Science and Technology
Tibor Fekete, “56-er”, petroleum engineer, oil explorer, and patron of Hungarian studies in Canada.
Based on an interview with Randy Ray, February –March, 2009.
Immigrant and professional
After witnessing the horrors of war during World War II as a 10-year-old, Tibor Fekete had no interest in remaining in Hungary in 1956 after the collapse of the Hungarian Revolution. Instead, he fled from Europe to Canada where oil had been discovered and there was ample demand for engineers, the career he was studying at university when Hungarian revolutionaries unsuccessfully attempted to liberate his homeland from Soviet rule.
"I lived through the Second World War when the Russians were three or four kilometres from our town from Christmas 1944 until Palm Sunday 1945 when they occupied it. The Germans were stationed in the town and the Americans and the Russians flew over and bombed us during that period. We lived in fear, our lives were in danger. I hated the whole war business so when I left in 1956 I could not stay in Europe . . . a third World War might break out, so I said I would go as far away as I could."
Fekete, now semi-retired and living in Calgary, accepted Canada’s offer to welcome him and a group of his fellow university students so they could continue their education in the field of mining and petroleum engineering. "Canada had new oil discoveries and we had an offer from a country that would ensure that our lives were taken care of," recalls Fekete, who was single at the time. "Canada looked like the land of opportunity."
Fekete was born in Czechoslovakia in June 1934 in Nagysallo, a community 35 kilometres north of the Danube River that was heavily populated by Hungarians and that was part of Hungary again from 1939 to 1945. He was educated in Hungarian up to the end of World War II at Hungarian elementary schools and in the Slovak language for two years until 1947 when his family was kicked out of Czechoslovakia.
After settling in the southern part of Hungary, he attended a senior business high school in the small Hungarian city of Bonyhad where he learned typing, shorthand, and accounting. He soon lost interest in business studies and turned to engineering: he studied at a new University in Miskolc in northeastern Hungary, where he specialized in petroleum engineering within the mining school. His final three years of petroleum engineering studies took place at the University of Sopron. Fekete was in his final year of university in October-November 1956 when the revolution took place and never did receive his diploma.
Many Hungarian university students left Hungary after the revolution, including 50 per cent of the forestry students of the University of Sopron. They went to Vancouver where they continued their education at the University of British Columbia. Two hundred from the mining engineering group left Hungary, including Fekete and about 60 went to Toronto. Nineteen of the 28 students in his petroleum engineering class fled Hungary. Four of them ended up in Toronto; the rest went to various other countries including Holland, Austria and Sweden.
In Toronto, Fekete took an English language course. In the summer of 1957, he landed a summer job in western Canada with Shell, where he worked in oilfields and the company’s office for more than four months. He was accepted at the University of Alberta (U of A) in Edmonton and in 1958 graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in petroleum engineering, a period he describes as the ``toughest seven months’’ of his life while he tried to get a grip on a new language.
The following year he received a Masters of Science degree in petroleum engineering from the U of A and in November 1959, he launched his working career. He worked for a small service company until 1963, where he often worked by himself and had little chance to polish his English. That year, he landed a job with Dome Petroleum as a petroleum engineer and thanks to a larger staff that loved to chat about sports, he improved his vocabulary. "Finally, I had the ability to open my mouth and express myself . . . it was a rather interesting time,’’ he says, adding: ``From the beginning, I was a Canadian, there was no homesickness, I never wanted to go back."
In 1962 while holidaying in Toronto, Fekete met his wife Livia, a fellow Hungarian. The couple has raised two daughters.
Fekete worked for Dome for 10 years as manager of natural gas development. At age 40, he decided to launch his own consulting company, which offered the natural gas industry expertise in evaluation of performance and development of gas fields. He ran that company until the end of 1981. Next, he and a partner set up Erskine Resources, an oil and gas exploration and production company in Calgary, which lasted until the fall of 1988. Shortly after, he and his ex-business partner bought some natural gas producing properties in central Alberta. Fekete’s interests were handled through Synerg Resources, his holding company. In 1994 they formed a public company, Signal Energy, to develop natural gas properties. That company was sold in 1997.
He was on the board of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra in the 1990s and during that period he started the Cork and Canvas Wine and Art Festival on behalf of the orchestra to raise money. He is a past director of a number of public and private oil and gas corporations as well as of the Calgary Stampeders Football Club. Today, he is an investor in stocks and real estate through his holding company. He’s also involved in a winery in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley and he is on the board of Southern Pacific Resource Corp. and Eagle Rock Exploration Ltd. These days he lives close to downtown Calgary and works from home. He and his wife have a home in the mountains in Canmore, Alberta.
For much of his life, Fekete has dedicated time and his personal resources to promoting and funding Hungarian studies in Canada, especially at the University of Toronto. In 1966, he helped establish the Szechenyi Society, a Canadian charitable organization designed to promote Hungarian history, literature, language, music and arts in Canada. In 1977 Fekete helped the society establish a Chair of Hungarian Studies at the University of Toronto, (with matching funding from the Government of Canada) which in 2004 became a Hungarian Studies Program and has continued to teach primarily language, literature and culture. He has been president of the Széchenyi Society since 1988.
In 2006 an expansion of the Hungarian Program took place, with plans to raise $4 million to teach history, establish undergraduate and graduate scholarships and fund special lectures. Fekete was instrumental in creating an endowment for a Hungarian history course for undergraduates by donating $400,000. Other monies were raised to help cover the cost of student exchanges, and projects such as a 2006 conference and commemoration about 1956.
Currently, 70 students are enrolled in Toronto’s Hungarian Studies program and another 45 are in the Hungarian history program. The Society over the years has also funded a visiting lecturers’ program inviting professors from Hungary and the United States. The Society was a founding member in 1985 of the Hungarian Research Institute in Toronto; this project was launched with $200,000 out of Fekete’s own pocket and its ongoing activities include funding lectures and academic publications in Hungarian studies and their dissemination in Canada and abroad.
Fekete has received many awards for his work. In 1999, he received the President’s Cross from Hungary’s president for promoting Hungarian culture abroad. In 2006, on the 50th anniversary of the revolution, he received the Hero of Freedom medal, also from the president of Hungary. In 2007 he was the recipient of the University of Toronto’s Arbor Award for his contribution to the Hungarian studies program.
Fekete credits his heritage for his decision over the years to dedicate long hours and his own money to promote Hungarian culture in Canada. "It goes back to my heritage," he says. "I was born in Czechoslovakia in a Hungarian community in 1934. It was part of Hungary until 1919, then it came back to Hungary in 1939 and went back to Czechoslovakia in 1945 and we had to leave our homeland and move to Hungary in 1947. The west does not know enough about Hungary so we have tried to create awareness for who the Hungarian people are, and let people know their history goes back 1100 years.
"I want people to have a better knowledge and understanding of Hungary and the Hungarian people. Hungary needs some help. Its people have to learn how to do business properly, so Hungarian students are sent over here and we send Canadian students there to learn more about Hungary. It is beneficial for both countries from a business standpoint."
Fekete says students enrolled in the Hungarian program courses at the University of Toronto are becoming familiar with Hungarian culture and history. "Many people 50 years ago didn’t even know where Budapest was. After the 1956 revolution, people started to learn about Hungary, specifically that Hungarians shook up the communist system with the revolution. I don’t think Hungarians received enough recognition for that."
"I want to show that many Hungarians are very capable as scientists, professionals, and in other careers. Hungary gave so many professionals to Canada after 1956; in Toronto 40 doctors settled as did nearly 200 engineers. There are 40 professors at U of T with Hungarian background.
"I was given the opportunity to come here, I lived with it and I wanted to give something back to this country," says Fekete. "I am a proud Canadian with proud Hungarian roots."
We are grateful to Mr Fekete for agreeing to do this interview. He was one of 50 Canadians of Hungarian origin whose photographs formed the “New Lives” portrait exhibition produced in 2006 by the National Arts Centre in honour of the 50th anniversary of the arrival of Hungarian refugees to Canada: "http://www.hungarianpresence.ca/Anniversary/newlives.cfm"