Originally created 08/03/97

College professor a living textbook



SPARTANBURG, S.C. - Sandor Teszler, Wofford College's new adjunct professor, has never taught a class in his life.

But the appointment of the Hungarian immigrant, who turned 94 recently, was no favor to an old friend.

Mr. Teszler has escaped the Holocaust, helped anchor the business development of the New South and led the racial integration of the textile industry. Think of it as contracting a living textbook.

"Sandor Teszler is history," said Wofford professor Phillip Racine, who helped Mr. Teszler write his autobiography six years ago.

"It seemed to me that this was an invaluable source whose memories would be gone someday," Mr. Racine said. "Here was a special record that needed to be captured before it was lost."

Mr. Teszler's role as professor will be atypical.

He will not teach any classes directly. Instead, he will sit in as a student, contributing firsthand accounts of events and the insight of experience.

It is a role he has played for the past 15 years.

Mr. Teszler retired from the textile industry in 1979, when the market for double-knit polyester collapsed. Since 1982, he has taken 58 classes at Wofford, ranging from philosophy to fine arts to chess.

In that time, he has become an institution at the school. In 1987, Wofford awarded him an honorary doctorate in humanities.

"This school is what's keeping him going, in large part," said Oakley Coburn, who heads Wofford's Sandor Teszler Library. Mr. Teszler's son Andrew, who sat on Wofford's board of trustees, funded much of the library and asked that it be named after his father.

"He's sort of a campus grandfather in a way," Mr. Coburn said.

Some students do address him as "Opi," the Hungarian word for grandfather. And almost everyone he meets gets a hug instead of a handshake.

"The students at Wofford College keep me young," said Mr. Teszler, who still speaks with a Hungarian accent. "They keep me eager to learn."

Beneath that enthusiasm and vigor, there is a depth of sorrow.

In 1971, Mr. Teszler's son died two months after he dedicated the Wofford library to his father. Since then, Mr. Teszler has lost his wife and his eldest son, Otto.

"I cannot explain, but I have a feeling there is a connection between the tragedies," Mr. Teszler writes in his autobiography. "There seems to be a tragic pattern in my life."

That feeling extends to Mr. Teszler's childhood in Hungary.

At 11, he watched his father and two brothers join the Hungarian army during World War I.

In school, he struggled through prejudice against cripples - he had club feet - and later pre-World War II anti-Semitism.

When he graduated from high school with an A average, he could not go to college because the maximum number of Jewish students had already been allowed.

He was in Hungary when German troops occupied it in 1944 and deported 600,000 Jews in the first month.

Mr. Teszler survived a year of wearing the yellow star and carrying a bag of cyanide around his neck in case he was sent to a death camp.

His family members were the only Jewish survivors from the town of Cakovec, he said. He left for America in 1948, with his home and textile factories confiscated.

The textile mills the Teszlers would establish in Spartanburg, including the Butte knitting mill, eventually would reach more than 500,000 square feet.

In 1962, Mr. Teszler opened a new factory in Kings Mountain and integrated it. About 30 percent of the 120 workers at the plant were black, and all workers used the same bathrooms and water fountains.

All this occurred before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Mr. Teszler attributes his willingness to integrate to his years as a Jewish minority in Europe and America. His colleagues at Wofford say his ability to make his bad experiences positive is a singular quality.

"How can a man who has experienced so much be so free of bitterness?" history professor Ross Bayard said. "It must take an extraordinary amount of inner strength."