Robin Steussy (Oct. 8, 1921 – Feb. 18, 2009)



(This was originally published in February, soon after Robin died. It was extensively updated July 6, 2009, following a memorial ceremony in Wisconsin. Click below for the full text and photos.)

Robin E. Steussy passed away on Wednesday. He was my uncle; my father’s older brother. Despite similarities in our stories (extensive foreign travel, languages, married to Hungarian spouses), I know very little about him. I do know that he served in World War II and, after the war, in the foreign service in Budapest and Iran. He was in declining health as long ago as 2001 when he was unable to make it to my wedding.

The photos above from the early 1940’s are the only ones I have. Both are outtakes from family photos (originals are here and here). The woman with him is his mother, Helen Freitag Steussy.

The text of the obituary in the local Oregon paper goes:

Robin E. Steussy of Eugene died Feb. 18 of age-related causes. He was 87. No service is planned.

He was born Oct. 8, 1921, in Milwaukee, Wis., to Edwin and Helena Freitag Steussy. He married Ethel Hajdu in Switzerland on Nov. 26, 1947.

He earned a business degree from the University of Wisconsin before attending the Foreign Service Institute. He also studied Russian language literature at Harvard, which led to a teaching career at the University of Oregon and Portland State University. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II.

Survivors include his wife; two daughters, Edwina Steussy of Madison, Wis., and Suzanne Steussy of Eugene; a son, Frederic of Portland; a brother, Calvin of Chicago; and a sister, Mary Ellen Shannahan of Blanchardville, Wis.

Arrangements by Poole-Larsen Funeral Home in Eugene.

The only other links to him on the internet are an article from Time Magazine of the date he was ejected from Hungary and a letter to the editor in 1978. I made a serendipitous trip to his boyhood home a couple of years ago.

On July 4, 2009 there was a memorial for Robin at the Freitag Family Farm, where some forty family members were gathered. A tree was planted in his memory, in front of the house. Peter Sammond read a eulogy prepared by his wife Ethel, sister Mary, daughter Edwina and several others.

Mary Shanahan chooses a site for Robin Steussy's memorial tree at the Freitag Family Farm.

Mary Shanahan chooses a site for Robin Steussy's memorial tree at the Freitag Family Farm.

“We are here today in remembrance of Robin Steussy, first born of his generation, son of Helen Freitag and Edwin Steussy. He was the grandson of Nic and Elsbeth Freitag, who built this house. He was the great-grandson of Dietrich and Verena Freitag, who bought this land. We are brothers, sisters, cousins, daughters, nieces, nephews and 4 generations.

“Robin’s outstanding quality was intellect. An aunt described a super-attentive infant who spoke very early. His mother Helen taught him to read and write before school. This was fortuitous; she immediately noticed when he began misspelling words. The school teacher wanted Robin to change his writing hand from left to right. This was common at the time, but somehow Helen prevailed, and they allowed her son to remain a “leftie.” His spelling problem vanished.

“Spelling vis-à-vis handedness was not the only bump in early life. Robin got tuberculosis in fourth grade and missed the whole year. He overcame this school absence and academically never looked back.

Robin's tree is a flowering crabapple tree.

Robin's tree is a flowering crabapple tree.

“He graduated from West High School in Madison, and went without delay into the Business School at the University. He majored in accounting, edited the sports section of the student “Daily Cardinal” and lived at home, walking to classes along the old railroad tracks. Perhaps this habit sparked his lifelong passion for wilderness walking. It was a joy he shared with anyone willing and probably gives the younger people here their most vivid memories.

Daniel Steussy helps Chris and Ed dig the hole for the tree.

Daniel Steussy helps Chris and Ed dig the hole for the tree.

“Robin finished college at that particular time when world events crashed into the lives of his generation. He was inducted into the US Army on May 4, 1943. After basic training, he studied German with the Army Specialized Unit at Stanford. He then served as an interpreter in the European Theatre, earning 4 Bronze Battle Stars, 3 overseas service bars and a good conduct medal. In 1949 he was involved in an international incident which was covered by newspapers across the country. The New York Times ran a story on the second page; the Los Angeles Times put it on the first page above the fold. The Los Angeles paper called him a “spy” to which he always said “nonsense.” But it was the official line of the Hungarian government. They accused him of “aiding Hungarian nationals to leave the country using cars and bribes.” They named one Istvan Baran-Kovics, who happened to be the “leader of the Democratic Peoples’ (Catholic) Party.” The Iron Curtain was descending into Eastern Europe and the Catholic party staunchly opposed “The Reds.”

Thomas McFee also helps with planting.

Thomas McPhee also helps with planting.

“The Communists were already powerful enough to go after those who assisted him. Robin was given 24 hours to leave. News accounts of November 11, 1949 feature exciting real-time descriptions of evading Hungarian agents in the streets of Budapest. Had he been cornered in either the Russian or Hungarian sectors, there would have been no trip back. He did not tell people much about these activities. Mary remembers a car chase somewhere between Vienna and Budapest. The pursuers shot at the car, but they were not able to catch up. They were in a “lousy Russian car,” Robin “had a Hudson.” It was general knowledge that he worked with a partner, who was kicked out of Hungary two weeks earlier. His daughter, Edwina always understood that they helped between 20 and 25 people escape to the West.

“One of them was the first Hungarian woman to get a PhD in Physics. Her husband was also a physicist. On one anniversary of their escape, Robin invited them to the farm. Right at the dining room table, Edwina asked about being in the trunk. Mrs. Barnolty told her they were so grateful for the chance to get out that they didn’t even think about the fear or discomfort. They were wrapped in blankets, in the dark of night, unable to talk to each other or move at all. We don’t know if theirs was the car that was fired upon.


Larry Shanahan assists.

“After the war, Robin found himself “stateside”, uncertain about his future. He enrolled in Harvard Law School, but at the same time, took the notoriously difficult Foreign Service Exams. He must have excelled. He got the call and the interview that many wait for in vain.  Whatever the charms of Harvard Law, the Foreign Service had more and he threw 2 completed semesters overboard and headed for Washington DC. He studied Farsi in an “accelerated” program at Princeton.

“In 1951, he assumed a position as Vice Consul in Meshed, current day Iran. His wife and son Fritz were about to join him, when fate intervened. In a devastating blow, Robin collapsed on a tennis court in the Middle East. He ended up at Bethesda Naval Hospital. Polio had paralyzed him and rehabilitation was arduous. He had to learn to walk again. He started in the naval pool, then crawled on his knees and slowly stood again. A great desire to return to the Foreign Service motivated him, but it was not to be. Though he walked without aid, the State Department ruled his residual limp a “disability.” They would not take him back. The Foreign Service had been his dream.

Camilla and Daniel Steussy help with the final planting of the tree.

Camilla and Daniel Steussy help with the final planting of the tree.

“He plugged back into Harvard, choosing neither accounting not law. His new field was Russian. He received his doctorate in 1959; Carleton College and the University of Oregon offered him jobs. He chose Oregon for its natural beauty and mild climate. He hated snow and his children never saw any. He and his wife Ethel never left Oregon. They raised three children there: Fritz, Edwina and Sue. Robin taught Russian language and literature until 1976. He retired to pursue his writing and research. He traveled to Europe to pick the brain of Albert Speer, the only major Nazi who wasn’t hung. He took a total of 81 hikes with the Obsidians after retirement. When hiking became untenable, he and Ethel began swimming. He was remarkably active, given the relentless advance of post-polio. He made his last trip here (to the Farm) at the age of 79. In 2001, as he was about to visit here, he had a disabling stroke. Due to the unflagging energy and heroic efforts of his wife Ethel, he remained at home until the end of his life. He was grateful for this, and was able to make that clear to her.

“Robin’s devotion to his mother Helen, and his love for this common home, created wonderful memories. He returned here yearly with Fritz, Wina and Sue. Uncle Cal and Aunt Gene would drive in from Indiana with Cally, Nic and Helen. Excitement ensued. Tents appeared on the lawn, cars shuttled back and forth. There were barns and treehouses to explore. Big events took place; the Shanahan wedding, the Centennial celebration, the exciting arrival of a new young cousin every year or two. Something in Robin’s spirit came alive here and only here. He imparted joy and love the farm to others and was instrumental in ensuring the continuity of ownership we enjoy today.”

6 Responses to “Robin Steussy (Oct. 8, 1921 – Feb. 18, 2009)”

  1. Fred Potter says:

    Robin contracted Polio in Iran I believe, perhaps about 1953 and was, of course, kicked out of the foreign service. He recovered fairly well and walked a great deal. He recovered his career by teaching Russian in Oregon for I don’t know how may years…but I believe his health forced a somewhat early retirement.

  2. Robin loved the Foreign Service. When we were growing up, he would occasionally tell stories about “Persia”.He never said Iran. One story made a vivid impression upon a child. It was about the “extraordinary” sight of “thousands” of grown men, marching down narrow streets, lashing themselves with cats o’ nine tails. It was in observance of a religious holiday; he described this sight to me in the late sixties/early seventies. Sometime after September 11, 2001, it occurred to me that this would have been Shi’ite men practicing a religious tradition. I was left with impression that the lashings were an exaggeration of the fasting that one commonly hears re: religious holidays. Robin did say that the men were trying to cleanse themselves by drawing blood with their cats o’ nine tails. The other Persian story I remember was the answer given when I asked what polio was like. He said it didn’t hurt, he didn’t feel sick, he was playing tennis on a hot day, suddenly he didn’t feel well, then he was in the infirmary, and then he was in Bethesda Naval Hospital. I got the idea that it was all in very short order, at least he didn’tremember much in between the tennis game and Bethesda. He had to learn to walk again, they told him he would not be able to. He put great effort into rehab, started in a swimming pool, then learned to crawl, and defied the doctors by fully recovering the ability to walk. It was the great disappointment of his life that the Foreign Service declared him disabled. The only evidence of polio that was visible in daily life was a tiny limp that manifested itself when he had to run down a tennis ball. Some disability. He was given to making negative remarks about “bureaucrats”. I suddenly realize that this was the likely genesis of that idiosyncrasy. He wasn’t given to negativity in general.

  3. Bonnie Steussy says:

    I remember Robin and am thrilled to see his pictures as well as pictures of the lovely Freitag farm which I visited as a child. My grandfather, Henry M. Steussy was the son of Henry and Helen Steussy of New Glarus. I have the burgler alarm off the old Bank of New Glarus. I believe my great-grandfather was president of the bank. My father was Norman Steussy. His maternal grandparents were Otto and Rose Babler of Monticello. I have visited Uncle Edwin (the pathologist) and Mary Ellen and her husband. I remember Uncle Calvin.
    I live in a Swiss style chalet in the Issaquah Alps just outside of Seattle Washington. I would love to connect with the Oregon Steussys as well as with Mary Ellen and Edwina.
    My 28 year old daughter, Brook Steussy-Edfeldt has asked to do a Roots tour when we visit Wisconsin for a music conference in November. My e mail address is I’d love to hear from other Steussys.

  4. Andrea Young says:

    I believe this is the same Robin Steussy who was a friend of my father’s Stephen Koczak. They were both in Hungary together and ran an ‘underground’ from Budapest to Austria, helping at least 80 persons, including my Hungarian mother, escape the AVO.
    It was my father who was declared ‘persona non grate’ in Hungary. He was also in the foreign service, a child of American Hungarian parents, and fluent in Hungarian. His testimony at Cardinal Mindszenty’s trial infuriated the Russians and the AVO, so they gave him 24 hours to pack up and leave. My mother, Anna Toth, was one of the people squished into the trunk of the car on the last ‘portage’. Robin Steussy grabbed her after the crossing and arranged for a private single engine plane to whisk her to Salzburg. Capture by the Russions would have meant a one way ticket to Andrassi ut 60.
    My father trusted very few people in his life. Robin Steussy was one who he trusted with his life and the lives of those he loved. I believe that I would not have existed without his courage and dedication.
    Thank you. :)Andrea Young

  5. Andrea Young says:

    Oops. I spoke with my Mom just now. Robin Steussy did indeed work with my Dad to get folks out of Hungary, and was greatly involved in that last journey during her escape, however, it was he who had to leave quickly and my Dad who arranged for the flight and took her to board it.
    Sorry! 🙂
    Also, according to her, the number of people she knows about my Dad smuggling out of Hungary was around 60, not 80, although there may have been more (I remember my Dad stating the higher number). Mr. Steussy was indeed involved in a number of these transits.
    And finally
    The date that she recalls Robin Steussy leaving Hungary was apparently January 11, not November.
    Hope this helps your reconstruction of family history. :)Andrea

  6. wina steussy says:

    Gee, I’m wondering if Andrea Young checks back here occasionally…I’m Edwina Steussy, Robin’s daughter and Ed’s cousin. I met your father when he visited Wisconsin with my father. I think it was in the late 80’s, maybe early 90’s. My mother is still alive, she certainly remembers your father well. She’s talked to me about him many times over the years. My e-mail is, I would love to hear from you. Thanks so much for your post, it was quite a remarkable thing to find…Edwina

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