US Sokol helped organisation survive through dark times in Czechoslovakia, says first female president Jean Hruby

Photo: Barbora Kmentová

The Sokol gymnastics organisation – motto: a sound mind in a sound body – became an important element in the Czech National Revival when it was founded in Prague in 1862. A mere three years later it went international with the establishment of American Sokol in St. Louis, Missouri. Today American Sokol is still going strong, and has its first ever female national president, Jean Hruby. Ms. Hruby is also involved in countless other Czech associations in her native Chicago and when she came into our studios I began by asking about her own Czech roots.

Jean Hruby,  photo: archive of Chicago Czech Center
“I am third and fourth generation Czech-American. My family came over in the late 1800s to Chicago.

“My parents grew up in Czech neighbourhoods. Both are Czech, obviously. Then they migrated to another town, called Berwyn, Illinois.

“I grew up with Czech roots: Czech food, a Czech bakery, Sokol, playing music and doing arts.”

When you say “Czech town”, what exactly do you mean?

“Chicago was the most populated Czech community outside of Czechoslovakia for many years.

“There were 10 districts in the Chicago area that had names like Pilsen. It was a little village, but even having the name Pilsen… my parents were from that area.

“It was heavily Czech immigrated – they built Czech companies and it was a small little Czech village.”

Tell us about your own beginnings at Sokol.

“I started at Sokol when I was five years old. It was just required. It was a way of life.

“In the town, most people were ethnic. If they weren’t Czech, they were Polish, Italian – and everyone was in Sokol, all your classmates. It was an activity to do after school.

“I started in fifth grade and stayed on all through high school. When I went to college I wasn’t as involved in Sokol, but when I had children of my own I went back to it.

“So as an adult I took an interest in it and started working for the organisation.”

As a kid, what did you get from going to Sokol?

“Sokol was friendship. It was family – it was a family organisation. I received leadership skills, discipline.

“At Sokol today we still teach the same skills. The whole concept is that a strong mind in a strong body makes for a better person in the rest of life.”

Photo: Barbora Kmentová
Was there a golden era for Sokol in the US?

“We had very strong years all through from the very beginning to the 1980s.

“But I think that for us the golden era was when the walls came down and Sokol was given back to the Czechs themselves.

“When that happened, when communism came down and we were able to celebrate with the Czech and Slovak people, that was the golden era; because Sokol was back, solid, around the world.”

Sokol was repressed by the Communists [in Czechoslovakia]. Did the US Sokol play a role in keeping it alive, even at that great distance?

“Well, from the beginning, let’s say from WWI, WWII, and during all of the different challenges that were happening in Europe, American Sokol kept Sokol alive for all of those years.

“As long as there was Sokol going on in America, we knew that we could help bring it back when things got better. And they did; Sokols got their buildings back.”

How was the reunion, if I can call it that, between the US Sokol and the revived Czechoslovak Sokol after the fall of communism?

“That first slet [gathering]…”

That was in 1990, right?

“Yes. It was in the city of Prague. And for our people it is something that most of them will never forget.

“As you marched – and I’m going to get emotional, this happens to me all the time, because I’ve participated in these events – and saw the eyes of the Czech people, especially the older generation who lived through all of the difficulties of war and communist times, even Lidice, and remembering all of these things… the Sokols cried when the American Sokols marched in the parade.

“You’d be marching past and somebody would look you straight in the eyes and say, Thank you.

Illustrative photo: Barbora Kmentová
“For them I think we were bringing hope and democratic values. And we brought back a way of life for them which they thought was gone forever.”

But it must also have been amazing for people like you being able to come here in great numbers and being able to celebrate and all that kind of thing?

“Sure. As an American, if you’re not living that horrible way of life – maybe it wasn’t horrible for everybody, and I don’t want to characterize it, politically – but for people who did suffer, you don’t really understand that until you come and see it for yourself. To see it in their eyes and talk to people – and have them tell you how Sokol was taken away from them and had the name changed to Spartakiada.

“They executed Sokol leaders because of their stance of trying to keep Sokol and not give it up.”

“Sokol was more than just the sport or the building for the Czechs. I think to be able to come here personally and experience it and to know that they feel also that we are the same…

“We are brothers and sisters to them, just like if we had been living here.”

Was it also amazing for you and your colleagues to see Prague? I guess many of you must have been seeing it for the first time.

“When I first landed in Prague, the very first time, when I put my two feet on Czech soil, it was amazing. I cried. You start to feel your roots.

“We say in American Sokol it’s just like a sunflower – the roots are in the Czech Republic, but the sunflower grows in America.”

Are there analogous organisations in the States? For example, some Polish or Ukrainian organisation?

Sokol slet in 1938,  photo: Public Domain
“Sure. We still have in America the German Turners – we call them the American Turners. Also there’s the Polish Falcons

“The Sokols and the Turners were the first to establish organised sport and gymnastics in the US, over 150 years ago now – we just celebrated 150 years.”

Roughly how many members does Sokol have in the States today? And who are the members?

“We have around 4,500 members. But all those members have family: children, etc.

“We also have other activities happening in our Sokols, so we definitely have more than 10,000 participants that may use or gyms.

“In American Sokol our original gyms, our facilities, were in older neighbourhoods, obviously, and those neighbourhoods have changed demographically as regards ethnic groups.

“I’ll give Chicago as the example. In many of our units we have Hispanic, Asian, African-American and other ethnicities that are part of our system. They are not all Czech.

“About 50 percent of our membership is still Czech, but the other 50 percent is not. It’s a multicultural melting pot.”

Do they have to learn some Czech? Or at least shout, Zdar, or whatever it is you guys shout?

“Of course. We keep with our salutation at the end of every class.

“We start every class lining up with discipline, and we end every class with a, Nazdar, and the class responds, Zdar.

“Of course it has come into question from our own members saying, Why do we have to continue this?

“But we choose to continue these simple Czech traditions. Because one, it is keeping Sokol alive as what Sokol was. And two, it’s no different than if you take a taekwondo or yoga class – at the end of a yoga class, people say, Namaste.”

I was one time at the Sokol in New York on the Upper East Side and one thing that struck me was that the property must be hugely valuable in that area. Do you ever come under pressure to maybe sell up and buy a cheaper place elsewhere than your old centres?

Sokol Hall in New York,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“Of course. It’s very well known in New York that the Sokol building there is a big asset to the organisation, and of course people want to buy it.

“They are approached all the time by the city, by private investors, and promised, We’ll keep you there, we just want to build above it.

“I’m very proud of our members at Sokol New York are holding steadfast to keeping that building historically original and for the purpose that it was built – by the people who gave their money, their blood and their own services to make that building what it is to this day.”

Looking to the future, what are the biggest challenges facing American Sokol?

“The biggest challenge is nothing different than for any other non-profit organisation: It’s funding.

“It costs money to keep buildings up to date, up to code. It costs money for programmes and to continue what we’re doing.

“Right now we are still a very heavily member-funded organisation and this year was a big year for American Sokol with the 150th anniversary.

“We raised over USD 40,000 in non-profit fundraising through a gala weekend that we held.

“That is the start of a capital campaign to hopefully bring bigger and better things.

“We are working on new library and archive museum and looking for a building – and hoping to come up with other ways to sustain the organisation into the future, financially.

“I believe having a building – a museum and a library – is something that people will donate to, as opposed to just donating to the organisation.

“This library and archive not only will provide a national centre for the national office, and not have to rely on membership, but will provide a legacy for the American Sokol history and the preservation of our story.

“We are working on making sure there is a trust and a legacy for that.

“In case anything ever happened with the organisation and there wasn’t any funding, the story and the history will have a place forever in the US and in the Czech Republic.”