Ed Burke Helped Them Out . . . And Finally to Freedom : He Threw His Weight About to Aid Three Czech Friends
Ed Burke isn’t sure he believes in fate. Burke, 45, understands that willing hands and hard work are the currency of those who aspire. He believes that a man who has the freedom to choose his own way possesses great wealth. In that respect, Burke considers himself rich.
He has felt the back of life’s hand, has been told it can’t be done. He has been advised to grow up, to give it up, to retire and to live it up. He did none of those things. Instead, he set his mouth in a tight line and went ahead.
Everyone said he was too small to be a hammer thrower, but there he was in Tokyo, finishing seventh in the 1964 Olympic Games. He was there at Mexico City in 1968, when it was suggested that he was too old for throwing iron balls.
Eventually, Burke did retire from sports. He ceased traveling. Friends in Poland, Italy and West Germany became faded addresses and disconnected phone numbers. Burke began wearing business suits. He prospered, making his own way.
Even as he settled in to the snug Northern California community of Los Gatos, however, Burke was not tranquil. He grew restless. He had taught political science and surfed for two years. He had built health clubs in Texas. He had played golf. He had taken long business lunches.
Burke began to see a gap in his life. He began to throw the hammer again, using his rusty, 20-year-old hammers, his outdated throwing shoes and his creaky, middle-aged body.
It was a bold and seemingly abrupt decision. Some people snickered at his intentions, but the more they laughed, the firmer became Burke’s resolve. His wife, Shirley, and daughters, Anne and Claire, were behind him, and that was the important thing to him.
Burke had to swallow his ego more than a few times, but eventually, he came back, all the way. He made the 1984 Olympic team. And, 16 years after he had last taken the Olympic oath, Ed Burke led the American team into the Coliseum at the Opening Ceremony, misty-eyed, carrying the American flag.
Across the world, Dr. Ladislav Pataki of Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, watched on television and he gave a cry of joy as his friend, Mr. Ed Burke of California, strode into the huge stadium carring the flag of the United States.
Pataki, 38, had left his home and quietly taken a train to Austria, where he could see the Games. The Czech athletes whose training Pataki had plotted for years, with the high tech computer program he designed, were casualties of the Eastern Bloc boycott.
“It was not possible to see the Olympic Games in Czechoslovakia. For us, there was bad propaganda against the Games,” Pataki said. “We were told it was not safe in Los Angeles. But I saw that it was not true. The Olympic Games were fantastic. People were very nice to sportsmen. I had experience with Ed and his family, and I realized that America must be something other than what is told.”
Pataki decided then to take his wife and daughter and defect to the United States.
Ed and Shirley Burke were in Helsinki in 1983 at the first World Championships of track and field. The Burkes travel light--Shirley coaches Ed.
“One day we were training at the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki, and Shirley was coaching me,” Burke said. “I saw Ladislav watching me. We had been staying in the same hotel. We saw each other there. But the Eastern athletes and officials shouldn’t fraternize with the West. It wasn’t good politically for them.
“So at the stadium he watched and got closer and closer. He was looking at my technique. He may have felt sorry for me.”
Pataki was curious about these Americans who were not training with the rest of the U.S. team.
“I was training there with my athletes,” Pataki said. “They came there. I saw Ed, and after came Shirley. They introduced Ed to me and also Shirley. They tell me she was the coach. I get very curious. I never see woman coaching hammer throwing. And so nice and so pretty girl.”
Pataki watched Burke throw and made suggestions, using limited English and extensive arm waving. It was not an uncommon meeting in international athletics, although it was a little odd that a sports official from the East would risk sharing information with a Western athlete.
“We saw him around,” Burke said. “I think we exchanged addresses just as he was leaving. That was it. We thought, ‘Maybe we’ll see him again. It’s a small world.’ ”
Pataki’s world was quite broad by Eastern European standards. As the director of a group of research scientists, Pataki was often out of the country, filming athletes in field events and analyzing their movements with various computer programs he had designed. An outgoing man who speaks several languages, Pataki had made many friends in the West.
He sent Burke a computer analysis of hammer throwers who had competed in Helsinki. Burke pinned the diagrams to the wall beside his bed as inspiration.
It was not approved of but it was allowed when Pataki sent Christmas cards to the Burke family. It was noted by Czech authorities when Pataki’s 16-year-old daughter, Noemi, began to correspond with Burke’s daughters. Pataki enrolled in night school and began to learn English.
“After the Olympics, it was hard to live here,” Burke said. “The phones were ringing all the time. We decided to go to all the big meets in Europe.
“I was out on the field at the meet in Budapest in August, warming up. Ladislav came up to me on the field. I went over, delighted to see him. I expected him to be there. After all, we were an hour from his home and he was a high-ranking official, his athletes were there. He said he wanted to talk. We agreed to meet later that night.
“I invited him to dinner with Shirley and me. He said it was not possible. I told him where we would be. I was very casual. It seemed that everything was OK with me, everything was OK with him, everything was OK for the whole world.”
Burke had misread his friend. Pataki had been lucky to get to the meet in Hungary. He had a 12-hour pass and had to be back inside the Czech border at midnight. Police had interrogated Pataki, questioning him about his friends in the West. Correspondence with an Austrian coach, in which the Olympic boycott was discussed, had been intercepted by authorities. Travel by Pataki outside of the Eastern Bloc was restricted. The net was drawing in on him.
Burke said: “We went to the usual banquet after the meet. The Russian boys were toasting us with vodka, asking us not to bomb their children--you know, the normal human interaction.
“The vodka was flowing. After a while, I forgot Ladislav was coming. Pretty soon, I looked over and he was there, standing out of the light a bit. Almost all of the people had left, it was about 10 p.m.”
Burke, flushed with the success of the meet and the toasts with the Soviets, cheerfully brought Pataki up to date on the Burke family’s life. Pataki’s own story was considerably less cheery.
“His face was very dark and we could see he was not happy,” Burke said. “He was guarded but he gave us enough information to see that he was being oppressed. He wanted to publish in the West. He felt that he had been training all that time and he wanted to publish for the world.
“Then he said, ‘How is it, you think, for me in America?’
“First we said, ‘What? Did you actually say that?’
“This was very serious. We told him, ‘If you try to get out with your wife and daughter, they might kill you.’
He said, ‘I know that. Will you help me try to escape?’
“We said, ‘All right, sure.’ Just like that. The answer was yes. We were full of joy and fear at the same time.”
Burke had known other East European defectors and had heard stories of soldiers knocking on the door at night. Burke understood the dangers, but he also understood Pataki’s desire to make his own way, the frustration of someone road-blocking your dreams. Burke decided to set a course he knew well. He would help his friend buck the odds.
Burke wanted to dive into this project, as he had so many others, but he could only wait. The Czech had told Burke not to attempt to contact him. Burke would have to take his cues from Pataki.
While Pataki was in Bratislava, making preparations, Burke was in Los Gatos, impatient. Weeks passed with no word. Then, last October, Burke got an anonymous telex from Belgium, giving him a phone number he must call before midnight, Oct. 31.
Burke made the call. It was to a friend of Pataki, calling to confirm Burke’s commitment.
“She said he would escape during Christmas or the spring,” Burke said. “Then Christmas came and went and no Pataki. I figured he must have changed his mind or not gotten out.”
Pataki was out, but he was on a leash. He traveled with the Czech national team. He sent an innocuous post card, “Regards from the European Indoor Championships,” then a hastily penned letter written on a train to Athens, “Look for us in July.”
It was February, and the letter was the first concrete sign Burke had received. Pataki, meanwhile, had been working with a network of friends both in and out of Czechoslovakia, arranging to have his scientific papers smuggled out of the country and his precious book manuscript, which outlines his ideas of athletic training, brought to the West.
Pataki sold his car and cashed in his daughter’s savings account to finance the escape. Pataki registered with Czech authorities, requesting passage for three on the next available holiday tour, going anywhere.
Such tours are closely monitored, and they represent the only way Czech citizens may go to the West. Demand is high. For months, Pataki and his wife made a daily trip to the travel authority. Finally, there was a cancellation on a trip to Sicily. Three spots were available. “We’ll take it,” Pataki said.
The Patakis--Ladislav, Gisela and Noemi--made the rounds of friends and family, promising to send postcards and to bring back trinkets. Ladislav and Gisela tried to act casual when they saw their parents for the last time. It would have been dangerous to tell anyone of their intentions to never return.
Gathered at the airport with the others in tour, the Patakis appeared as just another family on summer holiday, but a careful observer might have noted the bulging suitcases. If that observer had been able to see inside the suitcases, he probably would have wondered why Dr. Pataki was carrying so many scientific papers on his Mediterranean vacation.
“It was five in the evening, and I was taking a nap,” Burke said. “Shirley answered the phone. It was Ladislav, calling collect from Sicily. She woke me up immediately.
“My heart was pounding. He said he was with a tour group, that they were going on to Naples and then Rome. There were police in their group. They (the Patakis) did not have their passports. It was controlled. We talked a while about what to do. We finally decided they should go on to Rome and somehow get to the U.S. embassy. I would let the embassy know they were coming.”
He did more than that. He did just about everything but hire the Ohio State marching band to announce their arrival. Burke called in old favors from politicians and sports officials. He networked. He called everyone. “My basic tenet in life is never to take no for an answer,” Burke said. “I just don’t like it. I think it spurs me on. They have no idea how determined I am.”
The tour arrived in Rome and the tourists registered in a hotel. The concierge was from Budapest. Pataki, who speaks Hungarian, befriended him.
One night, while the rest of the tour was out, Pataki and the Hungarian settled in with a bottle of wine. The Hungarian told Pataki about his own defection years before. Pataki revealed his plans. The Hungarian nodded. “I will help you,” he said.
On a Friday night, the Hungarian opened the hotel safe and took out the Patakis’ passports. He called a cab and, at 5 in the morning, the Patakis were speeding toward the U.S. embassy and freedom.
Almost. It was Saturday morning and the Embassy was officially closed for the weekend. Still, Pataki waited outside.
When the duty officer arrived, Pataki spoke to her. She told him she could do nothing until Monday and sent him to a “safe” hotel to wait out the weekend. The weekend was spent indoors, the family peering out of windows for Czech officials.
When Pataki ventured out Monday morning, embassy officials told him he had to go to Latina, a refugee camp 70 miles south of Rome. There he would wait with some 3,000 other East Europeans for permission to emigrate.
Pataki was afraid to leave Rome, but he had no more money to pay for the hotel. Burke had wired money, but Western Union was on strike, and there was a week’s delay. Pataki called Burke for help.
“That night they slept in a railway station,” Burke said. “I told them to go back to the hotel and somehow I would arrange for them to stay. Of course, I didn’t know how I was going to do it.
“I called the hotel and finally got them to understand that I would arrange to pay for the Czech family. Pataki thinks the money is coming and so does the woman who runs the hotel. I’ve got eight hours to get the money to him. So I’m going crazy. I made a list of every Italian in town and called to ask where their relatives are.”
Burke kept hitting dead ends. There were relatives, but they were in Florence and Milan, or if they lived in Rome they were on holiday at the seashore. Finally, Burke found a local contractor who had a nephew, Massimo, in Rome. Arrangements were made.
“Massimo showed up at 9 in the morning with the money, just like I had told the lady,” Burke said. “Ladislav thought I was God himself--I could get money to Rome faster than Western Union.”
The Patakis stayed just a few days in the hotel, then registered at the refugee camp. They lived there for two months. Pataki took the train into Rome nearly every day. He was still, with Burke’s help, seeking international agencies to register with for sponsorship to the United States.
Burke had almost exhausted his string-pulling efforts. He also had nearly exhausted his patience with U.S. State Department officials. Finally, a letter came. The United Catholic Relief Organization had registered the Patakis and were assisting in getting Pataki an interview with the proper U.S. authorities. It was possible, the letter said, that the Patakis would arrive Sept. 24.
At last, some movement.
Burke formed a citizens’ committee, arranged for an apartment, enrolled 16-year-old Noemi in Los Gatos High School. He raised money. At a golf tournament in Lake Tahoe, where he was guest of honor, Burke passed the hat among the wealthy businessmen. He collected $400, took the wad to the blackjack tables and came away with $800 for Pataki.
Los Gatos, in sleepy suburbia on the fringes of the Silicon Valley, would become Pataki’s Ellis Island. The community would lift its lamp beside the golden door. The family arrived to find tiny San Jose airport jammed with television reporters, local townspeople and bewildered travelers swept up in an old fashioned American media event.
Haltingly, Pataki emotionally put into words why he chose America.
“I want to work. I want a future for my family. Here, you are lucky. It is no problem to make public speech. For this, I think you are rich. I think if I went to Germany, I would not be German. If I went to Italy, I would not be Italian. If I went to France, I would not be French. But here, we can be Americans. It is a great feeling.”
Standing off to one side was Burke, smiling.
Burke is helping Pataki sell his book to a publisher. Last week, Pataki got a job with Cybervision, a New Jersey company specializing in learning methods in athletics. Pataki was named head of the company’s division of sports science research. Gisela wants to return to school to complete studies toward her engineering degree. Noemi is going to Los Gatos High.