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Retired USF professor recalls life of terror, turmoil and joy

As a young man, Victor Drapela had to contend with the Nazis. After them, Soviet-backed secret police.

BRYAN THOMAS | Times

As a young man, Victor Drapela had to contend with the Nazis. After them, Soviet-backed secret police.

NORTH TAMPA

Professor emeritus Victor Drapela displays a courtly demeanor and easy smile made all the easier, no doubt, by having survived a turbulent history and resolved inner turmoil.

"It was a very fascinating life,'' says Drapela, 89, "but I wouldn't want to live it again.''

Having retired in 1992 after 24 years as a professor of counseling psychology at the University of South Florida, his life in the sunshine of Tampa has been a peaceful counterpoint to his dark early years. Back then he was forced to work for the Nazis, and later, as a Catholic priest, fled to escape arrest by the Soviet-backed secret police.

The son of a high-ranking government worker in Czechoslovakia, the young Drapela was studying for the priesthood when Adolf Hitler's army took complete control of the country in 1939, a few months before the start of World War II.

The Germans drafted him into their labor force, though he was luckier than many others. He spoke the language fluently, so when he went to a forced labor camp in Suhl, Germany, he was assigned to office work. On the train to the camp, he says, he was put in charge of 25 fellow workers. Had any escaped, "I knew that the Gestapo would put me in a concentration camp.''

On the train, "I just said, 'Fellows, you know what happens to me if you run away. And it wouldn't do you very much good, because they will catch you.' So, I was lucky, because I brought all of them to Suhl.''

At the work camp office, Drapela received ration tickets every Monday for meals, but the voucher did not buy a week's worth of food, so Drapela stayed hungry over the weekends. Watching a German officer eat a steak one day, "I had to hold myself (back), not to jump and take it away from him.''

Life was better in the Prague company where his sister worked. The company, which made equipment for German submarines, was overseen by a naval officer, a "decent man.'' The sister appealed to the officer, who had Drapela transferred to his office in Prague until the war ended.

In the years after the war, Czechoslovakia was taken over by the Communists. Drapela, by now a priest working for the bishop of Prague, was assigned to distribute an anticommunist letter to be read from every Catholic pulpit in the region. While on the mission, he learned that the secret police were waiting to arrest him. .

He hid for three weeks, staying for a while in the vacant apartment of a friend in Prague. He walked in his stocking feet so as not to alert the communists living downstairs. A priest in a town on the Bavarian border and others helped him cross into the American occupation zone. He made the late night dash across the mile-wide no-man's-land to freedom on July 12, 1949.

In Germany, he met Bishop Aloysius Muench of Fargo, N.D., there on special assignment from the Vatican. Muench recruited him to work in his diocese, where Drapela served for nearly two decades.

But he wasn't happy as a priest and felt guilty about it, he says. He realized that he had gone into the priesthood to please his mother.

He had studied philosophy in Rome and earned a doctorate in it, with a specialization in psychology, from the University of North Dakota. He knew he wanted to teach. He wrote to Pope Paul VI and asked to be released from the priesthood. After a year, the pope granted his request in 1972.

By that time he was teaching at USF. He had joined the faculty in 1968.

A former student and longtime friend, David Caffier, calls Drapela his mentor. Caffier, 50, now a guidance counselor at Mendenhall Elementary in Tampa, met the professor and his wife, Gwen, in 1980 while Caffier worked as a waiter at the now-defunct Embassy restaurant on Busch Boulevard. He was fascinated by the stories the professor told about his life. Drapela encouraged Caffier, who had majored in criminology, to enter graduate school and become a guidance counselor.

Drapela met Gwen while at USF. She had been one of his graduate students.

"I just thought he was so bright,'' says Gwen, a retired elementary school guidance counselor.

They've been married 39 years. In recent years, Drapela has suffered from arthritis, and after a stroke affected his balance, he uses a walker. But health problems don't seem to have affected his outlook. He's thankful for all his years of happiness.

"I believe that God was very good to me.''

Philip Morgan can be reached at (813) 226-3435 or pmorgan@sptimes.com.

Retired USF professor recalls life of terror, turmoil and joy 04/28/11 [Last modified: Thursday, April 28, 2011 5:30am]

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