Old Lions Department: Architectural Historian Albert Schmidt at 92

Historians/History
tags: interview, Old Lions Department, Albert Schmidt



Erik Moshe is an HNN Features Editor.


The historian who lived a long life is working on a long article—a monograph, perhaps, about city planning and urbanism in provincial Russia, finding and shaping Catherine the Great’s imperial urban space. Born in 1925, Albert Schmidt calls himself a workaholic, and insists he always has been, but he tries to have fun too. 

An emeritus professor of history and law at the University of Bridgeport and Quinnipiac University’s School of Law, Schmidt has written about Russian architectural history and town planning, Soviet law, and English legal history.

Since retirement, he was a docent at the National Portrait Gallery for fifteen years and he volunteered at the League of Women Voters Lobby Corps for seventeen, lobbying for various kinds of legislation. He was docent at historic houses and architecture tours for about ten years at the Decatur House in Lafayette Square and Heurich House (the DC Historical Society) near DuPont Square. 

He has been in retirement nearly as long as he’s worked —at 92 years of age, this is an understandable parallel. His first job was at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and he moved to Connecticut in 1965. He retired in 1990 and moved to Washington D.C. with his wife of 67 years, Kathryn. He became attracted to the capital because it seemed like a great place for retirement. 

Schmidt met his wife at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. “My home was Louisville, Kentucky. I went across the river to Indiana and she was from Cincinnati, right up the river from me. We met at DePauw and dated, nearly broke up, patched things up, married in 1951 and here we are, 67 years later. Happy ending, huh?”

He continued: “We bought a house in Mount Pleasant on Hobart Street in 1979 when property was still fairly cheap. Part of the front door was boarded up from the post-Martin Luther King riots that had occurred in the neighborhood.” They rented the basement apartment for eleven years, and on schedule, when Schmidt retired, he stayed there for ten years. When he could not easily negotiate the stairs, they moved to a co-op in Cleveland Park, the Broadmoor on Porter and Connecticut. It was on the list of James Goode’s Best Addresses: A Century of Washington’s Distinguished Apartment Houses

“It’s a nice little place,” said Schmidt. “We’re not native Washingtonians by a long shot but we’ve been here since 1990 so we knew our way around. I used to drive but I no longer can. I’ve got neuropathy and can’t tell where my feet are going so I use a walker.”

When he was able to be more physically active, Schmidt enjoyed lobbying for the League of Women Voters. “I do try to keep up with current politics; I’m not a political animal to the extent that I’ve been involved as a politician myself, but I’ve always worked for someone,” he said. 

In Connecticut, he and his wife lived next door to Leonard Bernstein, with whom he worked with on a gubernatorial campaign. Bernstein’s home was very spacious and Schmidt’s wasn’t, so Bernstein opened his for fundraising purposes. Schmidt managed elections in 1997, 1998, and 2000 in Bosnia and Kosovo, so he has stayed involved in politics. “My wife’s even more a political animal than I,” especially for DC voting rights in Congress earlier this decade. 

“I wasn’t sure I ever was going to college. The 1930s were hard for my family but that which was the source of agony for so many families was a blessing for me, namely being in World War II,” said Schmidt. He used the GI Bill and though he lost some of his best friends in the war, for him, it gave him a free education—all the way to the doctorate, he said. “I’d never thought I’d get a doctorate, I thought I was going to be a bookkeeper. Instead of taking foreign languages in high school, I took six semesters of bookkeeping and accounting. I was awarded a scholarship for college which took care of my tuition and I waited tables at sorority houses and that gave me my board, and I saved my GI Bill until graduate school and that led me all the way to the doctorate —it was very unforeseen.”

He wrote a memoir of his life that attempts to list the various activities of every year. “I started ten years before I was born. Born in 1925, I went back to 1914. My family knew many WW1 veterans, and I thought that was a good idea because of the association.”

As visiting scholar at George Washington University, he receives library privileges and attends seminars at the Institute for European, Russian, Eurasian Studies. He once went to Ukraine to lecture for a month under GW’s auspices. He’s frequently attended events at the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “Every Monday, there is a Washington DC history seminar there — I used to attend regularly, but I don’t negotiate the Metro any longer. My walking’s so bad, I don’t want to take any chances. I formerly took the Metro all the time.” 

The Cold War International History Project (CWIHP) at the Wilson Center even has an internship named after him. He once taught a course at GW, “but I’ve really been retired since 1990,” said Schmidt. 

His daily schedule is as such: He gets up early in the retirement home where he lives and starts working at 5:30-6:00 AM on his research papers. Sometimes, he doesn’t work. “I do miss water aerobics. I exercise twice a day here. In the morning in a class and in the afternoon, usually on an elliptical machine or walking.”

THE AMERICAN WITH THE FROZEN BEARD IN RUSSIA 

When Schmidt was in the Soviet Union for the first time—for the longest stretch—he lived at Moscow University. He went to the U.S. Embassy and used the commissary there to do shopping and he did his own cooking. “I bought good stuff,” said Schmidt. 

For a Sunday meal, he’d go to a hotel. “It was expensive and wasn’t great. I like Russian food. If you go to the Russian Tea Room in Manhattan, it’s good, but my Soviet dining wasn’t that. In Britain, I could eat fish and chips but I’ve never spent a lot going to expensive places. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in The Netherlands because one of the great libraries in Soviet law was in Leiden. I’d been there for weeks at a time and I liked the restaurants.”

Schmidt’s favorite period is Old Russia, mainly the eighteenth century. “Peter and Catherine were really transformative figures. Catherine’s intent was, in part, to Europeanize Russia and she was very successful in many ways in doing so. The Soviets tried to minimize her achievements because anything that Imperial Russia did was unacceptable to them, but they became much more generous, eventually. My PhD was in English history but I went back to Indiana University in the early Sixties and studied Russian Eastern European history and related subjects and then travelled in the Soviet Union for six months and Eastern Europe in 1962-63 and I went a number of times after that to either Russia or the Ukraine in ‘98. I have not done any archival work in Russian history —I’ve done archival work in English history, but not Russian. For the most part, I donated my Russian library to Hillwood Museum; it’s called the Marjorie Merriweather Post residence. It’s near Cleveland Park and is a magnificent place, and there is a library. Because of the aesthetic aspects, much of the library consists of works of Russian art, but they have almost nothing on Russian architecture,” said Schmidt. 

Schmidt wrote a book about architecture and the planning of classical Moscow and donated all of the books on Moscow to this museum. “Now I’m working on provincial Russia, where there’s nothing more to do! I might start a new field,” joked Schmidt.

Classical Russia is a reference to the architectural style, the style generally of the art. Provincial Russia is a geographical term. In other words, there is provincial classicism and there’s Moscow classicism. Around Moscow, that’s the area Schmidt knows best. 

He has been to the Caucasus but he’s never been to Eastern Siberia or to Central Asia, although he has been to North Russia —Archangel, way north. “Not in the winter though. It can get so bloody cold. Experienced forty below in Leningrad once,” reminisced Schmidt. He usually has a much thicker beard than when we spoke, which he said was frozen “and I’ve had ice all over my beard.” 

Schmidt didn’t always just deal with architectural history. About midway in his career, he became involved in Soviet law. In the early ‘70s, he went into college administration, and had been a chair of the history department at the University of Bridgeport for a number of years. Those were good years, he said, and he had reasonable success. He became Dean and eventually Vice President of the university.

“But that didn’t work out too well. Times got hard and the president expected more of me than I could deliver so our relationship became fairly tense, and finally, I resigned from the administrative post to go back to teaching. The dean of the law school was very appreciative of what I’d done as an administrator and offered me a post teaching Soviet law. I told him that I had no knowledge of legal education. How can I possibly do that?’”

The dean said, “translate your Russian history into Soviet law, translate your English history into English common law, and your European history into European legal history.” For Schmidt, that was easier said than done, but he agreed, and in the late early ‘80s, he worked hard to become a legal historian and received a grant to go to NYU law school for a year, “just for exposure to legal education.” 

He then became acquainted with a whole cast of Soviet legal scholars and “built almost a whole new career” in the ‘80s by teaching part-time law school and part-time college liberal arts. “That’s where I ended up —I try to publish whatever I do. Now I’ve gone back to Russian architectural history,” said Schmidt.

He did Soviet law tours to Russia which he described as all right, but the one trip that he truly anticipated was one where they’d take a group of students to Central Asia as well as European Russia, but then Chernobyl happened and Schmidt’s tour “melted away” —people withdrew from it. That was his last attempt to see Central Asia. 

“What was really new to me... we know Soviet laws or the lack thereof by the high handedness of Soviet leaders, and while there may be a legal basis —Stalin, Khrushchev, and others had been very lax in being faithful to what a legal system’s supposed to do — bestow justice. However, civil law is not so bad. Tort law and contract law —these are all pretty good, well-organized, and that was interesting. Law under Gorbachev, especially.” 

Schmidt also became involved with an international group of Soviet law scholars and liked their company; he in turn did follow a path that most of them did not follow, mainly historic preservation law. Since Schmidt was knowledgeable about the architecture, he figured he could transfer his knowledge into preservation law. He published some articles in that area. He was also was very impressed by the relationship between Soviet and German civil law.

“The structure was similar, except the Russians added the socialist dimension to it. I published in that area too. I tried to publish because I didn’t want to be simply a parasite but I never achieved the kind of expertise many of the people in that field have. Jack of all trades, master of none, that pretty much sums it up.”

It was an unexpected change of career directions in the late 1970s, spurned by his tense relationship with the president of the university. Schmidt’s wife Kathryn was a librarian in the high school system in Westport, Connecticut —Connecticut’s “gold coast.” It was a good high school, he said, and she and a group of faculty were invited to go to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem for a six-week summer program, and Schmidt was “stuck with that job as vice president.”

When he resigned from his post, he accompanied her to Israel. “I do try to have a project whenever I do something and my project then was to go to West Bank University—Birzeit, near Ramallah. Birzeit was probably the best of the West Bank universities, and I went to the University of Bethlehem and Najah University in Nablus, Palestine. I wrote an article on these Arab West Bank universities after I got back. That was my project in Israel but I’ve enjoyed Israel very much, and I got an award: ‘best participating non-participant.’ I had no business there, and what I did do was try to bring faculty and students from these Arab universities to the Hebrew University for a gathering and it was sort of fun because most had never met their opposites. It was quite an experience!”

On how Russians compared to the Arabs and Israelis during his time there, Schmidt heard about a number of Israelis who had a Soviet experience themselves; they were refugees in relatively early ‘78. “I must say though, the situation—bad as it was then—it’s not as bad as it is now. Certainly, this was before much of the violence between sides that has occurred since. For example, Hebron, which has been a place of violence since the late ‘20s —we went there and it still wasn’t as bad as it became.” 

Schmidt did take a trip up the length of Gaza to the Egyptian border, and he also went to ancient Saint Catherine’s monastery in Sinai when it was still under Israeli control. These exciting diversions may have ended up sapping some of his scholarship, “I guess you could say.”

Amongst his other diversions, Schmidt travelled to Latin America and visited Machu Picchu, Peru when it was springtime.” The funniest thing about the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador, he said, was when he was in a whale tour group and they bore witness to a ridiculous mating ritual on top of a rock. One of the huge tortoises mounted a boulder and thought it was a female.

INNOVATIVE PROGRAMS IN THE 60S

One of the main things that Schmidt considers to be one of his important accomplishments was during the Sixties “when there was a real largesse of funding from the federal government, something not seen these days, and it all went for education. To a considerable extent, it was because Russia had launched the Sputnik. That was their first venture to space and it meant for as far as the U.S. was concerned that they were ahead of us in rocketry and space exploration.”

Sputnik occurred in the late ‘50s and so Congress passed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) which allowed for the study of advanced technologies and also crucial foreign languages that would prove useful. In 1952–53, Schmidt had had a Fulbright scholarship to Britain to get his doctorate but this was his second big grant, an NDEA one, which provided for his going to Indiana University to study Russian languages, and then a third one was when he was teaching. He had applied for and was awarded a grant to establish an Institute for non-Western history as a faculty member of the University of Bridgeport.

“I say ‘I’ but I have to be careful not to make this too personal, but obviously the people who were at Bridgeport in the history department when I came there thought only in terms of U.S. history and European history, and they gave me carte blanche to hire new faculty. I hired people in areas that were not usually represented. In other words, I wanted to hire an Africanist, a Middle Easternist, a South Asia (India/Pakistan) specialist, and I wanted to hire an East Asian/China/Japan specialist.”

“In any case,” he went on, “I did obtain permission to hire an Africanist who happened to be a specialist in the Middle East too and I hired a South Asianist and a Latin American historian, and for a time, Bridgeport had a unique history department. When I applied for these institutes to bring non-specialists in for summer programs, I had the faculty to back up my proposals.”

In 1967, 68, 69, and 70, Schmidt obtained funding from the institutes in what they then termed non-Western history “because they had this faculty that was interested in teaching in the summer, but the participants were from high school —even elementary school teachers for programs in those areas. We made the program especially attractive because we offered a Master’s Degree if you accumulated enough credits. They would do that through attending classes during the year, not funded by the grant. In the summer, these people got scholarships.”

During the rest of the year, students had to pay their own way. They offered a Master’s program that gave them access to all of those exotic areas. “It was really a good deal for everybody concerned. In ‘67–68, normal; ‘69, it was a two-year deal. Those who were awarded the scholarship came one year to Bridgeport and the next year they went to India —they saw a lot of India. The only trouble was, summer in India is no picnic. It’s dreadfully hot. In the summer of 1969, I had to go to India to contact all the places where we were going to send our students and work out arrangements. I did that for about six weeks and I travelled through almost the entire subcontinent of India. It was fantastic. It was an around the world trip; I came one way and went back the other. I came back through Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.”

Schmidt found these educational excursions to be very interesting and useful, not just for the students, but for him. He still hears from the school teachers he worked with, many of whom are retired now. 

“This was an eye opener for many of these people who had never been beyond their school district but we don’t do that in education anymore. They were given a stipend for going to summer school —that was pretty liberal.”

Schmidt’s own history has largely been one of moving in a variety of areas instead of concentrating on one. He had a stint in administration and different fields of history, and he tried to publish in any field that he taught.

AN OLD PRACTITIONER REMEMBERS THE EXCITING DAYS

Schmidt has always been enchanted by the visual remains of an earlier period when he studies history. When he went to Italy, Schmidt was still working on a dissertation in Tudor-Stuart English history. He was still spellbound by Venice and Florence and how Venice of today hasn’t changed very drastically from the Venice of five hundred years ago. 

He went to Indiana University in the early ‘60s, had his first sabbatical from Coe College in Iowa and they said, “What do you want to do?” First, he was at Indiana university for a calendar year from September of ‘60 to July or August of ‘61 and he took three years of Russian language and began to have some competence in reading and speaking Russian. Then he took related courses: Russian literature, Soviet economics, eastern European history (because he became interested in eastern Europe in 1956 with the Hungarian revolution and he lectured publicly on Hungary and European history, using the stipend that he received from those lectures to bring a Hungarian revolutionary youth to the college). 

He was especially intrigued with Czechoslovakia, since Cedar Rapids has a large population of Czechs, and there is a considerable amount of Polish history there as well. Self critical about his knowledge of European history, Schmidt went to Indiana and took a course in Balkan history. He came to know the head of the Eastern European program, Robert Byrnes, who was very helpful to Schmidt, understanding what Schmidt was trying to do —he was trying to establish himself in another field entirely. 

“He drew me aside once, and said, ‘How would you like to go to Russia for a year?’ Now this was 1960 and that was sort of an exciting thing because it was just beginning to open up—it was the time of De-Stalinization. Khrushchev was trying to erase the Stalinist, negative image and he opened it to scholars, and I was in the second group of scholars to go to the Soviet Union in 1961-62. I eventually toured the country and I even tried hitchhiking. That was sort of a daring thing to do, wasn’t it? At that time, my spoken Russian went pretty well; I had taken an intensive course on Russian language during the year so I handled spoken Russian reasonably well by the end of it. Then I was asked, ‘what are you going to study?’ and I thought, ‘my God, if I’m going to Russia, I wanted to get an idea of Russian cities, the image of Old Russia.’ That’s what I did, I worked with the books I collected there in Russian architectural history and there weren’t many people in this country who were involved in that so I collected a library which I’m still using.”

“Now since then, there are a number of younger scholars—they’re not young anymore, they’re younger than I—so the field is more populated, but I’m one of the oldest practitioners in the field in this country and so that’s what I went over to work at. I found a mentor in one of my faculty members at a University in Leningrad. Most of the scholars I found in Russia were not very helpful.I think they thought that I was too uninformed, didn’t know enough about this subject, so why should I be wasting their time?

“To some extent, my language was not great but it was good enough. I never had any trouble dealing with people along the street, but as a specialist, it wasn’t really great. One professor became my mentor,I dedicated my article to him, his name was Vladimir I. Piliavsky. He was very helpful, and we struck a bargain. I would send him books on American architecture and he would send me books on Russian architecture. Some years later, my wife joined me in Russia on a visit and he invited us to dine at their home in Leningrad.”

“He is long since deceased, having died in the 1980s, but I enjoyed all this and there were some Russians who treated me royally but there were some who were very disdainful of me. On the other hand, I was high in my praise of aspects of their art, and that pleased them. I was really impressed; the classical art which we have here which is so abundant —Mount Vernon, the Federal Triangle, columns, domes and the like, in our capital, are all a part of the neoclassical style, and I didn’t realize that it was so pervasive in Russia, and that goes back to Catherine the Great in the late eighteenth century. I had a genuine interest; it was something I could connect with because of my background in Western art style.”

“Just as I became impressed with the images I see, like when I went to France or Britain—to Mont-Saint-Michel, or London’s Wren churches, St. Paul’s Cathedral. I became intrigued and when I went to Russia and saw its landmarks. What I’m trying to do in the present paper is show that there was a very extended interest in classicism in Russian architectural history which isn’t much talked about, especially provincial architecture, and the cities are probably not even very well known. I did travel to many of them.”

The best days as a historian, Schmidt said, is “when I discover something or when I get an idea that is meaningful. Once I came upon the archives of an eighteenth century British law firm deposited in what had been the Lincolnshire county jail. This was in 1984, and I thought, this is a story of a county law firm B. Smith + Co. as it functioned. It was a good discovery but there was nothing personal about it, I knew nothing about the people nor how it would be a readable piece. Then one day I learned there was a retired partner, one Harry Bowden, in the law firm, still living.”

“I notified him that I was a historian and interested in the papers which he himself had deposited in the county archives located in the jail, and he said, ‘why don’t we have lunch?’ We did have lunch and it was then that I learned that he had the diaries of the principal, Benj Smith II, in this law firm from 1796 until 1858. They were daily diaries —I wrote a number of articles dealing with the personalities in the law firm and what they did, especially when I matched the diaries with the records in the jail.”

“While this was truly exciting, the law firm story became more so as that, but after Harry Bowden died. I was contacted by members of the Gould-Smith family of an early principal of the law firm named Benj. Smith. They had not been in touch with this man who was the last partner, Harry Bowden, in the law firm. They wanted to know what I could tell them about their family and the role of Smith II in the law firm. I was able to become virtually a member of the family because they knew far less than I did. We are still very close.”

MEMORIES FROM WORLD WAR II 

When World War II ended in 1945, Schmidt was stationed in the Philippines in Manila. He served as a radio operator and supported air-sea rescue operations. He hadn’t had enough time in the Philippines or in service even to expect to be discharged very quickly. “I wanted to do something that would be interesting instead of just booze around, I wasn’t much of a boozer anyway.” 

The high school he attended in Louisville was Louisville Boys High where there was a junior ROTC unit. He was in the Army Air Force and did basic training in Texas, and then I went to MacDill Field in Florida. He completed radio training at Scott Field, Illinois, outside St. Louis, and went overseas to New Guinea and the Philippines. Until he went into the service in March of 1943, Schmidt hadn’t travelled anywhere. 

After the war ended in September 1945, Schmidt learned that an American military tribunal was going to try the Japanese generals in a war crimes trial in Manila. One was Tomoyuki Yamashita, the Japanese general in charge of troops in Manila who had committed many atrocities, but he was also a famous general because it was he who in 1942 had conquered Singapore from the British and was highly regarded by most of the Japanese generals. Afterwards he had a falling out with his commanders.

Schmidt went to another trial, this time of General Masaharu Homma, who was a commander of the Japanese troops in the Bataan Death March (1942), “which was the greatest atrocity, I suppose, committed by the Japanese against American troops.” Schmidt went into Manila from Clark Field and he sat in every portion of both trials. Then a half century later, he taught both trials when a professor in law school. 

For Schmidt, that series of trials was a thrill to have been there and to have taught them later on as a professor. There was a book published in 2015 called Yamashita’s Ghost: War Crimes, MacArthur's Justice, and Command Accountability by Allan A. Ryan and it contained illustrations and photographs of the courtroom where Yamashita was being tried in Manila and a surprised Schmidt found his picture in it —he had been unaware that such a picture existed. 

He was also an intern at the United Nations in Lake Success, NY, in the summer of 1950 which was when the Korean War began. “The Korean War was different than any other war. It was not a war of the U.S. versus North Korea, it was technically a war of the UN versus North Korea, because the Soviets had walked out of the Security Council and therefore they were not there to exercise their veto the way they normally did. When President Truman decided to intervene in Korea, it wasn’t a U.S. operation, it was a UN operation, and we really screwed the Russians because they were trying to pin intervention on us but we were just part of a UN operation,” said Schmidt.

“The Soviet delegate, a man by the name of Yakov Malik, came back to the UN and there was a huge furor about what the Soviets were going to do once they got back to the UN. The demand for tickets to go to the Security Council was enormous —there were 20,000 requests for room in this council chamber that held about 800 people. I was working there as an intern that summer and I really wanted to witness the Soviet’s return; I knew that the security council layout —a circular room within a circular hall around it. When the time came for the Soviet delegate to return, I walked that hall, trying to find a way to get in, but there were guards at every door. When I passed the door to the main entrance, a guard called for more chairs and I knew where to find them, so I got a chair and walked through the door with the chair and sat right next to the South Korean delegate. I sat there in the whole event. That was my triumphant moment!”

“Of course, the Soviet delegate Malik charged the U.S. with all kinds of high handedness but we outsmarted them on that. It certainly proved to be a UN operation, not a US operation. Now we certainly talk about our involvement in the Korean War, which we were very much a part of, but it was technically not the U.S. against North Korea but the UN against North Korea.”

APPROACHING 93

The last historic work he read that really impressed him was The Vanquished: Why The First World War Failed To End, by Robert Gerwarth. “It was about the post-WW1 period after November 11th,” said Schmidt. “We think of the war as ending on November 11th, 1918. It really didn’t, there were oh-so-many very heated lesser conflicts. The Bolsheviks’ civil war in Russia, German extremists, conflict between the Turks and Greeks, and this was about those conflicts that extended beyond the armistice of 1918. It gives one a better understanding of the chaotic world that didn’t end with the peace treaties of 1918–19.”

Schmidt doesn’t smoke; he never had a cigarette in his mouth. He likes bourbon, Jack on the rocks. As a Kentuckian, he likes horses but he doesn’t ride. “We didn’t have a car for years and years. My father was a machinist who made it to the sixth grade and my mom, she graduated from high school.” 

He has always been a baseball fan, although he doesn’t go to games as much as he used to. He watches, and he always reads the box scores the morning after. Schmidt knew baseball best in the ‘30s and ‘40s, after Babe Ruth had just retired, Lou Gehrig was still going strong, as was Jimmy Foxx and young Joe DiMaggio. 

The biggest adventure he had as a kid was the great Ohio River Valley flood in 1937. “We went out a second-story into a boat to evacuate the house.” 

One of Schmidt’s daughters, Elizabeth Schmidt, is a professor of history at Loyola University Maryland. “I never urged her especially to be a historian but it rubbed off evidently, and certainly she’s a far better historian than I am. She’s certainly a far better scholar than I am, she has completed her sixth book! I don’t approach that.” 

What’s Schmidt’s drive to continue working? He takes it day by day, he says. 

“I’ll be 93 now later on this year and I’m under no illusions that my time is unlimited. I might go on for a few more years but I might drop dead tomorrow and I’m trying to wind things down in certain areas, but I don’t have anything I have to get done. I’ve got a lot of photographs that I’ve taken, e.g. when I was in India but others too. I’d like to document those and get them in order but I don’t think I’ll make it, but maybe. I wish I were more adept with a computer. I’d like to organize some of my notes. I’d like to get rid of almost all of my books to proper places. Oh, I’ve got enough to do.” 


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