Legacy Series: Hospodka’s Flight from Communism Led to the Freedom to Teach

Posted: Friday, July 14th 2017 at 12:19 PM

Lenka HospodkaFor the first decade of her life, Lecturer Lenka Hospodka lived behind the Iron Curtain, in Prague, Czech Republic. Her father left for a Fulbright Scholarship opportunity in 1964 at MIT when she was 10. It took four years for Lenka and her mother to work through the challenges of joining him there.

“I didn't see my dad for four years. He left me a child, and I came a teenager when he saw me. My mom and I finally arrived here in June of 1968 with legal permission to come and legal permission to leave the Czech Republic. We lived in a small town in New Jersey at that time,” she explained.

At the age of 14, she knew little English, never believing that the dream would be realized. She was also not very enthused about schooling in general. But both of her parents were educated, her father had a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and her mother held a professional degree as a librarian. So making sure she received higher education was not an option.

After a 3-month tutoring effort, the young teen was immersed in the system, and she learned to survive in it. Soap operas helped her learn English with its simple language structure.

“They don't use big words, and you can follow because of the action. I was addicted to soap operas during the summer,” she giggled. “My favorites were All My Children, One Life to Live, and General Hospital.”

“I was lucky. You have no idea. Communism is something I think Americans don't understand totally because you have no freedom. Everything is controlled by the government. You’re afraid to say anything. I was going to school and my parents would say, ‘Don't ever say anything that we say at home because if somebody hears it like my  friends, and they reported it to their parents, my parents could get in trouble because those parents are communist. … I didn't have any future there because you or your parents have to be communist in the communist party in order to go to the university. If you were not, which my parents were not, the only choice was a trade…  I never dreamed of going to university or college. When I graduated from high school here, I was scared. They said, ‘ya, you’re going to go.’ So that's why I went to a junior college [in Berkeley, Massachusetts] first, because it was small,” she said.

After a positive experience in junior college, she found she actually enjoyed her hotel and restaurant management coursework while completing her undergraduate degree at Cornell (where her father was by then) and, finally, she embraced the educational opportunities afforded her. She completed her masters at NYU (where her mother was by then) and moved out into the hospitality industry in a position with Days Inn of America in both North and South Carolina.

“But I was getting older so I was not as enthusiastic working in the industry and so somebody suggested that I should look into teaching. So I did,” she recalled.

Her parents were in West Chester, Pennsylvania at the time, so she tried to apply to what is now Widener College but was turned down due to the lack of teaching experience. She applied to the hotel program at Johnson and Wales that was led by Dean Peter Van Kleek. With a year of teaching under her belt, she was then accepted at Widener. But after almost three years there, a challenging situation with a colleague drove her to look again. She reached out to Van Kleek, who was transitioning to dean of Northern Arizona University’s fledgling School of Hotel and Restaurant Management. He hired her without hesitation, and she taught her first semester in September 1987.

“I liked Peter from the beginning. He was a strict boss. He wanted things done a certain way… but I liked him a lot. We had something in common, our Slavic background – he was partially Russian, and I was Czech. He was an interesting man, and his wife was a darling. We became really good friends. Without him, I think I wouldn’t have a career, he was so influential. I wouldn't be who I am without him,” she said.

In those early days, the faculty did not specialize in what they taught. Hospodka found herself teaching several subjects, but her natural inclination was front desk operations.

“I've taught everything except senior seminars – purchasing, and sales and marketing (a combined class). I like 210 a lot, guest service management. I have a lot of knowledge and experience in that, having been a front desk person and front desk manager. One does like to teach what one has experience in.

“When I started in 1987, my boyfriend, Sam Powell, and I stayed in the old President’s house. What we had [on the current site of the School] was just the little house where some faculty have their offices now. This was just all flat land. We taught at the business school, the old building, SBS West now. We would get in our car and drive down to teach our classes, primarily taught in Bellwood Auditorium.

“If I had one class and then a period free before teaching another class, I wouldn't come back up here, I would just stay down there in the faculty lounge preparing for the next class. That's how I became friends with a lot of the old business people like Kay and Ron Pitt.

“One of the good things about being here in the beginning of this whole enterprise of the hotel school was the fact that we actually had input into the design of this old building and The Inn. They converted the President’s house into The Inn at NAU, so we tried to preserve as much of the living room as possible and added on the kitchen. Don Carlson, the chef at the time, designed the kitchen and the dining room. One of the things that we decided on was that we needed a hotel front desk that people can come into [so that the] first form of contact is a hospitality setting. Other schools don’t have that. We designed a computer lab which Galen [Collins] helped design and get some of the computers. And the guest rooms… We had a lot of fun designing this school how we wanted it… It was a lot of asking people for donations from contacts with people we used to know when we were in the business.

“That was also something that was unique about our faculty. We were all practitioners of hotel and restaurant management. We all came from the industry. We had an understanding of it, and we learned how to teach, which was different from other schools.

“Like with any other job, you have good times, and you have bad. Sometimes the students drive you nuts. Sometimes it's just like a bulb comes on, and you can see it, you touch them. You know sometimes you feel like you’re not reaching them, or you think your teaching them something they are thinking, ‘I will never use that or this.’ And then when they come back and they say, ‘ah, by the way, having your hospitality information technology class, boy, that helped me when I went to work at such and such a place…’

“It's also a lot of reward and fun to see the alumni here in Flagstaff that are running some of our hotels here and restaurants, to name just a few, Fred Reese is managing Little America; Chris Rock from Doubletree; the Heinonen Brothers who run, or used to, Tinderbox and now The Cottage; and Holly Mower, manages the Residence Inn in Prescott, … she said the same thing, ‘it's amazing, you guys are the ones who encouraged me and made me who I am.’

“In teaching, the reward comes later, not an immediate reward. It comes later when they come back to visit,” she reflects. 

Hospodka understands that the credit for her education goes to her parents, especially her mother. After she passed away, Hospodka created a scholarship in her name. Ironically, Hospodka almost didn’t go down the road of becoming a teacher, though.

“The other junior college I was considering, the major there was teaching. I decided against that because I didn't want to be a teacher at that time… not knowing what was going to come.

“I think I have teaching in my genes because my grandfather, my father’s father, had about six or seven sisters, and they all ended up being teachers. Either nuns or just lay teachers. When I look back, it's pretty funny.

“I can't complain about my life. I’ve had a lot of opportunities. Like everyone, I took advantage of some and messed up some others. I don't regret coming here, ever. …It will be 30 years this fall. Seems like yesterday,” she said, a tear in her eye.

Categories: lenka hospodka legacy series 2017 summer 2017