Membership spotlight: Derick Pasternak

Interviewer: Julia Deak Sandler

Since the summer of 2020, Derick Pasternak has kindly been serving as a coordinator of newsletter articles for our association. In between October 23rd (a Hungarian holiday commemorating the 1956 revolution) and November 11th (Veteran’s Day in the US), we asked him to answer a few questions for this month’s Member Spotlight. We thank him for his witness statement about the Hungarian Revolution and for his many years of service in the US Armed Forces as well! 

Q: Where did you grow up? Do you consider yourself to be Hungarian, American or Hungarian-American?

A: I was born in Budapest in 1941.  Children of that year frequently received old pagan Hungarian names like Botond, Töhötöm, Ákos, and in my case “Detre.” Look in Buda Halála by Arany, where Vashomlokú Detre is a character.  When we arrived in the US, my father insisted on changing everyone’s name to sound more English (except my brother Robert), so I became Derick, and eventually my Hungarian birth certificate and passport came to reflect this name as well.  I am a dual citizen, so obviously Hungarian-American.

I studied English from age 6, when there was still an English language school in Budapest, and persisted with private lessons.

As a sophomore at Kölcsey Gimnasium (high school), I was on my way to my English lesson on  October 23rd 1956, when I saw a group of people pass on Bajcsy Zsilinszky út.  Since it was not a publicly announced gathering, I joined it out of curiosity, marching to the Kőrút, across the Margit bridge to the Bem statue.  There were flags and slogans, such as calling for stopping the export of uranium, for multiparty government, for Russian troops to leave, etc.  After the speeches at the statue I was several hours overdue at home so I thought I’d better scurry on.  Of course my parents did not let me out again until 4-5 days later, when we ran out of food and had to go stand in line in a variety of places.  We sat around the radio, listening first to Gerő denouncing the protesters, but then hearing a different tune when Nagy took over the government.  The streets were chaotic, home-printed leaflets posted everywhere.  Things seemed to go in the right direction until 5 am on 4 November, when we heard loud booms.  My parents knew what it was about, so we were on house arrest again.  When time came to go back to school, several students, including myself, made some remarks that in retrospect would have landed me in trouble, had it not been for the fact that my parents arranged for all of us to head to the Austrian border on the 17th.  Twice we were stopped by Russian soldiers, who were happy to take watches and booze and left us alone as long as we did not have “pushki.”  

We walked across the border around 1 AM not far from the “Bridge at Andau.”  We were housed in a monastery in Steiermark, from where we got to Salzburg and eventually on a US aircraft out of München.

We arrived in the US in a snowstorm around 10 pm on 24 December 1956.  It is still the best Christmas present I ever had.  We settled in new York, where a friendly church lady and associates eventually arranged scholarships for my brother and me in a private school.  From there I went to Harvard and Harvard Medical School.  I met my wife, Nancy, in New York, during internship, through an introduction by my Slovak cousin, Jelka (the Pasternak family was originally from the Felvidék).

I was more or less drafted into the Army to serve as a doctor in Vietnam, which I did.  After getting back to the States, I did not resign my commission but stayed in the reserves for over 30 years, eventually becoming the commander of two different Army Reserve hospitals, retiring as a colonel.  In civilian life, I joined the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, NM.  I did not much like the management there, so I decided to shoot for a position to change things from the inside and eventually became the Clinic’s Medical Director, later CEO.  Our three children grew up in Albuquerque, but are now scattered around the globe.  While in New Mexico, I became a professional soccer referee.

Q: How long have you lived in Washington state?

A: I moved to Seattle in 1998 to become CEO of a now defunct organization, the Medalia Clinic. It was, along with its hospital partner Providence Hospital, in its death throes, but while I was the head of both for a while, I came to like Seattle and did not leave after their demise.  I still practiced part-time medicine at the Pike Market Medical Clinic.  At the same time, I became an international health care consultant, which I continue to do now, 21 years later.  We moved away to the Middle East for my work for three years, but returned in 2009 and have been here ever since.

Q: How did you first learn about HAAW, and what were your first impressions?

A: I always wanted to remain tied to Hungarian culture, so I found Hungarians in New Mexico and met with them every month while living there.  Toward the end of his life, my widowed father came to Albuquerque and joined us at these sessions.  Soon after arriving in Seattle I found the Hungarian connection through a chance encounter with Helen Lengyel’s son, Zoltán; Zoli Makó was president of HAAW and he welcomed me with open arms; he also very quickly got me to be on the Board. For a couple of years I was Treasurer. This was and is a much more professionally run organization than the informal coffee house group we had in New Mexico. Of course, HAAW was and is much bigger than any Hungarian group I have known.  Others whom I got to know and like included Zoli’s wife Jadwiga, Sándor and Christine Boldizsár, Tibor and Lucy Fuerész, Tibor and Clarice Horváth, Ilona Szablya, Kati Pearman, Zoltan and Maria Kramer, Márta Boros Horváth, etc.    

Q: Tell us about your journey as a HAAW member – what has it meant to you and your family?

A: Nancy and I are happily connected to the Hungarian seniors, though we are so busy with my continuing work, her volunteer activities and both of our Rotary memberships, that we are occasional visitors only. Still, we are strong on volunteerism, which is why I offered to assist with the Hírek.  I have been a promoter of the idea of the Hungarian House and have contributed funds specifically earmarked for it, but did not take an active part in the purchase.   

Q: What would you like to see our organization do in the coming months and years?

A: At my age I am unlikely to take active part in the leadership of this, or any other organization.  I hope that HAAW continues to thrive and is successful in nurturing the youngest generation.  Incidentally, my son lived in Hungary for three years and speaks Hungarian; my two daughters do not.

Q: Anything else we should know about you?

A: I am a stamp collector and have authored several articles published by News of Hungarian Philately, the quarterly of the Society for Hungarian Philately. 

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