Hosting International Visitors

When I resigned from my position with the United States Information Agency I let it be known that I was willing to host international visitors who had come to the US under the aegis of the USIA International Visitor’s Program. 

My first visitors, while I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin, were a group of law students from Venezuela.  My job was to show them the legal justice system in the U.S.  One day we went to the Wisconsin State Men’s Prison.  Returning to Madison from touring the prison and meetings with prison staff we were driving through the dairy country.  I asked the fellows if they would be interested in visiting a dairy farm.  They were so I had them select one and we drove up the drive to the farmhouse.  A woman answered the door and I explained that I had five visitors from Venezuela who were interested in touring a dairy farm and asked if she would be willing to show us her farm.

We were graciously invited inside to where she had been working at her computer.  This was in 1965 when computers were not so common in homes and small businesses.  This surprised the students.  They asked questions about the farm: how many acres? [more than 200], how many employees [none, only the husband and wife], how many dairy cows [200].  What?  Only the farmer and his wife alone handled a farm of this size! 

We went outside and discovered five tractors in the barn, each fitted out with a different attachment.  It was more efficient for the farmer to have a tractor dedicated to a single task than to keep changing the attachments.  The students were in awe.  One said that in his region of Venezuela there was only one tractor in the entire village.  He could not comprehend five on one farm.  This side trip was not part of our justice system but it was a good introduction to life in America.

Once we had moved to Bellingham I hosted an average of three individuals or groups per year.  In the next 30 years I hosted over 100 delegations.  This was as a volunteer although all my expenses were paid.  The individual or group would be granted a 30-day all-expense-paid trip to see the U.S.  They would be provided with an interpreter/escort if such was needed.  Their trip would be planned by a USIA contract agency in Washington, D.C.  I usually had the visitor for three or four days.  Here are some of the persons/groups that I hosted:

  1. Mr. Martin Chacach, Sub-Director, Linguistics Institute at Landiver Univ., Guatemala City, Guatemala.
  2. Mr. Luciano Valle, Governor of the state of Valparaiso, Chile.
  3. Six leading economists from Albania, eg Romeo Mitri, Director General of the Customs Office of the Ministry of Finance,  etc.
  4. Mr. Philippe Renaudiere of the European Commission.
  5. Dr. Rafael Dendia, Ex. Secretary, Office of International Relations, Catholic University, Asuncion, Paraguay.
  6. Mr. Francisco Lejarsa, Rector, Chapultepec University, Mexico City, Mexico.
  7. Dr. Edgardo Pando, Sr. Advisor to the Minister of Education, Lima, Peru.
  8. Seven business educators from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
  9. Mr. Mohamed Hussain, Executive Secretary to the President, Republic of the Maldives.
  10. Mr. Juan Alfonso Ramos, President, National University of Education, Lima, Peru.
  11. Mr. Wilson Rolando Reategui, President, National University of San Marcos, Lima, Peru.
  12. Mr. Pedro Villena, President, Nat. University of San Cristobal Huamanga, Ayacucho, Peru. (The oldest university in the Americas.)
  13. Mrs. Paw Zam, Deputy Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bhutan.
  14. Ms. Lhadun Pema, Mayor of Thimphu (Capital City), Bhutan.
  15. Dr. Sonam Tenzin, District Administrator, Sarpang, Bhutan
  16. Amalia Garcia Medina.  Federal Deputy, Democratic Revolution Party, PRD.
  17. Other visitors came from all over the world. 

My task was to introduce them to “small-town America” with its university, waterfront industries, logging, farming, issues of growth management, economic development, etc.  The specifics of their itinerary depended on their stated interests.  Amalia Garcia of the PRD (left-wing party in Mexico) wanted to see the election process.  She came four days before the election of local and state officials. 

Our State Senator Barney Goltz briefed her on the forms one had to fill out to run for local or state office.  He discussed the limits of financing and reports that had to be filed on sources of income and where money was spent.  I took her to Democratic and Republican planning sessions in support of their candidates, to fund-raisers, to public debates between the candidates.  She went door-belling with the Democratic candidate for State Senate. 

On election day I took her with me as I voted at the Bloedel Donovan Park Field House.  She went with me into the voting booth and noted that I voted for a Republican and expressed her shock.  I pointed out that the incumbent (a Republican) was a good friend and a very capable administrator whereas I felt that the Democrat candidate was grossly incompetent.  Amalia said crossing party lines like that was not possible in Mexico.

We waited in the facility until the polls closed and watched as the punch cards were put into a steel box, locked, and taken to the car to be transported to the county courthouse.  Amalia went in the car with the ballots.  At the courthouse Amalia followed the box through the entire process of being counted, checked for hanging chads, noted the presence of Republican and Democratic witnesses to the process, and watched as the cards were put into the computer for processing.  Then I took her outside to watch the results as they were posted on the blackboard in front of the crowds of candidates and their supporters.  Afterward we visited the post-election parties held by each candidate. 

When Amalia returned to Mexico she was debriefed by staff at the U.S. Embassy.  They sent me a letter stating that while Amalia was in the US for 30 days and had visited many cities all she wanted to talk about was Bellingham.   The Embassy staff congratulated me on the success of our program.   This was not the only time I received such recognition from US officials abroad or from the State Department if the person de-briefed in Washington before returning to their country.

One day I got a phone call from Washington, “Drake, would you be willing to host a 3-day visit by the Minister of Fisheries of Morocco?  “Sure, send me the resume and I will organize a visit.”  When I got the resume and found out the interests of Minister Abad I called one of the members of our Port Commission, Ed Griemsmann, who was a retired Air Force pilot.  Ed agreed to escort Minister Abad on his tour of the local fishing industry, the largest freezer plant in the world, the Alaska Ferry terminal, etc, etc.  I had pointed out to Ed that Minister Abad had listed in his resume “President, Private Pilot’s Association of Morocco.”  “That’s interesting,” said Ed, “I’ll take him up for a ride.”  Ed owned a bi-plane that he kept at the local airport.

On the afternoon of the last day of Minister Abad’s visit Ed asked if he would like to go for a ride in his bi-plane.  “Oh, that would be nice.” He innocently replied and went with Ed to the airport.   What Ed did not tell him was that he was a stunt pilot.  I leave it to your imagination what Ed did with this distinguished foreign dignitary!  Rolls, loops, dives, drops, flying upside-down over the city, etc.  Abad claimed he thoroughly enjoyed the ride but I did not know how much until I got a phone call from someone in the State Dept. several weeks later.

“Drake, you did it again.  We had an interview with Minister Abad before he left for Morocco and found out that after a 30-day tour of the United States all he wanted to talk about was Bellingham.  Tell me, Drake, who the hell was that pilot?”

We had a delegation from Albania which included the mayor of their capital city.  The group was staying in a motel on Samish Way across from a steak house where they all went one evening for dinner and drinks.  It was “Ladies Night” and the women there were to elect the sexiest man in the place.  Well they chose the Mayor, much to his delight as it was accompanied by a $100 prize but much to his chagrin as now he will have to explain this to his wife.  His salary as mayor was about $100 per month so the prize was truly appreciated.

On another occasion we had a four-person delegation from the Baltic States.  They refused to speak in Russian as they had only recently been liberated from the Soviet Union but they could only communicate between themselves in poor English.  My task was to show them the cultural life in Bellingham, our museum, the Mt. Baker Theater, art galleries, jazz groups, etc.  Since I had a budget for cultural events I programmed them to attend a performance on the Western campus of the Swan Lake ballet performed by a touring group from the University of Oregon.

They were upset as they looked on this as a small-town event, not at all equal to the performances in their respective countries.  Besides, at the end of the trip they would get the money not spent on cultural activities.  I was wasting their money.  One of the visitors was Russian born and had studied ballet in Moscow.  I arranged to sit next to her during the performance.  During the performance she was applauding loudly, thoroughly enjoying the performance. I turned to her and said, “Eta ochen harasho,”  [Russian for “very good.”] “Da, conetchnia.” She responded [yes, of course].  I pointed out that now she was willing to speak Russian.  She laughed.

After the performance I asked if they would like to meet the principals.  They agreed so I took them to the stage door and introduced myself as host for a delegation of visitors from the Baltic States.  We asked if we could meet the principal dancers.  The principals finally came up to meet the group and to everyone’s surprise they were Chinese who had studied ballet in Moscow!  So now all barriers were down and everyone was speaking Russian with the Chinese performers except poor me who was trying to get a word in edgewise in my miserable Chinese.

The stories are endless.  In every case I tried to introduce the visitors to democracy in small-town America.  Yes, we had our formal meetings with our business leaders, our politicians, our educators, our health providers, etc. but I also wanted to have them participate in life in a small town in America since most of their stops were in our major cities. 

On one occasion I arranged a community dinner for a delegation of about 7 persons from various European nations.  We were to meet at the Deming Tavern, famous for its steak dinners and a hang-out for loggers.  The local folk that I invited to join us at dinner were shocked.  They thought we should go to an upscale restaurant in town but I thought otherwise.  The loggers had parked their immense rigs, loaded with logs, behind the tavern, and once introduced to the foreign visitors invited them to climb aboard and take pictures.  I could hardly get the group back into the restaurant for dinner they were so excited and having fun posing on those immense logging trucks.  After dinner the local residents, dressed in their logging and work clothes, challenged the foreigners to billiards and to shuffleboard.  Much to their chagrin the Europeans trounced the locals at billiards.  Another successful evening showing our foreign visitors aspects of “life in small-town America.”