Duke Dellin (born Eduard Josef Dellin), 1940
Edward (Duke) Dellin was born in Prague in 1940. His father, Eduard, had studied agricultural engineering and, after a time spent at the helm of the Sugar Beet Growers’ Association, became involved in politics as the Secretary of the Czechoslovak Agrarian Party. Duke lived with his parents and older sister Jane in Prague’s Nové Město (New Town) until he was eight years old, attending a French-language school run by nuns in the center of the city. Following the Communist coup in 1948, a warrant was issued for Duke’s father’s arrest, leading Eduard Dellin to flee Czechoslovakia for Paris, where he joined a number of other former Czechoslovak politicians. Duke says that his mother, Marie, was not sure at first what she should do and, in a bid to curb mounting pressure placed on the family by the authorities, took the first steps towards divorcing Duke’s father. After a short while, however, she was approached by a number of Western agents, says Duke, who gave her instructions on how to get out of Czechoslovakia with her two children. In July 1948, Duke arrived in Regensburg, West Germany with his mother and sister. They remained there for one week before being transferred to Ludwigsburg refugee camp. There, Duke’s father joined the family and the Dellins applied to come to the United States.
Duke and his family arrived in Chicago in July 1949. They had been sponsored by some of Duke’s mother’s relatives, who had settled in the United States before WWI and owned a Czech bakery in Berwyn. Duke says that the family stayed in Berwyn for less than a month, with his mother and father quickly deciding to take jobs as a maid and a gardener in one household in Winnetka, just north of Chicago. There Duke began his schooling at Hubbard Woods School. He gained his degree at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, and was in the middle of studying at DePaul Law School when a friend told him about the work he was doing in the investment banking sector. Duke was impressed and applied for a job at Hornblower & Weeks, which he got. He has worked in the industry since and is now partner at William Blair & Company, which is based in downtown Chicago. Duke says he is ‘incredibly proud’ of his Czech background. Today, he is active as chairman of the Chicago Prague Sister Cities Committee. He is also on the Czech-North American Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors.
Duke says he played in amongst the rubble at Ludwigsburg refugee camp
“We lived, we lived in one room. And I believe, off and on, there were either two or three families sharing one room. It was a relatively large room. The bath was actually down the hall, so that was shared by several other families. It was an old army barracks, it was an old kásarna that had been bombed during the War. And so it was not in the greatest shape. There was a lot of rubble all around it. So it was not a very pleasant place for children to play. I remember parts of it were bombed out and they were just sort of leveled, almost to the ground, except the basements. And playing in those little warrens underground almost – that was awful. I mean it had to be, I guess, tremendously dangerous, you know there could have been bombs down there that hadn’t exploded or something. I mean, I do remember that whole experience and I just found it to be fairly difficult. Sharing the room with other families, I remember… trying to go to sleep, let’s say at 8:00 or whenever a child goes to sleep, but of course the parents and the other families would be up ‘til 10:00, 11:00 or midnight, smoking, probably, I remember my mother smoked quite a bit. And so I remember the smell of smoke, conversation and so on, well, the children are trying to sleep in a little cot in the corner somewhere so, I remember that as being a fairly difficult time.”
Duke remembers getting CARE packages from America at the camp
“I remember very much looking forward to receiving packages from America at that time, and it would be a CARE package. There was an organization called CARE and I think it’s still, I think it’s still… because I have given CARE some money in the past and getting these packages, it was truly like Christmas. It was a very exciting time. I remember getting a package that had some peanut butter in it. And I had never tasted peanut butter and it was so good, I remember my father would keep this jar of peanut butter way up on a high dresser somewhere and only if we were good, if we did something that was very good, we would get one spoonful of peanut butter. And that was a reward, and I don’t know how long that jar of peanut butter lasted, because I wasn’t that good – so it was up there a long time probably but… Anyway, so the food I think was absolutely terrible at the time, because I do recall getting these Care packages and what a great treat they really were.”
After a short time in the Czech neighborhood of Berwyn, Duke’s parents moved to the north of Chicago
“Well actually I think, I think it was primarily for the children. I think they saw the fact that maybe living in the Czech part… well, I think they wanted sort of more opportunity for us, I mean I, I didn’t know that at the time, I was told that later. That’s why, that’s why they did it, because I had questioned them also, you know, about this years later, and they stated simply that they had been introduced to someone who worked as a domestic servant in the town of Winnetka, which is just north of Chicago. And she had heard that another family was looking for someone who would work as a maid and as a gardener and so I think they thought that this was probably a good opportunity, and I think they did it just because they realized that this would be a good opportunity for us, for the children.”
Duke attended the Hubbard Woods School in Winnetka
“I was deposited in the back of the room and I simply sat there. I was introduced of course, ‘Okay class, here we have with us little Eddie Dellin’, and there he is, this weird looking little kid who had some funny clothes on and so… and anyway, so I just kind of sat there and class went on, and people were raising their hands, and the teacher was writing on the blackboard and the kids went up to the blackboard to write things down and I just kind of sat there. Anyway, but sooner or later, I started to realize that I’m kind of catching on, and I remember fairly distinctly the teacher asking a question and she was asking, I guess they were studying history, and she asked the question of who had been the prime minister of England during the War. And… ‘Yes Eddie?’ ‘Veenston Churchill,’ ‘Yes! Ok!’ I remember getting a round of applause the first time that I raised my hand to be able to answer a question. And from there it was relatively simple.”
Duke says his return to Czechoslovakia in 1989 was ’emotional’
“I certainly felt this great desire to go back and it was… the feeling was absolutely incredible. I flew to Frankfurt and rented a car and drove it and as soon as I got to the border I almost started to weep. Oh, I know, I was able to catch a Czech station on the radio and somehow I found this station that was playing some of these songs that I had learned and that I knew and I mean, I got terribly emotional, I started driving and crying and stuff, just as I was driving across the border. Anyway, it was very emotional and very nice.”
Duke’s attitude towards his own Czech identity has changed over the years
“When I was growing up, I was sort of ashamed of it, I mean, the Czechs were just like any other Eastern European behind the Curtain, behind the Iron Curtain countries, and there was not much to distinguish them – at least from what I could see over here – and in fact they would have… there was a television show here called Saturday Night Live which is still on and they had this skit, with John Belushi or Dan Ackroyd, and it was a comedy, and they had one skit about the two wild and crazy guys from Czechoslovakia. And they were sort of painted to be the buffoons who said silly things and so on. So that was the image of the, of the… and so I never made a point of the fact that I was Czech. It was not until a little bit later that I realized how stupid I was for denying this heritage and then I really started to embrace it entirely, and now I’m just incredibly proud to be a Czech. Because you know, so many people have been to Prague once and I think almost everyone says ‘my goodness, what a wonderful city, and what wonderful people’ and they can’t believe this incredible history that they see. And so, of course, I have become extremely, extremely proud and so I have gotten involved in, you know, quite a few things Czech.”
Category: Chicago, Oral History