- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 29, 2005

ZLIN, Czech Republic — From China through Africa to the outer reaches of the Americas, Bata has long been synonymous with shoes. But in the land where it was born, the company name was taboo for 40 years.

In the Czech town where the worldwide family shoe empire was founded, the oldest living Bata was all smiles and understatement as he looked back, at age 91, on a life buffeted by the worst horrors of the 20th century.

How did he feel when the rise of Nazism forced him to flee his homeland? “Annoyed.” And when the communists took over after World War II, seized his factory and declared Bata a capitalist evil? Again, “annoyed.”

“One could have been very angry, but one had to start life again.”

The place to start again was Canada, where he exiled himself in 1938, the year Czechoslovakia was dismembered and the stage was set for Adolf Hitler’s war. Seven years later, after he served with the Canadian army on the battlefields, he returned to his freshly liberated birthplace, but not for long.

“I found it very sad,” said Tomas Bata, “because what we thought was liberation really became a dictatorship of the communists.”

Anyone associated with the company faced persecution by the secret police, as did anyone named Bata, related or not, said Pavel Velev, who heads the Thomas Bata Foundation, based in the family’s old villa in the east of the country.

“The Bata name was considered something very, very bad in our country,” Mr. Velev said.

The regime gave the company a new name, and it went on making shoes, but it was Bata, headquartered in Toronto, that remained a byword for shoes.

Mr. Bata didn’t give up on his country. On Radio Free Europe, he broadcast support to the dissident movement and offered his business as a vision of what could be — “so that people would see that the democratic system, based on democratic economy, would be the most advantageous for them.”

After 40 years, the family finally earned vindication in 1989. As Eastern European communist dictatorships collapsed one by one in mostly peaceful revolutions, Vaclav Havel, the Czech dissident leader, playwright and president-in-waiting, asked Mr. Bata to come back.

“Vaclav Havel sent me a message through my wife and said, ‘Tom should come as soon as he can,’” Mr. Bata recalled.

He and his wife, Sonja, chartered a plane to fly them to Prague and filled it with fax machines, badly needed by the new leadership in those days before the Internet. Cheering crowds greeted them at the airport in Prague.

“I felt very emotional, because I had a tremendous, rip-roaring welcome, both when I arrived in Prague and when I came to Zlin and other towns,” Mr. Bata said.

The house where he grew up was in disrepair. His wife asked to see a bedroom, but their escorts refused. She insisted, however, and they gave in.

The reason for their reluctance then became clear: Standing in the room was a large bust of Klement Gottwald, Czechoslovakia’s first communist president. The officials had moved it there, hoping the Batas wouldn’t see it.

Zlin is in a traditional shoemaking region, and Mr. Bata’s family had been making shoes for generations. His father, also named Tomas (spelled the Czech way), founded a company in 1894 that would later swell into the giant Bata Shoe Organization.

“There were an awful lot of barefoot people,” he said. “Every time we read about the growth of the population in India or elsewhere, we are very happy to see that another customer has been born.”

Mr. Bata’s face is tan and remarkably smooth for his age. He wore a well-pressed shirt and shiny leather shoes, which he bought — and paid for, he stressed — at a Bata store in Prague. He waved his arms enthusiastically above his white hair as he explained with Old World charm the magic of shoes.

“Young ladies always want to have something fashionable, something nice that fits well, makes them look good,” he said, “and this is our prime customer.”

Each day, a million customers try on shoes in 4,600 Bata shops in places ranging from Congo, Bosnia and Bangladesh to Punta Arenas in Chile’s deep south and Yellowknife in northern Canada. Bata has 40 factories in 26 countries, and shops in 50 countries on five continents.

In many places, its logo is almost as commonplace as Coca-Cola. Its name is unknown in the United States, but its sporty Power brand and children’s Bubblegummers are distributed there.

In Zlin, the Bata heritage is evident in the red-brick buildings that once were factories and in the rows of cube-shaped houses the elder Mr. Bata built for his workers. The Bata home had served as a school for children of foreign communist leaders. Now, Tomas Bata’s old bedroom houses rows of computers for students.

Some of the old factory buildings are home to the Tomas Bata University, and Mr. Bata heads its board of directors. The university emphasizes, not surprisingly, researching shoes — most famously the footwear worn by a 5,300-year-old man found preserved in an alpine glacier in 1991. Researchers replicated the shoes, took them on a mountain hike and pronounced them good enough for the modern foot.

In 1993, Czechoslovakia split into Slovakia and the Czech Republic, but Mr. Bata said he feels less attached to either nation than he does to his adopted country, Canada. Most of all, he said, he feels like a global citizen, proud of the jobs his factories generate worldwide, and the millions of feet he keeps in comfortable, reasonably priced shoes.

“In the old days, people were looking much more toward being of a certain town or village or even a small country,” he said. “Today, the global outlook is permeating the whole population of the world.”

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