Vail Daily column: Story of success |

Vail Daily column: Story of success

Butch Mazzuca
Butch Mazzuca |

Imagine escaping from Cold War Eastern Europe, arriving in an unfamiliar country with no family or friends; you don’t speak the language and you have less than $200 in your pocket.

Well that’s precisely the situation local Realtor Alitza Vagenknechtova found herself in nearly 30 years ago. But let’s start at the beginning.

Alitza was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1967 at the height of the Cold War. Life behind the Iron Curtain was oppressive unless you were a member of the communist party, which Alitza’s family wasn’t. One consequence of not joining the communist party was that her family was forced to rent out part of their home and give the state 75 percent of the rent.

Another was that social or economic advancement was impossible, which meant Alitza was precluded from attending a university. But a nursing shortage in Eastern Europe allowed her to enroll in nursing school at the age of 14.

Had to leave

As she grew older, she traveled to Western Europe as a member of the Czechoslovakian National Fast-Pitch Softball Team; and after seeing the West for herself she knew she had to leave Czechoslovakia.

She bribed a government bureaucrat to obtain a visa, but thanks to an informant, her train was stopped at the border where she was physically removed, interrogated and stripped-searched before being allowed to return home with a warning that if she were stopped again, she’d go to jail and lose her passport for life.

Soon after the failed attempt to escape the communist regime, she met a young man with similar ideas about leaving and they petitioned the American Embassy for a two-month visa.

Her experience of being taken off the train taught her a valuable lesson and she told no one of her plans until the evening before she was to leave. Fearing communist listening devices she communicated her intentions by handing her father a written note advising that she was leaving for the West. Alitza knew she might never see her family or country again.

Upon arriving in the U.S. the airline lost her luggage containing all of her earthly possessions. Alitza spoke no English but did speak a bit of Russian, as did an airline employee who helped Alitza recover her belongings.

After that inauspicious beginning the two flew to San Francisco, but the relative of her friend who was to meet them never showed up. Fortunately the young man had another relative living in Seattle, so they traveled there. But by this time, Alitza was down to her last few dollars.

Exacerbating matters, the Seattle relative wanted nothing to do with Alitza and literally put her out on the street in the pouring rain. So there she was, a 21-year-old woman who spoke no English in a strange country, with no family or friends within 5,000 miles and with less than $5 in her wallet.

‘I’m in America’

With nowhere to go, Alitza decided to hitchhike to San Francisco when fate intervened twice — first in the form of a Polish immigrant who found her by the side of the highway in the rain and who bought her a meal. Shortly thereafter she met a man who owned a restaurant in Carlsbad, California, who offered her a job waiting tables.

So Alitza moved to Carlsbad and when the Berlin Wall fell, she requested political asylum. Meanwhile, she needed a certificate to practice nursing, so she spent the next year and a half waiting tables, cleaning houses, working as a nanny and studying English at a community college.

Alitza met a Czechoslovakian couple that lived in Vail, and having done some ski racing as a youngster she decided to move here in 1991. She still needed to pass the nursing exam if she was to practice her profession, a difficult task for someone new to the language. But with the help of a Czech-to-English medical dictionary she was awarded her nursing certificate.

Because all of her work records were in Czechoslovakia she couldn’t verify she had medical work-experience, so she sat in the waiting room of the Vail Valley Medical Center day after day for weeks on end in an attempt to arrange an interview. Finally a supervisor relented, interviewed her, and she worked for 10 years as a pediatric nurse before deciding to improve her life financially by enrolling in a three-month real estate course at CMC.

But after passing the Realtor’s exam no one wanted to hire a newbie; so again taking matters into her own hands she waited day after day until she could speak face-to-face with the owner of a real estate firm in Vail Village, and was hired. She worked five days a week in real estate and two 12-hour shifts at the hospital — the equivalent of an eight-day workweek for over a year. As an aside, during this period Alitza also won three national championships in snowboard racing.

Alitza has never applied for food stamps or welfare or government assistance of any kind. She told herself, “I’m in America, this is the land of opportunity and I will make it on my own.”

There is so much more to this story than 850 words can possibly convey, nonetheless, it’s a story I wish every immigrant could hear.

Quote of the day: “A noble purpose inspires sacrifice, stimulates innovation and encourages perseverance,” — Gary Hamel.

Butch Mazzuca, of Edwards, writes regularly for the Vail Daily. He can be reached at