Spring 2002 Carolina Connections home
Birinyi establishes first professorship in Hungarian culture

Laszlo Birinyi Jr. '67 arrived in the United States when he was 7 years old, faced with the daunting task of learning his third new language and becoming a part of yet another foreign culture. His father, Laszlo Birinyi Sr., had led the boy and his family out of Hungary during World War II. After spending a tumultuous few years navigating the geographic and political uncertainty of Europe, they finally found security in America.

"Like so many Eastern Europeans, we sought to escape the conflicts," Birinyi Jr. said. "We were focused on survival."

As refugees, the Birinyi family traveled through Europe, trying to find a safe place to settle. Even after the war ended, they chose not to return to Hungary, unwilling to become a part of the Communist regime that had taken control of the nation. But prior to the beginning of the Cold War, European host nations wanted refugees to return to their homes. The Birinyis received an offer of sponsorship from the Church World Service giving them the alternative to immigrate to America.

The younger Birinyi grew up in Pennsylvania, arriving in Chapel Hill in 1962 as a freshman.
"I was visiting the area with friends who were going to Duke, and I wanted to see Carolina," says Birinyi. "I decided that Chapel Hill was the ultimate college town, with the ultimate college campus."

A history major at Carolina, Birinyi once told a Forbes reporter that he "frittered away much of his time as a student playing poker instead of hitting the books." But his instincts eventually led him to become one of the most respected equity traders in the country, described by Louis Rukeyser as "Wall Street's number one number cruncher."

Birinyi decided to give back to those who helped him to achieve all that he has. He has established the Laszlo Birinyi Sr. Distinguished Professorship in Hungarian Culture in the College of Arts and Sciences to honor his father and support Carolina. Birinyi says that at this point in his life, he wanted to "honor, in any way I can, my parents and to give back to both my school and my parents."

The $1 million endowed professorship will be the first Hungarian culture professorship in the South, says Beth Holmgren, chair of Slavic languages and literatures department. A search will begin once the professorship is fully endowed.

"We are so grateful to Laszlo for establishing the professorship and for supporting Hungarian studies," she said. "The Birinyi Professorship will distinguish Carolina among American universities as one of the very few places in the United States where students may work with an expert in Hungarian studies."
Established in 1969, the department has the nation's oldest Ph.D. program in Slavic languages and literature in the southern United States. Its first year seminars, honors and survey courses are popular among Carolina undergraduates. Holmgren said an increasing number of students are intrigued with learning more about and traveling to Eastern Europe.
"Slavic languages are difficult and challenging to learn," said Holmgren. "But once students complete their degrees, they find ready work in public and government service, and in corporations with global enterprises."

Birinyi Sr. spent most of his life as a stonemason, working hard to create opportunities for his family in their newly adopted nation. The Birinyi family maintained close ties with family members who remained behind in Hungary and continued to celebrate their ancestry and history. In that spirit, the professorship will allow the college to create a permanent position in the department of Slavic languages that focuses specifically on the culture and language of Birinyi's native country. He hopes that his contribution will allow the program to expand and give students new and different opportunities.

The establishment of the Distinguished Professorship is a continuation of Laszlo Birinyi's tradition of giving to his alma mater. In 1986, he established the Laszlo Birinyi Sr. Scholarship Fund, a need-based scholarship for undergraduate students, as a Christmas gift to his father.

Birinyi credits a class he took at Carolina, one of the earliest to deal with computers, with giving him the expertise he needed to land a job as a computer programmer on Wall Street in the late '60s. He worked in that capacity for more than two years, helping switch the market to a computerized system, before he realized that the slow, tedious world of programming didn't suit him. He then took a chance, as well as a serious drop in salary, and accepted a position as a trader.

The up-and-down, hectic environment of trading suited Birinyi. He began to make a name for himself and by the early '90s was known as one of the most accurate prognosticators on Wall Street. By incorporating his computer background with his love of the market, Birinyi developed a system of tracking trades that allowed him to interpret the mood of investors.

Now Birinyi feels it's his turn to continue to give back to the University that gave him an education and to honor the man who gave him the opportunity to attend. He feels that creating this professorship is like "adding a book to the library;" it provides a resource that will be there if somebody needs it. Birinyi has no specific goal for what he wants the professorship to accomplish, choosing instead to see it as an opportunity for students to take advantage of it in any way they choose.

"The more doors that are open to students and professors, the more, hopefully, someone will benefit," Birinyi says, adding, "Maybe some student wants to be able to say hello to his grandfather in Hungarian."

by Alex Gorman '01