the fields, and I loved that, because the first bench, first row, was first grade, second row was second grade, fifth row was fifth grade, everything together. The teacher was fantastic: ‘Now I’m teaching for the first graders, now I’m teaching for the second graders.’ I listened to it all. It was very stimulating. And he was such a dedicated guy who loved to teach. He played the violin for us in class; he would hit our fingers with the bow. That was during the War, it was a great memory. I liked it more than the school in Prague when I came to regular school with a big class. So education does not only depend on how much money is spent and how big classes are. That guy, he achieved alone more than probably the teachers gave me subsequently.
Also an avid skier, Zdeněk’s hobby and injury led to securing his first patent
I invented, in 1958 after a ski accident which busted my knee, a ski binding – which was an alternative to Marker, which was the first, a year before – and had it patented. With a big effort, I managed to get it produced. It was not so easy, but eventually, in 1962 or ’63, one third of Czech skiers – by my sales figures – were using my binding, the ZPB binding. Then I had some other patents of systems for bridges and such things, but this one is the best known. It is actually exhibited, my binding, in the New England Ski Museum in Franconia, New Hampshire. On the other hand, the income was decent but not like it would be here, so fortunately I didn’t go into this kind of business, otherwise I would have been diverted from what I really like.
Zdeněk sees a significant difference in the American and European education systems
In this country, we recognized quickly that education has a completely different spirit. My children never had a systematic course of history or geography. But what they do for example, my son in the second grade – already from the first grade at school – they have to go to the library and the teacher says ‘You study Richard III’ and then he has to make a presentation at school, or study the Napoleonic Wars and make a presentation, or tell us something about Indonesian history. But they never had a systematic drill, the rote learning, so I think in this regard, many Americans are not properly educated, like systematically, but it leads them to be creative and that’s a plus.
Category: Chicago, Oral History