My brother, James J. Novak, aged fifty-seven, an independent writer and champion of south Asia, died September 30 at the New York University Medical Center after a fierce six-week struggle against multiple cancers.
Born April 19, 1939, in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Jim authored the critically acclaimed Bangladesh: Reflections on the Water, a lyrical, yet keenly analytical portrait of a people and a culture he loved. It has been praised as the best volume on Bangladesh ever published by a foreigner.
Jim spent much of the last thirty years in South Asia, much of it in Bangladesh, where from 1982 to 1985 he directed the Asia Foundation and where from September 1994 to May 1995 he was a Senior U.S. Fulbright Research Fellow.
As a founder of the board of the Asia Mail, Jim was a columnist of that paper, as well as for the Eastern Financial Times and Worldview, journal of the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs. He published many articles in other journals, including the Washington Post, the Atlantic Monthly, the Mainichi Daily News of Tokyo, the New York Times, and the Times of India. Most appeared under the pen name Jeremiah Novak.
As an independent writer and international consultant, my brother cultivated an intellectual life and a life of adventure in the nineteenth-century British style. Indeed, among his papers is a brace of short stories on daily life in Asia, conceived as the observations of an American, Somerset Maugham.
In 1995, Jim accepted a dangerous assignment as consultant to the Koh-i-Noor Foundation for Afghanistan, which required extended travel in the regions controlled by feuding Afghan guerrilla armies. One of Afghanistan’s provincial governors appointed him an “honorary colonel” in the Afghan resistance army, guaranteeing his safe passage.
From his earliest days, my brother seemed destined for success. As valedictorian of his senior class at Johnstown Catholic High School, he was chosen Most Outstanding Boy by the faculty, led the debating team to a national championship, and, as right tackle on the football team, recovered a fumble for the only touchdown in an upset victory over an important rival school.
Jim received a B.A. from Boston College in 1961 while working part-time in a home for disturbed boys of all races. There he learned a down-to-earth manner that often served him in good stead. Once on a Boston street two young toughs held him up at gunpoint. Raising his hands, he asked, “Who won the fight?” They replied excitedly, “Sugar Ray.” “What round? How did it happen?” After they explained, he asked how much they wanted. Shrugging, one said, “Five dollars.” “Here,” Jim said, and kept his wallet.
Jim graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a master’s degree in economics in 1963. Joining the ROTC in college, he had scorned the more glamorous forces and chose the Army, requesting Armored; he wanted to command tanks. Thus, after Notre Dame, the Army sent him to Bamberg, Germany, with the Third Armored Division. Because of sudden transfers above his rank, he was thrown into the role of acting company commander even though he was only a Second Lieutenant. Drawing on his street smarts, he drove his newly formed unit relentlessly and with humor, and to the surprise of all, they won the NATO gunnery competition, beating the Germans, the British, and all the others. He left the Army as a captain and (beating out a West Point graduate, which pleased him greatly) company commander of Company A, Third Battalion, 35th Armor. In 1963, President Kennedy sent him in the first detachment of five hundred support troops to Vietnam, where he was on assignment for several months.
In 1965, Jim joined the Pfizer Corporation as a product manager to develop marketing programs for new products such as Terramycin; in 1971 he was made director of pharmaceutical development for Asia, supervising sales in seventeen nations and eleven factories. In 1974, he became vice president for A.H. Robins Co. in Manila, and in two years doubled the Philippines operation. Returning to the U.S., he moved to State College, Pennsylvania, and continued writing and consulting. He traveled often to Asia, and was active in projects to help various governments such as Laos, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and above all, Bangladesh. He was widely regarded as South Asia’s champion before the rest of the world.
My brother left behind copies of a vast correspondence with persons worldwide. He was rich in long-lasting friendships on all continents.
Jim is survived by his wife, Naomi Rock Novak; three grown children: Joshua, Joseph, and Pei Wen; and by four granddaughters. Jim was preceded in death by our brother, Father Richard J. Novak, C.S.C., who until his untimely death at twenty-seven, taught at Notre Dame College in Dhaka, where he is buried.
Jim’s immediate family has established the James J. Novak Scholarship Fund for needy students at the Notre Dame College in Dhaka, and donations may be sent to 100 Hartswick Ave., State College, Pennsylvania 16801.