Paul Sebestyén

by Peter Sandstrom

I had never sung in Hungarian before. Actually, I had never spoken or done anything in Hungarian. Yet, here I was, one of twenty or so, who had gathered in what was then the lounge of the North Park College Campus Center. It was the sometimes haunt of a most amazing and unique man, Dr. Paul Sebestyén. He was one of my philosophy professors. We had gath-ered to surprise him with a celebration honoring his seventieth birthday. That gathering was like most others convened around him—you might begin with the illusion that you were in charge of the meeting or at least a guide for how things were to go. This illusion rarely lasted longer than the first exchange with Dr. Sebestyén. After our boisterous offering of “Surprise!” and “Happy Birthday!,” we attempted a round of greetings and speeches which were promptly interrupted by Dr. Sebestyén’s loud and passionate question, “I suppose you all know how to sing Happy Birthday in Hungarian?” We, of course, fell silent. In response, he put on a broad grin and said, “Vell, eef you do not know how, then I suppose I must teach you!” Whereupon he taught us a Hungarian birthday chant, the title of which I remember, and can only transliterate, as “Eelyennure!” He was not at all satisfied with our first renditions, but, after about fifteen minutes of rehearsal, we got the hang of it. When the party eventually ended, we dispersed around the campus singing and sounding like drunken Hungarian soldiers. That was exactly twenty-five years ago, this April 19th. I have now been asked to help celebrate Dr. Sebestyén’s birthday once more—this time his ninety-fifth!

Paul Sebestyén is a legend for many of the vast diaspora of the North Park community. I got to know him my freshman year; we were introduced by Gail Johnson, a mutual friend, while I was taking my “Introduction to Philosophy” course. I had seen him walking around the campus wearing his trademark blue windbreaker (he switched to gold in the summer) and his white Stan Smith tennis shoes. When he was told that I was a philosophy student, he immediately exclaimed in a dramatic voice of high praise, textured with a rippling Hungarian accent, “O, so you are the famous Peter Sandstrom, who knows all about philosophy!” I started laughing and said, “I don’t think I’m quite there yet.” He retorted, “Vell, you are Peter Sandstrom, are you not?” “Well, yes.” “And you are a student of philosophy, are you not?” “Uh, yes.” “Ah, ha! There you are! As I told you! You must be him! I vaz right, you know.” The marvel of this story is that this kind of event was repeated countless times for countless North Parkers. “The Famous” individuals from North Park are legion. We were granted immediate respect and the gift of high regard— even more, the blessing of inclusion in Paul Sebestyén’s circle of conversation.


Starting that winter and throughout the remainder of my college career, I would spend many hours in the dining hall or The Cranny or the student lounge in extended, wondrous dialogues with Dr. Sebestyén. Quite often, Lionel Edes, the other philosophy major in our class, was a participant in these conversations. Lionel and I often came to the dining hall straight from one of our class sessions with either Elder Lindahl or Mel Soneson, the other professors in the philosophy department. Sitting across the table from Dr. Sebestyén, Lionel and I would rehash and discuss the ideas of the day, especially those with which we were having difficulty (for me these were usually many). Sometimes, after an hour or so, we would notice Dr. Sebestyén nodding off into a deep nap. Eventually, Lionel and I would reach an impasse and, after an extended silence, would finally consume our unfinished desserts. Thereupon, Dr. Sebestyén would open his eyes, look at us, and begin to recount the entire discussion Lionel and I had had for the past hour, point by point (often, mistaken argument by mistaken argument). He would offer commentary on each step of our approach to the problem and would ask questions about our ideas. Most often, he would end with a high compliment for our efforts. He would then breathe in deeply, exhale mightily, utter his characteristic (I daresay “famous”) “Hoy, hoy!”, get up, and leave us like some latter-day Socrates taking leave of the Symposium late at night. This was in large measure how I learned to become a philosopher at North Park.

To say the least, Paul Sebestyén was a first-class scholar. Yet, his experience and expertise went well beyond the study of philosophy. He began his adult life as a young pastor at a parish outside of Budapest. He sometimes reminded us that one of his responsibilities was tending the parish vineyard immediately outside the church. As a result, his knowledge of wine and wine making was rather extensive and he would provide commentary on whatever bottle of wine one had purchased that week.

When he fled Hungary after World War II, he left his beloved sister behind, a separation which was a source of recurring grief for him; she would often enter into our conversations. The post-war era found him continuing his doctoral studies in Chicago and, in the late nineteen-fifties, he became the German and physical education instructor at North Park Academy. From there, he began to teach in the college, as well. By the time I arrived on the scene in 1971, he was in semi-retirement, though teaching courses in religion and philosophy.

During my senior year, I took two courses in Greek. When Dr. Sebestyén learned this, I became “Peter Sandstrom, the famous Greek Scholar,” (though my nightmarish experiences with Greek in seminary did not support such an accolade!). Thereafter, most of our conversations had to include some reference to Greek, whether it was the Homeric Greek in which I learned to read Plato or the koiné of our New Testament conversations. Some German was also de rigueur, owing to his having taught us some German while instructing us in our course on Heidegger and Wittgenstein. Learning both the German language and German hermeneutics while semiconscious at eight in the morning remains one of the stranger states of mind I’ve ever experienced! Only the little Swedish I knew could have been an advantage over Dr. Sebestyén in conversation, and I don’t recall it ever coming up.

That year, for a special college Advent celebration, Charlie Peterson, who was the new Director of Instructional Media and a fellow Greek student, persuaded Dr. Sebestyén to read the great Scriptural texts of the season to begin the service. This was quite a coup, owing to Dr. Sebestyén’s extreme dislike of crowded situations, a growing discomfort that would make social contacts increasingly difficult for him. It was quite a setting. Hundreds of people gathered in the dining hall. Paul stood in front by the microphone and explained that the Luke text could not be understood without first reading the introduction to the Gospel of John, which he then proceeded to read. As I recall, he read it both in English and Greek. Then he turned to Luke 2. When he got to the line “and she gave birth to a babe and wrapped him in swaddling clothes,” he stopped after the word, “babe,” looked up at everyone and, in an aside to the microphone, said, “a common human babe.” After this four-word commentary, he proceeded with the text. No further interpretation was necessary.

Charlie taped that reading, and we often listened to it the following spring. To this day, when I hear the words, “a babe,” in any context with any following pause whatsoever, I immediately begin to mumble aloud, “a common human babe!” in my best Paul Sebestyén Hungarian inflection, regardless who happens to be around. I’m sure it has been cause for some to wonder who the poor fellow is who hasn’t taken his medication lately.

A couple of years later, I found myself in Edinburgh, Scotland, attending New College, the divinity school of the University of Edinburgh and the seminary for the Church of Scotland. Prior to my departure, Dr. Sebestyén reminded me that he, himself, had attended seminary at New College as a young man. Each day I got off the bus and walked to my school, which was on the Mound, the same hill as Edinburgh Castle—literally in the shadow of the castle, itself. While on these walks, I sometimes wondered what the young Paul Sebestyén was thinking about while living and studying in this ancient gray-stoned city. What did he feel like when he saw that mighty, eleventh-century fortress or the primeval green crags that rose above it and surrounded this beautiful capital? Was he lonely for Hungary and for his sister then, too?

I was in such a mood one day when I decided to try to find some trace of him. I went into the stacks of the New College library. Descending to the very lowest level, which was like a deep cata-comb quarried out of the Mound itself, I found the place where pre-war student records were stored. After a bit of Chicago-style coat-hanger work on the lock to the caged-in area, I looked through box after box of records and finally came upon a dusty and moldy shoe-box-like container that had the label, “Hungar-ian Students” on it. I untied its cover, opened it, and found sev-eral old yellow envelopes. One read “1920s and 1930s.” On one of the typewritten pages I read: “Paul Sebestyén, Budapest.”

Upon my return to Chicago the following year, I told Dr. Sebestyén of my discovery. Then, he wistfully recalled for me his student days in Edinburgh, and we compared street scenes, weather, courses, and the experience of being far away from home. Then, of course, he asked me how well I had learned Calvin’s Institutes while at that august Presbyterian school. I seem to remember that he gave me an almost two-hour discourse on John Calvin and on Calvin’s relation to Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. I knew I was back at North Park again.

When I got married, Paul Sebestyén wrote a letter telling of “a golden tie of friendship between us.” While I have been a poor excuse for a friend in the years since, I remain undoubtedly blessed, as so many others are, by that golden tie with Paul. I have tried to honor him in stories and references to him during all my adult life. The most telling tribute I continue to offer him on his ninety-fifth birthday is one that goes beyond my occasional impersonations of him for my fifth-grade students. To this day, all my young charges know when Mr. Sandstrom has decided that they have done well enough to put their things away and move onto something new: he closes his book and sighs in a funny accent, “Vell. Hoy, hoy.”

Peter Sandstrom teaches education and is an editor of Pietisten.

See all articles by Peter Sandstrom