Dimi Panitza, the heart and soul of AUBG’s leadership

Tireless, generous, inspiring, “the heart and soul of AUBG’s leadership”: Many are the phrases that describe Dimi Panitza (1930 – 2011), a man whose family name now graces the first named building in the new campus of the American University in Bulgaria – the library. He will tell you jokingly, “I love exaggerations, especially when they are about me,” as he did at the official naming ceremony for the library on May 16, 2009, featuring university community members and guests. Yet it was no exaggeration when student Nora Georgieva referred in jest to Dimi’s “strong and energetic” voice as an obstacle to his being able to enjoy the offerings of the eponymous library. “Library rules are that we all keep quiet,” Georgieva reminded Dimi, whose deep, heartfelt burst of laughter in response reverberated through the entire audience.

Dimi had that effect on people – and not just because of his commanding presence and booming voice. His indefatigable determination and hard work inspire and stimulate. AUBG Board of Trustees Chairwoman Marianne Keller said it best: “From the beginning Dimi has brought so much energy, pride, and love to his role as founding father of AUBG that I don’t think that a single day goes by that he isn’t in contact with someone somewhere in the world about how they can make AUBG do better and be more successful.”

“Dimi was here in 1991 when AUBG was no more than an idea… No one has done more than Dimi to make this place a reality…,” AUBG President David Huwiler recapped. Dimi is one of the founders of the American University in Bulgaria, a member of the AUBG Board of Trustees, and a champion of the university since its founding. Over the years, Dimi and his wife Yvonne have helped with various student activities and have contributed regularly to the scholarship fund for disadvantaged and deserving students.

Dimi also helped the Panitza Library develop into a modern center of learning with access to more than 125,000 books, over 85,000 print and electronic journals, videos and DVDs, audiotapes and CDs, and direct access to many electronic databases around the world. In 1994, he and Yvonne purchased an entire collection from the Farleigh Dickinson University library, or 85,000 volumes, and donated it to AUBG. Later, Dimi helped so that the AUBG library could move to a new building, which was completed in 2008. Most recently, the Panitzas presented the University with a collection of books and maps.

The creation of the AUBG Library, Dimi recalls, became something especially important to him back in the early 1990s. “It was my way to get even with the past – to settle scores with the 45 years of communist rule, during which time libraries in Bulgaria – be they national, city, or university ones – were ruthlessly controlled by the Central Committee of the communist party and were entrusted with one task: the ideological education of the public and the propaganda and promotion of the policies of the ruling party,” he says.

Dimitry-Ivan “Dimi” Evstatiev Panitza was born on November 2, 1930, in Sofia in a family of distinguished Bulgarians. His family tree includes a prime minister, a mayor of Sofia, bankers, philanthropists, officers, and revolutionaries – the builders of modern Bulgaria. Dimi was raised to love his country and work for its well-being, a duty rendered all the more urgent by his premature exile at the age of 18, following the communist takeover of Bulgaria.

He got to work immediately – first as a lowly clerk in a bank in Paris and a few years later as a trainee in the editorial department of the world’s largest-circulation magazine, Reader’s Digest.

Over the years, he worked his way to become the European Editor and later a Managing Editor until he retired from the magazine in 1994. Much of the world was his oyster. He covered foreign affairs, a beat that fit both his interests and his condition as a long-term sojourner in foreign lands.

But never for a moment did Dimi forget where he came from and who he was. When the Berlin Wall came down, Dimi dashed off to his motherland – after 42 years in exile – and set about helping Bulgaria with its transition to democracy.

Births are always emotional, and often difficult, but Dimi knew that it would take more than one good beginning to bring about real change to Bulgaria. In 1991 Dimi and his wife established the Free and Democratic Bulgaria Foundation (FDBF) in Sofia, which has greatly helped make improvements in various spheres of Bulgarian society. Its achievements until its winding up in 2009 include programs that address the plight of street children and homeless youth, help for reform of the child welfare system in Bulgaria, support for the publication of numerous important books, work in the sphere of drug prevention and drug treatment, funding of educational opportunities for young people, and the establishment of the Excellence in Journalism Prizes, which by 2004 had gained recognition as the most authoritative journalism awards in Bulgaria, now replaced by the ongoing annual Civic Honor Prize.

Dimi is the founder and honorary chairman of Junior Achievement-Bulgaria, which offers educational programs in economics and entrepreneurship to adolescents, as well as of Outward Bound-Bulgaria, which organizes a broad range of courses that empowers people to develop their potential by engaging in challenging experiences in unfamiliar outdoor settings.

Dimi’s other significant initiatives include the Alliance for Children and Youth, which assists homeless, unemployed young adults; the Bulgarian School of Politics, whose graduates include members of parliament, regional governors, mayors, and young leaders with varied backgrounds, and which was founded to promote the development of a modern political and governmental culture based on pluralism, tolerance, and open dialogue; and the Institute for Studies of the Recent Past, created to promote research and fill the gap in modern Bulgarian history for the period between 1944 and 1990.

For his work, in December 2000 Dimi received Bulgaria’s highest civilian decoration, the order of Stara Planina, first class. He is also a Chevalier (Knight) of the French Order of the Legion of Honor and is the recipient of the Council of Europe’s Pro Merito medal for his contributions to the democratic processes in Eastern Europe.

Dimi and Yvonne Panitza will always remain an integral part of the American University in Bulgaria—a university for which they did so much. Their legacy will live on as each and every one of us at AUBG is working to build the kind of institution that Dimi Panitza envisioned 28 years ago.