Lawyer returning to classroom at 79 to improve his Russian
MIDDLEBURY — At Thomas Hoya’s age, not many people still have their sights set on negotiating resolutions to international commercial and environmental disputes. For Hoya, who will turn 80 this year, that is just one possibility that he is considering for his future.
Hoya is enrolled this summer in the Russian Language School at Middlebury College, where he aims to strengthen his proficiency in Russian to aid him in his future pursuits, which may also include resuming a position as a law professor at a university in Moscow.
“(Knowing a second language) is one of the basic keys to working effectively in international affairs,” said Hoya, who grew up in a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisc. “It really just expands your understanding of the other people and the other country so much.”
He should know. If Hoya’s future aspirations seem broad in scope, they are nothing compared to his accomplishments thus far. He spent much of his professional life working in Russia when it was par of the Soviet Union, at a time when much of America held the Communist stalwart in fear and contempt.
Hoya recalls working at a large Chicago law firm in the early 1960s when he first realized the importance that foreign affairs would have in the future of the United States.
“It dawned on me each evening as I’d walk from the office to the subway,” he said. “It gradually occurred to me that most of the (newspaper) headlines concerned events in international affairs.”
Because the large American law firms, at the time, dealt with domestic affairs almost exclusively, Hoya recognized that his future, should he choose to remain at such a firm, would largely concern the domestic side of American business.
Though the national economy is important, Hoya said, it was apparent to him that “the really life-and-death decisions of our time were going to be made internationally.”
As he was already a lawyer, he decided to get involved with international trade law, and said he was drawn to the Soviet Union because he felt it would be a crucial player in the world for years to come.
Hoya then went to the Russian Institute at Columbia University, where he studied under John Hazard, an American scholar on Soviet and Russian law.
In the 1966-1967 academic year, Hoya participated in a Soviet/American exchange program, spending a year studying at the law school at Moscow State University. At that point, he had spent only minimal time learning Russian, but was able to understand Russian lectures and do research in Russian. His proficiency improved greatly in his year abroad.
Learning a second language had never been part of his plan.
“I grew up, as did many Americans back then, thinking that studying a foreign language was a total waste of time,” Hoya said. “I could see no value to me of (learning) a foreign language.”
Even after the epiphany that led to him studying international trade law, he declined the opportunity to study the Russian language. It was only after his trip abroad that the importance of knowing a country’s language dawned on him.
After returning to the U.S., Hoya got a job at a law firm in Washington, D.C., in the now defunct office of foreign direct investment. For several years, he dealt mainly with Western European countries. In 1970, however, when he was nearly 40, he was transferred to an office dealing with the regulation of trade to Communist countries. It was then that he became deeply involved with the Soviet Union.
He remained at the post for almost two decades, advancing his Russian outside of the office in his individual research. In the mid-1980s, he wrote a book geared toward helping American businessmen understand the perspectives and methods of their Soviet and Eastern European counterparts.
“There was a set of standard clauses that east European countries and the Soviet Union used to trade among themselves,” explained Hoya. “So it was only natural that, when negotiating contracts (with Western countries) they tended often to orient their thinking in the basis of these standard clauses.”
WORKING FOR THE EPA
When the Cold War ended in 1991, Hoya shifted his focus to environmental affairs, becoming an administrative law judge at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The agency was in a unique position in that it had maintained an active exchange with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War, since neither the U.S. nor the Soviets regarded environmental affairs as hugely sensitive to national security.
“It was an exchange, and a point of contact, and a set of relationships which they could wholeheartedly maintain even during the strains of the Cold War,” Hoya said.
Some of these exchanges were with Russian leaders whom Hoya had come to know in his time at the Washington, D.C., law firm in the ’70s and ’80s. The chance to regard them not merely as colleagues but now as allies was “one of the most satisfying and unexpected and heartwarming experiences of (his) life.”
“In one lifetime, to come to know people on the other side of an adversarial relationship, and to come to respect them and to like them, then to have a chance when world relations change, (to) genuinely embrace them as allies (is) an experience that comes to few, and I’m grateful that it came to me,” Hoya said.
TEACHING IN MOSCOW
In Hoya’s first month in Moscow, back in September 1966, he chanced to meet a young Moscow State University law professor who was soon heading to America for a year. When the man returned in June, just before Hoya was to go home, the two met up again and formed a closer relationship.
Over the years, they became close friends, visiting each other whenever they happened to be in one another’s homeland. In the early 1990s, Hoya met him in Moscow and received an interesting proposition: to be a professor of foreign law at a new university that he was starting up.
Hoya considered the offer, and in 1996 decided he could not pass up the opportunity. In the spring of 1997, he spent a semester teaching at International University in Moscow, delivering his lectures in Russian, a language in which he was no expert.
“It was very mediocre Russian, I’m the first to say,” said Hoya, who was invited back to teach every spring. “But it was a fascinating experience for me, and a very enjoyable and satisfying one.”
Even so, he was still working for the EPA and did not feel that he could leave his position vacant for five months every year. So he worked out a deal wherein he would spend every other spring in Moscow teaching. He returned in 1999 and 2001, before an administrative shake-up prevented him from returning in 2003.
Hoya retired from the EPA in 2003 with the thought that he would teach in Moscow every year following his return in 2005. However, when his wife became sick after his 2005 semester in Moscow, he withdrew from all activities to care for her. She passed away in late 2007.
COMING TO MIDDLEBURY
Hoya hopes to continue working in Russia, either as a professor or in the capacity of an international negotiator. In either case, he wants to improve his Russian before committing to a job overseas.
He had heard of the Middlebury Language Schools more than 50 years ago when he worked in Washington. Since arriving on June 17, he has not been disappointed.
“The majority of teachers with whom I’ve had contact actually do live and work still in Russia, and … are very skilled teachers,” Hoya said. “(They are) very current in their contact with Russia.”
He has also been impressed by his peers in the program, all of whom have taken a pledge to speak only Russian while on campus this summer. Hoya himself was excused from his Russian-only commitment to conduct this interview with the Independent.
“I have been struck by how diligently the students here really observe this language-only principle,” said Hoya. “(For) students with perhaps two years of Russian, it’s a real challenge to sit in the dining hall doing the meals only in Russian, but boy, they do it.”
This summer marks not only Hoya’s first participation in the Middlebury Language Schools, but also his first trip to Vermont.
“Now I can appreciate why these Russians come over here for two months of a Middlebury summer,” Hoya said. “The scenery is spectacular … just to walk from building to building every day is a pleasure … It is just strikingly beautiful.”
Hoya arrived to the program late, because of air travel delays, but found the helpfulness of Vermont citizens to be above and beyond what he was accustomed to.
“The outreach and the spontaneous helpfulness and friendliness of the people was breathtaking,” he said. “I’m from the Midwest, where we always pride ourselves on … friendliness, but what I was treated to here in Middlebury … certainly matches anything that I’ve been lucky to have come my way in my several score years.”
Ultimately, Hoya has only praise for the language school, which he believes is among the most successful and important language programs in the country.
“This program at Middlebury is of value to everyone in this country, and in the world, too, where American relations and understanding of the outside world is always going to be important, to them and for us.”
Reporter Ian Trombulak is at [email protected]