READING, Pa. – Walking into the Sheraton Inn conference room designated for the National Grange German/USA Friendship Program was like walking into a family reunion.
Perhaps it was all the memories of the people gathered there, keeping the past alive. Or the way the small room was practically painted ceiling to floor with pictures, newspaper clippings, and other bits of memorabilia that cluttered the dusty cream walls and long, low tabletops.
This was the setting for a number of people, old friends and new, who gathered Sept. 22-24 in Reading, Pa., hosted by Fay and Donald Daub.
In the beginning
The program began in November 1949, when the National Grange met in California and passed a resolution that the organization should get involved in international youth exchange activities.
Wib Justi, who had been become the director of youth activities, was appointed to develop the program. And between 1949 and 1966, U.S. Grange families hosted 1,718 young exchangees from 39 countries.
“One program was to be special,” said Justi, who lives in Worthington, Ohio. “That was the German program, bringing 500 German rural teenage exchangees to the U.S. to live in farm homes of Grange members for a period of one year and attend high school while they were here.”
This program was developed to provide opportunities for young Germans to learn about procedures they could use in the free land, to improve themselves, and to build good relationships between Germany and the U.S.A.
It was to be a six-year program, Justi recalled. The Grange brought groups each year from 1950 through 1956 totaling 500 young people.
Wib and his wife, June, have been involved ever since, and while they are going to stop coordinating the program, they will continue to be involved.
The first group of exchangees who arrived in 1950 and stayed until 1951 were called the pioneer group because they were the first group of six groups to come to America.
Ottilie (Tilie) Loeser, Christa Schacht, Susie Trenkler, Berta Vesper, Konrad Weniger, and Lotte Winter were some of the participants who came from Germany to spend a year with host families and spent the recent weekend in Reading.
Ottilie goes by Tilie, because there was some trouble pronouncing her name when she got to America and Tilie was easier to say. IN 1950, she was hosted by Norie Belanger’s great-grandmother and even though Norie had never met Tilie, Norie opened her home to her in 2006.
“It’s as though I have a new family member,” Belanger said. “When we met, I just loved her right away.”
“It was interesting to hear about my great-grandparents, too, because I barely remember them.”
Konrad Weniger was another pioneer. After his exchange year, he eventually returned to the U.S. to live in California and has had a successful career.
His host brothers, Ernest and Paul Miller, talk fondly of their year spent together. There were 30 students in Konrad and Ernest’s class, and the German student so impacted the U.S. students that they dedicated their yearbook to Konrad.
Works both ways
Susie Trenkler was a 1953 exchange student who went to Iowa. She remembers being surprised at how big America was, all of the cars she saw, and the woman who helped her on her bus ride to Iowa. She couldn’t speak English well and was surprised when the woman took care of her, showing her where to go and getting her something to eat.
Today, she lives in Alabama where she owns a laundry business. Her host mother made owning the business possible because she left Trenkler money when she passed away.
Trenkler said her host mother had told her, “When you came to us, it made me believe in civilization again.”
Konrad Bumes is a second generation participant and the son of a former exchangee. His father was a pioneer at 17. When he returned to Germany in 1951, the elder Bumes took a position with the American army as an English interpreter for two years. After he died in 1998 in Germany, Bumes and his son, Markus, a third generation reunion participant picked up his role.
Konrad first attended a 2001 reunion in Minnesota, where he and his son met with his father’s school friends. Prior to joining the group himself, Bumes’s father kept telling him about the program and the pride and joy he felt when he was invited.
“He was a farm boy and never would have seen the world without this opportunity; it had a big impact on his global views and way of thinking,” Konrad said.
Hearing about his father’s experiences impacted Konrad, and he was motivated to learn English, as well as get a job where he could use English.
One of the things that amazed him the most is the fact that only five years after WWII, a farmer association like Grange decided to invite young people from what had been an ‘enemy nation’ and show them around.
“The rest of the world tends to think America concentrates on themselves, but these Americans participated in a program that demonstrated they could look abroad,” he said during the reunion in Pennsylvania.
“I like to hope the program produced a two-way effect and think there is sufficient evidence in this room – this group of people connected through other people.”
“We can learn from each others differences,” he added. “We have to talk to each other and this program has made that possible, and helped build relationships between two countries.”
The next step
When the last of the six groups of German exchangees returned to Germany in 1956, they were followed by the National Grange “Group of 20,” former host family members and cooperators. They spent several weeks living and working on the farms of some of the former exhangees.
In 1958, the Group of 20 appeared without notice at the National Grange Convention in Grand Rapids, Mich., and announced that they were going to start a reunion activity, which was the beginning of the annual USA reunions.
In 1994, the first reunion in Germany was held, where Berta Vesper and her family met with 40 people who came to Germany.
Wish for peace
The weekend ended with a friendship circle where everyone clasped hands and sang Let There be Peace on Earth.
Everyone was reminded of the Grange Germany/USA Friendship Program’s code, Respect, Responsibility, and Sharing, which organizers say are the keys to building international friendship, understanding, cooperation, progress and peace.
And it works. While everyone had something in common at this reunion, it was clear everyone accepted exchangees (and their second and third generations) as family.
A family that looks forward to next year’s reunion in California.