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From Moravia to Montana and Beyond

By Krista Threefoot

For a man who grew up in the Moravia region of Czechoslovakia during World War II, CRS donor — and former beneficiary — Karl Jorda has a remarkably positive attitude about the prospects life has presented him.

Karl Jorda

CRS beneficiary Karl Jorda, born in Czechoslovakia, shown here as a student in Germany. Photo courtesy of Karl Jorda

Karl was born in 1929 to a family that had lived for generations as subsistence farmers. His destiny also would have been to eke out a living from the family farm. But then World War II changed everything and, with a little help from Catholic Relief Services, Karl used it as an opportunity to better himself and his community.

'A Blessing in Disguise'

It is an understatement to say that life in the Czechoslovakia of the World War II era was difficult. This was especially true for the borderlands of Bohemia and Moravia. Known in German as the Sudetenland, this multiethnic region was annexed to Nazi Germany, under the threat of war, in the Munich Agreement of 1938. This accession was the first in a series of invasions and annexations that culminated in1939, when Hitler took total control over Czechoslovakia.

For Karl's family, the war brought many hardships, but it was the end of the war that affected them the most. As part of the ethnic German minority, the Jorda family was expelled to Germany when the Sudetenland was returned to Czechoslovakia. "This was a terrible thing for my parents," Karl says, "but for me and my brother it was a blessing in disguise."

In Germany, Karl had the chance to attend gymnasium, a specialized secondary school that qualifies students for university study. Although he was a Catholic minority separated from his homeland, Karl views his years at gymnasium as a gift that shaped the rest of his future. There, he was able to study a broad range of sciences, arts and languages, and there he made a connection that would transform his life.

Every year, St. Olaf College in Minnesota sent their best student to teach English and American history at Karl's school. In his last year, Karl became acquainted with the visiting American, and told him of his interest in pursuing his studies. The student told Karl about an American organization that might be able to help him come to the United States to study. It was then that Karl Jorda first heard of Catholic Relief Services.

With the Help of CRS

Working with CRS and his American friend, Karl hoped to get a student visa and a scholarship that would enable him to study abroad in the United States. He enrolled in the University of Frankfurt, believing that, with the chance to study for a year in the United States, he was on the path to receiving an education unlike anything he had ever dreamed possible for himself.

When his visa was finally ready, Karl was amazed to see that it gave him permanent residence in the United States. He was doubly amazed when he learned that CRS had helped him get a full scholarship to the University of Great Falls in Montana.

So, after studying at the University of Frankfurt for a year and a half, Karl boarded a troop ship to New York City. Penniless, he worked on the boat, where the crew teased him about his future in Montana. " 'This is the Siberia of the United States,' they said, 'Why would you go there when you can be among your own people in New York?' " Karl reminisces. But to him, Montana was the Promised Land, where he would learn how to be an American.

With just a smattering of English, Karl disembarked in New York and boarded a train for the three-day journey to Great Falls. "I had $6 in my pocket and that was all I had to live on," Karl remembers, "but it was enough." His unfaltering optimism brought him safely to Montana, where he jumped wholeheartedly into American university life.

An enthusiastic and hard-working student, Karl graduated summa cum laude from the University of Great Falls, after just another year and a half. The nuns at Great Falls took a special interest in this promising student, and encouraged him to continue his studies at the University of Notre Dame.

"So," he says, "I got a scholarship and I went to South Bend, Indiana." While there, Karl worked several jobs, one of which was teaching German language and literature to other students. "I had a couple of students in my class who were heading for law school," he remembers, "and they all suggested, 'Karl, you should go to law school too; you would do well there.' So, as a lark, I decided to go to law school." With his Master of Arts and yet another scholarship in hand, Karl enrolled in the University of Notre Dame Law School. There, he discovered both his future vocation — patent law — and the woman he would eventually marry.

Karl Jorda with his wife

Karl and his wife celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 2006. Photo courtesy of Karl Jorda

"She was a 'Swiss Miss' going to nursing school at St. Mary's. She wanted desperately to become a nurse, which she couldn't do in Switzerland because of her family. So, she came here and lived with a doctor's family, who took her in, almost as their own." They fell in love and married. Their first child was born when Karl was completing his law school examinations. In 2006, four children and five grandchildren later, they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

Making the Most of Opportunity

Although law school qualified Karl for a career in patent law, he never planned for it, and he certainly never expected to become one of the foremost authorities in the field.

After graduation from law school in 1957, and at the suggestion of a friend who knew about his background in science during his days at gymnasium, Karl applied for a job with the patent division of Miles Laboratories (now Bayer) in Elkhart, Indiana. After three years, he moved onto Geigy (later Ciba-Geigy), a Swiss pharmaceutical company that eventually became Novartis and in 1963, with only 6 years of experience, he became the director of the patent division for this multinational pharmaceutical company.

Since then, Karl — an immigrant who grew up believing that he would spend his life farming a small plot of land — has become one of the leading voices in the field of intellectual property.

Now the David Rines Professor of Intellectual Property Law and the director of the Kenneth J. Germeshausen Center for the Law of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Franklin Pierce Law Center, Karl has won numerous awards and honors for his contributions to his field, including the 1996 Jefferson Medal, the highest American award in the field of intellectual property. In 2007, he was inducted into the global Intellectual Property Hall of Fame.

Giving Back

The most fascinating thing about Karl isn't his expertise or his broad experience overseas. What strikes you the most is the gratitude he feels for the experiences life has given him. "I never planned anything," he says, "I just seized opportunities ... and it always turned out for the best." When he talks, you can hear the awe in his voice that he has been so fortunate to have had so much success — and so many valuable experiences — in his life.

Above all is his gratitude to CRS for helping him to start his new life in the United States. " I came to the U.S.A. thanks to CRS and I am so grateful. My whole life, I felt in debt to CRS and wanted to give back to them. As a young adult, I wasn't wealthy; I was saving and supporting my family. But for years and years, I felt in debt, and finally I decided to do it." So, two years ago, Karl made a significant donation to CRS programs. "I gave to CRS, and I wanted them to do what they needed to do with my money. I think they know best where my gift is needed."

Like thousands of other people that CRS has supported in times of emergency, Karl used assistance from CRS to improve his life and make his own contribution to the world. It is through people like Karl Jorda that CRS makes the most lasting difference.

Krista Threefoot is a proposal writer for Catholic Relief Services.

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