Former refugee remembers warm A&M welcome

By Ann Gill (M.A., ’76)

Today’s international students find an inclusive, welcoming atmosphere at Colorado State University. That experience dates back to the school’s A&M days, according to Estonian refugee Raul Pettai (B.S., ’53).

Raul Pettai looking at Silver Spruce yearbook
Pettai looks through a Silver Spruce yearbook.

He was born in Estonia in 1928. That country won a war of independence from Soviet Russia in 1920, but in 1940 the Soviet Union occupied it again. In 1941, Nazi Germany invaded, followed by a Soviet return in 1944. Pettai’s family escaped to Germany, spending the years 1945-50 in refugee camps established by the Allies.

In 1950, he and his parents immigrated to the United States under the Refugee Act of 1947. Thanks to an agency in New York, Pettai was able to get a scholarship at Colorado A&M, beginning January 2, 1951. Included was a train ticket to Denver via Chicago. The trip was a delight as, instead of the war-ravaged Europe there was “normal life” outside the train window: “peaceful countryside with people at their normal work and play.”

A man met Pettai in Denver and took him to Fort Collins, where he met Lester Osborn (B.S., ’30) and his wife. Osborn worked for Colorado A&M Extension Service. The couple let him live with them during his time at A&M. He remains deeply grateful: “They treated me like their son. Most wonderful people!”

Photo of the The Oval
A picture of the Oval, c. 1953, from Pettai’s photo album

Pettai was able to graduate with a degree in electrical engineering in just two-and-a-half years due in part to being advanced in math as a result of studies in Germany. He also took a heavy load of summer school courses in 1951 and 1952. Pettai says of his A&M experience, “I had a most memorable time, thanks to the wonderful people there! In my letters to my parents, I kept repeating:  ‘What friendly people these are!’” In addition to his coursework, Pettai played in the violin section with the Fort Collins Symphony. He also loved the mountains, finding time to climb Longs Peak, Mt. Richthofen, and Horsetooth Mountain.

After graduation in June 1953, he moved to the East Coast, working first at Bell Telephone Laboratories, then for RCA. He earned a master’s degree in 1960, and his next position was at Micro State Electronics. When the company was acquired by Raytheon and moved to Massachusetts, Sudbury became his home for 25 years. He retired in 1992 and returned to New Jersey in 1994 “for the warmer climate.”

His early experiences in Europe and his career led Pettai to develop three foundations for a successful business life: “Always deliver on what you say you are going to do, when you say you are going to do it. Always be innovating (someone will improve on your product if you don’t).   Always be thinking ahead and have a long-term plan.”

He first met his wife, Asta, in 1938 in Estonia. He again encountered her at various refugee camps in Germany. They were married in 1956 in Rock Island, Ill., where her family had settled, and they had three sons. Arno works for Anritsu Electronics and Allan is a business developer, both in California. Vello is a professor of political science in Estonia and Germany. Asta passed away in 1986. Since 1994, Pettai has shared life and home with a high school classmate from Estonia, Liina Klints, whose husband passed away in 1976. These two partners, both in their 90s, understand and support one another.

This amazing alumnus sums up his life: “Despite the losses and horrors of 1940-45, I am most grateful for what I now have. I’ll never forget what was so generously bestowed on me throughout my life, including the years in Colorado.”