Gerhardt Bubnik - the first Czech to graduate from Harvard

Gerhardt Bubnik

Gerhardt Bubnik is a successful attorney, a former international figure ice-skating referee and a highly respected professional. Despite all his achievements in both law and skating Gerhardt Bubnik will be most likely remembered as the very first Czech to graduate from Harvard Law School. When I met Mr Bubnik recently I began by asking him if he remembered his decision to apply to Harvard.

Gerhardt Bubnik
"I remember it quite well because I applied sometime in April 1967. It was my very, very own private initiative it had nothing to do with the government or the university. It was suggested to me by Harold Estasen, an American lawyer who was also a politician. He used to be an adviser to the president Eisenhower. We were working on a case together and he suggested to me, why don't you apply to US universities? There are number of scholarships.

"After a while I followed his recommendation and I sent a letter of application. Of course I had to send all my university records and I had to pass the TOEFL English language test at the American Embassy. I never thought I had any chance to be admitted so after having filed in April 1967 and not having any reply for almost a year I completely forgot that I did apply.

"Exactly a year later I got a letter that I was admitted. I was shocked and I was asked to come almost immediately because I was also offered a summer programme in American law as a kind of preparation for the different mode of studying that is so different to the Czech. I must say that we, I mean foreign students at Harvard law school, were studying less than American students because we were not used to such hard work. At the beginning I thought, based on my experience from home, that if I study four or five hours a day that is a lot, that would be more than I have ever done but that was not enough.

"Week after week I saw that I had to add more hours and more hours and then I practically finished up with an additional eight hours of work. I remember that I used to finish at eleven in the evening. I noticed that I was the only one in the whole dormitory because American students would be sitting at their desks and their desk lamp would be on till two o'clock in the morning. That applies to the whole week, including Saturdays and Sundays."

It must have been really tough life.

"It was so, exactly. All my life was just studying and I didn't have much fun. Except that American families affiliated to Harvard university and to the law school were very hospitable and we, foreign students, very often got invitations to the homes of American families for weekends or Christmas. It was very nice but that was the only way I could enjoy some other things except studying."

So you started just after the invasion. Was it easy to leave the country? What was the reaction of your family?

"It was not a question of leaving the country. I was already out. I remember that at this summer programme at Princeton at the end of August we had so called 'mood examination' to learn what an examination at the American law school looked like.

"I was sitting the very last exam on the 21 August 1968 when the radio at the university announced that there was the invasion of Russians in Czechoslovakia. It was a big shock for me. Not only was I depressed but I didn't know what to do, whether I to go right back or whether I will ever be able to go back at any time.

"I had no contact with my family at the time. The contact was renewed about five weeks later. At that time my friends and my family wrote that so far nothing has changed and that I should not come back and I should finish my studies.

"So I did continue but of course my stay in the US was merit by this knowledge by the notion of the invasion and the uncertainty what will be the future development.

So when did you come back?

"I came back in September 1969. There were no changes for the first six or eight months. You couldn't see Russian soldiers on the streets and nothing had changed. Everybody seemed to go on."

When you were there in the USA, the invasion here ...Why did you come back?

"I would say that I am so deeply rooted not only here in the Czech Republic but especially in Prague. I have been traveling a lot in my life since my childhood but it never occurred to me that I could live permanently in any other country or any other city than Prague.

"Although I am now over seventy and I have lived here all my life I really love it and I really enjoy it here. Also my family, friends ... everybody was here It never occurred to me that I could stay and live abroad."

When you came back as a fresh graduate of such a good school, did it help you to find a job?

"Before going to Harvard I was already a practicing attorney and I just continued. At that time it didn't help me. I applied to Charles University which was my alma mater - I have a doctor's degree in law from the Charles University as well - to so called recognize my Harvard law degree. That was so politically difficult. No one dared to do it. My application was processed for almost ten years.

"After that I withdrew my application because I didn't want to cause problems for professors or the dean of the law school. Either they would have to recognize it and might face problems from the Communists, or they would have to deny it and that would have been rather embarrassing for them too. So I withdrew my application I didn't need the recognition of that degree."

Has it ever been recognized?

"No, no. After that I have never asked again. It is recognized in my life and in my practice but I don't need any official paper for that. You can see my diploma here on the wall."

What were the advantages that graduating from such a school gave you, if any?

"It changed the whole style of my work it changed my legal way of thinking it has changed my approach to problems. I would look not for clear answers immediately in the statutes - I would look for problems, which I might face when representing interests of my client. Where are the dangers?"

You worked as a lawyer but then you became a referee in figure ice-skating. How did it happen?

"I had been a skater myself when I was young. Because of my legal studies I finished my sporting career but then I became a judge for figure ice-skating and then over the years I climbed the ladder and became an international judge and then a championship judge and an Olympic judge.

"So for more than thirty years I used to judge all the top figure skating world events. Ten years ago I was appointed a legal advisor of the Council of the International Skating Union. So I am now a part of the top management of the International Skating Union because of that I could not judge anymore.

"But I am involved in skating because I work in the Council of the International Skating Union. I still go to all competitions and the Olympics and I have participated in the development of the new judging system that is now used."

You are pretty busy at seventy-one. Have you ever thought of retirement?

"Well, I was thinking of that but I never did retire, so I continue my work as a lawyer. But practically I devote all my time to work for the international skating union both as a volunteer and as a lawyer. I still do a lot of sport. I ski, play tennis, play golf. In that respect I'm very fortunate because beside my work sport is something I cannot live without."

Are there any dreams you still keep in your mind, you would like to fulfill?

"I try to be realistic. Being seventy-one it would be rather very courageous to have dreams for the future. My great wish is to stay healthy as long as possible so I can enjoy those activities I have mentioned. Also I like going to my office.

"What I don't like is to say at home and to be idle. A year ago I took up a new activity and that is playing bridge and that is a hard work. I am studying all the books. I am trying to develop it for the time when I am not able to do tennis or golf."