Sandor Teszler: The Story of a Passionate Life

Wofford College: Old Main Building

The Sandor Teszler Library

Sandor Teszler: Biographic Notes

Sandor Teszler had been born in the old Austro-Hungarian empire, ostracized from childhood not so much because he was a Jew as because he was afflicted with club feet, requiring many painful operations. From an early age he loved music, especially opera, and later in life he would befriend his fellow exile, the composer Bela Bartok.

Extremely successful in the textile business, Teszler thought that his contributions to society would protect him from the Nazis. He was wrong, almost fatally so, for he and his wife and two sons were taken to a death house on the Danube, where victims were systematically beaten to death. Midway through their beatings, one of his sons pointed to the poison capsule each of them bore in a locket about his neck. “Is it time to take the pill now, Papa?” he asked. Inexplicably, one of their tormentors leaned down to whisper in Teszler’s ear, “Don’t take the capsule. Help is on the way.” Shortly afterwards, the family was rescued by an official from the Swiss embassy and taken to safety.

After coming to this country and making another fortune, he set about improving the lives of everyone he met. In the aftermath of the Brown versus Board of Education desegregation ruling, Teszler noted the escalating rhetoric around him. “I have heard this talk before,” he said. And with a combination of shrewdness and saintliness worthy of Gandhi, he decided be the first in the Southern textile region to integrate the work force in his mills.

Setting up heavy equipment in an unused high school gym, he took a group of workers for a prospective mill in King’s Mountain, N.C., to live there on the premises while learning the new operation. Half of the workers were white and half were black. After an initial tour of this temporary facility, he asked if there were any questions. Following an uneasy silence, one of the white workers raised his hand and said he was puzzled to find there was only one dormitory and one shower room. “That is correct,” Mr. Teszler answered. “You are being paid considerably more than other textile workers in this region, and this is how we do things. Are there any other questions?” “I guess not,” the worker said.

Some weeks later, when the new mill opened, workers of both races were greeted by a group of black and white foremen standing shoulder to shoulder. “Are there any questions?” a black foreman asked. After some shuffling about, one of the white workers raised his hand. “Let me get this straight,” he queried. “Is this plant integrated?” One of the white foremen stepped forward, the same man who’d asked a similar question some weeks earlier. “That is correct,” he said. “You’re being paid a lot more than other textile workers in this region and this is how we do things. Any other questions?” There were none.

Sandor Teszler at Wofford College

For Teszler, such episodes served to confirm his faith that people are fundamentally good. And, in the company of this man with such persuasive cause for thinking otherwise, people did tend to discover their better selves. Through the last decade of his life, well into his 90s, Sandor Teszler graced the campus of Wofford College in South Carolina, attending so many classes that the faculty, acknowledging a wisdom and experience far greater than their own, honored themselves by making him an honorary professor.

To hundreds of Wofford students he was simply “Opi,” Hungarian for grandfather. Today, the Wofford College library bears his name. In addition, Wofford has established the Sandor Teszler Award, which is given annually to a person who has made outstanding humanitarian contributions. Benjamin B. Dunlap, President of Wofford College, told the dramatic life story of Sandor Teszler at the prestigious TED conference last year in Monterey, California. The video of Dr. Dunlap’s talk is presented for you below.

Sandor Teszler at Wofford

Sandor Teszler: The Story of a Passionate Life

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