The phrase “the American Dream” is more than words to Viktor Rzeteljski. It is reality.
Imagine being a child and having to escape your Communist-controlled homeland, Yugoslavia. Imagine not knowing freedom. And imagine seeking political asylum in a foreign country, with a foreign language to learn. Viktor Rzeteljski lived it. “I feel very blessed. When I was young, we couldn’t have Bibles, we couldn’t pray in public, faith was practiced underground. My mom taught me prayers at night. So to live in a country where you can practice your faith is a privilege.”
Born near Zagreb, Croatia, Viktor, the only child of Hungarian-Polish-Russian parents, was all of six when he and his mother left the country on a visitor’s permit, finding their way to the U.S. embassy in Nuremberg. His dad, an accountant at a crystal factory, stayed behind so as not to draw attention to their exodus.
Six months later, after paying off border guards, his father escaped, but had no idea where to find his wife and child. He searched and searched. Then, Viktor shares, “I remember the night in the barracks where we were staying, when my mother and I heard the familiar family whistle outside,” Viktor recalls softly, “and we knew my father had finally arrived.”
The family came to America, settling in the San Gabriel Valley, and attending Annunciation Church in Arcadia, where Viktor was confirmed. Viktor’s dad learned English, earned a high school degree, then started working as an accountant in a small retail equipment company where he finished his career and wrote a book to describe his life experience called, “Narrow is the Way.”
Inspired to do well, Viktor became a straight-A student at Arroyo High School in El Monte, and earned an academic scholarship to USC, commuting there from home, and working for his father in the accounting department, “to apply what I was learning in school.” He earned his degree in business administration with an emphasis in accounting.
Viktor was recruited by Peat Marwick Mitchell & Co. (now called KPMG), during his senior year and went to work as a CPA. Little did he know that KPMG would be the only firm he would work with for 35 years. Now a retired partner, he reflects that he enjoyed every minute at KPMG. “It was good work, and it was always interesting because I got promotions and worked in different practices, including the company’s Seattle and San Francisco offices,” he says.
After living in Seattle for twelve years, the family returned to California and settled in Rancho Palos Verdes. He and his wife Mary Beth, and sons Viktor III and Tony, joined St. John Fisher Church. Msgr. David Sork was the new pastor, “and we invited him over to bless our home.” Soon, Viktor and Mary Beth had started a retreat program, “Christ Renews His Parish,” and continue to serve in parish ministries. For Viktor, it is part of sharing God’s word and presence in a world that is in need of hope and charity.
Today, Viktor is hardly “retired,” not with nearly ten different non-profit institutions that request his time and financial expertise. He serves on the boards of Homeboy Industries, Catholic Charities of LA, the Salvation Army – LA Metro division, Town Hall of Los Angeles, Legatus South Bay, Crestmont College, Mary Star of the Sea High School, St. Peter & Paul Elementary School, St. John Fisher Finance Council and Highgrove Management, a private equity real estate firm.
But his faith goes well beyond consulting and advising. “When we lived in Germany,” he recalls, “it was the first time I’d been to a church, the first time I saw a priest, the first time I’d seen anyone receive Communion. When we came to the U.S., I sort of got out of the habit of going to church, but in high school we had Bible studies, right on the school rounds, and that was very welcoming – to talk about the Bible and God. I liked what I heard.”
“This was in the early 1970s, when we had the Jesus freaks movement, with a huge amount of conversions, young people coming to accept a life that included faith. I recall witnessing so-called bad kids return to a life of caring, happiness and faith and stick with it. It was so amazing to see them change.” The more he learned about faith and scripture, the more he was drawn to sharing the good news.
“As Catholics, we are called to bear witness to the good news,” says Viktor. “And that is why, when I was still in school, I asked to become involved in teaching the Bible and became the first Youth Minister at Annunciation Church. It became my desire to serve, to preach, and to lead CCD and confirmation retreats.”
“Through Scripture, people connect with God and feel his presence,” he says thoughtfully. “In trying to reflect on God’s word, and see the stories in my mind, I feel God’s presence.