21, 2001: Class
of his universe
Jacques-André Istel '49 creates the center of the world out of the
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of his universe
Jacques-André Istel '49 creates the center
of the world out of the desert
Aman of extraordinary
energy, Jacques-André Istel '49 has made a life out of accomplishing
the unexpected. As a boy, he fled his native France in 1940. As
a young adult, he sought adventure - hitchhiking, driving fast cars,
jumping out of airplanes. At Princeton he reluctantly studied economics
- he "hated every minute" of it - at the order of his
father, André Istel, a French banker and diplomat. He lasted
only a short time in his father's business on Wall Street before
making a living out of parachuting.
Today, he's the mayor
of a city he created out of the California desert and that he named
after his wife, Felicia. Istel calls his town Felicity, the center
of the world - and he has a plaque to prove it.
In 1985 Istel wrote a
children's book, Coe, the Good Dragon at the Center of the World,
that locates the world's center at Felicity. Imperial County then
recognized the town's new status by law. Marking the center is a
dot on a bronze plaque housed in a marble and glass pyramid. Why
would Istel go to all this effort to create a fanciful point? "If
you have a wife who has stuck with you through thick and thin .
. . you want to give her some recognition," says Istel.
With a population of
about 30, Felicity covers 15 square miles and sits eight miles from
downtown Yuma, Arizona. A 25-foot section of the original stairway
of the Eiffel Tower stands at the entrance to the town. Each building
conforms to a strict architectural code determined by the Felicity
Historical Society, which Istel hopes will act as his "posthumous
instrument for architectural control."
A former Marine Corps
officer, parachuting champion (he made his last jump in 1972), and
the father of the sport of skydiving in the U.S., Istel first became
intrigued by the land during the Korean War when he passed through
with the Marines. After the war, the young Frenchman bought the
bulk of the township that is now Felicity but sat on it for about
25 years. Meanwhile he started Parachutes, Inc., in Bedford Village,
New York, which designed and sold parachutes and developed the first
private parachuting school in the U.S. After selling his company
in the mid-1980s, Istel and his wife decided to "go and sit
in the desert and enjoy life."
Istel hasn't exactly
sat still. He's hard at work creating the World Commemorative Center,
the heart and soul of Felicity. Dedicated to remembering individuals,
institutions, and history, the Center is home to engraved granite
walls designed to last for 4,000 years. Each wall is a hundred feet
long and accommodates 6,000 names. Several have been built (part
of one honors the Class of 1949) and thousands more are planned
with the first hundred around the still-to-be-erected Hill of Prayer,
upon which will sit a church.
Of the World Commemorative
Center, he says, "It's important to have a place which maintains
a balance between quality of life as well as a place to think and
to remember." In the open space of the desert, the daredevil
in Istel might have slowed down, but not his thirst for things original.