Karl M. von der Heyden ’62 led a storied career in business, holding C-level executive positions at H.J. Heinz Company, PepsiCo, and RJR Nabisco. But his youth is the subject of his new book, Surviving Berlin: An Oral History (MCP Books). Born in Berlin in 1936, he grew up during the heart of World War II and its aftermath, came to America as an immigrant in the late ’50s, and noted the cultural changes of the U.S., particularly in the South, in the following decade with an unusual perspective, one he maintains today. Now retired, he recently spoke with the magazine; this is a condensed version of the conversation.
Your interest in journalism is one of the reasons this book exists, and in the book you describe it as a long-term interest. Can you point to a particular story that, or moment when you realized you had this interest?
Von der Heyden: I don’t know how it came about. I remember a newspaper coming to our house every morning, and it had this fresh smell, and the way the columns looked and the headlines were positioned—all of that appealed to me. And then they had whole pages of nothing but numbers—those were the stock market results of the previous day. That fascinated me to no end, even though I had no idea what it meant.
When I went to the secondary school, which we entered at age ten, they had a school newspaper which I mentioned in the book, and I found that interesting because the paper was written and edited by students. So I thought, I can do that, and that’s when I started my own little newspaper. I was about eleven years old at the time.
Coming to America, what were the provisions of your student visa?
Von der Heyden: Getting a student visa through the consulate in Berlin—in those days, the capital of West Germany was in Bonn, not in Berlin, so we only had a consulate— was a piece of cake. There was a stipulation that you had to come back when you were no longer a student and that you couldn’t work without permission. So, when I decided to stay for a second year [his sophomore year], I had to get permission from Washington to work during the summer, which I did.
And when I came back the second time [Ed. Note: von der Heyden went to Berlin after his sophomore year but returned for his senior year studies at Duke], I actually applied for a student visa again, and the consular officer said to me, “You want a student visa, or an immigration visa?” He said, “It’s all the same to me.” That was really unusual, because in those days there was a quota by country. Germany had been a big provider of immigrants in the nineteenth century, and the U.S. has a large German-American population, but the German quota was not fully used at that time. Now, we’re talking ’61. So, I thought about it, and I said, “Well, it can’t hurt to have an immigration visa, right?” First of all, if I need to work, I don’t have to apply for permission, and also if I decide to stay, I can stay. And so I said to him, “If it’s all the same to you, I’ll take the immigration visa.”
What sort of stood out to you about Duke at that time? And also, I don’t know if you got to experience Durham at all in that time, but I’d be curious to learn more about your impressions of the city in that era.
Von der Heyden: It’s quite different now. It was a tobacco town at the time. When I took the bus to East Campus and then walked from there into town to get something like underwear or other clothes. The town smelled of tobacco, the whole town. The people were very curious because most of them had never seen foreigners. There were no Mexican laborers or anything like that. It was whites and blacks, and in some parts of North Carolina, Native Americans. That’s what they knew.
There’s one story in the book, when we tried to go to church at Christmas Eve, but other than that, I really had very little reason to go [into Durham]. It was the same with the other students. There may have been one or two restaurants that people went to. The fraternities would have off-campus places where they would go for their parties because there was no drinking at Duke. Since I didn’t have a car and I didn’t drive, when I was invited to these places I never quite knew where they were, but they were mostly out of town.
In the book, you describe finding old German newspapers in Perkins Library that describe the war and the atmosphere in Germany at that time. In light of recent events in Charlottesville and in other cities, do you see any similarities between now and your youth?
Von der Heyden: I’m not all that surprised about what happened in Charlottesville, although Charlottesville is a lovely town and quite tolerant, and these racists came, from what I understand, from all over the country. So you can’t necessarily blame it on the South. But it’s not a surprise to me that these strains of racial prejudice, anti-African American, anti-immigration, and anti-Semitism are below the surface—and maybe not too far below the surface in America. I stated in the book that I came across sympathy for Hitler occasionally during my student days in the American South. In the final part of the book, I mention that these same sentiments are still below the surface in Germany, as well. The book is really about some parallels between the discrimination of the Jews in Germany and the discrimination of the blacks in the South. That is one of the features of the book that made my upbringing more unique, because a lot of people went through the Nazism time, and other people went through the segregated South time, but I had both experiences.
I realize that it makes the book more timely right now. It just shows that basic human attitudes don’t change that quickly.
You said these attitudes persist—is it just that humans don’t change that quickly? I would imagine that people would see the sort of thing that you saw in Perkins in those excerpts and be disgusted by it, but do you think it’s just not that simple?
Von der Heyden: I would say at this point the overwhelming majority of Germans are disgusted by what happened during the Hitler period, and the overwhelming majority of Americans are disgusted with what happened in Charlottesville. So we are talking about small minorities. And that’s progress, because at the time when Hitler was in power, he got huge support from the local population, and when America had segregation in the South, that got huge support.
Partially as a result of the civil rights legislation, the South, which used to be almost entirely Democratic when I was there, turned Republican. And the Southern bloc still carries a lot of political weight.
Very few people are like the people who marched in Charlottesville. But there is, I think, an underlying remnant of old prejudices still visible. When we had the launch party of the book, somebody asked me about this, if things have changed on campus, and I said, “At Duke, yes.” Duke’s campus has probably more diversity than almost any of the top universities in the country, and it may have one of the highest African American student populations, percentage-wise. I think it is around 14 percent. That’s good, because Duke has to redeem itself in some ways from its past, its own past. When I was on the Board of Trustees, we all supported the push for more diversity.
The book stops prior to a lot of your business dealings, but there’s been a trend recently for CEOs to sort of speak out against what’s happening, to leave these presidential boards. From your experience in business, did this sort of thing happen in prior decades? Or is this more of a new thing?
Von der Heyden: It’s fairly new. Big corporations need to stay apolitical. They need to be able to work with any government in Washington, work well, and try to be neutral, because, for example, if you’re a consumer-products company like Pepsi and you start ranting and raving about one party or the other, you risk losing half your customers. They start boycotting you. So you have to be careful about offending people, even minorities, but you can work behind the scenes. And we did, but the openness that we have today is new.
I feel like a lot of what’s happening today, there’s a groundswell from the public to have the companies denounce the president or stop working with him. Do you recall in your time at any of the companies, that sort of public pressure and nothing happening?
Von der Heyden: The Iraq War created very deep fissures in American society, and there were always pressures from certain citizens and citizen groups to come out and denounce President Bush and other politicians. But companies would say that this is not their mission; they are not publicly getting into politics. And I think that will continue. Business executives are quite careful about being openly political.
The last board I was on was a defense contractor, Huntington Ingalls. They are the biggest builder of Navy ships. They build nuclear aircraft carriers and submarines. I thought I’d go down there and join a totally Republican board, because the Republican party claims to be more supportive of the military. But that wasn’t true. The strategy all along has been to work well with whoever is secretary of the Navy, who is generally an appointee of the president.
Last question: In a different online interview, you mentioned that you’re optimistic by nature. So much of your childhood and upbringing was affected by war and the aftereffects of war. Have you thought about how your optimistic nature developed, either in spite of these circumstances, or maybe even due to making it through these circumstances?
Von der Heyden: I’m optimistic partly because of my experiences in America. I am constantly amazed how fair people are to me. I am an immigrant; I was a foreigner; I had an accent; but none of that ever developed into any kind of discrimination. Americans know that we are a country of immigrants, and we are at our best when we cherish that tradition. I’ve been here for sixty years now, and I am still an optimist about our future.
A Surgical Path
In his new book, Healing Children: Stories from the Frontiers of Pediatric Medicine (Penguin Random House), Kurt Newman M.D. ’78, president and CEO of Children’s National Health System, explores the resilience of the children he has treated over three decades as a pediatric surgeon. Here he explains how he first was drawn to this role.
My journey began during my third year of medical school with an unlikely discovery while working in the lab of Duke’s Robert Lefkowitz, a future Nobel Prize winner. The assignment was inspiring, and the scientific breakthroughs were incredible, but my world changed when I felt a lump in my neck while leaning over a microscope. I needed surgery to remove the mass—it was thyroid cancer.
Being a cancer patient at my own medical school was emotional and intense. Wearing a hospital gown instead of a white coat or scrubs was totally disorienting. However, being fixed by someone else’s hands opened my eyes to the magic and possibility of surgery. In an incredible act of grace, at the post-op visit, my surgeon unbuttoned his shirt, showed me a scar on his neck, and said, “I had thyroid cancer as a resident, and I’ve had a happy life—you can, too.” And with that, I was hooked.
Several years later, as a surgery resident at one of Harvard’s teaching hospitals, I had a rotation at Boston Children’s Hospital. This was a new world for me—a hospital devoted solely to children. Contrary to my expectations, it was filled with music, art, light, and fun. But it was the children that sealed the deal.
During my first month, I was called to the Emergency Department to work up a twelve-year-old girl for appendicitis. At the end of my exam, I could tell she was terrified. Channeling my past, I pulled down my collar, showed her my scar, and joked, “See, it’s not so bad, and your scar won’t even show.” She laughed, and I made sure to do my best suturing job ever in the OR that day.
Book Club With Lane Windham ’90
The associate director at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University spent many post-Duke years involved in the union movement. Her new book, Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide (UNC Press), explores the thriving labor movement four decades ago and how it has declined, as well as what these recent difficulties mean for the future of labor.
Amy Goldstein’s Janesville really nails the current crisis facing America’s working class. She digs into people’s lives after a General Motors plant shuts down, showing how hope and determination will get you only so far when there are no decent jobs. The intimate portraits of real-life characters set this book apart, such as the middle-schoolers who secretly turn to the school’s clothes bank or the “GM gypsies” who carpool to other states each week just to work.
Heather Thompson’s Blood in the Water won the Pulitzer Prize for good reason. Reading it, you pretty much feel like you’re there, inside the Attica prison uprising of 1971. I have been shocked by how little I really knew about what the state covered up at Attica. It’s an emotionally wrenching story and brings in a missing piece to today’s conversation on race, policing, and civil rights.
Kathleen Barry’s Femininity in Flight is great airplane reading. It’s about flight attendants’ labor activism in the 1960s and 1970s. Airlines used to fire women when they turned thirty-five! To protest that injustice, stewardesses donned their high heels and perfectly coiffed hairdos at a Capitol Hill press conference and dared lawmakers to guess who among them was above the age of thirty-five.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Lawrence Goodwyn’s classic, The Populist Moment. Like generations of Duke students, I learned in Goodwyn’s undergraduate course “Social Movements in the American South” that movements thrive within a culture of change. That idea is pretty much embedded in my DNA at this point and allowed me to see how the rights consciousness of the civil rights and women’s movements fed workers’ union desires in the 1970s.
The new book from Karlyn Forner A.M. ’11, Ph.D. ’14, Why the Vote Wasn’t Enough for Selma (Duke University Press), aims to explore just that: Why, in the symbolic heart of the civil rights and voting rights movement, did African Americans fail to achieve economic justice? Forner, the project manager of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) Digital Gateway at Duke University Libraries, examines the history of the city in greater depth and plumbs the individual stories of its citizens.
Catherine Taylor Ph.D. ’98, associate professor of writing at Ithaca College, has a history of genre-bending writing. Her latest nonfiction book, You, Me, and the Violence (Mad Creek Books), features a turbulent narrative that examines puppetry and military drones to explore larger questions of autonomy.
Two Duke alumnae have new books detailing tactics for thriving in life. In Regroup: The How-To of Never Giving Up (Inkspiration Press), serial entrepreneur Jaunique Sealey ’00 weaves personal accounts with a well-rounded perspective to provide lessons for readers. In a more pocket-sized effort called The Launch Book (LID Publishing), Sanyin Siang ’96, M.B.A. ’02, the cofounder of the Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics at Fuqua and faculty member at the Duke Story Lab, builds a start-up bible by pairing origin stories from many recognizable industry names with core principles of behavioral economics.