Prospect Magazine: Alumni Stories

Hungary Man

August Molnar '49 started a foundation to celebrate Hungarian thought and culture.

On a late summer day in 1949, bricklayers and stone masons made their way to the First Hungarian Reformed Church, on East Boulevard and Buckeye Road in Cleveland, Ohio. The towering Romanesque cathedral, their project of two years, was nearly complete. Among the laborers stood a young man named August Molnar, who remembers clearly the honor that his father gave him that day.

“He said, ‘Somebody’s got to do it, you’re here, and you know how to do it,’” Molnar says. “So I went up the scaffolding and put the last pieces of stone on the tower.”

That day, Molnar was 22 years old and in his element—working alongside his father, building a gathering place for people who shared their Hungarian heritage. Over the next fifty years or so, Molnar would make it his mission to build and sustain another monument to Hungarian culture, one that is less visible than the soaring cathedral but equally impressive. As founder, president, and guiding force behind the American Hungarian Foundation, Molnar has spent much of his long life promoting the study of Hungarian culture in the United States.

Molnar’s passion for all things Hungarian comes largely from his father, a stone mason who emigrated from Hungary in 1910. Molnar’s parents taught him to remember where he came from—and to value other cultures, too. “Culture was something that my father and mother felt very strongly about,” he says. “In the house, my father always used Hungarian. When he went out, he used English. But he said, ‘You should always be very proud of what you are, and learn as many languages as you can.’”

As a teenager, Molnar enrolled at Elmhurst College, where he flourished in the school’s Hungarian studies program. It had been established in 1941, just a few years before Molnar’s arrival. The program was a curricular expression of a significant development in the College’s history: the diversification of its student body beyond the traditional population of men affiliated with the Evangelical and Reformed Church. Women, African Americans, and Japanese Americans from California internment camps all joined the student body in the years just before, during, and after World War II.

Molnar says he might have lived a different life if he hadn’t attended Elmhurst and been exposed to its Hungarian program. He almost certainly would not have found the person who would come to share his singular vision: his late wife, Priscilla, also of Hungarian descent. August and Priscilla met on her first day at Elmhurst. She was a freshman; he was a junior on the welcoming committee. “I went to greet her on the first morning at breakfast,” Molnar recalls. “The other freshmen were quite surprised that a junior would come say hello to a freshman.”

Over the next few years, the two planned a life together. They decided to settle in Cleveland. In 1952, Molnar completed a seminary program at Lancaster Theological Seminary and accepted an assistant pastorate at a Hungarian church. The church’s senior pastor helped Priscilla get a teaching job in Cleveland’s public school system. Everything was set.

Then a casual visit with Henry Dinkmeyer, the eighth president of Elmhurst College, changed the course of Molnar’s life. During a campus visit, “I wanted to say hello to the president of the College, so I went to his office,” Molnar recalls. “He said, ‘Gus, sit down. How would you like to come and teach here next September?’” Molnar insisted that he was obligated to go to Cleveland and take the position he had already accepted. The president, equally insistent, told Molnar to think about it.

A visit with the dean of Lancaster Theological Seminary helped Molnar make his decision. “He said, ‘Where do you think you can best serve your people? Either in a church in Cleveland or in Elmhurst?’” When Molnar considered the situation in that light, he knew Elmhurst was the right choice. “America had gone through a period of isolation in the 1930s,” he explains. With the end of the Second World War, “all of these men and women who had been in the military—and had traveled all over the world—had come back and were interested in other cultures and other people.” The social situation required a response. “I felt we should be teaching language.”

Molnar accepted the position of chairman of the Department of Hungarian Studies at Elmhurst, where he served until 1959. But his desire to make the Hungarian language more accessible led to a much larger idea: a foundation that would work with many universities to bring Hungarian studies to a broader population. In addition, the foundation would educate Americans about the artistic, historical, and cultural contributions of immigrant Hungarians in America.

With the help of his wife, Molnar launched the American Hungarian Foundation at Elmhurst in 1955. After years of preparation, the foundation introduced itself to the public at a concert in Carnegie Hall. The music was all Bartok, one of Hungary’s great composers.

The foundation began as a one-man operation based in Molnar’s Elmhurst office. In 1959, it moved with him to Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey, where Molnar helped develop a Hungarian studies program. Thirty years later, the foundation built the Hungarian Heritage Center in New Brunswick, New Jersey. It features a library and archives that boast more than 60,000 volumes, and a 10,000 square-foot museum that, since its opening, has presented more than fifty exhibits by Hungarian artists. The foundation has raised millions of dollars, enabling it to fund student exchanges, academic programs, publications, fellowships, and research at a range of American universities, including Rutgers, Colgate, Indiana, Cleveland State, the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and the University of Connecticut.

Molnar’s influence is not limited to the United States. In 2005, as part of the foundation’s fiftieth anniversary observance, he chaired an international three-day conference, entitled “Contacts and Contributions: American and Hungarian Institutional Relations and Their Influences.” It was jointly sponsored by the foundation and the National Széchényi Library in Budapest. In 2004, the president of Hungary, Ferenc Madl, recognized Molnar’s work by awarding him the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary. The foundation is Molnar’s way of inspiring the next generation of students and researchers, and ensuring that efforts to preserve Hungarian history will continue long after his time.

When he speaks of that summer day in 1949, just before the church was dedicated before an audience of 4,000, he could be talking about his entire life’s work. “There is something in that church that reaches to the sky,” Molnar says. “It is something that people will not only be able to see but also rejoice in what it represents. I’m always able to point to that and say to my grandchildren, ‘I put that up there.’”

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