AN IMMIGRANT’S LEDYARD INSPIRED JOURNEY by Dan Dimancescu Essay Published in the Dartmouth Class of ’64 50th Reunion:
“The Road Less Traveled” 3-Volume Series
Below us were the dramatic defiles of the famed Iron Gates. Here the Danube River, several hundred feet deep, carves its way through the Carpathian Mountains between Romania and Serbia. With me in the helicopter on this day in May of 2013 was Ken Garrett, an accomplished photographer with more than seventy-five National Geographic Magazine stories to his name. We were on an assignment to document Emperor Trajan’s invasion of Dacia (present-day Romania) in 101-106 AD.
If not for a cool fall day fifty years earlier, or for John Ledyard’s adventuresome feats almost two hundred years before, I would not have been in that helicopter. It had been a perfect Fall morning in 1963 to solo canoe the Connecticut River’s calm mist covered waters. During a quiet drifting moment, thoughts wandered to what might come after graduation, when a question suddenly popped into my mind: “Why not canoe the 1,700 mile length of Danube?” Though at that moment neither a ‘how’ nor a ‘why’ occurred to me, I did end up canoeing the Danube with unending and unimaginable outcomes over the decades to come.
Seven years before, I had come to the U.S. a twelve year-old immigrant with my brother three years older. We had arrived alone on a proverbial slow-boat, a cork-laden freighter that took fifteen days to cross the Atlantic from Casablanca via Lisbon to New York. Born in England, son of a Romanian diplomat who exiled himself to Marrakech, Morocco, to escape the Communist take-over over his country, my parents sent us in 1956 to the United States to escape another transformative revolution in full sway against the nation’s French rulers. My parents, themselves caught up in trumped-up McCarthyite cross-hairs that withheld their entry visas for reasons unknown finally arrived penniless a year later. Already too old to fit into the job stream, they settled in Hartford, Connecticut, to face hard times. As a high-schooler, attracted for some reason by the lore and lure of the sea but not endowed with sea-legs, I attempted entry into the U.S. Naval Academy. But not being a citizen thwarted those hopes. When having to choose among American colleges to apply to the name “Dartmouth” appeared familiar because of the English “Dartmouth” where England’s one-hundred-year-old naval academy is located. That explained the attraction to a campus I hadn’t visited and with no inkling of what I might encounter. However, the infamous ‘thin letter’ arrived stating “We are pleased to let you know…” that I was accepted.
In the US for only three years, I was totally unprepared for college by my American public high school education. “Economics’ was to me “home economics”; the words “government” or “political science” were not in my vocabulary.” “Business” was equally alien; so too “philosophy.” How to write “papers” wasn’t in my toolkit. My formal language was French and my command of English grammar and spelling inadequate [I still multiply and divide in French]. All that would change. Political science, i.e. government, became my major. Business-styled courses tweaked my interests though not my mastery of the art and skill of ‘how to make money.’ However, a geography ‘gut’ course on New England industry with varied visits to dairy, lumber, industrial equipment, machine tool, and paper companies, did turn into a enduring real-life lesson in business practices albeit in industries that would soon decline and almost vanish ten to fifteen years later, many undermined by foreign competitors.
But best of all were the unexpected courses. French literature Professor Ramon Guthrie saw the potential in the rough and pushed me to new levels of intellectual awareness. This was especially true, too, of Prof. Ray Nash’s uncompromising course in typography, book design and typesetting. His intellectual passion for the history of the printed book dating back to the incunabula in the 1450s, the art, the skills, the lead type, the presses, the selection of paper, and his unrelenting perfectionism all taught in the newly opened Hopkins Center would serve me well though in ways I could hardly anticipate.
But what to do with the idea of canoeing the length of the Danube? Within minutes it had taken on a life of its own and in a rush of excitement, I hurried to see Jay Evans, advisor to the Ledyard Canoe Club which I had joined. “How about making this a Club project?” I asked though there it had never done anything that extensive other than the annual downriver trips on the Connecticut River. Sitting on his porch, he listened and within moments enthusiastically encouraged me to “Go for it.” To Bill Fitzhugh ‘64, friend and canoe racing teammate, I took the same question “How about it?” and he became the first member of the Dartmouth Danube Expedition team. Within a month it grew to include Chris Knight ‘65 an avid ocean kayaker already establishing himself as a professional photographer; then David Donnelley ‘64, Bill Backer ‘64; then Dick Durrance ‘65 a star-skier and budding photographer; Terry Fowler ‘64 for his special guitar playing, Bruce Irvine ‘64, for his medical talents Mike Lewis ‘65 for his music.
We crafted a 10-page funding proposal with the general theme of “nine Americans on a goodwill trip behind the Iron Curtain.” Though six of the eight riparian states were Communist controlled, with the help of retired Ambassador Ellis O. Briggs ‘21 who lived in Hanover, the US State Department approved and encouraged the idea. Our story came to the attention of Wilbur “Bill’ Garrett, Editor of the National Geographic Magazine, and Bob Gilka, its Photo Editor. And to our amazement we were sponsored with cameras, film, and editorial staff support. President John Sloan Dickey and ever-upbeat Dean Thaddeus Seymour encouraged us on and during ensuing months money was raised privately in an amount that was then large and in a multiple of five or ten today, equally large.
Only a week after many of us graduated, would we set off for a three-month adventure that ended up as a NG Magazine cover story. There was a personal and emotional motive to this trip. It would bring me for the first time to my parents’ homeland and to my own family’s five-hundred-year Romanian heritage. I would meet relatives enduring life under the hardships of Communist-imposed discomforts and abuse.
There was also the unexpected. A few days before our departure, I sat alone on a plane to Washington. Three seats ahead of me was Senator Bobby Kennedy. Unable to resist the oppor-tunity, I introduced myself and shared details of our expedition. We conversed for 4 or 5 minutes. As I left the gentleman next to him handed me his business and said: “Anytime you’re in town come and see me.” This was Bill Bradlee, Editor of the Washington Post. In years to come I did occasionally go and see him. He would invite me to sit-in on the daily editorial meetings at the newspaper, perhaps seeing a potential journalist in the making. A decade later Bradlee reached journalistic ‘hero-dom’ with his orchestration of the Watergate reporting by Woodward and Bernstein.
Then there was Shepard Stone ‘29 of the Ford Foundation, who had taken notice of our Danube trip and sought me out. Thanks to his intercession, I received grants to study at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and enrolled in the fall of 1966. With an open summer interlude looming and restless for another adventure, I invented another idea: “Why not kayak up the coast of Japan?” How better to experience that country’s traditional culture rapidly vanishing under relentless pressures of modern development than in its coastal villages. Chris Knight brought his photography skills, Dewitt Jones ‘65 his burgeoning filmmaking talent, Bill Wilson ‘66 his guitar playing, and Tom Seymour ‘64 his Japanese speaking abilities to our team that soon included at my invitation four Britishers from Cambridge University to help ‘internationalize’ the expedition. National Geographic signed on but expenses and travel monies were needed in larger amounts than our prior Danube adventure.
For help I arranged to see Ben Bradlee. Sitting in his glassed-walled office Chris Knight and I explained our plans. Without any questioning he said “Wait a minute” and without further word dialed Senator Kennedy. “Bobby, I’ve got two guys you should you meet. When can you see them?” Our only connection to him was that coincidentally the same issue of the National Geographic which ran our Danube story on the cover also published the Senator’s own climb up the newly named 12,000 foot-high Mt. Kennedy in Alaska. A half-hour later, we were in his office. Legs on his desk, shirt-sleeves rolled-up, he listened and then called his secretary. “Angie, I want you to set up a cocktail party in New York to raise money for these fellows. Ten of fifteen people.” And so it was. At that one event some weeks later, we raised a substantial part of our budget including a generous check from Jack Dempsey, the famed boxing fighter.
Shepard Stone introduced us to Tokusaburo Kosaka, President of a large chemical company and brother of a former Japanese Foreign Minister. Nikon soon signed on as did TBS-TV, a national network. The expedition fell into place. And in our sleek Swedish hand-crafted wooden two-man ocean-kayaks we paddled 1,100 miles through the Inland Sea and up the Pacific coast to Tokyo. Updates were presented weekly on national Japanese television. A feature story ensued in the NG Magazine as well as a feature-length documentary.
And then I planned a third story, this one in Romania. With National Geographic support, four of us, including Chris Knight and Dick Durrance just released from Army Signal Corps military duty in Vietnam, and guitar player Bill Wilson ‘66, walked 500 miles along Romania’s Carpathian Mountain ridgelines from the Ukraine border in the north to the Danube Iron Gates (a second symbolic visit) in the south. This was 1968, the year the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia, the immediate and tense repercussions of which we witnessed immediate in Romania after August 21st. The Ceausescu-led Communist regime scolded the Soviets while nervously anticipating its own heavy-handed Soviet settling of scores. At home that year, Vietnam had reached its own turning point with President Johnson’s decision not to run for re-election. The assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Marin Luther King, so too, fatefully altered the course of American history. Thus ended one phase of my life shaped by sheer serendipity and luck and a convulsed world.
Capping my graduate work at Fletcher, my master’s thesis had been on Charles De Gaulle’s France. I entitled it “Technological Nationalism: The French Case” in which I saw success in that country’s search for a path independent of the U.S. But it was also time to shift gears and with seed money from the Ford Foundation, I launched a large and innovative multi-media and academic research study of four giant cities: Tokyo, New York, London and Moscow. Visits to each ensued as did a touch-and-go arrest in Moscow with 35 rolls of illegally shot footage in my pockets (which they luckily did not seek to develop when I was detained in a small windowless room for several hours). Soon after and now settled in Boston, I founded an urban-planning company that turned into an urban-cartography start-up. It became the first commercial company in America [to the best of my knowledge] to draft city-maps with our own innovative digital technology then used principally to draft layouts of computer chip circuitry. And though attending to this full-time, I applied to and entered Harvard Business School the first year calculators were allowed in the classrooms. And while there managed to negotiate a significant investment in my map-making company by Esselte, one of Sweden’s largest conglomerates, and then passed-on the intellectual property and assets to it.
What to do next? Lured by the fast-evolving world of electronics – but knowing next to nothing of it deeper complexities – I self-taught my way into the high-tech world by reading journals and books at Harvard’s Baker Library. This opened a door into a world then driven by semiconductors, mini-computers, and fast evolving software applications. Boston was at the heart of all this. What was clear, too, was that Japan was on a fast-track race to undermine US leadership in the computer industry. This in mind, and without any introduction, I called Ray Stata, president and founder of Analog Devices and a visionary in the high-tech world who would later become Chairman of MIT’s Board of Trustees. “Might he consider my writing about the challenge facing the US in the high-tech world?” Intrigued and supportive, he funded the writing of three books two of which he co-authored with me and a colleague. One of these, Global Stakes, led to the passing of legislation in the 98th Congress through a coalition of two politically-polar-opposites, Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts and John Stennis of Mississippi, supporting engineering education reform and funding in the US. I named it the Morrill Act after Justin Morrill who led the way to creating America’s Land Grant College system in 1861.
All the while, I wove my way into the thriving world of quality management in Japan meeting the gurus and visiting the best corporate practitioners. My breakthrough was in a chance finding of a unique Dutch-authored PhD thesis in English, completed at Meiji University, that described in precise detail something called “Cross-Functional Management,” a subject and approach to management largely hidden from view to Americans. With a grant from Digital Equipment, I turned this hidden resource and other companion works into a book entitled “The Seamless Enterprise.” Published in parallel with guest teaching stints at the Thayer School and Tuck School, it caught the attention of the Ford Motor Company and Boeing for which I ended up consulting on cross-company teaming for the 777 aircraft, a development program then headed by Alan Mulally who would eventually become President of Ford Motor. The consulting endured with engagements at many Fortune 500 companies in the US and Europe – and a teaching year at a French technological institute.
Meanwhile I had married Katherine Kuhns, daughter of James Kuhns ‘40 and niece of Robert Kuhns ‘35. We had two children, Katie and Nicholas, and first made our home in Lincoln, Massachusetts. There was time too, in 1985, to organize a fourth National Geographic expedition, this one a sea-kayak journey around South Korea and its island-dotted coast noted for its fierce riptides. The 500-mile journey wove us through not just an exceptional landscape but one fortified with trip-wires and ‘ready-to-shoot’ military protecting against North Korean infiltrators. A lot of government strings had to be pulled to allow us kayaking rights. David Hamlin ‘82, one of those to sign on as a filmmaker though without prior experience, got his professional foothold from this adventure and is nowadays a Senior Film Producer at the National Geographic Society.
In the middle 1990s, subsequent to the fall of Communism in December of 1989 in Romania, I started making frequent trips to Romania to recover property illegally expropriated by the Communist regime and now subject to laborious and uncertain restitution procedures. Recovery of our family home in Bucharest took thirteen years! Katherine took a liking to the country for its folk culture, ancient history tracing back to Neolithic times, and welcoming hospitality. And Nicholas soon developed a growing love for the mountains, cave exploration (there are 12,000 caves in Romania including remains in one of Europe’s oldest Homo-Sapien remains) and a lively post-Communist youth culture.
We built a country home in the Carpathian Mountains and turned it into a traditionally-styled rural inn now coveted by many western visitors. And as a family we chose to sponsor individuals and projects that reflected our cultural interests. This included financial support of a monumental documentation in a 5-volume Atlas-format of the country’s folk traditions as well as a restoration project of a ‘Saxon’ village in Transylvania that is now home to HRH The Prince Wales’ multiple activities in Romania. During these years, I was invited to apply for Romanian citizenship and thus became a dual-citizen and soon after agreed to serve as Honorary Consul of Romania in New England.
Then films came back into focus when Nicholas and I decided to collaborate in the making of our first documentary – me as producer and he as director. Never mind that neither of us had ever created a feature documentary. The subject would be my father’s – his grandfather’s – WW-I experiences fighting the German army in 1916-17 during which he became a war-hero.
To do this, Nicholas founded his own film company, Kogainon Films, with me on board as producer and as a third member, a design and computer savvy friend of Nicholas’. In 2008-2009 we created Hill 789: The Last Stronghold featured on national television in Romania. And in partnership with Cristian Lascu, Editor of the National Geographic Magazine’s (Romanian edition), I authored a companion magazine article. A year later, Nicholas and I teamed up to create Knights of the Sky: Air War Over Romania, a second documentary on WW-II bombing of Romania’s oil refineries along with a companion article in Lascu’s NG Magazine.
By now a small production was getting its footing and Nicholas developing a talent for directing. This came together in 2011 with the start of a third feature-length documentary on Trajan’s invasion of Dacia (present-day Romania) in 101-106 AD. First footage was shot in February and again the film crew returned in May. It was than I was I was awoken by a knock on my Bucharest house door. Nicholas had fallen to his death while filming a thunderstorm from atop a cliff in the Romanian Carpathians.
A U.S. military honor guard stood at a church service in Bucharest and at his funeral in Concord, Massachusetts, stood honor guards from The Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company and the Sons of the American Revolution, both recognizing his American Mayflower-era legacies inherited from Katherine’s family. My daughter Katie, a historian en-grossed in that side of heritage just published her maternal family history under the title Forgotten Chapters: My Journey Into the Past.
Inspired by his own vision for what he sought to accomplish, his company colleagues, Katherine, Katie and I agreed to continue his work and so completed the documentary “Decoding Dacia” in late 2012. Kogainon Films, his gift to us and now a full-time activity for me, is now growing with a young team mostly of his peers. Our latest work is focused on multi-media story-telling designed for mobile device users.
And this is where the story comes full circle to that helicopter flight above the Iron Gates with Ken Garrett in 2013. Were it not for the colleagues, generous and encouraging helping hands, and the domino-like chain of contacts that led to Ken’s father at the National Geographic, that ‘Ledyard-inspired’ idea 50 years before would undoubtedly not have come to pass. And it all began because I thought Dartmouth reminded me of England’s naval academy!
I’ve often repeated a saying by Johann Wolfgang Goethe that “To think is easy; to act is hard; but to act according to one’s thoughts is the hardest thing in the world.” My years at Dartmouth put me onto that road and a more than fulfilling life journey.