Buttresses to Broadway: When Lilia Skala Came to Blacksburg

On July 30, 2015, the Lyric Theatre presejted LiLiA!, a one-woman show performed by actress/playwright Libby Skala from the Groundlings Theatre in Los Angeles and the Arclight Theatre Off-Broadway to festivals in Seattle, London, Toronto, Vancouver, Edinburgh, Berlin, Dresden, and beyond. Reviewers have called it “absolutely dazzling… magical and alchemical,” a “unique and spellbinding production… at once appealing and a privilege to view,” and “a thoughtful piece of history – political, theatrical and personal.” Although the Lyric is no stranger to great performances, you might find yourself wondering how such a prestigious production came to tread the Blacksburg boards.

In 2003, Special Collections added a portfolio of architectural drawings by a woman named Lilia Skala to the International Archives of Women in Architecture. The collection (Ms2003-015) primarily comprises her work as a student of architecture at the University of Dresden from 1915 to 1920. Her student work includes architectural drawings, ink and charcoal sketches, and watercolor paintings. The collection also includes copies of her academic records, printed material about the architectural program at the University of Dresden at the turn of the century, articles by and about Lilia, and press material for LiLiA!

[Learn more about the Lila Sofer Skala Student Portfolio in Special Collections]

[Learn more about the donation, from Skala’s sons Peter and Martin]

Special Collections joined the cast in 2003, but the real story – Lilia’s story – begins much earlier.

In 1896, Lilia Sofer Skala was born in Vienna, Austria. Although she had an early passion for the performing arts, Lilia’s family wanted her to have a more “respectable” career. Having graduated Summa cum Laude with a degree in architecture from the University of Dresden, Lilia became the first woman member of the Austrian Association of Engineers and Architects. She practiced professionally in Vienna for a time and, with the encouragement of her husband, began performing with the Max Reinhardt Repertory Theatre. Lilia gained wide acclaim in Europe for her stage and screen roles, but continued to claim her title, Frau-Diplom Ingenieur.

When her Jewish husband was arrested in the wake of the Anschluss – the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany –  Lilia secured his release from a Viennese prison and fled with her family to the United States. Her portfolio of student work was among the personal belongings with which she escaped. As a political refugee in New York, Lilia attended night school to learn English and worked in a Queens zipper factory for her first two years in America.

Lilia returned to the stage as a housekeeper in the 1941 Broadway production Letters to Lucerne. She continued to work steadily on and off Broadway, with occasional television roles. In 1963, Lilia earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress as Mother Maria opposite Sidney Poitier in Lilies of the Field. She later received a Golden Globe nomination for her role in 1977’s Roseland. An industrious performer, Lilia continued to work in film, television, and theatre throughout the 1980s. Among her many accolades was the Western Heritage Wrangler Award from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, which she received in 1981 for her role in Heartlands. Lilia’s final stage appearance was in Lorraine Hansberry’s Broadway show Les Blancs (1989), at the age of 94.

In December 1994, Lilia passed away from natural causes in her New York home. Her granddaughter, Elizabeth “Libby” Skala, is also an accomplished actress and playwright. She began developing LiLiA!, a one-woman show based on her grandmother’s phenomenal life, in 1995. Libby Skala was invited to perform this show during the 18th Congress of the International Union of Women Architects (UIFA), which was jointly hosted by the IAWA in July 2015. Her audience included Blacksburg locals and women architects from Argentina, Eastern Europe, Germany, Israel, Japan, Mongolia, Spain, and beyond. Many of the architects recounted that the performance was a highlight of the conference.

Special Collections currently has an exhibit on display featuring selections from Lilia’s portfolio and materials advertising the LiLiA! play.

Lilia Skala Portfolio Exhibit, July 2015
Lilia Skala Portfolio Exhibit, July 2015

More selections from the Skala Portfolio, Special Collections:

I. J. (Jack) Good: Virginia Tech’s Own Bletchley Park Connection


Enigma, Ultra, Alan Turing, Bletchley Park, the British efforts to break German codes in World War II. Maybe you’ve seen or are waiting to see the 2014 movie, The Imitation Game, which tells part of this story with Turing, quite rightly, as its central character. Perhaps you became aware of this highly classified historical episode when the secrecy surrounding it gave way to public sensation in the early 1970s, almost thirty years after the end of the war . . . or in the many books and movies that have followed. An interest in wartime history, cryptography, or the early development of computers provide only a few of the possible avenues into the story. But did you know that one of the primary characters in that story, a mathematician who earned a Ph.D from Cambridge in 1941 with a paper on topological dimension, was a professor of statistics at Virginia Tech from 1967 until his retirement in 1994, and lived in Blacksburg until his death just a few years ago at the age of 92? Maybe you did, but I didn’t. His name was I. J. Good, known as Jack.

He was born Isidore Jacob Gudak in London in 1916, the son of Polish and Russian Jewish immigrants. Later changing his name to Irving John Good, he was a mathematical prodigy and a chess player of note. In a interview published in the January 1979 issue of Omni, Good says of the claim that he rediscovered irrational numbers at age 9 and mathematical induction and integration at 13, “I cannot prove either of these statements, but they are true.”

In 1941, Good joined the code-breakers at Bletchley Park, specifically, to work on the German Naval Enigma code in Hut 8 under the direction of Alan Turing and Hugh Alexander, the mathematician and chess champion who had recruited him. This is the story that is told in The Imitation Game, in which Jack Good is played by actor James Northcote. Along with Turing’s story, it is the story of the development of the machines that would break the German Enigma codes. The Enigma machine was an electromechanical device that would allow the substitution of letters–and thus production of a coded message–through the use of three (later four) rotors that would accomplish the substitutions. If you knew which rotors were being used and their settings, (changed every day or every second day), one could decode a message sent from another Enigma. If you didn’t know the rotors and the settings, as James Barrat writes in Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era, “For an alphabet of twenty-six letters, 403,291,461,126,605,635,584,000,000 such substitutions were possible.”

This is the world Jack Good entered on 27 May 1941, that and the world of war and the urgent need to defeat the Axis. Turing had already built some of the first Bombes, electromechanical machines–among the earliest computers, really–and had achieved initial and significant success. Good belonged to a team that would make improvements to the process from an approach based in a Bayesian statistical method that Good described in 1998 speech as “invented mainly by Turing.” He also called it “the first example of sequential analysis, at least the first notable example.” For the duration of the war, Good would work to further the British code-breaking technologies, adding his knowledge and understanding of statistics to the development of machines known as the “Robinsons” and “Colossus.” The program was remarkably successful. In its early days, it is credited with helping in the effort to sink the German battleship Bismarck; then helping to win the Battle of the Atlantic, directing the disruption of German supply lines to North Africa, and having an impact on the invasion of Europe in June 1944. What came to be known as “Ultra,” the intelligence obtained by the work of the Bletchley Park code-breakers, is, generally, thought to have shortened the war by two to four years. Jack Good, who worked with Alan Turing both during and after the war, said, “I won’t say that what Turing did made us win the war, but I daresay we might have lost it without him.”

After the war, Good was asked by Max Newman, a mathematician and another Bletchley Park alum, to join him at Manchester University, where they, later joined by Turing, worked to create the first computer to run on an internally stored program. A few years later, he returned to Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) for another decade of classified work for the British government. A three-year stint teaching at Oxford led to a decision in 1967 to move to the United States, but not before he served as a consultant to Stanley Kubrick, who was then making 2001: A Space Odyssey. The HAL (Heuristically-programmed ALgorithmic computer) 9000–the computer with a mind of its own–presumably owed much to the mind of Jack Good.

The camera eye of the HAL 9000 from Stanley Kubrick's 2001 : A Space Odyssey
The camera eye of the HAL 9000 from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 : A Space Odyssey
Jack Good (right) at Hawk Films Ltd., 1966, as adviser on Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey
Jack Good (right) at Hawk Films Ltd., 1966, as adviser on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

At Virginia Tech, Good arrived as a professor of statistics. Always a fellow for numbers, he noted:

I arrived in Blacksburg in the seventh hour of the seventh day of the seventh month of year seven of the seventh decade, and I was put in apartment seven of block seven of Terrace View Apartments, all by chance.

Later, he would be University Distinguished Professor and, in 1994, Professor Emeritus. In 1998, he received the Computer Pioneer Award given by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Computer Society, one of a long list of honors. Good’s published work spanned statistics, computation, number theory, physics, mathematics and philosophy. A 1979 Omni article and interview reports that two years earlier a list of his published papers, articles, books, and reviews numbered over 1000. In June 2003, his list of “shorter publications” alone included 2278 items. He published influential books on probability and Bayesian method.

In that Omni interview, the conversation ranges over such topics as scientific speculation, precognition, human psychology, chess-playing computers, climate control, extraterrestrials, and more before settling in on the consequence of intelligent and ultraintelligent machines. On the latter topic, in 1965, Good wrote:

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an “intelligence explosion,” and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.”

Special Collections at Virginia Tech has a collection of the papers of Irving J. Good that includes 36 volumes of bound articles, reviews, etc. along with a videotape of him and Donald Michie that commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of the work they both did at Bletchley Park. Among the rest of the material is some correspondence and a group of papers described as “PBIs,” which I now know to be “partly baked ideas,” some his own, many sent to him by others, but for which he appears to have had a fondness.

In the end, however, and as his 2009 obituaries suggest, it will be his code-breaking and other intelligence work, particularly from the days at Bletchley Park that I. J. Good will be most remembered. Even though he and all the participants were prevented from talking about that work for years, one guesses that Jack Good wanted to leave others with a sense of it, particularly once in Virginia, as he drove away, with his customized license plate:

Photograph of Jack Good's Virginia license plate (from Collegiate Times, 10 Feb. 1989)
Photograph of Jack Good’s Virginia license plate (from Collegiate Times, 10 Feb. 1989)

On the 70th Anniversary of D-Day

Jimmie W. Monteith, Jr.

Grave marker of Jimmie Monteith, died Normandy, 6 June 1944
Grave marker of Jimmie Monteith, died Normandy, 6 June 1944

. . . it would not be unusual, on this campus, to focus on the story of Jimmy W. Monteith Jr. He came to Virginia Tech in 1937 from Richmond to study Mechanical Engineering. In October 1941, before completing his studies, Monteith, like many of his contemporaries, joined the armed forces, and by 6 June 1944 had already seen combat in North Africa and Sicily, and was among the thousands of soldiers who had trained for the invasion of France. On that day, as a lieutenant in the 16th Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division, Monteith was among the first to land in Normandy on Omaha Beach. What happened next is summed up in the Citation that accompanied the Medal of Honor awarded to him for the action of that day:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty on 6 June 1944, near Colleville-sur-Mer, France. 1st Lt. Monteith landed with the initial assault waves on the coast of France under heavy enemy fire. Without regard to his own personal safety he continually moved up and down the beach reorganizing men for further assault. He then led the assault over a narrow protective ledge and across the flat, exposed terrain to the comparative safety of a cliff. Retracing his steps across the field to the beach, he moved over to where 2 tanks were buttoned up and blind under violent enemy artillery and machinegun fire. Completely exposed to the intense fire, 1st Lt. Monteith led the tanks on foot through a minefield and into firing positions. Under his direction several enemy positions were destroyed. He then rejoined his company and under his leadership his men captured an advantageous position on the hill. Supervising the defense of his newly won position against repeated vicious counterattacks, he continued to ignore his own personal safety, repeatedly crossing the 200 or 300 yards of open terrain under heavy fire to strengthen links in his defensive chain. When the enemy succeeded in completely surrounding 1st Lt. Monteith and his unit and while leading the fight out of the situation, 1st Lt. Monteith was killed by enemy fire. The courage, gallantry, and intrepid leadership displayed by 1st Lt. Monteith is worthy of emulation.

Monteith is one of seven Virginia Tech alumni who have received this nation’s highest award for valor. But if you want to get beyond the descriptions of war, seek out the manuscript collection that bears his name, the Jimmie W. Monteith Collection, Ms1990-062, in Special Collections and read the letters he wrote home before dying in France, or the letters of condolence and sorrow sent to his mother afterwards.

Letter from Jimmy Monteith to his mother, 14 May 1944, first page

Letter from Jimmy Monteith to his mother, 14 May 1944, first page

In this letter, written home on 14 May 1944, just a little more than two weeks before the invasion, Monteith explains that he can’t always write as often as he might like: “Old Uncle Sam has a way of taking up a fellows time. However we are old soldiers now and we can stand a few hardships without too much grief.” He’s 25 years old at the time and he ends the letter by trying to set his mother’s mind at ease by understanding the difficulty of her situation and downplaying his own:

By the way Mother I know that these are hard times for you. The nerve strain must be afull. Please don’t pay too much attention to the papers and the radio, those people always try go get a scoop or something sensational (or something) and most of the time they don’t know too much what they are talking about. I am sure nerve strain is cracking up more people than this old war is. Please don’t let it happen to you. Love Jimmie

But as I mentioned earlier, it would not be surprising to talk about Monteith on this anniversary. But we would do well to remember the others.

On two occasions in January and September 1945, The Techgram, a publication of the university, presented photographs with brief captions of those alumni who had died in service during the war. Without claiming to be complete, The Techgram shows eight others who died on 6 June or shortly thereafter, the result of wounds received during the invasion:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Fourteen others died in France before the end of August 1944:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I’m guessing it doesn’t matter if you first learned about the Normandy invasion from contemporary newsreels, or from watching The Longest Day (1962) or Band of Brothers (2001) or from reading Clayton Knight’s book for kids, We Were There at the Normandy Invasion (1956), or any of the fine books of scholarly history written since. It might not matter whether your experience is burdened by the brutality of war or enraged by the politics of it, it is hard—in simple human terms—to look at these faces and read a simple sentence or two for each one and not get a bit choked up . . . on this 70th anniversary.