Pierre Dobrovolny, born 1933
Pierre Dobrovolny was born in Brno, Moravia, in October 1933. His father Ferdinand was an artist who worked with, among others, the Czech archeologist Dr. Karel Absolon. Pierre’s mother Růžena was a seamstress. Growing up, Pierre wanted to become a radio mechanic but, he says, this profession was a predominantly feminine one at the time of his graduation, so he went to ČVUT (Czech Technical University in Prague) to study electrical engineering instead. He graduated from technical university in 1958 and says he was ‘lucky’ to do so, given his outspoken nature and his critical view of the Communist government at the time. That same year, Pierre married his partner Vera. His first job upon graduation was at the Research Institute for Electrotechnical Physics, where he worked on equipment to measure radiation.
When the possibility of pursuing a doctorate on top of his work presented itself, Pierre applied to do so, but says the background checks that were run on him by the school resulted in him being kicked out of his job at the research institute as well. Pierre was conscripted and spent six months in the Czech Army; upon his return from military service, he was told he had been let go from the research institute and was being sent to TESLA Hloubětín instead. At TESLA, Pierre’s job was to work on transmitters to be sent to Russia, which he says was somewhat of a poisoned chalice, because he could be penalized if the project went wrong, but had little authority to make changes where they were necessary. The project to develop these transmitters, however, was a success, and resulted in Pierre traveling to Vilnius, Kutaisi and Moscow to show technicians there how to operate them. In 1965, after being repeatedly refused, Pierre was allowed to embark upon a second degree in mathematics and physics. He left Czechoslovakia, however, before he could complete his studies.
Following the Warsaw Pact Invasion in 1968, Pierre was part of a group which set up an illegal transmitter and broadcast non-official news about the invasion, first in the TESLA building in Hloubětín, then in Zahradní Město and finally in the Novodvorská suburb of Prague. He left Czechoslovakia with his wife Vera and their two children the following year. Once in Vienna, the family applied for visas to the United States and registered with the American Fund for Czechoslovak Refugees. Their youngest daughter Lucie, however, fell suddenly very ill and so the family returned to Czechoslovakia to seek medical assistance. Several months later, on the anniversary of the Warsaw Pact Invasion, the Dobrovolnys again left Czechoslovakia. After four months in refugee camps in Traiskirchen and Bad Kreuzen, Austria, they arrived in Chicago, where Pierre found a job at radio and television manufacturer Zenith. He stayed there until LG bought the company in 1990 and continued thereafter to do some external consulting for the firm. Today, he lives with his wife Vera in Hawthorn Woods, Illinois.
Pierre says he was ‘lucky’ to graduate
“When I was in the dorm I believe they knew everything I was talking about. Because those speakers… Every room had a speaker – like a radio – and the speakers were built two-way. And there was a secret room right at the front of that dorm where nobody was allowed to go, only some students who were Communist Party members. Besides that they had also guns with them. So there was something special going on in that room. And I believe they were listening to people in the dorm. But I didn’t… somehow I didn’t care at that time. It caught up with me later. I mean, somehow I was lucky enough to graduate. Then I got my first job which was with the Research Institute for Electrotechnical Physics, where we were building equipment to measure nuclear radiation. I was there for about half a year, and I found out that there was an opportunity to do a PhD – some PhD openings. And since I worked in the ultrasound labs, it was kind of close to what I had been doing before. I applied for that, and they made such a thorough research of my background that they kicked me out, even from my job.”
Pierre says that under communism there were two parts to every company’s HR department
“There were two parts of the personnel department. One was like here, open where all the files are kept, and there was the other part of it, which was political, which was secret – all your background, even that you had forgotten a long time ago is still recorded. So that guy, who was the head of that department said ‘What are you doing here? You are not supposed to be here! You were let go!’”
Pierre’s job at TESLA was something of a poisoned chalice
“You get blamed for it when it is not finished, that thing, but you have what they call responsibility without authority, or something of this kind.”
Vera: “In those days, if something went wrong, he wouldn’t lose his job, but he would go to prison.”
“That’s right, because it could be looked upon as sabotage. So all my colleagues over there, you could see the attitude, they were staying away from it, because the general opinion was – we got all the papers, all the research reports about how things were put together as far as the transmitter is concerned and you could see what they did, how they did it – and the general opinion was ‘It’s an experiment in physics.’ Not something where things have been concluded to the very end. Because some stuff was made really thoroughly, and some other parts were made really in such a way that nobody who was a real engineer would put it together that way.”
Category: Chicago, Oral History