“Havel was a great gentleman” – US banker with Czech heritage John Kotouc
John F. Kotouc is the Co-CEO and Co-Chair of the American National Bank for the midwestern region of the United States. Descended from a family of Czech immigrants to Nebraska, he is also a member of the American Friends of the Czech Republic. He recently visited Radio Prague International’s studios and spoke to us, among other things, about the organisation and its aims.
“It is important for us that Americans have good relations with Czechs and vice-versa, so we try to act as intermediaries if necessary.”
“It is the most substantial Czech identified organisation in the United States. It is important for us that Americans have good relations with Czechs and vice-versa, so we try to act as intermediaries if necessary. It’s not an official government organisation, but rather a purely private charity foundation.”
How many members do you have and are they people with Czech heritage, or can it be anyone?
“Mostly they are people with a connection to the Czech Republic. That said, Norman Eisen [the former United States Ambassador to the Czech Republic] for example, is not Czech I think, but he is on the board too." [Editors note: Norman Eisen's mother is of Jewish origin from the former Czechoslovakia]
And how big is this organisation?
“On the board, there are probably around 25 members.”
You are obviously very interested in Czechia and still have ties to this country even though you are a fourth generation Czech, so could you tell us a bit about your family and why you still feel close to this country?
“It may actually be much more than fourth generation Czech. I have traced my family back to the 1600s.
“I had Czech grandparents and my grandfather’s three brothers would all eat in the same household together on Sundays. You know, sauerkraut, dumplings and usually duck or something like that. I would sit at their feet and listen to their stories about when they lived in Bohemia. That made a big impression upon me.
“Per capita, Nebraska probably has the largest number of people with Czech ancestry in the United States.”
“My grandfather was a very educated guy. A graduate of the University of Nebraska, a poet, a statesman and a banker. He was elected to [Nebraska’s] unicameral and bicameral legislatures in the past, so I had a lot of contact with people who were Czechs in Nebraska from a very early age and I guess that made a very good impression upon me. My grandmother’s family was also from Bohemia.”
Did you speak Czech with them?
“There was some Czech spoken, but it was mostly stories. I grew up on stories about [the Czech 15th century Hussite general] Jan Žižka and about a bible that was hidden in a beehive because it was illegal to own it since it was written in Czech.
“I have heard that story also from other friends in Nebraska and Minnesota. They said that it was told in their families too.”
The community of Nebraska Czechs
Could you tell me a bit about the Nebraska Czechs? Some of our listeners come from this part of the United States.
“I am a member of the Nebraska Czech-Slovak club and there are many clubs in that area of the United States. Per capita, Nebraska probably has the largest number of people with Czech ancestry in the United States. Texas has more in terms of raw numbers, but in Nebraska it is very common to have someone who is of Czech ancestry.”
And, as far as I understand, those ties with Czechia are still very much maintained? I have come across many Czech American Facebook groups that organise parties with Czech attire, food etc.
“I work with many people who have Czech heritage and we joke about things like where one can find the best kolache [traditional Czech pastries] and other Czech food.”
“Yes. In fact my wife and daughter are currently working with a woman in the outskirts of Prague to design a kroj [traditional Czech folk costume] for my daughter.”
A kroj just for your daughter, or is it some sort of Nebraska kroj? Do Nebraska Czechs have their own folk dress?
“No, it is from our family’s region of Bohemia. Each region of course has its own kind of kroj made out of specific materials and that is a science in itself. I was not aware of that, but I am now.”
And could you tell us how you maintain your Czechness in Nebraska, so to say? What sorts of traditional things do you do?
“We have a Christmas party at the Czech-Slovak club in Omaha. I am also always looking at publications of the Czechoslovak Genealogical Society International (CGSI). It is a national organisation based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I work with many people who have Czech heritage and we joke about things like where one can find the best kolache [traditional Czech pastries] and other Czech food.
“It’s been many generations since our family moved to the US. They arrived there in 1882, so it has been three generations since our direct connection to Czechia.
“There is a lot of awareness. There is also the city of Wilber in Nebraska, which is called the ‘Czech Capital of the USA’. My daughter is also competing in one of these Czech club competitions. It is a good way to renew our heritage.”
And could you just tell us about the reasons for your family moving to Nebraska? You said that they came in 1882. Where they farmers, or something else?
“They came from Jitkov [a village in the Vysočina Region]. My ancestor was a grocer and businessman and times were very tough. I have the letter that he wrote to his parents and he was very sad that they had to leave, but they felt that they had to do it. At that time, the railroads were offering incentives for people to just travel. They would buy a ticket on the ship. They had a relative in Nebraska that linked them to a community where I myself grew up called Humboldt, Nebraska. That’s how the family started to settle there.
“My grandfather was a member of the Czech Brethren. I didn’t think much of it until I read an article about 10 years ago that said that only around 4 percent of Czech immigrants to America were Protestant, the rest were either Catholic or free thinkers. That was a very small percentage and it caused me to do some more research. I eventually learned about the 1781 Patent of Tolerance, Austrian Emperor Joseph II and all of those political actions that were taken at that time. I realised that one of my ancestors was baptised in a church in 1782, awfully close to the issuing of the patent.
“This indicates to me that this Protestant connection started earlier than 1782. Namely, because some of the relics that my family held on to, some of which they probably completely didn’t understand, were all of these old imprints of battles of the Hussite Wars, as well as of Jan Hus, depicting him on the stake that he was burnt on.”
Those are quite common though. A lot of Czech families have them.
“Oh yes, but this was an old imprint. These were the stories that I grew up with.”
On meeting Václav Havel and Madeleine Albright
On Václav Havel: “He was a great gentleman, quite literary and an extraordinary human being.”
When did you first start coming to Czechia?
“As a child.”
So during communism? How did that work?
“It was a very different place at the time. I was probably in high school. I am in my 70s now, so this was a long time ago. I remember we met with a Czech friend who was working in the embassy. We had a wonderful meal here in Prague. Back then you had to do everything through the Communist Czech travel agency, but they thought it was ok, so we visited Jitkov more than 50 years ago and it hasn’t changed much.
So we are talking about the 1970s?
So before the Prague Spring. How did you experience that time?
“It was a time of great hopefulness for the Czech people. We were very moved by the leaders who brought it about. I met Václav Havel in the past and I was very impressed by him, but I didn’t meet Alexander Dubček [the leader of Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring]. We followed the news very closely and were hopeful that it would stick and not fail.”
Tell me about how you met Václav Havel.
“Well it was through the American Friends of the Czech Republic. Havel was a great gentleman, quite literary and an extraordinary human being.”
And when did you meet him?
On Madeleine Albright: “She was a grand secretary of state. It was difficult to find a better one. She was also very alert to the risks of fascism and extremism that she grew up with. She was alert to those risks occurring in America and wanted to bring attention to them. She did so very effectively.”
“During the 2000s.”
Is there something that you would perhaps like to tell any Nebraska Czechs who might be listening?
“I think they know, as well as or better than I do, why their Czech heritage makes a difference. Being apart from Czechia for so many generations, many of them probably think of Czechs through the foods that they eat rather than following the politics.
“That said, there are certainly many, especially among the American Friends of the Czech Republic, who follow Czech politics. At one time Madeleine Albright was part of this organisation and, oh my, there is no one I had more respect for than her. I met her. What an incredible intellect and also diplomat for the Czech people.”
What kind of a situation that you met her in?
“She was helping to honour a few Americans that are part of the American Friends of the Czech Republic and she was herself receiving an honour from them. She was enormously capable of expressing herself.
“She was so alert to the moment she died too. That in itself is impressive too. We hear about mental decline these days. She had none of it. She was a grand secretary of state. It was difficult to find a better one. She was also very alert to the risks of fascism and extremism that she grew up with. She was alert to those risks occurring in America and wanted to bring attention to them. She did so very effectively.”