March 21, 2001: Class Notes


1991-2000 & Graduate School

Class Notes Features:

Master of his universe
Jacques-André Istel '49 creates the center of the world out of the desert

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Master 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.

By K.F.G.

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