An idealistic program in the 1960s that enabled foreign students to tour the U.S. proved beneficial to all involved, making friends of strangers.
The Tennessee Williams line about depending on the kindness of strangers hasn't aged well. Our "breaking news" mentality provides a steady diet of fear and suspicion, while friends are confirmed and tallied from around the world, never far from a cell phone or Skype connection. The idea of interacting with strangers, much less depending upon their kindness, seems almost quaint.
But in the 1960s and '70s, a group of students, most from Macalester College in St. Paul, tested the premise of depending on strangers with an idealistic program called Ambassadors for Friendship. The idea was to introduce foreign students to the rest of the United States before they returned to their home countries -- an experience that, for many, was galvanizing.
This month, about 80 alumni returned to Macalester to relive those six weeks when they roamed the country wedged into Rambler station wagons, with $300 in spending money and a determination to foster goodwill and better understanding between themselves and their hosts, wherever they found them.
While the premise was to showcase the United States to the international students, many of the American students were surprised by how much they also learned.
Stefan van Drake, who grew up in South St. Paul, saw his first painting of a black Christ in Fayetteville, Ark. "This makes a deep impression on you," said Van Drake, who lives in Spain. Another alumnus recalled when the foreign students toured a retirement center, only to be horrified older people here did not remain with family.
Another remembered being shocked to hear her companion compare the Arizona landscape to Iran. Scandinavian students couldn't believe what passed for coffee.
Mostly, though, the students were impressed by people's hospitality. Eleanor Ostman Aune, St. Paul, was a driver for a 1962 group that included young women from Germany, Japan and Kenya. "There weren't always enough beds, but we managed," she said, noting how hospitality invariably extended to being taken to a baseball game, a factory, a powwow. "One mom even took me to the doctor when I needed to have a cyst lanced -- and she paid the bill."
The Ambassadors program was devised by Harry Morgan, a young man who had developed a seat-of-your-pants exchange program at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He'd heard a Pakistani exchange student share some severe verdicts of the United States, without ever having had the chance to travel beyond campus. When Morgan arrived at Macalester in 1959 to run the International House, he proposed a similar travel program, with the theme of friendship.
It was a tumultuous time. Cold War tensions were high, and the battle for civil rights was fully engaged. One of the returning alums noted that his car held students from Germany, the United States and Japan, all of whom had fathers who served in World War II.
Narinder Mehta had come from India to attend the University of Minnesota. His group in 1960 included a student from Iran, and one from Ghana -- Kofi Annan, who would become secretary-general of the United Nations. Their trip had a decidedly political bent.
Mehta, now of Dover, Mass., recalled a visit with former President Harry Truman at the Truman Library in Independence, Mo. "Harry [Morgan], in his way, had called President Truman's office and we ended up at his library," Mehta said. "After waiting about 10 minutes, Truman drove up himself and spent an hour with us. He was one of the most easily accessible people I have ever come across."
From there, they ended up at a barbecue in Oklahoma where Lyndon Johnson was campaigning for the presidential nomination. Mehta said he still remembers Johnson's hand firmly on his shoulder, making his pitch. By the time they reached Los Angeles, the Democratic Convention was in the process of nominating John F. Kennedy.
Along the way, the international students spoke at churches, service clubs and kitchen tables. Of course, not all people were welcoming. Hospitality could become hostility, especially in the Deep South.
Van Drake vividly recalled his group of students from Australia, Japan, Germany and Kenya being asked to leave a segregated restaurant in Vicksburg, Miss., in 1964. "We were yelled at and cursed out," he said. "It was like we'd descended into a civil war. For me, it was total dislocation. But we were like the Three Musketeers -- one for all, and all for one."
They ended up being hosted by the Rev. Andy Foreman, a well-known civil rights leader, and his black friends. The experience radicalized Van Drake. "The amount of anger that has stayed with me, it really did spur me to become a public interest lawyer." Since then, he said, he has been involved in civil disobedience and affirmative action cases, represented conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War, was a whistleblower at a Libyan oil company, worked as a reporter and now is a writer in Spain.
Despite experiencing racism firsthand, Van Drake said his anger was empowering: "If you really love America and you see horrible things going on, it's so easy to turn away, thinking 'I'm powerless.' But there is no question that the more we try to understand each other, the less likely we are to find ourselves in conflict with each other."
For Aune, the reunion reminded her of how times have changed. For starters, she realized that the girls in 1962 always wore skirts. She also wondered whether some hospitality could be chalked up to sheer novelty. "We weren't so worldly then," she said. "We didn't have a big connection and constant coverage of world events." People didn't get a chance to host students from all over the world.
Aune also remembered eating her first chicken-fried steak in Oklahoma. "Maybe that trip lit that fire under me," she said of her lengthy career as a food writer for the St. Paul Pioneer Press as Eleanor Ostman, and also of her continuing world travel.
The Ambassadors for Friendship program sputtered in the 1970s; no one seems sure when it finally ended. Could it be replicated today? Likely not.
"There are so many rules and regulation and litigious concerns," Aune said. "Just to send a bunch of kids off in a car, traveling six weeks along the blue highways, you'd probably need a million-dollar insurance policy." Nor would students be able to talk themselves into spending the night in empty jail cells, as many of them did at one time or another in what became an Ambassadors badge of honor.
Aune remembered their group trying to do this in Bend, Ore. "The police chief didn't think that would be seemly," she said, so he made some calls and before long, the young women had a family with whom they could stay, a circumstance that happened over and over among perfect strangers.
"People just really want to," Aune paused, reflecting for a moment, then concluded, "to be kind."
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185