Robert Dobson was born in Prague in 1956. He grew up in the Nové Město part of the city. His father Vilém worked in construction and died in a workplace accident when Robert was still a child. His mother Alena subsequently raised Robert on her own and worked as an office manager. Robert says his childhood in Czechoslovakia was extremely happy and, once his own family was settled in the United States, he sent his children back every summer to stay with their grandparents and ‘gain exposure to nature’ at summer camps.
Robert studied to become a waiter at vocational school in Prague and then worked at Klášterní vinárna, near the city’s National Theatre, and Restaurace Beograd, a Yugoslav restaurant not far from Wenceslas Square. At this time, Robert also took part in cycling competitions and worked to earn some extra money as a hair model. In 1976, he met his wife Yvonne; the couple’s first daughter Andrea was born the following year.
Robert’s sister-in-law had emigrated to Downers Grove, Illinois, in 1968. He and Yvonne decided that they too wanted to leave Czechoslovakia. After one failed attempt to emigrate to Switzerland (which resulted in Yvonne’s passport being confiscated), Robert found someone willing to accept a bribe and help them assemble the papers they needed. The family came to Downers Grove to stay in 1984. In America, the couple’s second daughter Tina was born.
Robert’s first job was as a bartender at a hotel near Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. He started working for a friend at Little Europe restaurant in Brookfield before he heard of a Czech restaurant coming up for sale in Berwyn. Robert bought Pilsner Restaurant in 1987 and ran the business with his family for the next 13 years. He says the family ‘loved’ running the restaurant, but that they sold the business as Czech custom in the neighborhood declined. Today, Robert runs a remodeling and construction firm based out of Bolingbrook, Illinois. He and his wife Yvonne enjoy spending time with their grandchildren and are determined, says Robert, to teach them to speak Czech.
“You know, there was an issue, why you want to leave, how, why did you come here, what was the situation, you know? We were approached by a lot of different agencies trying to find out what the problem was, why we came, why we decided to leave the country and stuff like that. But it wasn’t really like serious issues, but the problem was the language. We did not speak any English at the time we came over so obviously it became really hard to deal with these issues because of the language.”
“We did have to pay some money to people there to give us the… At that time, you had to have a visa to the United States and all that stuff that comes with it. And fortunately enough I had somebody who was willing to take some money and give me the permission to go. And so that’s how we actually ended up leaving – the whole family – because at that time, they did not like to let a family leave as a whole family, for this particular reason, because people did not want to come back. And because I was working at the restaurant as well, you know, there were a lot of people; they were coming in and so I did find somebody who was willing to take the money and get me the permissions and let me go.”
“The favorite dish was the pork tenderloin. Roast pork, dumplings and sauerkraut, as well as breaded pork tenderloin as well as potato salad and stuff. Obviously roast duck, no one can go wrong with roast duck, and goulash. So the typical Czechoslovakian dishes. But out of all, the roast pork and pork tenderloin were the biggest seller. And we baked our own bakery items, everything was made on the premises where we baked the bread. And so it was kind of emotional when we got to the point where we were closing the door. We had tons of daily customers, they literally were going to the restaurant every day for lunch.”
“It’s very, very funny, because Andrea was born in the Czech Republic, or Czechoslovakia at that time, and she was seven years old when we moved here. I don’t know why the kids didn’t want to speak Czech – once they started learning English, they didn’t want to speak Czech. And we were sending them to Czechoslovakia every summer for like two or three months for the language and just to see where their parents came from. And so she learned how to speak Czech, she can read a little bit (Andrea) but she can’t write, right – or she does a funny way. Tina, on the other hand, Tina was born here. And she can speak, she can read and write in Czech. So she’s… And I say ‘Guys, if you want to talk to grandma, she doesn’t speak English, it’s the only way to communicate with her.’ So that works out well. We have a little issue with the grandkids, because my daughter’s husband is American and they speak English at home. So it’s kind of harder for us to force them to speak Czech, but we will get there, we will make sure they can speak Czech.”
More Czech than American
“I was 28 years old [when I left] so obviously I am going to feel more Czech than American because I grew up under different circumstances. My kids, Andrea, I would say 50-50. The grandkids obviously, you know, they’re American. But there’s nothing wrong with that, I’m just trying to keep them aware of where mommy came from and where their grandmother and grandfather and all that stuff so that they understand that. But as far as feeling American or Czech? I would say 60-40 Czech. And, you know, like I said, most of our friends… we have a lot of American friends as well, but most of our friends are Czechs and, like I said before, we are getting together as much as we can, just to get together, you know.”