(Editors note by Jim Heavner)
In our extraordinary town of achievers, leaders and teachers, we have the benefit, too, of the enjoyment of those who teach while they entertain as great story tellers. Dr. Vasa Mihailovich was such a man before he left us two Saturdays ago at 89.
His son, 60 Minutes Producer Draggan Mihailovich, who grew up here and was once part of our WCHL-Tar Heel Sports Network team has crafted a career by finding and producing his own stories from around the world. Draggan told us in his eulogy for his father a remarkable and riveting story of his father. It’s a story of a son in WWII refugee Yugoslavian family who, by precipitous chance and blessed choice, lived to come here. It is also story of war, America and Chapel Hill.
When the time came for me to select a best man for my wedding there was only one choice: my dad. Before I met my wife, he had been the person I would always phone first if I had news to report, good or bad. He was the guy I most loved to impersonate, the person who made me laugh the hardest, even if it was sometimes unintentional, and the man I came to admire for the fullness of his life and for what he had endured.
My dad was always convinced this day was just around the corner. And not without reason. He cheated death time and again. Only a few weeks after he turned 18, he and his mom, dad, brother and sister were sitting around their kitchen table eating lunch in what is now Serbia but what was then the southern part of Yugoslavia. It was early September 1944. World War II was reaching its climax on Europe’s battlefields and Yugoslavia was one of the bloodiest theaters. Not only were Yugoslavs fighting the Germans but they were fighting each other, Communist against Royalist, Croat against Serb, cousin against cousin.
That early afternoon the family heard bombs starting to drop in their town of Leskovac. The Allies were supposedly trying to dislodge the remaining Nazis. Before the family had a chance to scurry to safety, they heard a whistle and then a thud: a bomb had dropped in their backyard, no more than 20 feet from where they sat at the table, frozen. For an hour, no one moved a centimeter. The bomb never went off, and the family lived to see another day.
My dad was not born to be a soldier. He was much more fascinated by the written word. A short story of his had been published in the middle of the war when he was only 16. But later that September of ‘44 my dad and his older brother Mile made a fateful decision: certain that Yugoslavia was about to fall into the hands of the Communists, a prospect they were sure would lead to their execution since they were not devoted to Joseph Stalin, they took up arms and left home. Eventually they had to flee to the most western corner of Yugoslavia that bordered Italy and Austria. My dad and his brother were split into different units. His brother Mile and his comrades, it is believed, entered Austria through one mountain pass, only to be turned back over to the Yugoslav Communists by a feckless British Lieutenant General. Mile was never heard from again. My dad’s unit escaped through an adjacent mountain pass that spilled into Italy and was promptly handed over to the Americans, who sent him to a Displaced Persons camp deeper into Allied controlled Italy.
For five years, my dad lived in refugee camps, first in Italy and then in Germany. He had opportunities to go to Great Britain or Australia but he held out for the United States. And in January 1951, his dream was realized. He was put on a boat bound for New York with little English and less money. Arriving in New York Harbor, he was given an envelope with 50 dollars and a bus ticket to Kansas City. And thus began my dad’s classically American story.
In Kansas City, his very first purchase was a copy of The Saturday Review of Literature. He wasn’t familiar with the magazine but the word literature had caught his eye. Nonetheless, he had to eat so he worked in the Simmons mattress factory for two years. Fearing that he would get stuck toiling in a dead end job, he moved to Detroit, where he put himself through Wayne State University by working on the assembly line at Chrysler.
It was while he was in Detroit that he received a letter informing him that the sister of his former roommate in Kansas City had defected from Yugoslavia and was quite the beauty. My dad went to have a look for himself and was duly impressed. Branka Jancetovic had lived up to expectations and beyond. After only six weeks of courtship through the mail, he proposed and she accepted. They were married in Kansas City in 1957.
The newlyweds moved to Berkeley where my dad earned his Master’s and Ph.D. at the University of California. Even though he was deaf in one ear, he was fluent in four languages, among them Russian, which turned out to be fortuitous. The Soviets had recently launched Sputnik, striking fear across America. Russian instructors were in great demand. He was invited by the University of North Carolina to interview for a position in Chapel Hill. Dad immediately fell in love with the campus and the town. But while he was here for his interview, he received a call from Duke University. Since he was already in the area, couldn’t he just make the eight-mile trip to interview at Duke, as well? My dad, oblivious to the rivalry, thought this was patently unfair since UNC was footing the bill for his trip so he said no to Duke. It would not be the last time that Duke drew his ire.
My mom and dad arrived in Chapel Hill in August of 1961 and two months later I arrived. That October was a good month in Chapel Hill. President Kennedy spoke at Kenan Stadium and a fellow named Dean Smith worked his first practice as head basketball coach. A year later my dad picked up The Durham Morning Herald and a small item caught his eye. Marshall Tito, the Communist leader of Yugoslavia who had publicly broken with Stalin, had granted amnesty to all those who had left the country after the war. This meant my parents were free to go back and visit. Dad took up Tito’s offer in the summer of ‘62. Even though all of his Serbian friends in this country were convinced he would be thrown in jail once he set foot in Yugoslavia and that I would be taken away and adopted by party officials, we flew to Paris and then boarded a train for Belgrade, the capital. My parents were taking a chance but they were anxious to see their parents. In my dad’s case, it had been 18 years since he had left home. The train to Belgrade took us through the same mountain pass in Austria that my uncle had tried to traverse only to be sent back to waiting executioners in Yugoslavia. We entered a tunnel and when the train emerged it stopped. There were armed soldiers on both sides of the train. We were in Yugoslavia. My parents by that point were American citizens but my dad in particular was nervous. A soldier entered our car, asked for our passports and scanned the pictures and the names. Looking at my dad sweating, he immediately understood the circumstances and motioned to my dad to relax. “Nema problema,” he said. No problem, don’t worry.
When the train pulled into the central station in Belgrade, my dad’s parents were waiting for us on the platform. They had come up from Leskovac. The first words out of his mom’s mouth were, “Have you heard from your brother?” She had held out hope that somehow Mile had made it to America. The trip was emotional but a huge success and nothing happened to my parents, much to the surprise of their fellow emigres in the States.
Back in Chapel Hill, my parents thrived. Dad taught Serbo-Croatian, Russian and Russian literature at UNC. Chapel Hill’s friendliness, relaxed pace and intellectual environment suited him. He joined the fight for civil rights by picketing the segregated Varsity Theatre on Franklin Street. He continued to write and was proud to have his short stories published in, of all places, The Saturday Review of Literature.
And in 1965 he began a love affair that would last until the day he died. He purchased his first season ticket to Carolina basketball games which in those days were played in creaky Woolen Gym. My dad had never shot a ball, swung a bat or thrown a football, but he was passionate about American sports. They helped him assimilate. And he became infatuated with Dean Smith’s Tar Heels. From 1968 on, my dad would get his hands on a UNC basketball yearbook, or a blue book as he called it. He would write down every score, every season. Victories were written in a light blue felt pen, defeats in red.
By 1969, at age seven, I had gotten the bug and was beginning to listen to UNC games on the radio with my dad. I started imitating Charlie Scott’s jump shot on our small brick patio. Dad had an eight-foot goal with a real wooden backboard built at the end of our driveway. I wanted to see my heroes in action, but I didn’t have a ticket. It was suggested to my Dad by a family doctor that he could probably sneak me in for the final home game of the season against The Citadel so he decided to risk it. I remember approaching the usher at Carmichael Auditorium and my dad pleading with him to let me in without a ticket. “It’s the last game of the season. Come on, just this once.” The usher kept shaking his head. Dad kept making his case. But to no avail. My shoulders slumped. Finally, the usher uttered these words, “I said no.” And with that, my dad said thank you and we entered Carmichael. I was scared to death that the police were going to arrest him at any moment but he held my hand with great assurance and said not to worry, all was going to be okay. I didn’t understand the usher’s inflection, that he had basically said if anyone asks, “I said no.” No one asked. I sat in my dad’s lap in the second to last row at Carmichael and watched as Rusty Clark, Dick Grubar and Bill Bunting won their last home game as Tar Heels by 47 points. That was the first sporting event I ever attended and that’s how I got hooked for life.
We didn’t know it that night, but Carmichael Auditorium and Carolina basketball would soon become our escape. Later that year, my mom, who had been the outgoing one, fell into a dark place from which she never really recovered. We never knew why she became a manic depressive, or why she would pace up and down the kitchen or why she would suddenly run up the street in the middle of the night in her gown. She would occasionally hear voices and slam the kitchen cupboards to try and silence them. For over a year she refused to take any medication and by law no one could force her to. I could see the toll this was taking on my dad. After a particularly bad night, I found him in his study, at his favorite desk, sitting in the dark, at a loss as to what to do.
But through it all, he remained loyal. Many lesser men would have packed their bags and skipped town. Not my dad. He still loved my mom and was worried about what might happen to his sons. Eventually, he was able to convince my mom to take her meds, and even though there was never a cure, her condition stabilized enough that she could function – just. She still didn’t want to travel much, and my dad wouldn’t leave her side. He took over the cooking and most chores and never complained. He held our family together.
My dad was a lion throughout my mom’s ordeal but I’m not sure my brother Zoki and I truly appreciated how he kept us all afloat. We were often too ticked off and even embarrassed at the time by his frugality. By nature, my dad wasn’t a man of extravagance, which is a nice way of saying he could be cheap and had bad taste in clothes. He wore clip on ties, and preferred Haggar slacks so he wouldn’t need to buy a belt. For 40 years, he wore the same polyester shirts with color patterns that would make the NBC peacock blush. When he had to pick us up at Chapel Hill High School, he wouldn’t pull up his car to the front door where we would be waiting. No, instead he parked in the middle of the street across the front expanse of lawn because he wanted to save the three cents in gas money.
Till his last year on this planet, he would never throw out any food – expiration dates were routinely ignored – or leave any food on the table. At Mexican restaurants when it was time to settle up, he would ask for a doggie bag and pile all the remaining salsa and chips and every possible condiment on to his Styrofoam tray to take home. I’d look at him in amazement and just shake my head. He’d smile and say, ‘I’m a WWII kid.’ Nothing went to waste.
But for the big items, for what really mattered, my dad delivered. He paid for his boys’ college education. I left UNC without a penny of debt. During my senior year, while I was working for the Tar Heel Sports Network, a friend suggested I send my resume to Jim Lampley, a WCHL alum, who was then a prominent announcer for ABC Sports. The network was going to host the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. I could speak the language. My dad had seen to that. After I sent my resume to Lampley, he called me back and said he was highly optimistic that there was room for me in Sarajevo. Then nothing. Nine months of silence ensued. I had given up.
By that time, I was writing for The Chapel Hill Newspaper, an afternoon paper. To save money, I was living at home. I came home one November afternoon after a morning shift and told my dad I was going to take a nap and not to wake me. Sure enough, just as I was about to fall asleep the phone rang. I could hear my dad downstairs: ‘He’s taking a nap right now…’ Good man, I thought. Suddenly I heard him say, ‘Oh, hold on, he’s been waiting for this call for a long time.” ‘What the? Just take a message.’ All of a sudden I heard him running up the stairs. This never happened. ‘Draggan, Draggan, it’s ABC Sports!’ he announced with great excitement. I jumped out of bed, my heart pounding and went to the phone in his bedroom. I figured they were calling just to say thanks, but no thanks. I got on the phone and Tim Rockwood of ABC Sports was telling me he had good news and bad news. The good news was ABC wanted me to come work as an Olympic researcher in Sarajevo. The bad news was I’d have to pay the roundtrip airfare of 704 dollars out of my own pocket. I said yes to everything and raced downstairs to share the great news with my mom and dad. They were waiting in the living room. My dad was beaming. Before I could say anything, he blurted out, ‘I know. I was listening on the other end. Don’t worry about the plane ticket. I’m paying.’ He did and my network television career was launched.
The simple things made my dad happy. The works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn…Anton Chekhov…Andy Griffith. I’m not sure what it was about Andy, as he would call him. Maybe it was the fact that the show was based on a fictional North Carolina small town, maybe it was Sheriff Taylor’s common sense or Barney Fife’s bumbling. But he was so in love with the show he manually recorded every single episode onto VHS cassettes, all except one. He didn’t know how to time recordings so he failed to tape the only one he was missing because he had fallen asleep in his lounge chair.
Zoki and I found out the hard way just how devoted he was to The Andy Griffith show in the summer of 1986. We were in Moscow that July working for Turner Broadcasting’s coverage of the inaugural Goodwill Games. This was still in the days of the backwards Soviet Union so it was nearly impossible to get a telephone line back to the United States. In the broadcast center, we’d all have to sign up for a chance to call home. I put down our names and after about five days, our names were called a little after 2 in the morning Moscow time. That was a little after 6 in the evening in Chapel Hill. ‘Hold for call to US and A,’ I heard the Russian operator say. Sure enough, ring, ring. Ring, ring. ‘Halo.’ ‘Hey dad, it’s me, I’ve got Zoki right here, good to hear your voice.’ ‘Draggan, call me back in five minutes, Barney’s about to catch shoplifter.’ Click. That was it. Our names went to the back of the line and we weren’t able to get through again until the following week.
When my mom died nine years ago, dad decided on the spot that he wanted to move to Stamford, Connecticut to be near us. Hope and I decided to take him in, at least for the first few years. He adored watching Ben play baseball and reading stories to Alex and Jillian and sharing his cheese grits in the morning with whichever grandchild was in his lap. More than once I caught him on the floor of the pantry, helping Alex and Jillian raid the cereal boxes. He was so proud of his grandkids, overly proud actually. Without fail, if he heard one of them use a big word, he’d say, ‘don’t bother saving money, that kid is going to get a scholarship to Yale.’ That’s great dad, I’d tell him, but let’s reassess the situation when they turn four.
Even in his final months, he was hosting slumber parties at his apartment for Alex and Jillian. The last week of his life he was so excited because a short story of his was published by the leading literary newspaper in Serbia. Another short story was in the works. He was still chipper and in relatively decent health at age 89. His mind was incredibly sharp. And then in an instant last Saturday he was gone.
He’s now back in his beloved Chapel Hill. By my mom’s side, as he always wanted to be. I’ll miss his sense of humor, his friendship, his loyalty. I’ll miss calling him after every Carolina basketball game. But I’m grateful for having him for as long as we did and for everything he did for us under trying circumstances. As a friend pointed out to me earlier in the week, they just don’t make them like they used to.
Goodbye dad. Goodbye my best man.