As chief development officer for the Dornsife School of Public Health and the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, Kevin J. McNamara knows a thing or two about writing proposals, securing grant funding and making “asks” both big and small. He employed the same determination and skill-set to produce what The Wall Street Journal recently called “an epic story unknown even to many World War I history buffs.”
McNamara’s book, “Dreams of a Great Small Nation: The Mutinous Army that Threatened a Revolution, Destroyed an Empire, Founded a Republic, and Remade the Map of Europe,” is about a dramatic yet obscure chapter of history linking WWI, the Russian Revolution and the founding of Czecho-Slovakia (a spelling he feels is more true to the way Czechs and Slovaks view their entwined history). It features first-hand accounts of the Czecho-Slovak Legion, an ad hoc army of Slovak and Czech prisoners of war held in Russia. Intending to rise up against the Hapsburg dynasty that ruled their Austro-Hungarian homeland, these 50,000 to 65,000 men instead fought the Soviet Red Army in 1918 by seizing the entire Trans-Siberian Railway and all five million square miles of Siberia. The fighting ended after the collapse of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires when, with crucial U.S. and Allied backing, the Czechs and Slovaks declared their independence.
This piece of the former country’s history had been lost in time before McNamara’s book was published. The country enjoyed about 20 years as a democratic republic before being forcibly absorbed into Nazi Germany and then the Soviet Union. Any stories about the country’s nationalist beginnings, which were both anti-German and anti-Soviet, were suppressed until Soviet rule collapsed in 1991. By this time, there were no English-language works still in print about the Czecho-Slovak Legion.
McNamara first learned about the Czecho-Slovak Legion when he traveled across Siberia in 1993. Over the next decade, he read what little information he could find on the topic while wondering how and why he might be the one to tell this story.
“I didn’t have a lot of credentials. I didn’t have anything original or specific to bring to the story,” explained McNamara, who is not of Czech or Slovak descent.
He found his hook late in 2001, when he met Neal Orkin, JD, an associate professor in the LeBow College of Business and a Drexel alumnus. Orkin, a connoisseur of all things Czech, sent him an eBay link for a five-volume collection about the members of the Czecho-Slovak Legion. These 460 firsthand accounts had been published in Prague in the 1920s but subsequently gathered dust under Nazi and Soviet rule.
McNamara bought the collection and paid a Czech-American Drexel student, Lukas Pavlicek ’04, to translate every chapter heading into English. Then he secured $46,000 in grants and fellowships and paid a professional translator to translate 107 of the chapters by 2004.
During the next decade, McNamara signed with two different literary agents and received about two dozen rejection letters. He rewrote the proposal and the first few draft chapters over and over again. McNamara’s battle to get the book published was taking longer than the formation of Czecho-Slovakia itself! But in 2013, McNamara finally signed with his publisher, Public Affairs.
“Dreams of a Great Small Nation” was published in March to immediate interest. The Wall Street Journal, Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal, and Publisher’s Weekly gave it glowing reviews. From overseas, the Czech Ministry of Defense requested source material and a prominent Czech director asked McNamara to consult on a feature film. McNamara is booked for two years’ worth of speaking engagements at Czech-American or Slovak-American venues in the U.S., including the Slovak Embassy in Washington, D.C.
A 23-year chapter of McNamara’s life is now closed. If he had given up or never reached out to various translators, foundations, literary agents and publishers, it never would have been written.
“I just had to ask — and that’s what I do as a fundraiser. It’s a good lesson in life. You’d be surprised at what you can accomplish if you just ask,” said McNamara.
This piece first appeared in Drexel Quarterly's Summer 2016 issue.