The following story-written by Heather Maher-appears in the July 2014 issue of The Rotarian magazine, which has a worldwide circulation of 1.2 million:
Rotary Stories: Charles Ota Heller
Charles Ota Heller came to America to start a new life. He became a serial entrepreneur – and a link to a reemerging Rotary tradition back home.
“I worry a lot. It’s not something you normally associate with an entrepreneur, but I see the glass as half empty instead of half full.” Charles Ota Heller laughs after he says this, maybe because he knows that statement doesn’t exactly square with his life since he arrived in the United States from Czechoslovakia with his parents at age 13.
It’s more understandable, though, when you learn that the Hellers landed on American shores in 1949 as political refugees fleeing their communist-controlled homeland after a decade of war and violent upheaval. The three were among the few surviving members of an extended family that had its fortune stolen by the Nazis and was decimated in the Holocaust. “People picture me as a happy-go-lucky person, which I’m not,” he shrugs. “It’s mainly because of things that happened to my family.”
When Heller began a new life in Morristown, N.J., with his parents, Rudolf and Ilona, his father told him to “forget everything that happened back home.” He demanded that his son “become a 100 percent assimilated American,” declaring, “I don’t want you to have an accent 12 months from today.” This, says Heller, now 78, was “one of the most important things that happened to me,” because it forced him to look ahead, not back.
“If we had stayed under the communists, somebody else would have decided what education I would have, what profession I would have, what my fate would be,” he says.
Instead, Heller chose his own path, one that led him to cofound the first aerospace engineering department at the U.S. Naval Academy, to start several companies before age 50, to be named Maryland’s 1992 entrepreneur of the year, to win ocean sailing races, and to raise a family in the Chesapeake Bay community of Annapolis. He and his wife of 55 years, Susan, settled there in 1963, and today Heller is a member of the Rotary Club of Annapolis.
At the Naval Academy, he almost became part of U.S. space exploration history when he was selected to participate in the NASA scientist-astronaut program. “It’s a short story because after making it through the first round of tests, I got a form letter from NASA – this was during the Gemini program of 1962-66 – saying, ‘We have now designed the prototype Gemini capsule, and we will be limiting the height of the astronauts to 6 feet.’ I was 6 foot 1. That hurt. So that was the end of that.”
Heller had another brush with history in the 1960s, when a man gave him a business card that read only “U.S. Government” and asked if he would be interested in working as a spy in Iron Curtain Czechoslovakia. The man turned out to be from the CIA, which was recruiting young men who had escaped from communist countries to parachute back in and start underground resistance networks. Heller agreed to go through two “truly bizarre” interviews in Washington, D.C., that included taking a lie detector test and reading aloud from foreign newspapers printed in languages he didn’t know.
He was forbidden from discussing the offer with anyone – not even his wife, who had given birth to their son, David, a year earlier. Six months passed, and he received a short letter printed on plain paper that informed him “the program” had been canceled because Congress hadn’t funded it. “I was relieved,” he says. “I was really conflicted.”
As a mentor to young entrepreneurs, Heller helped them realize their own dreams.
Of his many professional accomplishments, Heller says he is most proud of the one that allowed him to help other people realize their own dreams. As the first director of the University of Maryland’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship, from 1990 to 2000, Heller mentored young entrepreneurs and students trying to start their first businesses. “I feel better about doing that than I do about starting companies of my own,” he says.
Rudolph Lamone, former dean of the university’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, has known Heller for 25 years and says his “energy, passion, zeal, and commitment” made Dingman “into one of the top such centers in the world. His success as a serial entrepreneur has inspired many, and his ability to guide other entrepreneurs has been extraordinary.”
It was Heller’s desire to help others that led him to the Annapolis club in 1977. He recalls that, while running CADCOM, the pioneering software company he started, he “was preaching to my management team that we needed to be part of the community, we needed to give back, to get involved. From what I had heard from friends who were in Rotary, this is what Rotary did. I joined because I discovered that Rotary did all these good things for the community.”
Over more than three decades as a Rotarian, Heller has volunteered on many projects, served on his club’s board, and chaired several committees. He says the most meaningful work for him involved helping Czechs who were emerging from the fog of communism after the country’s 1989 Velvet Revolution. On a trip to Czechoslovakia to try to regain his family’s lost property, fate intervened in the form of a man named Jiří Peška, who had bicycled more than 60 miles in one day from a town called Tábor to ask Heller for help in restarting a Rotary club.
Stanislav Kotrčka, who would become president of the Rotary Club of Tábor, met Heller in 1992 and credits his “humanity, sense of humor, creativity, and enthusiasm” as the force behind years of cooperation and friendship between Czech and U.S. Rotarians. The two clubs have worked together on several efforts, including the installation of an elevator in a home for the elderly. Heller shakes his head as he remembers that some of the residents who lived on the second and third floors hadn’t been outside in years because they couldn’t manage the stairs.
William Davis, a past president of the Annapolis club, recalls: “The Rotarians in Tábor could provide local expertise to build the elevator, but they didn’t have the funds. Charlie came back to Annapolis and headed a fundraiser with the Annapolis club. This project led to several visits by Annapolis Rotarians to the Czech Republic, reciprocal visits by them to the United States, and the formation of lifelong friendships.” A few years later, he says, Heller raised funds to build a home for abused women and children in Tábor. Grateful officials gave Heller, and the Annapolis Rotarians who helped him, a key to the city.
As he closes in on 80 – though this former Division 1 basketball player could pass for years younger – he continues to work as president of Annapolis Capital Group, a management consulting and investment firm, serves on several boards, and has carved out a new career as an author. Heller says he fell in love with the English language when he arrived in America, and has written throughout his life – for his college newspaper, the Annapolis paper, and business and engineering journals. What he hadn’t written, until a few years ago, was the story of what happened to him and his family.
Heller has been writing all his life. Now he has written the story of what happened to him and his family.
Prague: My Long Journey Home took Heller six years to write. It spans a decade of his childhood – years filled with the nightmare of war, in which his family watched as everything they had worked for was snatched away and their beloved country was trampled by invaders. Most horrifying of all, relative after relative disappeared into the hell of Nazi concentration camps, never to emerge. Heller was forced into hiding.
Dredging up those memories wasn’t easy, he says. “For three or four years, I would wake up in the middle of the night dreaming about things that had happened to me, or things that didn’t happen to me – being killed by Nazis, chased by Nazis, those kinds of things. I had so many memories. A lot of people have asked me, ‘How can you remember what happened when you were five years old?’ I think when you’ve been through traumatic experiences, you do remember. Those things just came back to me. I had a notebook on my bedside table for four years. I’d wake up in the morning and sometimes I couldn’t read my writing, things I had scribbled down, scenes and vignettes that had come back to me.”
One episode he didn’t have to struggle to remember happened at the end of the war, when Heller was nine years old. German soldiers and civilians were fleeing the country, hoping to evade capture by Russian troops. When Heller and two friends one day discovered a pile of discarded gas masks, bayonets, helmets, and guns by the side of a road, Heller picked up a Walther pistol and tucked it into his small waistband. “I’m going to shoot a German,” he declared. A few hours later, hiding behind thick brush, the little boy fired a shot at the chest of a man loading boxes onto a truck. “At that moment, I felt like I had singlehandedly won the war,” Heller recalls in the book. But the initial jubilation soon faded, replaced by a feeling of trauma. Even so, when he learned later that the man he’d shot had likely survived, he admits to being more disappointed than relieved.
Before he started on his book, Heller took writing courses at a local college and meticulously researched the publishing industry. Careful preparation is a trait he’s known for. “Charlie never takes on any task halfway,” says J. Phillip Samper, Heller’s former partner at Gabriel Venture Partners and the former president of Sun Microsystems. “He does his homework, evaluates options thoroughly, and finishes what he starts.”
And Heller is just getting started. He has two more memoirs in the works that he hopes will complete his trilogy: Cowboy From Prague and Ready, Fire, Aim: Tales of Entrepreneurial Terror.
Will he finish them? Will they sell? For someone who claims to worry excessively, will fear get in his way? Heller laughs. “I’ve never been risk averse.” – Heather Maher