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Big Enchilada

A Reflection

Through my career and hundreds of interviews, I've rarely made a personal connection with a source. But that rare occurence transpired with one of the faculty members I interviewed for this story: Gabor Vermes, a history professor at Rutgers–Newark.

Gabor had been hidden as an 11-year-old by a Lutheran pastor in the hills of Buda in Budapest during WW II. In 1959, when the Soviets invaded Hungary, he and a friend traveled to the border and escaped through the woods to Austria. Eventually, his journey would take him to Manhattan; Texas; the Bayou; Palo Alto, California; and then permanently, back to Manhattan. His story is part of Remember Us: The Hungarian Hidden Children, a new documentary that was recently screened at The Anne Frank House in lower Manhattan.

I always teased him that Hollywood would buy his dramatic story for a couple of million bucks, and that I deserved 20 percent. Following the Rutgers Magazine profile, I pitched his profile to Stanford Magazine, where Gabor had earned his master's and doctoral degrees. The idea was to focus on how his past informed his teaching, and that brought me into Manhattan for a second interview at his 14th Street apartment. There, I met his wife, Ann Fagan, a Naperville, Illinois native and also a historian who had once taught at Barnard.

Shortly after the Stanford story published, Gabor was named Professor of the Year at Rutgers–Newark, and he invited me and my wife, Sheryl, to the awards banquet. Sheryl was instantly drawn to Gabor and Anne’s warmth and good humor and invited them to a Passover seder in our home. That was the beginning.

What a fasninating match they were. Gabor's stately and serene European presence were in direct contrast to Anne's outspoken and boisterous midwestern nature. Worldly, wise and generous, we were so often been mesmerized by their tales and reminiscences. Anne had several nicknames for her husband, but our favorite was  “The Big Enchilada.”

Gabor faced his declining health in his later years with courage and resolve, and  his spirit lives on through the many lives he touched. All these years later he and Anne are two of the most supportive, special people we've met, and I have good ol’ Rutgers to thank for it.