Jara Dušátko – Stanford Czech teacher and San Francisco Sokol head

Jara Dušátko, photo: archive of Jara Dušátko

Jara Dušátko has been teaching Czech for over two decades at Stanford University in California and is also president of the San Francisco branch of Sokol, the Czech gymnastics and sports organisation. Recently Mrs. Dušátko was honoured with the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Gratias Agit award for promoting the good name of the Czech Republic internationally. I spoke to her from her home near San Francisco and began by asking why she had left Czechoslovakia, where she was a teacher of Czech and Russian.

“It was for political reasons. My husband was on several business trips abroad, including in the United States and in India, and he couldn’t stand it there anymore.

“I was resistant at first. But when at my school the director didn’t want to let me finish my doctorate, it was the last thing – and I decided to go.”

What year are we talking about? When was this?

“1984.”

So you were in the States only five years when the changes happened in your home country. Did you consider going back?

“Not really, because we didn’t know how the situation would continue there. It was uncertain.

“The whole of my family were Sokols.”

“And we had just started here, so no.”

What did you both do initially, when you started living in America?

“My husband used to be in Krátký film in Prague, as a sound engineer, so for I would say the first 10 months he was working in some shop, where he repaired TVs.

“And I was at first cleaning in some friends’ houses and after maybe five months I started to work at the Pacific Film Archive, cataloguing some movies and books.

“Then I was at the music library at Berkeley University, before I found a place at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

“So I started there and after approximately two years I started to work at the Stanford Library.”

Did you meet many other Czechs in California? People say that Czechs generally don’t stick together so much when they go abroad.

“My experience here is that if there were people from 1948, maybe they were not so friendly to newcomers.

“But the people from 1968 are different.

“You could find in this old group, and in the newer one also, good friends. And we found good friends.

“They even helped us to finance our house. So after three years in the United States we bought a house.

Stanford University, photo: King of Hearts / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

“Two families, actually three, helped us financially.”

These were people you met after you moved to America?

“Yes.”

Wow, that’s a wonderful story. You’ve been teaching the Czech language for over two decades. Tell us about your programme at Stanford.

“I teach at a department called Special Language Program, which is Slavic languages.

“But the specialty at Stanford University is that at the Slavic Department they teach only the Russian language.

“All other Slavic languages – Polish, Serbo-Croatian and other languages – are taught there under the Special Language Programme.

“So I have been teaching all through the years there.

“We are from different countries and there are very good and intelligent people – and all the students are very bright.

“So it’s perfect work.”

Would many of your students have a Czech background? Or who are the people who sign up for your course?

“The American Fund for Czechoslovak Refugees helped us.”

“Students decide to learn Czech for different reasons.

“Some of them have professional needs. For example, one student was going to study the music of Josef Mysliveček and his influence on Mozart in Prague.

“Another one was a student of sociology and she was preparing her dissertation on the subject of abortion in Czechoslovakia during the Communist era.

“And another student is a very interesting story. His parents were from the Caribbean and he visited the Czech Republic with his band – and he fell in love with a Czech girl.

“Right after he came back to the US, he started to study the Czech language, for two years, and he was perfect, because he had a strong motivation [laughs].

“And now he is married to this Czech girl and they have three children.

“Others have Czech ancestors, which you can guess according to their names.

“One was John Maly and another was Sam Svoboda.”

As well as your teaching work, you’ve been active for a long time in the San Francisco branch of American Sokol, which is the US wing of the famous Czech gymnastics and sports organisation. Had you been active in Sokol before you left Czechoslovakia?

“Yes, but it was still the time when the Communists closed Sokol.

“But I was from four years… I have two older sisters and the whole of my family were Sokols.

“My parents were Sokols and my father was even the leader of a sports group.

“So Sokol was very close to me and when we came here both our daughters, who were 16 and 14 at that time, started to dance in a folklore group at Sokol San Francisco. They were called Furian.

“I put them in the group. I didn’t become a member of Sokol immediately, but after a couple of years.

“I was usually putting together singing people on some Sokol occasions – it was an accidental, not stable, group.

“But gradually I was working in different positions on the Sokol board.”

To go back a little bit – I didn’t ask you earlier – how did you get out of Czechoslovakia in 1984?

“We were going through Yugoslavia. A friend of ours from France, who was living temporarily in our apartment building, helped us to go over the border.

“So we went through Yugoslavia, through Austria and Germany.

“Originally there were 13 Sokol units in the Pacific District, and now there are only two: Los Angeles and San Francisco.”

“In Germany we had a friend – he was already living there for a year – and he helped us with all official things in Munich.

“And then an organisation – at that time, it’s closed now – called the American Fund for Czechoslovak Refugees helped us.”

How old were your children at the time?

“As I mentioned, 16 and 14. The younger one was not 14 yet when we left.”

How did they feel about the whole situation? For a kid it must be quite complicated – they don’t quite understand all the circumstances.

“Yes, I know. They were OK with it.

“The older daughter wanted to leave with her friends when she finished gymnazium [grammar school] in Czechoslovakia.

“We didn’t want that, so we said, No, no, no.

“So she agreed. And of course the younger one agreed also.

“I would say they were very disciplined – they followed us, no problem.

“So their teenage years were for us easy.”

Now do they feel Czech much?

“That’s an interesting question. The older one, yes. The younger one, no.

“Also it was interesting, when I was working at the Stanford Library I had a colleague who knew several languages.

Sokol flag by Josef Mánes

“And when my daughters called me, he didn’t ask their names but told me, Today your daughter with the accent called.

“If the younger daughter called me it was, The one without an accent [laughs].”

Getting back to Sokol, you are the president of Sokol San Francisco, a branch that I was reading dates back to the early years of the 20th century – what does your job as president involve?

“I am organising certain things – events, dinner dances – but with the help of people on our board.

“Before it was more complicated, because the people were about 80, close to 90 years old, and they didn’t want to do a lot of things.

“So I had to do a lot.

“But now we have younger people: they’re about 50 or 60, but they are younger for us.

“So they are very active. I suggest you see our web page, where there are Publications.

“Now the publications are easy.

“Before it was Věstník [Bulletin] – my husband created that – but now we have a newsletter [online].”

Around how many members do you have? And how many of them are Czech, or of Czech extraction?

“Right now we have 81 members. When I started 10 years ago it was 55.

“So younger people are coming, because they are also some young families coming here.

“I’m gratified that there are those who appreciate and notice my work.”

“Not all of them, but some of them, have become members of Sokol and they are active.

“We had the 110th anniversary of Sokol San Francisco.

“Originally there were 13 units in the Pacific District, and now there are only two: Los Angeles and San Francisco.”

Do you have your own building?

“No. We had.

“After they founded Sokol San Francisco in 1904, Sokols built their own Sokolovna, which is a building for Sokol, and it was functioning until 1967.

“And because it was an area of San Francisco where there started to be crime, they decided to sell this building and buy another one.

“It was in San Matteo – and that’s where it was when we came.

“But in the next building there was some shop for repairing cars and once some driver hit the main part of the building – and they found out it had woodworm.

“And because the reconstruction would be very expensive, and Sokol didn’t have so much money, they decided to sell it.

“And now we rent different places.

“If you have a building, you have to also take care of it. There are taxes and so on.

“So I would say this is really easier for us.”

One question I have to ask you is about your name. When I saw your name, Jara, written down, I thought it must be a man. What’s the story behind your name?

Jara Dušátko, photo: archive of Czech Foreign Ministry

“When I came to the US I had to learn the language.

“So I was going to adult school. It was for all students and nobody asked you about your background, about your name.

“When I was going there the teachers were intelligent people, but they didn’t, they couldn’t, pronounce my name Jaroslava. It’s long.

“And Dušátková – it’s very long.

“Because at home my parents called me Járo, Jára, I decided to use this short form – and also not the –ová ending.

“So that’s Jara Dušátko.”

When I first lived in Prague I was a teacher and I had a student called Jiřina. I couldn’t say her name. Every time I tried to say it, she said, no, no, that’s wrong. So in the end I just called her “you”.

“Aha. Yes [laughs].”

She didn’t like that either.

“[Laughs] Jiřina is a very tricky name.”

Very. Now I can say it, but I couldn’t say it back in those days.

“I understand [laughs].”

My final question is: Recently you were awarded the Czech Foreign Ministry’s Gratias Agit award for promoting the good name of the Czech Republic internationally – what does it mean to you to receive that award?

“It’s a big honour. I didn’t expect it all – it was a surprise for me.

“I’m gratified that there are those who appreciate and notice my work.

“Because I’m doing things spontaneously.

“You mentioned that you were a teacher, so I think you have the same feeling, that you will spread knowledge and education and these kinds of things.

“So for me it is natural.”