Living in America a dream come true for UNL student

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Czech student is surprised to learn her Czech donor’s amazing story

One morning last April, a young woman in the Czech Republic woke up and checked her e-mail.

She was waiting for an important message. Every morning, first thing, she’d check for it.

For years, Klara Hrncirikova had dreamed of studying in America. She’d dreamed of being a successful lawyer like Ally McBeal from American TV. She’d dreamed of living in big cities in different countries, especially in America.

Her village was small, maybe 400 people including her and her parents and her grandmother, who all lived together. Her family didn’t have a lot of money. They couldn’t afford to send her abroad. That’s why she was waiting so anxiously for word from America.

That April morning, it came.


Klara jumped. She screamed. She woke everybody else up.

The e-mail informed her that she’d won a scholarship to study at a university in a place called Lincoln, Nebraska, through the “Joseph and Elizabeth Barton-Dobenin Scholarship Fund.”

She arrived at UNL last fall. She found her way around campus. She joined a UNL garden club. She got to go to a Husker football game, which was fun to see everyone wearing red. She wore it, too. But she didn’t know the rules of the game so a lot of it didn’t make sense.

America has been even more amazing than she expected it to be (though she misses European bread).

After she received the scholarship, Klara started to read up on the man who had inspired it, Joe Barton-Dobenin.

Like Klara, he was of the Czech heritage. Like Klara, he had come to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln when he was young to study.

But Joe’s story was also so different from hers, like something out of an American movie.

“I think he was really brave,” Klara says.

Joe’s story began in her country, when it was still Czechoslovakia. He had grown up in luxury, in a family with royal roots and a castle not far from Prague. He had been a young baron. Besides the castle, his family had owned a hunting lodge and a large and luxurious apartment in Prague.

But the Nazis came during World War II. Then the Russians came and the Communists took over. They took over the castle and confiscated all of Joe’s property, leaving him and his family with only a two-room apartment in Prague.

In 1950, at age 28, Joe bought a Bulgarian passport on the black market and fled to America. Through the generosity of a man of Czech heritage who lived in Wahoo, Joe came to Nebraska.

The man, Emil Placek, was a family friend, a banker. Joe worked for him for a few years before enrolling at UNL. He received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees in business administration, management and economics from UNL.

Joe married Placek’s niece, Elizabeth. (Klara’s scholarship is in both of their names.) He went on to a distinguished career as a business professor at Kansas State.

An interesting twist to Joe’s story: After the Velvet Revolution ended 41 years of Communism in Czechoslovakia, Joe regained his property, including the castle. He and Elizabeth traveled there frequently together.

About a decade ago, Joe said this to someone here at the foundation for another story: “Nebraska was a wonderful place to attend college, and they provided scholarships that helped with the cost of tuition and books. … This is one of the reasons we want to remember Nebraska through our estate plans.

“We feel we are just returning to others what was given to us.”

Klara wishes she could have met Joe, who died in 2012. When she returns home, she says, she will journey to his castle and walk across the grass where he used to play as a kid.

One day, she wants to walk in his footsteps and find a way to help young people achieve their dreams.

She wrote an e-mail to Joe’s widow one day last October.

Dear Mrs. Elizabeth Barton-Dobenin,

… I am happy there are still people like you who can make dreams come true so other people can see that this world is not so bad. …

… Only because of your generosity, I can now discover the world in the United States of America that I always saw only in movies or my dreams. …

With love,

Klara Hrncirikova

Student Support and Global Engagement are two top priorities of the Campaign for Nebraska, now in its final year. If you, like Joe and Elizabeth Barton-Dobenin, would like to make a student’s dream come true, please consider giving online or contact the foundation at 800-436-3216.

When the campaign started, 2,437 international students like Klara attended the University of Nebraska. But by 2013, that number had increased to 3,638 – a record high.

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