Culmination of life’s work for this intrepid couple is investing in the future of the Estonian community
If you ask Tiina and Agu Ets what their life’s work has been, the answer is simple: to cherish and support the Estonian community.
Agu and Tiina have furthered their strong commitment by becoming Viru Vanem donors to the KESKUS International Estonian Centre, currently in development in downtown Toronto. Designed by award-winning architect Alar Kongats, this spectacular modern building will be a vibrant global hub for all Estonians.
“This centre is a new start, and a rejuvenation of the community,” Agu said. “It will be a world class facility of which we can all be proud.”
How their story began…
Ever since the couple met in Baltimore at rahvatants (Estonian folk-dancing) when in their 20s, this commitment to the community has grown steadily.
Agu would drive to Baltimore every Friday night for dance practice from Northern Virginia, a little more than an hour’s drive, where he was working as a computer scientist on various government projects.
“I thought he was a pretty darn good dancer,” Tiina recounts. “And the rest, as they say, is history!”
And what a history. They have helped shape the North American Estonian community through individual and joint projects that continue to this day.
After meeting in Baltimore, the couple married and lived a long time in the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC where the family grew and flourished. During the COVID pandemic, they 'downsized' and now live in Brunswick MD, about 100 kilometres from Washington DC.
Their son Taivo and wife Kaili (n. Telmet), live in Hamilton, Ontario and have two children: Kristjan, 6 and Eevi, 4. He works as an account executive for the cloud-based software company Salesforce.
Daughter Marika is married to Jaakko Lampi, and calls Tallinn home, but they are currently living in Rome, where Marika serves as Consul at the Estonian Embassy. They have two children: Anton, 6 and Lia, 3.
Daughter Hillevi earned her PhD at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia PA and lives in Maryland where she teaches physiology and pharmacology at Montgomery College.
Becoming part of a strong and proud culture
Agu was born in the displaced persons’ camp at Geislingen, Germany, to which many Estonians fled after the Soviets invaded Estonia. He came to the U.S. with his parents Heino and Virve Ets (n. Tattar) in 1949 at age three.
“Some of the passengers got off at New York, but our family was sent further south to New Orleans,” Agu said. “It was the luck of the draw as to where people were sent.”
The family settled in eastern Texas and some months later moved to Seabrook, New Jersey, joining a vibrant Estonian community of recent refugees. Moving to Lakewood, New Jersey a few years later, Agu participated in Estonian folk dancing, theatre, sports and other youth organizations.
He cites a defining moment at age 17 when he attended a scout camp in Sweden. There were other Estonian youth from Sweden, Germany, the U.K., the U.S., Australia and Canada and the common language was Estonian! This ignited a keen interest in Estonian and his heritage.
“Until then, I wondered why I should learn Estonian,” he said. “That trip changed my life. I realized I was part of a strong and proud culture and I wanted to know more.”
Successful careers and community leadership
Agu earned his electrical engineering degree at Rutgers University and a Master’s degree in computer science from the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia PA). His career spanned the burgeoning field of data and computer security, working for many companies and completing his career at MITRE Corporation, retiring in 2017. For Agu, that just means he can spend more time on Estonian pursuits.
He was elected multiple times to the Eesti Rahvuskomitee Ühendriikides (Estonian American National Council) and in 1990-1991 was one of the USA delegates to Eesti Kongress (Congress of Estonia). He is a member of the Eesti Üliõiplaste Selts (Estonian Students’ Society) and since 2010 has been Chair of the Baltimore Estonian Congregation (EELK Baltimore Markuse kogudus).
“The Baltimore community is dwindling, and the Estonian House was sold,“ he said. “It was heart-breaking, but we realize that the future for the Estonian community in North America is nevertheless strong, and a big part of that will be at KESKUS.” The Baltimore Estonian Society donated US$100,000 to KESKUS in order to bolster the future of the global Estonian community (read more here).
Tiina (n. Liiv - her parents were Meeta and Voldemar Liiv) was born and raised in Baltimore, where she was involved in all manner of Estonian activities including girl guides, Estonian school, folk dancing, theatre and other youth organizations.
Her involvement with the guiding movement continues. She is a leader with U.S. Estonian Guides and has observed first-hand at the Lakewood camp how many youth embrace their Estonian heritage, even when their knowledge of the language is limited.
“I’ve seen young guides holding hands and singing ‘eestlane olen ja eestlaseks jään’ (I am Estonian and I will remain Estonian) with tears running down their cheeks,” Tiina said. “It’s so touching, they love being part of this larger family, and it shows how these kinds of events and opportunities strengthen our culture.”
Tiina has participated in Estonia’s global relationships in a unique way as an Estonian translator and interpreter. She received an intriguing call one day in 1990 from the Voice of America where she was a broadcaster. Washington needed an interpreter for a meeting between Estonian Prime Minister Edgar Savisaar and U.S. President George H.W. Bush. Tiina was dispatched to the White House to be the go-between and spent an hour in the Oval Office with the two leaders.
“It was a very touch and go time for Estonia during that period,” Tiina recounts. “I thought it was wonderful that the U.S. recognized Estonia and had this meeting. It was very exciting to be part of it. They spoke for an hour, and I did my best, even though I have to admit I was nervous!”
Apparently this first connection went exceedingly well, as Tiina went on to interpret during Estonian government officials' meetings with three more U.S. Presidents: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Tiina is a self-confessed “language nerd” who absolutely loved learning grammar at Estonian school. She continued her studies well into adulthood and earned her Master’s degree in German at Georgetown University in order to better understand the science of linguistics.
“I love the unique qualities of the Estonian language and unlocking its secrets,” she said. “The unusual way in which words are constructed and used is fascinating.”
During their retirement Agu and Tiina intend to spend significant time in their Estonian home, taking in the rich cultural offerings of concerts, theater performances, markets was well as connecting with a wide circle of friends. Relaxing in Estonian countryside includes another favorite activity - ‘rabamatkamine’ (bog hiking), all the while keeping their eye firmly on the future in North America.
Fresh ideas will help our community thrive
Agu and Tiina know what makes the Estonian community in North America tick and are well-placed to observe and comment on the what could lead to ensuring a successful future.
“We’ve noticed how Estonian communities thrive in areas such as New York, Washington and Los Angeles - it’s often aided by an infusion of new blood – Estonians from Estonia coming to live here, as well as the younger generation getting involved,” Agu comments.
“New and different ideas are what keep our communities alive, and KESKUS will be a big part of that by facilitating cultural exchange and the flow of ideas,” he added. “Estonians are travellers, and historically 20 per cent of the population live outside the country. We need a central place where to gather.”
“It is absolutely vital.”
Get involved and help support our future
Are you interested in helping build this spectacular new home for the global Estonian community? Please join our growing list of capital campaign donors! The International Estonian Centre’s donor categories are Kalevipoja Laud for gifts over $100,000 (including naming rights for specific areas), Viru Vanemad for gifts over $10,000, and Kungla Rahvas for gifts up to $10,000. Stay tuned for the launch of the Kungla Rahvas campaign in 2021.
Donations may be made as a family gift, or in honour of an individual or family. All Canadian and U.S. donations will be issued a tax receipt.
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DIGITAL Estonian Life No. 20 - May 20, 2022