From Russia with Love

Decades Later, Former Professor Natalie Lipsett Maintains a Deep Fondness for Poly

When Natalie Lipsett arrived in America at the age of 19, she had already seen more of the world than many people do in a lifetime. Born in Russia in 1919, she was just two months old when her parents fled the political turmoil there. After a brief stop in Warsaw, they settled in the Free City of Danzig, where Natalie, an only child, was raised in an atmosphere of culture and comfort.

Due to her training in high school, Natalie was virtually fluent in English by the time the Nazi Party took over the government in Danzig, making an escape to the U.S. seem a wise choice. Family friends who had immigrated earlier suggested she study at New York University and offered to pay a semester of tuition for her.

Natalie, who majored in French, showed a marked aptitude for study, and when the time came to register for a second semester, she won a full scholarship—a fortuitous turn of events since her family was struggling financially in their adopted homeland. Although she had intended to teach, after graduating she found there were few such jobs available. She was, however, hired by the New York Public Library to oversee foreign-language periodicals, and she eventually settled happily into married life and motherhood.

That changed when the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, setting off the arms race. “All of a sudden, it occurred to the scientific community in America that they might have known about the launch in advance had they been able to read the journals being published in Russia,” Natalie recalled. “They quickly realized there needed to be courses offered in scientific Russian, and I was offered jobs by four universities.”

Living in Brooklyn and wanting to stay close to home because she had school-age children, Natalie accepted an offer from Poly. Although the decision had been made for purely practical purposes, she quickly fell in love with her students. “Many young people at Poly were the first ones in their families to attend college, and they were so dedicated and hard-working,” she remembered. “I didn’t have a science background, but between my knowledge of Russian and their scientific knowhow, we did wonderful work together.” (Having grown up in a home filled with art and raised by a concert pianist mother, she delighted in taking some of her charges to the theater and concerts during her off-hours.)

Natalie--who once translated a collection of Albert Einstein’s letters that explored his feelings about Israel--became equally fond of her colleagues, and she was grateful to be offered a professorship despite not having a doctoral degree. “I could never complete a thesis because of the demands of my family life,” she said. “So you can imagine what an honor it was to be given the chance to teach at the university level. It felt like a miracle to me!”

Natalie left Poly to move to Florida in the 1970s. There she became involved with the Lifelong Learning Program and lectured at the Palm Beach Community College (now Palm Beach State). Still, she never forgot Poly and her fulfilling time as a faculty member. She has made regular monetary contributions over the years, and she is considering including a bequest in her will, to be earmarked, in all likelihood, for scholarships. “If I had not been given a scholarship all those years ago, it’s very likely I might have spent my career behind the counter at a five-and-dime,” she asserted. “Other young people deserve the same opportunities I had.”