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Miklos de Vargha

December 18, 1895 -- December 25, 1886

George's father, Miklós Vargha, was born on December 18, 1895 in Rákospalota, Hungary, near Budapest.  He was the 4th of eight children, all of whom survived into adulthood in spite the fact that he lost his father when he was 12 years old and his youngest brother was barely 5 months of age.  From that point on, life became much more difficult for his family, and it was necessary for his older sisters to seek employment instead of continuing their studies, and for him and his brothers to enter military schools, made possible by a distant Vargha cousin, who became my father’s guardian.


The Vargha family originally hailed from Transylvania (Erdély), which was part of Hungary until the unjust Treaty of Trianon forced upon the Hungarians in 1921.  Our ancestor, György Vargha I was not only ennobled, but appointed a “lófő” in 1635 by Prince György Rákóczi I, a rank equivalent to “baron” in the rest of Hungary.   This was evidenced by the 7 points of the crown on the family’s coat of arms.  Later my father had to prove his right to this hereditary title, as well as to the double forename “szent-lászlói & balatonfüredi”, where the first referred to the family’s Transylvanian origin, while the second was granted by the king of Hungary in 1713.  At that time, the Vargha family was in Balatonfüred; that is where my great-grandfather and 5 more generations of Varghas are buried in the old Lutheran cemetery.


Following the equivalent of 6th grade, my father completed the lower grades of military school in Marosvásárhely, which is presently called Tirgu Mures in Transylvania, while the upper levels in Kismarton, which goes by the name Eisenstadt nowadays.  In those days he was a superb gymnast, winning not only the over-all competition of all the military schools of Austro-Hungary, but he was first on the rings, as well as on the parallel bars.  At the academy in Treiskirchen, he specialized in artillery and upon graduation, he was appointed lieutenant on August 17, 1918, just in time to be sent to the front in World War I in Italy.


When the war ended, he returned to Budapest, but in the spring he volunteered to serve in the Red Army, to push back the invading Czech and Romanian forces, and took part in several battles.  In August of that year (1919), he became a prisoner of war and was confined to the infamous fort of Arad until the middle of December.  Upon his return, he reported for service again, and rose in the ranks to lieutenant colonel by the end of World War II.  Though he was very peace loving and never liked being a soldier, he was an excellent field officer, who was well-liked by his men.  He led them, rather than driving them into battle.


Between the wars, he completed several semesters of engineering studies and attempted to leave the military, but was not allowed to do so.  He was too valuable to his superiors.  Being an excellent rider, he taught horseback riding for a period, and then there was a time when he bought a horse and rode it in races himself as the jockey.  He was also an excellent swimmer, who swam across Lake Balaton at Tihany, a feat few equaled in those days.  He also played tennis, and was a good duck hunter too.  Moreover, he was a superb diver, who could still perform fancy dives in the 1960s to the amazement of my bride.


My father was also a passionate bridge player.  After he got married, he tried to teach my mother, but she didn’t like it.  That didn’t keep his friends from inviting him, and I remember well watching him as a little boy getting dressed for his bridge parties many an evening soon after he returned from the barracks.  He was an elegant dresser with excellent taste.


When he came home after the war, he threw all of his energies into managing the relatively few acres of land left to my mother’s family after most of the land was taken away and distributed among the peasants of Nikla.  At first, he was facing incredible difficulties with no money, no machinery, farm animals or even people to do the work.  Nevertheless, he succeeded by thinking on a larger scale, and concentrating on lumber and other building materials to fix the houses and barns first.  Starting with a single steam-driven saw and a trusting and skillful carpenter, he soon built a large lumberyard, providing service for nearby villages too.  With the profit, he could employ more people, and cleverly diversified his involvements.  By the winter of 1949 he was processing tobacco leafs in large buildings created for that purpose, employing scores of women needing the jobs, with the accumulated sawdust, he had a fertilizing plant working, and on the side, he also had a kiln for firing bricks.  Of course, he was on his feet for long days directing and supervising the work, but he was in his elements in spite of the fact that he never had any experience with any such processes before.


His success was too much for the communist bosses of the countryside.  They levied taxes on him well beyond his profits, threatened him with law suits, and even evicted us from the house he painstakingly rebuilt after the war.  He had to plead to have the land taken away and he offered to the state all of his hard-earned machinery, buildings, and other possessions.  Even then, we were constantly harassed for overdue taxes and other fees, with the clear intention of making our lives unbearable.  Eventually, my father left for Budapest in search of menial labor, which he was willing to do, but as soon as it was learned that as an army officer he was part of the former ruling class, he was let go.  At other times, he got to do some surveying, since there was a shortage of people capable of doing so, but again, his past usually caught up with him much too soon.  Thus, he ended up as a shoe repairman, working with his brother, who was a PhD geologist without a job too.  All people of noble birth along with everyone else who had any position of importance prior to the communist take-over were considered enemies of the people and were excluded from nearly all jobs.  A number of them were also imprisoned, interned or deported for no reason at all.  Studies beyond the elementary school were also limited to the proletariat, and thus I wouldn’t have had a chance for getting into high school, except for the fact that I was a great-great-grandson of the famous poet Dániel Berzsenyi.


After all the humiliations and disappointments, and after returning from two years of deportation and struggling to have any kind of job for years, my father was ready to join me when the crushing of the 1956 Revolution necessitated that I leave the country.  At age 60 he was willing to make a fresh start regardless of what it took


Our first few years in America were very hard.  He worked at odd jobs from being an elevator operator to driving a school bus, and finally, being the janitor of a huge apartment complex.  When he lost that job due to no fault of his, he took a chance and moved to Ft. Worth, Texas, to teach horseback riding there.  That was in 1961, and while it took some years to establish himself, that was a wonderful turning point in his life.  Recognizing the excellent horseman, the gentleman, and the superb teacher in him, the community of knowledgeable horsemen of Ft. Worth made him feel welcome there.  They addressed him as Colonel Vargha, thereby according him the respect denied by his own country.  His students made him proud by performing excellently at horseshows, and followed his teachings throughout their riding years.  In fact, many of them still remember him fondly now, 40 years after he retired and nearly 25 years since his death.


In an attempt to recapture his magic, some years ago I contacted Paul Decleva, the man who invited my father to Ft. Worth to teach horseback riding.  By then, Paul was an old man too, but he remembered my father well, and he sent me a copy of his own memoirs with the following dedication: “Colonel Vargha was a gentleman in the true meaning of the word, who has contributed a great deal to the integrity of the spirit of the Western culture.  My relation to Colonel Vargha belongs to my best memories.  May he rest in peace.  Our Heavenly Father will reward him, I am sure, for the virtues he lived by all his life.”  Paul too was a former Hungarian army officer, who learned about my father through Kató, my father’s niece.


We also visited with Evelyn S. Vogel, whose father, Bennett L. Smith, was a close associate of my father, and whose lovely daughters took years of riding lessons from him.  Unbeknownst to me, Bennett Smith, along with Charles Osborne (another outstanding trainer of horses and riders) and my father were preparing a set of instructions for young riders for publication.  Though the book never appeared, the material was preserved on tape and was transferred to 7 CDs by Evelyn, who was kind enough to give me a copy thereof.  Though not a rider myself, I listened to it with fascination, admiring the care and expertise that went into their work.   They addressed all aspects of horsemanship in the style of Socrates via well thought out questions and precise, well developed answers.


Of all the superb students, probably Madelon Leonard Bradshaw was my father’s favorite.  She was a bit older than most of the others, and was incredibly talented and hard-working.  In spite of my father’s demanding style of teaching, she stayed with him for years.  Not long ago, I came across a letter written by my mother in 1970 relating the fact that Madelon was back, after giving birth to a daughter, and that my father was most excited about that.  A couple of years ago, Kay and I visited Madelon, and were happy to learn that she was about to become a grandmother.  Her memories of my father were also very sweet.


I left Laurie McDonald last, partially because she stayed in contact with us longest, and hence we are closest to her.  The picture below shows her as a little girl with my father, whom she still idolizes.  In fact, she even visited my father’s grave in Hungary, visited with our oldest son when he lived in Houston, and visited with us when we lived in the mountains of Colorado, as well as at our new home in Milwaukee.  Laurie also wrote a screen play, “The Piros (red) Madonna”, in 1994, featuring my father.  It is a wonderful tribute to him, which I will always treasure. 

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