v31#4 The Scholarly Publishing Scene — Bill Begell’s Legacy

by | Oct 4, 2019 | 0 comments

Column Editor:  Myer Kutz  (President, Myer Kutz Associates, Inc.) 

For the first dozen years or so after I left Wiley — I had been vice-president and general manager, scientific and technical publishing — I fielded annual phone calls from analysts who follow the fortunes of publishing houses.  I was a source for a perpetual question: Would the Wiley family be amenable to selling their controlling interest in their eponymous company?  My response to the question was another question: Would the family want their name attached to a long-lived and venerable institution, or would they be satisfied with taking the money and becoming very rich?  

While other industry insiders I knew who were asked about the Wiley family’s intentions responded in favor of the take-the-money-and-run option, I stuck with the legacy option.  I believe that legacies are important to some people, and my interactions with family members had convinced me that they were in that category and were likely to remain there. 

Now some publishing house owners may look at their legacies independently of whether they keep or sell their firms.  One owner I got to know was Bill Begell, with whom I spent some pleasant times in the 1980s, mainly.  I fondly recall a Metroliner trip from New York to Washington, during which we talked about some of Bill’s favorite non-publishing topics.  When you had the good fortune to be in Bill’s company, from my admittedly limited vantage point (more on this below), you invariably laughed a lot, and it’s laughter that I remember from that train ride.  Indeed, humor, sometimes self-deprecating, often seemed to be Bill’s stock-in-trade.  He would give a closing summary at the end of Association of American Publishers’ Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division annual conferences that brought the house down.  He liked to recall the time he’d been introduced to an audience as the chairman of something or other.  A man of ample girth, Bill protested: “I’m not a chair, I’m a sofa.”  “No you’re not,” an audience member shouted, “you’re a love seat!” 

Bill owned the small, well-respected Hemisphere Press, which he’d founded in 1966.  Hemisphere specialized in thermal science and heat transfer monographs, in addition to engineering and biomedical journals.  Hemisphere’s principal areas were key for me, as well, both as a Wiley acquisitions editor and later as a division general manager, so Bill and I were gentlemanly competitors, not shying away from publishing successive works by an author we both courted.  (An Egyptian-American academic, who produced very fine books, comes to mind.) When Bill sold his firm to Taylor & Francis in 1988, the legacy subject didn’t come up, at least not so far as I can remember.  In any case, I may have been convinced at that time, as an author and editor of my own books, that author and editor names would outlast publisher imprints   

Bill’s academic and professional credentials exceeded mine.  While I held MIT and RPI engineering degrees and had worked in the aerospace industry before writing pulp novels and biographies until I was recruited in 1976 as a Wiley acquisitions editor, Bill earned a PhD, taught at Columbia, and was engineering director of the Heat Transfer Research Facility there.  His publishing career actually started in 1962, when an assignment for a U.S. Air Force intelligence project led to his co-founding Scripta Technica, which specialized in translating engineering materials from foreign languages into English.  

Later, we were both active in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.  I chaired the Publications Committee for a time in the 1980s, and Bill was the long-time chair of Mechanical Engineering Magazine’s Editorial Advisory Board, where, as I recall, he managed with his affable style to make peace between the magazine’s editorial staff and ASME members who demanded that particular viewpoints be reflected in the magazine’s pages.

Our life histories differed in a most fundamental way.  I was born in 1939 and grew up in the safety of a middle class Jewish family in Boston, far from the atrocities in Europe.  Bill was born Wilhelm Beigel in 1927 in Vilna, then in Poland (now in Lithuania), where there was also safety in his Jewish family; his father was a Polish army officer and the family owned the city’s largest hotel, where they lived.  But in 1940, the Soviets seized control of Vilna, then the Germans invaded in June 1941 and established a ghetto a few months later Two years later, Bill’s father, who, with his military background, became a member of the Jewish police, was executed by the Latvian SS.  The following year, Bill was sent to a labor camp with his mother and maternal grandmother.

As Bill would casually tell the story, decades later, he escaped from the camp simply by walking out of it one day.  You can read the complete story of the escape in Bill’s privately published memoir, Conspicuously Invisible, Wartime Memories of a Jewish Boy from Wilno, edited by technical journalist and documentary filmmaker Karen A. Frenkel, whose mother was a close friend of Bill’s wife.  Bill actually jumped down twenty feet from a window and was prevented from rescuing his mother and grandmother.  

The memoir’s title derives from Bill’s learning, after the June 1941 German invasion, that, in Karen Frenkel’s formulation, “in order to survive he must be utterly inconspicuous in some situations and outrageously visible in others.”  I found the memoir, even though it is sprinkled with the humor I remember about Bill, harrowing to read.  Bill was the only member of his large family to survive the Holocaust, so I read with a sense of foreboding.  For any reader who comes to Conspicuously Invisible without knowing much about Bill, there is other terrible news at the end, where he tells about the loss of his son, Freddie, to an illness at the age of 36, the loss of his daughter, Alissa, to sickness in her mid-40s, and the death of his wife, Tusia, six months later.  

When you close the book (if you can locate a copy — not many copies are available, as far as I can tell), you will understand that it was not written by a forgiving man.  At the end, Bill makes clear he “hate[d] the Germans” because the Nazis had murdered the other 14 members of his family and he had been “orphaned.”  Years after the war, when he “first came to Frankfurt and Berlin they were in shambles and Germans lingered around me as I sat in cafes smoking cigarettes.  They were waiting for the butts, but I would deliberately smash them under my heel. That was my revenge.” Later, however, Bill heard a speech by the German Ambassador to Israel that recounted suffering of German families at the hands of the Nazis.  It “changed my mind, that some Germans were not included in my hatred.”

The memoir, which was written over a period of almost 30 years and which Bill kept to himself until Karen Frenkel began to edit it, was completed shortly before his death in 2009, after a protracted illness at the age of 82.  While he left no family, there is a living legacy. There is Begell House, the publishing firm he started after selling Hemisphere to Taylor & Francis.  And there is the William Begell Medal for Excellence in Thermal Science and Engineering.  It is awarded every four years to an individual, or, in 1918, to a team of two researchers, from among those selected to deliver Keynote Lectures at the International Heat Transfer Conference.

“I believe the only reason I was able to withstand both tragedies and continue my life,” Bill says in Conspicuously Invisible, “was the fact that during the ghetto and camp times I developed a drive to survive regardless of the occurrences around me.  It is obviously a very selfish attitude; nevertheless, it allowed me to continue my life, sad as it may be, without being surrounded by my closest family.”  

And now, with his legacy, his life will continue without him.  

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