County resident shares stories from an amazing life

Tue, 05/02/2006 - 3:36pm
By: Michael Boylan

Paul Jagasich

If you are a regular at the pool at World Gym on Georgia Hwy 54, it is very likely that you have seen Dr. Paul Jagasich. He’s an older gentleman, 72 to be exact, and he and his wife, Ea, swim in the pool every day that it is open. Jagasich does his daily two miles and can be found conversing exuberantly with other patrons before or afterwards. The former professor of languages at Hampden-Sydney College loves people and listening to their languages, while also learning their stories and their backgrounds. Perhaps it is because he has such a great story himself and he is searching for others like him, ordinary people who have led extraordinary lives.

In 1964, two years after he and his wife were married by an English professor by the name of Father Schmitt, Jagasich decided it was time to defect from communist Hungary. He, his wife and their young daughter, Diana, who was 18 months old at the time, went to the airport with everything they would start their new lives with. He carried a small suitcase with a cross emblazoned on it, while Diana had wads of foreign currency rolled up and tucked beneath her clothes. Jagasich told the hotel where he worked and anyone who was asking that he was taking a sabbatical from his job but he and his family never returned to their former lives. Instead they flew to Switzerland and from there they went to Italy, where they stayed in refugee camps in Trieste and Latina, formerly known as Littoria.

Jagasich, who was well-known in Hungary for his expertise in the language arts, began to translate for the Italian government, often translating during interrogations of other refugees. Eventually, Jagasich and his family moved on to America, where he continued to expand his knowledge of languages at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, before ending up at Hampden-Sydney College. Last year, he and Ea returned to Italy and ate at the same restaurant in Trieste where they had eaten 45 years before, drinking the same wine but looking at the city through different eyes. In addition to visits to La Scala and swimming in the sea, something it would be impossible for Jagasich to miss, the couple also visited the city of Latina, now a famous industrial center with a university. The professor visited the school and gave an impromptu guest lecture to students studying foreign languages.

Academics played a major role in Jagasich’s life and it was during his time at Hampden-Sydney College that he had a brush with fame. An editor from the New Yorker magazine was speaking with Tom O’Grady, an associate of Jagasich’s and the poet in residence of the college, at at a party and asked if he knew anyone who could translate the work of a Czechoslovakian poet. The gentlemen recommended Jagasich right away and he got to work on translating Jaroslav Seifert’s book, “The Casting of Bells.” The school made a $1,500 investment to help publish the work in 1983 and in 1984 it won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Jagasich had visited the poet in November of 1984 with O’Grady and together they were able to meet and interview Seifert, while also collecting more works to smuggle out of the country, which was under communist control, and translate them as well. Seifert was ailing at the time of the Nobel Prize ceremony, so Jagasich attended as an honorary guest of Seifert’s daughter. He was also able to arrange an honorary doctorate for Seifert from Hampden-Sydney College.

“George Bush, who was vice president at the time, was the commencement speaker at the ceremony where Seifert was to receive his honorary doctorate,” Jagasich recalled. “He spoke very eloquently that day and had sent me a letter later upon Seifert’s death. When I translated Seifert’s “Halley’s Comet,” I made a dedication to the vice president who was running for president at the time, hoping that his wishes come true, and they did.”

In the months leading up to the election of President Bush, Jagasich was preparing to swim the English Channel. He had announced his plans two years before and had been training vigorously with two coaches to accomplish this goal. He got the idea to swim the Channel while studying for his doctorate in German and French at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. He attended the school for an entire semester and swam every day. Upon his return to the United States, Jagasich contacted the local media and made his announcement.

In the time between his announcement and the time that he entered the water and made his record setting swim, Jagasich swam in numerous events stateside to get him used to long term swimming in ocean water. He competed in events in Chesapeake Bay, Manhattan and Boston and did very well, often winning and setting records in his age group. In August of 1988, it was time for Jagasich to make his swim but a tragedy occurred, delaying Jagasich’s pursuit of his dream. A young Brazilian girl was swimming the English Channel and died. The Channel was shut down and many swimmers who had come over to make the swim left, knowing that the Channel would not be opened again anytime soon and might not open again that season.

Jagasich was unsure of what he was going to do, but his coach, Corrie Dixon, told him to swim six hours that day. When he emerged from the swim, he was re-invigorated and decided to stay and see if they would reopen the Channel. The Channel was re-opened in September and though school had started up again, Jagasich wasn’t about to return to school until he had made his swim. The adventure had cost him close to $10,000 by that point and he wasn’t going to be denied. On Sept. 6, 1988, Jagasich covered himself in lanolin, which all Channel swimmers do to preserve as much body heat as possible while swimming in the water, which was 62 degrees, and swam the 21 miles from Shakespeare’s Cliff to the coast of France. Every hour he stopped for approximately two minutes and ate a snack, often a cake of some sort, before continuing his journey.

“During my swim, my coach turned to my wife and told her that I would do it because I was a fanatic,” said Jagasich. Dixon was right, Jagasich would swim the English Channel. He finished the swim in a time of 12 hours and 26 minutes and was awarded the O’Clee Jubilee Trophy for the Oldest Successful Swimmer. Upon his return stateside, Sports Illustrated put his accomplishment in Faces in the Crowd and he was awarded a silver bowl for making it into that section of the magazine. Jagasich wrote a book about his experience swimming the Channel, “Two Faces of the English Channel,” and has an impressive scrapbook filled with articles and documents from that momentous occasion.

Paul Jagasich, playing cello

Jagasich returned to Hampden-Sydney College and continued learning and teaching languages. He taught at the school until 2001 and retired at the age of 67. He and Ea moved to Fayette County afterwards to be close to his children and grandchildren who resided here. In addition to playing with his grandkids and swimming, Jagasich enjoys spending time in his multi-tiered garden and playing the cello and piano. Several years ago, Jagasich gave cello concerts throughout the day to students at Starr’s Mill High School.

There is no doubt that Dr. Paul Jagasich has led an amazing life and it is because he has taken chances and continues to follow his passions. When he laughs, which is often, it is a laugh that greets the world with a wink, as if to say that he has figured out the meaning of life.

Perhaps he has.

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