Nicolas Antonoff Jr.
August 31, 1933 – July 9, 2019
In Memory of Nicolas Antonoff, Jr. 31 August 1933 – 9 July 2019
Nicolas Antonoff, Jr. more than once told his children what his father, a post-war Bulgarian émigré who fled with his family into exile from under the Communist shadow, had told him: He would leave them not a fortune in money, but an education. What they did with it was up to them. Education meant, in truth, the world to him, as it had done to his parents. Nothing else could make sense of life; and without sense, there was no point in life. The son of an ambassador, Nicolas Antonoff, Jr. spent his childhood in a period of crisis, from the interwar period through the Second World War. Bulgaria’s alignment with Germany shaped his youth. Grades 1 through 4 were spent in the German school system, starting with the embassy in Moscow, then a Catholic school in Stockholm run by a Swedish baroness who was educated in Germany, followed by third grade in the newly opened German school in Stockholm, where he wound up being promoted to fifth grade – erste Realschulklasse – which he completed at the French school run by the Christian brothers in Sofia.
This francophone shift occurred because, as Nicolas recently put it, “The German school would not admit me due to differences of opinion with my father concerning the progress of the eastern campaign.” The understatement veiled a deep family crisis, as Nicolas Sr. had ventured to suggest to his King that Bulgaria part company from Hitler. The Gestapo begged to differ, and the family nearly ended in a concentration camp until rescued by the King. In an awkward compromise with the Führer, the ambassador was put under house arrest. Now in Sofia, Nicolas Jr. spent sixth grade math and catechism classes in the air raid shelter, as he later described it, “to the accompaniment of the 8th USAF bombing runs and heavy flak counterpoint in 1943 - 1944.”
By the time his family debarked at Ellis Island in 1947, Nicolas had gone through six schools in as many countries in three languages, including one year (1945 - 1946) of private hard sciences lessons in German at home and soft subjects (history, geography, and literature) in French at a three-student class at the Swiss legation in Ankara, while taking English lessons at home and studying, at his mother’s insistence, to pass the middle school certification exam at the Bulgarian school in Istanbul. Then, after a stint in Egypt waiting for visas, came high school in America, first in Tarentum, PA and then Washington, D.C. He graduated high school two years later at the age of sixteen.
Nicolas attended Catholic University and graduated with a BS in Physical Chemistry while minoring in philosophy and history. At Yale University, studying under Benton B. Owen, he became the first student to use a computer in writing a thesis for the Chemistry Department, and he encountered some suspicion and resentment in the process. Nowadays, of course, one can scarcely write a thesis in the sciences without quantitative analysis. Initially intending to pursue a doctorate, he stopped with a master’s degree. He could, he said, hire PhD’s in industry and make more money. Undoubtedly part of the rationale had to do with the fact that Nicolas III was born in 1958, and Anne Louise in 1962. Throughout his undergraduate and graduate school years, he worked on translations on the side, particularly from Russian scientific journals.
Upward climbing in a traditional sense, like financial gain for its own sake, meant less to Nicolas than loyalty to friends and colleagues, among whom he built a wide network. That network came to define a career comprised of lateral moves, from industry to industry. After graduating from Catholic University, he began as a physical chemist working for DuPont and then Olin Mathiesen at a time of rapid expansion in the defense industry. He would later regale family and friends with hair-raising tales of lab bench explosions and other workplace hazards. Nicolas worked tirelessly to advance the state of the art hydrazine and other exotic high-energy liquid rocket fuel technology, which was critically required for NASA and US Air Force space and missile programs He worked on projects such as rocket fuel that would later be used in the Gemini series of space launches. Following his graduation from graduate school at Yale University, his early experience led him into the aerospace field, specializing in computerized quality control. In step with the development of the burgeoning defense industry, he would sign up for contracts as they caught his interest, with his young family in tow. He sought out new opportunities, choosing those that appealed to him most. “Moving,” he said looking back on his own younger years, “was always expected and fun.” He handed down to his children this same sense of adventure.
Nicolas often seemed like an emissary from an age long past. History still lived, and logic ruled his world, as did tradition. He was an avid tennis player who imparted to his children a love for the proper form and style of tennis in its classical era. He maintained an intense personal interest in history alongside the math and science of his professional world, but always from what historians would now call a “de-centered” perspective. Rather than reiterate the triumphant Anglo-American narrative, he told the story from the Central and East European standpoint. He had a particular love for Balkan history. At times, “we” could mean Macedonia or Bulgaria. But he never let his ancestry intrude upon his love for his new country. The future, he knew, belonged to America. His father had chosen to emigrate to the United States to bring up Nicolas Jr. in the country that now dominated the world. Europe, east and west, was done, never more so than in 1945.
In later years, during more than two decades in New Jersey, Nicolas split his attention between his beloved dogs and conservative political causes. Turning his mathematical acuity to taxes, he became a hawk on the school board budget, pursuing waste and fraud with considerable forensic skill. When frustrated by what he deemed corruption, he chose to run for the school board himself. A founder of the local “Tea Party Patriots,” he placed his hopes in American populism, always confident that the people knew best.
Nicolas was a straight shooter, never varnishing his opinion or sugar-coating his message. That candor made his personal advice utterly reliable. He told simple and unpopular truths, just as he could see through charlatans and lies with uncanny acumen.
And he devoted himself to those he loved. Gruff at times, he had a very warm and tender heart. No matter how thorny the thicket, he always had a way to extract anyone who sought his help. Born and raised in a time of war, he knew when to worry and when not. A realistic perspective and ability to prioritize helped him see his family through thick and thin.
Above all, Nicolas prized family itself, from generation to generation. Legacy defined the future, not in a material but rather in an intellectual and cultural sense. There were, and are, ideas and values worth preserving and nurturing; he lived them, and he instilled them.
Nicolas is survived by his wife, Annette, his two children, Nicolas Antonoff III and Anne Louise Antonoff, and his grandson Nicolas Antonoff IV.
In lieu of flowers, please send charitable donations in the memory of Nicolas Antonoff, Jr. to the Fredericksburg Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
- Gathering Thursday, July 18, 2019
- Celebration of Life Thursday, July 18, 2019
Nicolas Antonoff Jr.
July 15, 2019
We lived across the street from Mr Antonoff in Jackson. My 4 sons were always hitting their balls in his yard, he never complained just said but if they break a window that won’t be good!! Lol he was such a nice man, we were sorry when they moved!! Prayers to the family!