Martin Votruba kept Slovak studies alive

Martin Votruba — Pitt’s one-man Slovak studies program since 1990 — died Nov. 23, 2018.

“He was a resource like none other for anything having to do with Slovakia,” recalled Christine Metil, Votruba’s colleague for 30 years as academic coordinator of languages and classics in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. She also helped Votruba plan and run the Slovak Heritage Festival, held here each November, which recently celebrated its 28th year.

Born in Bratislava, in the former Czechoslovakia, on March 6, 1948, Votruba joined Pitt when department faculty member Oscar Swan secured the future of Slovak studies by getting endowment funding for what became Votruba’s position, Metil said. Just before his death, Votruba established his own endowment to supplement this fund, fully endowing his post.

Votruba stayed in Metil’s home upon first arriving in Pittsburgh, she remembered, and was an invaluable aid to her husband’s research on Slovakia. Thanks to Votruba, she said, today Pitt’s Slovak studies program is unique in the U.S.

“We are the only Slovak studies program in the United States with a full-time dedicated faculty member, and that offers all levels of Slovak regardless of the number enrolled, with additional courses offered in Slovak culture, history, literature and film,” she said.

Votruba regularly used connections in his native country’s embassy in Washington, D.C., to secure study abroad opportunities for his students, Metil added.

“I know his students had deep respect for him,” she said. “He was very dedicated and a very excellent teacher. He was a very just person and very nonjudgmental. He never turned people away when they had academic questions. He was teaching up to the end.”

Raised in the Tatra Mountains, Votruba often returned there to visit his mother and enjoyed mountain climbing there and in the Rockies.

He earned a diploma in Slovak and English from Comenius University in Bratislava in 1972; a diploma in English Studies from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in 1980; a PhDr in foreign language teaching methods from Comenius in 1983; and a Ph.D. in comparative linguistics there in 1985.

He began his academic career in several Czechoslovakian institutions, including Comenius, in 1972 and worked in the broadcast division of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty from 1988-90 before joining Pitt.

His work was recognized with an excellence in teaching award from the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages; a best academic article bi-annual prize from the Slovak Studies Association — Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies; and the Milan Hodža Award of Honor from the prime minister of Slovakia and Milan Hodža Days Committee, among others. He spoke widely about the history and culture of his native country.

The University will hold a memorial service for Votruba at 2 p.m. Jan. 13 in the Frick Fine Arts Auditorium.  According to his department, gifts made to the Dr. Martin Votruba Memorial Fund at Pitt will be placed into a holding account until the department determines how best to use the gifts.