George Novak, the longtime honorary consul for the Czech Republic in Atlanta, died this week at 88 after a battle with cancer.
Known for his wit, reliably upbeat outlook, athletic ability and selfless advocacy on behalf of his compatriots, Mr. Novak had represented the country’s interests in Georgia since 1994, fostering countless educational and cultural exchanges, especially in music, and helping various Czech-owned manufacturing firms break into the U.S. market. He also served as a representative of the Czech Olympic committee in the 1996 games in Atlanta.
First appointed as honorary consul, his position was upgraded to honorary consul general in 2003, a few years after he helped gain the support of Georgia legislators for the Czech Republic’s accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1999.
During a 2005 interview, he told Global Atlanta joining NATO was “hands down” the nation’s greatest achievement up until then, a fitting statement from a man who understood first hand how small countries can be swept up by great-power conflicts.
As a child, he lived through the occupation of the Nazis, only to narrowly escape the Soviet invasion in August 1968 by driving from his hometown of Brno to Vienna, Austria, first with his son Mike and then back a few days later by train to retrieve Jana, his wife, whom he now leaves behind in Atlanta more than 50 years later.
So sorry to learn of George Novak’s death. He has been a good friend since I met him in the early 2000s on a trip to Atlanta from DC. As a child he lived through the American bombing of Brno hoping the factories, producing for the German war machine, would be destroyed.
— Charles Shapiro (@shapiro_WAC) June 30, 2020
John Parkerson, a colleague of Mr. Novak’s as Hungary’s honorary consul in Georgia and a close friend, said the latter’s “pleasant outlook” belied the challenges of his early life.
“I am deeply saddened by George Novak’s passing. We shared common interests and philosophies. In our many conversations, George Novak reminded me what it was like to be behind the Iron Curtain for so many years and finally to taste freedom and prosperity in the West. The countries we represented in the consular corps, Czech Republic (George was a native) and Hungary, share lasting bonds that brought us even closer,” Mr. Parkerson said.
Mr. Novak’s fateful departure from his home led him serendipitously to Georgia. An architectural engineer by training, he joined five other Czech refugees in Vienna offered jobs at Southwire Co., the Carrollton, Ga.-based manufacturer of metal cabling.
He spent four years there, followed by 12 at Robert and Co. and in 1983 founded his own construction management company serving mostly German manufacturers who were then setting up plants in the Southeast U.S. In 2002, he joined U.K.-based project management firm Gleeds as a U.S.-based representative, before his diplomatic appointment was upgraded.
From there, his impact shifted from solely business to what’s now known as public and commercial diplomacy, earning him a lifetime of accolades that culminated with Czech President Milos Zeman awarding him the Medal of Merit First Class along with 30 others during a ceremony held at the Prague Castle in 2014.
Mr. Zeman had been prime minister under Vaclav Havel, the first president of the Czech Republic from 1989-92. Having gotten to know Mr. Havel during the 1996 Olympics, Mr. Novak was one of just six people present when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from then-U.S. President George W. Bush in 2003.
A member of various Georgia binational chambers and a founder of others, Mr. Novak used his connections to spur engagement between the state and the Czech Republic, from participating in countless Atlanta investment seminars in Prague to finally bringing a delegation that introduced Georgia business and educational leaders to his hometown of Brno, a traditional hub for textiles that had grown an expertise in nanotechnology, in 2012.
View a video where Mr. Novak describes his hometown and the potential for connections with Atlanta:
Georgia Department of Economic Development Commissioner Pat Wilson said Mr. Novak had become much more than just a point of contact over the years through his dedication to his adoptive home state.
“George Novak was an incredible friend and colleague to many of us at the Department. He loved this state and he loved bringing people together – from creating bilateral economic opportunities for Georgia and the Czech Republic to forging cultural connections and bonds through the arts. We are deeply saddened by this loss and will continue to pray for his family and the countless lives he touched as we grapple with this tragedy,” Mr. Wilson told Global Atlanta in an emailed statement.
Along with basketball, which he played competitively in Brno when he was younger, Mr. Novak particularly enjoyed skiing and tennis and maintained an active lifestyle.
Mr. Novak was also passionate about music, particularly opera and jazz. He helped open doors for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra conductor in Prague and more recently sponsored two jazz concerts in recent years bringing over pianist Emil Viklicky in shows co-organized by Global Atlanta.
He also helped launch the Czech School of Atlanta in 2013 and was a constant facilitator of study-abroad programs focused on the history and culture of the country, providing orientations and informally using his network to provide hospitality to young Georgians who found themselves there.
Long before she became the City of Atlanta’s International Affairs director, Vanessa Ibarra remembered him visiting a class at Georgia State University, armed with his trademark humor and sincerity.
“I remember him speaking to my class before our study abroad to Prague. We always had speakers come and share their stories, but he made us really laugh. Through the years, at all the international events, he was always there to greet you with a big smile. I will really miss him,” Ms. Ibarra said in a tweet.
Mr. Novak aided this publication’s reporting on the Czech Republic immensely, helping set up interviews in Prague with President Zeman and other dignitaries in early 2015 and visits to the opera and the city’s preparations for advent. He also made inbound officials available for interviews and highlighted Czech companies with operations in metro Atlanta.
Most recently, he helped connect the Atlanta and Prague airports for a “sister airport” agreement that would lead to the sharing of best practices and perhaps the resurrection of an Atlanta-Prague nonstop flight that had sputtered years after its launch.
The Czech embassy in Washington could not be reached immediately for comment, but it posted the following statement of remembrance on Twitter:
We are saddened by passing away of George A. Novak, a longtime Honorary Consul General in Atlanta, GA.
Born in Brno in 1931, George emigrated to the United States in fall of 1968. He was a great patriot, successful businessman, fan of sports, he loved classical music and jazz. pic.twitter.com/LxCjelNzir
— CzechEmbassyDC (@CzechEmbassyDC) June 29, 2020
Global Atlanta has not learned details of funeral arrangements or methods to offer condolences, but will make them public if and when the family deems fit.
Former diplomats and family friends have left messages of condolence on Mr. Novak’s Facebook page consistent with Mr. Parkerson’s assessment of his friend.
“Most of all, I remember George as a true gentleman – a delight to be around with his pleasant outlook and humor, and a man of highest integrity and impeccable manners. He was old-world in every positive sense of that term, recognized numerous times by his Government as the example to follow, and the winning waltz with his wife Jana on the dance floor. I miss him already,” Mr. Parkerson said.
Watch a 2008 interview with Mr. Novak describing the breakup of Czechoslovakia, the promise of the Atlanta-Prague flight, the challenging transition from communism to private enterprise: