Brazil Volunteers: Still Close after Decades
By Guest Contributor on Wednesday, October 12th, 2011
Members of the 1969 Brazil Para Ag Co-op group disbanded officially in the fall of 1971. Unofficially, they’re still a team.
The Volunteers and their wives came together again in June 2011 for their ninth reunion, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps and to toast friendships that last a lifetime. The group also includes two Volunteers from Corps groups whose service overlapped the 69th’s, and a man who began training but went on to become an Episcopal minister.
“The thing that I think makes this group kind of special is that most Peace Corps groups don’t have these reunions,” said Ken Buchele, who with his wife Marilyn were hosts for this year’s reunion in Emporia, Ks.
Several of the men mentioned a second trait they believe also is unusual: There have been no divorces among them.
The Group has retained an international flavor, with six who married Brazilian women and one who married a Panamanian, encouraging continued travel outside the U.S.
They have gotten together twice in Brazil, once in Panama and six times in the U.S. Each gathering provides an opportunity to take in the culture and the environment of the host site.
“We were blown away by the beauty of the prairie and of course an old farmer like me is always fascinated by regional agricultural practices,” said Tom Lovdal, whose dairy-farmer father put three children through college, figuratively speaking, on the backs of 25 dairy cows. Lovdal now owns a home construction company in Athens, Ohio.
Returned Volunteers, it seems, never lose their interest in and appreciation of what makes each area of the world unique.
In and around Emporia, it was the friendly people and the Flint Hills billowing under never-ending skies.
“That was a theme that was all over the place,” Buchele said. “People who come from big cities, they just forget how friendly people are. … They thought Kansas was incredible. The ones from Ohio and upper state New York and Massachusetts, they just couldn’t believe that much real estate with no trees on it.”
Reunion activities had begun on June 9 with dinner, catered by the Emporia Country Club, at the David Traylor Zoo of Emporia, the smallest zoo accredited by the American Zoological Association and one that is actively involved in species survival efforts.
The zoo emphasizes natural-habitat animal exhibits complemented by tree-shaded bridges and water features, and a profusion of colorful flowers and plants. It had been kept open after-hours for the reunion group and, as they relaxed, some resurrected and rehashed stories that hadn’t been so funny when they happened more than 40 years ago.
The men who would become the 1969 Para Ag Group had come together on July 1, 1969, in El Centro, Calif., for training at an abandoned migrant worker camp.
“We slept on cots like in an Army barracks,” Buchele said. “The bathroom had one big gang shower, toilets in a line and nothing between them, and our sink was a big galvanized trough. And there was no air conditioning. It was the hottest place I’ve ever been in my life.”
Those who completed training were sent to Belem, State of Para, Brazil, and on to outlying areas. There, they learned to cope with new kinds of challenges.
“We had rats in our house, and one of the farmers gave us a snake to control them,” Volunteer Peter Snow recalled. “But the snake got hungry and snuck into the neighbor’s yard and wrapped itself around the farmer’s chicken.”
The farmer killed the snake, creating an uproar among neighbors. It had been, after all, a gift to the Americans. So they gave the Volunteers a new, bigger boa constrictor, which targeted a Volunteer instead of a rat.
“The snake went after him and hit him just the side of his eye,” Snow said. “So we had another snake killing.”
That snakeskin trophy hung on the wall of the house until they left.
Volunteer Alex Feit’s favorite memory came in Santa Isabel do Para, where he and Buchele had been sent to establish an agricultural co-op.
Feit had gotten to know a young woman, Gilda, from Rio de Janeiro, who was one or our language instructors. He visited her after she returned home and, back in Santa Isabel, he decided life without her wasn’t nearly as good as life with her.
He made an appointment for a long-distance phone call at the central telephone office, settled into a private booth and waited for an operator to connect him to Gilda’s phone 1250 miles away.
“We couldn’t hear each other, so the operator gets on,” Feit said. “The most important phone call of my life and I’m saying, ‘Tell her I love her.’ ‘He says he loves you.’ ‘I love him, too.’ ‘She says she loves you, too.’
“The whole conversation about her coming up here was translated by the operator.”
It was an awkward but effective solution: They married and, now semi-retired, alternate their time between homes in Napa, Calif., and Rio, where Feit is liaison between a Brazilian warehousing operation and customers in Houston.
Volunteer Blair Cooper had been assigned near Sao Pedro, deep in the Brazilian jungle, where the Amazon flows wide and deep enough to create tides on its shores.
“It was three hours on a bus and then one hour walking on a dirt road,” Cooper said. There, Cooper tried to help co-op farmers salvage a failing rice-growing operation. The Sao Pedro soils, however, were inappropriate for the crop, so focus turned to the area’s abundance of maracuja – passion fruit.
Cooper and another Volunteer, Dick Brostowicz, worked with GELAR, the regional ice-cream factory, on a mutually beneficial arrangement: GELAR would buy the farmers’ maracuja and the Volunteers would help the company find markets for the frozen fruit concentrate. Both men extended their PC tour for a third year, and helped develop a passion fruit industry that thrives in the area today, as do acai and river shrimp industries.
Cooper later received his master’s degree in tropical horticulture and returned to Belem to help GELAR develop a sprawling passion fruit and coconut plantation.
“It was one of the best things I’ve ever done,” Cooper said of his time in the Peace Corps. “It helped me to define my life.”
Post-Peace Corps, Cooper worked for United States Agency for International Development around the world before settling back in the U.S. Peace Corps service evolved into careers for others in the group, too.
“We were all really idealistic at that time,” Lovdal remarked. “A lot of us still are.”
Richard “Holt” Holthouser, for example, had been reared in the city but grew to love the agricultural life. He bought a plantation in Brazil, and raised cattle, bananas and other fruit before being killed in a traffic accident during a vacation to visit family in the U.S.
Snow, who had majored in history and later got his master’s degree in business, was intrigued by Brazilians’ need for health care. He spent an extra two years scouting for health-related projects that would be a good fit for the area.
Though the group went on to diverse careers, the Volunteers are bound together by shared experiences and a mutual curiosity about the world and the people who inhabit it.
As they toured in the Emporia area, they found they had one foot in a small-scale city and the other foot in the countryside.
They spent time in downtown Emporia, where residents had raised funds to finance and complete two multi-million-dollar projects – a full renovation of the Granada Theatre, which was restored to its original 1920s elegance, and the building of a new arts center with galleries, studios, classrooms, and a small theatre for productions and conferences.
The group toured at the Z-Bar/Spring Hill Ranch, which features a two-story limestone house built in 1881 and a three-story barn on its 10,000-plus acres about 20 miles west of Emporia. The ranch, now operated as the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, highlights an effort to conserve the nutrient-rich Bluestem prairie grasses that feed hundreds of thousands of head of cattle each year.
Later the same day, they toured a working ranch owned by the Bucheles’ friends, Joe and Mary Lea Stout, near Bazaar, deep in the Flint Hills.
The Stouts hauled the group through pens of horses and on to a secluded creek with a large gravel bar, nestled under a cover of trees that invariably flourish along the waterways. There, they fished, held an old-fashioned wiener roast, and loaded onto Stout’s 4-wheeler for a ride through the pasture.
“The hills just go right up from the creek,” Buchele said. “He took ’em up on a place that was really high and open. I’ll bet you can see 10 miles up there.”
Buchele also had managed to score tickets to the “Symphony in the Flint Hills,” an annual outdoor concert that rotates performances among large ranches in the four-county area. Tickets sell out months in advance, usually within 30 minutes of their offering. Members of the Kansas City, Mo., Symphony Orchestra played to an audience of approximately 7,500 people, plus several hundred event volunteers.
And, though audience members had dribbled into the concert site at a leisurely place, funneling them out of the adjacent pastures and onto one narrow gravel road threatened to be time-consuming.
The Volunteers watched in fascination as, one at a time, the drivers took turns pulling onto the road, alternating from each pasture. The orderly exit, taken as a matter of custom in the Emporia area, made an impression on one of the Volunteers.
“He looked at Marilyn and he said, ‘You know, that never would have happened in Boston,’ ” Buchele said.
Members of the 1969 Para group who attended, in addition to the Bucheles, were Scott Anderson of Gainesville, Fla.; Blair and Itzel Cooper of Oakton, Va.; Chip and Cindy Elitzer of Great Barrington, Mass.; Alex and Gilda Feit of Napa, Calif., and Rio de Janeiro; Tom and Lynn Lovdal and Larson Lovdal of Athens, Ohio; Peter Snow and Doris Buckman of Albuquerque, N.M.; Hank and Socorro Stamm of Boston, Mass.
Attendees also include several Peace Corps Volunteers whose service times overlapped the 1969 Para group, and one man who’d gone through training with them before becoming an Episcopal priest. Those in Emporia for the reunion were Bob Halyburton and Cheryl Southworth of Charlotte, N.C.; Dan and Rita Stookey of Columbia, Mo.; and Chris and Ivone Smith of Hagaman, N.Y.
Snow will be host for the group’s next reunion, scheduled in 2013 in Albuquerque.
Many thanks to Bobbi Mlynar, who wrote this story, and to Blair Cooper for sharing it with NPCA.