Boka Hadzija has been a professor in the School of Pharmacy for almost 35 years.
Boka Hadzija set the ground rules for the interview for this story with the same kind of firm but friendly insistence one can imagine she employs in front of a roomful of students on the first day of class.
“You will not ask my age or my weight?” the accented voice stated on the other end of the phone.
The words came out in the form of a question, but Hadzija was not so much making a request as setting her terms.
As for whether those terms have been met, let’s just say that on the matter of age and weight, the years have weighed on her lightly. And that the heft and sweep of her long, productive life can be measured by other standards she has set.
A wife and mother.
And above all else, a survivor.
She survived the country that had been Yugoslavia, which was taken over by a band of communists led by a man who came to be known only as Tito. Hadzija was introduced to the communists soon after the revolution, when they came calling at her family’s home to take her father away to murder him.
They came on Christmas Day 1945.
After they took away her father, they took away the electrical power plant he owned.
And then they took the house, the furniture and the chauffeured car in the driveway. Her father had been an engineer, and the first person from his hometown to graduate from Vienna University. He used his skills to build a power plant that provided electricity to the city of Zagreb where they lived.
But in the eyes of the communists, he was a criminal, and all that he had accomplished and all that he owned were seen as proof of his crimes.
“According to their communism perception, he was very rich, but he did it exploiting the working class,” Hadzija said. “I have two sisters and I was in high school at the time, my two sisters also, and our mother was left with nothing. Absolutely nothing, and it was very, very difficult to survive.”
The long way out
She has been a professor in the School of Pharmacy for going on 35 years now, and to learn a little about how she got here reveals a lot about why being here still means so much to her.
Her long journey to get here began the year after her father’s murder, when she enrolled in the University of Zagreb in the fall of 1946.
The two things that the government could not take from Hadzija were her Catholic faith and her ambition. And the one thing the government offered to her — after rendering her poor and fatherless — was a free education.
And those were the three things she needed to plan her escape.
It took 15 years and three degrees: her bachelor’s, masters and doctoral degrees, all in pharmacy, all from the University of Zagreb.
In the middle of her studies she met and married a man whom she found to be handsome and charming when sober — but mean and violent when drunk. The marriage produced two daughters in the seven years before they divorced.
After she completed her doctorate in 1961, it took help from one of her sisters to win freedom from Yugoslavia.
The sister, Ina, had become a doctor, and to the consternation of the rest of her family, a true communist as well. She married the chief of staff to Josip Broz Tito, the Yugoslav statesman who led the resistance to German occupation during World War II and who established a communist state that he would rule until his death in 1980.
Her sister’s connections to power were good enough in help Hadzija get a passport to the United States.
But she was allowed to go only for the purpose of doing postdoctoral work at the pharmacy school at the University of Connecticut. Upon completion, she was to return to Yugoslavia. And to make sure she returned, the government made Hadzija leave her two daughters back in Zagreb.
She stayed in Connecticut for three years, and before leaving, went to the U.S. Department of State seeking help about what she should do to get her daughters out of Yugoslavia with her.
The advice: Go to work at a university in a socialist country. She followed the advice, which led her in 1964 to the city of Kumasi in Ghana, where she accepted a teaching position in the pharmacy school of the University of Science and Technology.
“My two daughters were immediately released to join me in Ghana,” Hadzija said.
The university in Ghana was affiliated with the pharmacy school at the University of London, and for the next seven years Hadzija spent six months each year teaching in Ghana and the other six months doing research in London where her daughters attended boarding school.
It was also in London where Hadzija met her husband, Arnold H. Beckett, a fellow scientist who for more than three decades served as the dean of the pharmacy school at the University of London. Beckett happened to know the dean of the School of Pharmacy at UNC and in 1971, while on sabbatical, Hadzija applied for a faculty position here. She started in September and never looked back.
A simple passion
While she has led a complex life, she has been guided by a single, simple passion. She loves being a teacher, she will tell you. Loves it more than anything she has ever done or will do. And she plans to go on teaching for as long as she judges herself able.
“When I can tell I cannot give to the students what I used to give, then I shall retire,” she said.
But not one day before.
“The people and the students at the University did attract me — so much so I am attached to this place. I wouldn’t be here 35 years if I didn’t love it.”
Her love of teaching has led to a bounty of teaching awards that she began collecting almost as soon as she arrived.
She won her first Tanner Award for Excellence in Inspirational Teaching in 1975, her second Tanner in 1988 and her third in 1995. In 1996 she became the second person to win the UNC Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching.
The awards for teaching have come from the students, too, so many that they cannot all be listed. She has won as many “Best Teacher Awards” in the School of Pharmacy as the women’s soccer team has won national championships, and has won three Edward Kidder Graham Teaching Awards: in 2002, 2004 and 2005. In 2003, she won an Edward Kidder Graham Advising Award.
This spring, she was one of six to win a C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.
Linda Dykstra, dean of The Graduate S chool, noted that Hadzija had earned no less than 27 awards for excellence in teaching.
Retired Provost Dick Richardson once said of her, “She has an extraordinary gift for empathy — for understanding where her students are in the learning process. She spends endless hours with them in her office ... over coffee ... enabling them to become as committed to pharmacy as she. Truly, there is no better description of service to the University community than to be a mentor to students.”
In 2000, Hadzija created and personally funded an award to recognize distinguished University service by graduate and professional students. More recently, she has been one of the lead donors of the newly created Fellowship Program in support of graduate students who are underrepresented on campus, particularly in the sciences.
For 25 years, Hadzija has given her time, knowledge and talents as a faculty mentor to a group of health science majors who live in Carmichael Residence Hall. Two years ago, at students’ urging, she helped to turn the seminar she taught into a course credit.
Together with community director Ashley Mouberry-Sieman, Hadzija developed a proposal for an Ueltschi Course Development Grant offered through the APPLES Service Learning program. The proposal was accepted. The first course began this fall.
“Without Dr. Hadzija’s vision, enthusiasm and commitment, this dream could not have been realized for the students in the health sciences program,” Mouberry-Sieman said.
The Massey citation also noted that one former student was so grateful for the difference her teaching made to his success that he started a distinguished professorship bearing her name in the school. That former student is George Abercrombie, the president and CEO of Swiss drug giant Hoffman La-Roche.
Hadzija said winning a Massey has been a great delight and honor.
But the rewards that matter to her most come when she hears a knock on the door or picks up the phone, and a former student is on the other end.
“When they come back to Chapel Hill and come to visit the school, they always come to visit me. This is what I cherish, what I find that I did achieve. That I influenced their lives by teaching and advising them. Nothing compares to that — no awards, no grants, no nothing. Nothing compares to that feeling you get from people who remember you five, 10, 15, 20 years after they finished school.”
Though retired from the University of London, Hadzija’s husband still works as a consultant in London where they own a home. She joins him there for holidays or a long weekend and he sometimes visits her at a place they own on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina.
For years, her husband served as president of the International Olympic Committee - a job that served as a ticket for both of them to see the world.
“I have seen a lot of countries and a lot of people all over the world,” Hadzija said. “There is no country that compares to the United States. There is no other country in the world that will accept people who need political asylum. Life here is so much better than anywhere else.
“You find a lot of people in Europe, even in England, criticizing and saying, ‘Oh Americans. Oh Americans.’ I tell them, ‘You don’t know who Americans are. They are kind people, helpful people who give so much to other countries.”
Hadzija is aware her unabashed love of her adopted country would seem naïve to some, but for her the experience of living elsewhere remains a loud and insistent teacher.
Her mother is gone now, along with Ina. Two years ago, Hadzija and her surviving sister returned to the city of Zagreb in the new country of Croatia.
There was nothing recognizable to her left in the city, she said.
The trip was prompted by the new democratic government of Croatia, which had sought them out to make reparations for the crimes the communist government had committed against their family some six decades before.
They signed some papers. Now, every six months, for the next 20 years, money will be deposited in a bank account for them.
It is a small token for all that was taken from them, Hadzija said, but even a token is better than nothing.
“I am afraid in the United States we are too naïve in our thinking about communism,” she said. “I know what communism is and it is a horrible government. They rule in such a way that you are scared. You can’t do anything. We go to church and they have their police looking who is going and writing down the names.”
The return to her native country also triggered memories of arriving in the United States. She left Yugoslavia with $10 in her pocket on a cargo ship that took 20 days to arrive in New York Harbor. She used the $10 on the train ticket that took her to Hartford, Conn., where the dean of the pharmacy stood waiting to welcome her. Also waiting for her was an advance check for $500 for her postdoctoral work.
“No country is perfect, but the United States has so many more virtues that anybody else in this world,” she said. “I am telling you. I am always forever grateful and it is a big honor for me to be citizen of this country.”
And then she added, “I think democracy is the only way of living. Anywhere.”