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Remembering Henry Villard, the Renowned 19th-Century Railway Financier, Through the Eyes of His Great-Granddaughter

Her name alone is nearly poetic, but it is history and grandeur that give Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave her befitting nomenclature.

She is the great-granddaughter of Henry Villard, a Bavarian native who came to America with only 20 borrowed dollars in his pocket—only to make groundbreaking financial ventures and become president of the Northern Pacific Railroad and owner of the New York Evening Post. He also built what has become one of Manhattan’s most recognizable architectural landmarks: the Villard Houses, a Gilded Age mansion that today houses the luxurious Lotte New York Palace hotel.

He believed so much in the greatness of America that he put his whole soul into the railway company—allowing it to complete the country’s second transcontinental railroad—and funded Thomas Edison’s early experiments in electricity, Alexandra reflected. Meanwhile, the Villard Houses remain one of the few surviving examples of stunning design by the acclaimed architectural firm McKim, Mead, and White.

Villard de Borchgrave attends the American Ballet Theater Gala in Washington, D.C., circa 1985, when she served as the chairwoman. (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

The American Story

Villard immigrated to the United States in 1853 from Germany at the age of 18. Within five years of arriving in America, he mastered the English language and began working for leading daily newspapers at the time. Villard covered the famous presidential debates between Abraham Lincoln and Democratic Illinois senator Stephen Douglas over the issue of slavery. Lincoln took a shine to him, and included him in his entourage. Villard was the only correspondent, then working for the Associated Press, to accompany the president-elect on his inaugural train from Springfield, Illinois to the nation’s capital. Then, during the Civil War, he was a war correspondent for The New York Herald and later for the New-York Tribune. In his coverage, he made sure black soldiers were properly commemorated for their service.

Henry Villard was a man of grit and determination. Portrait taken circa 1881. (Photo credit: Corbis Images/ Courtesy of Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave)
Henry Villard (R) with his wife, Fanny Garrison Villard, and daughter, Helen, at their Dobbs Ferry estate in New York state, circa 1898. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave)

He was there when Thomas Edison famously lit up the first incandescent light bulb at Menlo Park, New Jersey in 1879. Villard would later hire Edison to install lighting aboard his new steamship, the S.S. Columbia. That was the first commercial installation of Edison’s invented light bulb. The installation was successful as the ship made its trip around South America. “Of all of my patrons,” Edison said, “Henry Villard believed in the light with all his heart.”

In 1881, Villard secured control of the Northern Pacific Railroad company through what modern-day finance would call a leveraged buyout. At the time, Villard was the president of major railway companies operating in the Pacific Northwest. But one major competitor, Northern Pacific Railroad, stood in the way. He started buying shares of the company quietly. But it was not enough to gain control. He came up with the idea, known as the ”blind pool,” of raising money for the venture by asking his friends to invest in a secret opportunity. By not revealing the plan, the investors became eager to get in on the novelty. Meanwhile, his intentions would be hidden from the competitor company. The tactic worked, and he became president of the Northern Pacific Railroad.

Later, he bought two of Edison’s electric utility companies, Edison Lamp Company and Edison Machine Works, and formed them into the Edison General Electric Company in 1889. He served as president until its reorganization in 1893 into the General Electric Company.

A horde of visitors attends the “last spike” ceremony announcing the opening of the Northern Pacific Railroad, September 1883. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave)

Villard built his wealth from the ground up and was generous with it, paying off debts for universities and financing some of America’s most iconic colleges and architectural preserves, including Harvard University, the University of Oregon, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

He was so inspiring to his great-granddaughter, Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave, that she honored his legacy in a 2001 biography co-authored with John Cullen called “VILLARD: The Life and Times of an American Titan.” The book tells of his remarkable rise from humble beginnings, eventually becoming a powerful financier and befriending luminaries like then-general Ulysses S. Grant (while covering the Civil War), and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, among many others.

The Descendant

As a photojournalist, Villard de Borchgrave built a reputation on the merits of her own talents, with her work appearing on the covers of international magazines such as Newsweek and Paris Match. The late president of Egypt Anwar Sadat, Henry Kissinger, and the late U.S. president George H.W. Bush are among the many world leaders she photographed, and her portraits hang in government offices around the world.

Villard de Borchgrave covers the October War in Egypt as a photojournalist, 1973. (Photo credit: J.R. Bonnotte)
Villard de Borchgrave greets Anwar Sadat, the third president of Egypt. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave)

She went on to establish a charitable organization called the Light of Healing Hope Foundation, which gifted books of hope to comfort patients receiving treatment at hospitals and hospices. With an eye toward helping those in the military, her foundation donated thousands of gifts to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Navy Seal Foundation, Wounded Warrior Project, and American Gold Star Mothers. During its 12 years of activities, her organization also provided uplifting books and journals to several children’s facilities, including St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the Ronald McDonald House Charities, and the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing. Villard de Borchgrave donated over 70,000 gifts which included her books of poetry and musical DVDs, for those who could not read, to over 100 medical centers nationwide. She developed and shared a total of eight inspirational publications including her first book, “Healing Light: Thirty Messages of Love, Hope, & Courage.”

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, United Nations secretary-general during the 1990s, wrote the foreword for “Healing Light.” Villard de Borchgrave and her husband Arnaud, who enjoyed a long career as chief foreign correspondent for Newsweek, had become friends with Boutros and his wife Leia while in Cairo in the 1960s. The couples were having dinner together in Paris when Villard de Borchgrave asked him to write the foreword, and so he did. “He just took a paper napkin on the table,” she recalled, and “penned it.”

Villard (R) holds his first grandson, Henry Serrano, with his son Harold beside them. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave)

Despite her many accomplishments, Villard de Borchgrave is most proud of her long marriage. She and her husband Arnaud, who passed away in 2015, were bonded for more than 45 years by their love of adventure and for each other. “In the 47 years since the first moment we met, Arnaud never failed to inspire me with his courage and determination,” Villard de Borchgrave passionately professed.

She also humbly pays homage to her parents, describing her mother as “a warm and giving person” and her father as someone who instilled a good work ethic in her, having worked on the U.S. Marshall Plan that helped rebuild European countries after World War II. Most of all, Villard de Borchgrave said, she draws inspirational humility from those who have been forced to overcome unspeakable tragedies. “I’m most inspired by the ability of those who are suffering,” she said, “to find a way to express gratitude despite the pain and hardship they are experiencing.”

Alexandra at the launch party for her book of poetry “Love & Wisdom,” at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., 2018. (Photo credit: Colleen Dugan)

Not only has Villard de Borchgrave honored her great-grandfather’s legacy through her biography about him, but has also, through her own work, continued to carry forth the same message of hope, courage, and resilience that he displayed throughout his life. “Henry Villard believed in America,” she said. “To this day, our country offers unique opportunities to anyone with the courage and determination to realize a dream, just as he did.”

This article was originally published in American Essence magazine. 


For Family and Freedom

Parting from his wife and two sons was the hardest thing Tiberiu Czentye had ever done—harder than the upcoming 40-mile trek that would end with him crawling on the ground as he tried to evade armed guards near the Romanian–Yugoslavian border, harder than what would be months of hard labor in a Yugoslavian prison after he was captured anyway, and harder than the two years he would spend as either prisoner or refugee while crossing five countries before he finally won his freedom. “Family—that is why I left; I escaped Romania for the future of my kids,” Czentye said. “The biggest, toughest, most painful moment of my life was when I turned off the lights and kissed my kids and my wife goodbye, because I did not know if I would ever see them again.”

Tiberiu’s wife, Sandra Czentye, and their two sons. (Courtesy of Tiberiu Czentye)

Even now, from the safety of his own home in a free country, when he speaks of it—when he remembers those goodbyes—he’s moved to tears. Czentye and his family lived in communist Romania, during the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu. From the beginning of this plan, he was clear about his goal: America. There, his family would have freedom and the opportunity for a better life and future for generations to come. “I studied. Many people leave and they don’t know what they’re doing or why,” he said. “If I make this sacrifice, at least I want to leave my family in one safe place for many generations. So I studied: the population of the US, the economy, the states, the two parties, the political power, the military power, the power of the dollar and how strong is the economy, and all these things put together.”

America’s history as a country built by immigrants was crucial for Czentye. He was migrating for his sons’ futures, and he didn’t want to bring them all the way to a new country where they would be looked down upon—and that didn’t happen in America. “I bring them here for their futures, and to feel good, not to be hurt,” he said. “I had a very strong reason to risk my life.”

He knew he was risking his family’s future as well, but he had a strong feeling that he would make it—throughout his journey, he said he must have been blessed. Man alone can only do so much, he said, but perhaps God played a part too.

A young Tiberiu and Sandra Czentye. (Courtesy of Tiberiu Czentye)

The Value of Human Dignity

Circumstances were bleak under Communist Party rule in 1989 socialist Romania, when Czentye set out on his mission to escape: schools were brainwashing centers, hard work was penalized, and his sons’ futures were almost certainly shaping up to be worse than his own. But Romanians didn’t always equate socialism with dictatorship—many people in the world still don’t. First, came the promises of free stuff, allowing socialism to take hold, Czentye said.

However, once the Communist Party had power, it quickly became clear that it couldn’t keep its promises. Then, the regime closed the borders, morphed into a dictatorship, and its unrealistic goals ended up impoverishing the nation. “Under these restrictions and these political things, there started to be a shortage of food, shortage of gas—shortage of almost everything,” Czentye said. “People were dying.”

That hit too close to home when his younger son got sick and ended up severely dehydrated. At the hospital, Czentye learned of a treatment for the virus, three daily doses of which could help his son to recover. But the medicine was produced outside of Romanian borders, and the regime refused to buy foreign pharmaceuticals. Upset, Czentye checked his son out of the hospital, despite widespread accusations that he was sentencing his boy to death. Instead, he hired a nurse and purchased the medicine on the black market—and his son got better. His enterprising spirit was clearly at odds with socialist culture.

Tiberiu Czentye in South Carolina on June 2, 2021. (SAM)

People in Romania had three options, he said: they could work hard and do their best while remaining unable to distinguish themselves or see the fruits of their labors, they could become lazy and collect the same pay as everyone else, or they could get out. The material side of things was only one concern.

Communist schooling, from kindergarten through college, focuses on brainwashing students while glorifying the Communist Party, Czentye explained. History is rewritten, all the media is state-run, private property disappears, and your movements are monitored and restricted. “Once they have power, they tell you what to do and how to do it,” he said. But there are always people like him, Czentye noted—people who want to make their own way and show their own worth.

In order for the regime to keep up its ruse, it doesn’t stop with lies and brainwashing. The secret police turn neighbors into informants, in a country where no one is allowed to criticize the party. “If somebody, just one neighbor, tells them, ‘Well, Tibi said that …’ in the morning they break down the door, take you from there, and you just disappear forever,” he said. That’s the worst part, he said: first, people turn on each other, society loses trust and faith in fellow humans, and people lose their dignity.

“People start to give you up. It starts to lose the quality and the value of the human being. I don’t want to say it because it’s not so fair, but they start to be more [like] animals, and just bend to the power.”

In contrast, family values were deeply ingrained for Czentye—growing up, he witnessed commitment between his grandparents and between his parents. As such, he didn’t just want a nicer life for himself: He wanted a future where his sons could flourish. Like his parents and grandparents had done before him, he wanted to lead by example and live out values worth imitating.

“That is why I left home, and left by myself. They have guns on the border and they used to shoot people—they don’t allow you to leave. I thought, ‘Please, they kill me, but they don’t kill my family,’” he said. From Czentye’s home in Timisoara, Romania, he crossed the border into Yugoslavia, where he was caught and sentenced to what amounted to slave labor, digging holes for electrical cables. After three months, he made his escape, traveling through Austria, through West Germany, and to the Netherlands, where he was placed in a refugee camp.

While in the Netherlands, Czentye sought political asylum in the United States and petitioned Romania to let his family visit him. The timing was fortunate—the regime had been overthrown and a new government was working to establish its legitimacy—and Czentye’s petition was granted. Being reunited with his family was unforgettable. He still remembers his trip to the airport, the suspense, and the first moment when he saw his family’s faces. With tears of joy streaming down his cheeks, Czentye was finally able to hug his loved ones again. It took a total of two years for Czentye to gain asylum, and in 1991, he moved to the United States.

“I had two luggages, two kids, my wife, and God,” Czentye said. He landed in Portland, Maine, where his family was entitled to a year of government assistance. After three weeks, he turned it down, and the family packed up and hopped on a Greyhound headed across the country. They had their eyes set on San Francisco, a hub of opportunity and industry.

The Czentyes in San Francisco in 1991. (Courtesy of Tiberiu Czentye)

His Grandchildren’s Future

In San Francisco, Czentye worked three jobs at once, taking neither vacation nor sick leave for five full years before starting his own business. But things in California—and many parts of America—have changed since then, he said. From 2007 to 2009, Czentye would spend time traveling up and down the Southeast, looking for a new place for his family. He found it in South Carolina, and after his youngest son graduated from college—both sons studied in California, one at UCLA and the other at Menlo College—they made the move cross-country. Still, even after seeing changes firsthand in California, Czentye was appalled when socialism became a popular movement in the United States.

“I was shocked. Shocked! And very upset,” said Czentye, who today is CEO of a digital archiving company and a happy grandfather of five. “I really believe it is my duty to share my story and tell these crazy guys who like socialism that it’s not like that.” Inspired to do more, he got involved in local politics and was recently elected executive committeeman for his county, and is looking for more opportunities to share the truth still.

However, Czentye acknowledges that it’s not all these young people’s faults that they’re endorsing socialism; rather, their parents may have failed them by not teaching them to mind their character. The schools may have also failed them by pushing them toward expensive degrees in oversaturated industries, racking up loans they now struggle to pay off. Even before Czentye set foot in America, he studied the culture, and from day one his wife and he were clear with their sons: Parents are the foremost teachers in life. Police and schoolteachers have roles to play as well, but those should never supersede parental guidance. He spoke openly about socialism, communism, what happened in Romania, and the follies of human nature.

Tiberiu and Sandra Czentye with their sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren. (Courtesy of Tiberiu Czentye)

Czentye and his wife wanted to give their boys good lives, and they made clear their expectations: that the boys should use the good manners they were taught and strive for excellence—and they did, doing well in school and sports. Their sons are now raising their own families with these same traditional values. But Czentye saw that many of his sons’ friends in grade school weren’t brought up this way; without good values, a person’s character can slip, laziness creeps in, and the mentality of blaming others provides an easy out. These resentful souls take readily to socialism and its promise of free things, he warned.

A second warning sign, a tactic reminiscent of what Czentye experienced in Romania, is the divisive culture attempting to take hold in America. “The socialists, they work very hard to divide us: to divide us by nationalities, to divide us by blue-collar workers [versus] white-collar workers, if you are a member of a political party—all of these things,” he said. But Czentye believes that truth will prevail, and if people can recognize socialism for what it is, America can stay free.

“I’ve had the chance to go [traveling] in many countries since I’m here, and since I had my company, I went back to Europe, I was in South America, I was in China, I was in Africa, [and] Japan. I can tell you, America is not perfect, but it is the best,” he said. “And from here, I’m not going to run anymore. I’m going to fight and do what I can against socialism and for a free society.”

Tiberiu and Sandra Czentye outside their South Carolina home. (SAM)