ELLERY-Former exchange students to the Bemus Point Central School district are reliving a piece of their history thanks to a local teacher.
This is because Karen Walsh, a 1973 Bemus Point graduate and current Chautauqua Lake Central School teacher, has been returning portraits of American Field Service and Rotary International students to their respective subjects decades after they left the district.
From 1958-when Maple Grove High School received its first AFS Exchange Program in Chautauqua County student - to 1977, a portrait was painted of nearly every exchange student by renowned and accomplished local artist Lurabel Colburn. The paintings were done as part of her adult education classes, in which the students were used as models for portraiture technique lessons.
Karen Walsh stands among four portraits of former AFS exchange students of Maple Grove High School before returning them to their subjects.
Colburn, who died last year, painted more than 2,000 portraits in her career. One of her last pieces was an oil portrait of Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, which is on display at the Robert H. Jackson Center. A lithograph of the painting is also displayed in the war trials courtroom in Nuremburg, Germany.
STUDENTS AND PROGRAMS
American Field Service was one of the first exchange programs, along with the Rotary Youth Exchange, to place foreign students in U.S. secondary schools. The first AFS and Rotary students are now between the ages of 50 and 70, and have gone on to serve society in many different ways.
"The project has taken on a life of its own, which I continue to follow faithfully into the unknown; and it is not yet complete."
Karen Walsh, CLCS teacher
Among the subjects painted by Colburn, the students have become: educators from kindergarten through university levels, a restauranteur, a humanitarian aid worker and volunteer, a Standards board director of international affairs, a diplomat, a U.N. representative, a World Bank officer, an architect, an electrical engineer, the Hippodrome Race Track general director of television, physicians and medical researchers, a manager of coffee processing plants and coffee farms, a consumer affairs specialist and a senior director of research in microsystems and nano-electronics.
For decades, the exchange students' portraits were displayed in Maple Grove's library. It was as a student of the school that Walsh became familiar with them. Additionally, she also befriended two of the exchange students - Michiko "Kishi" Tomotsune, 1972 AFS exchange student from Japan, and Alice Weiler, 1973 AFS exchange student from Switzerland.
"Always fascinated with people from other countries since childhood, I befriended two AFS students and we have maintained a connection that has spanned four decades," Walsh said. "Alice has returned several times to visit, each time making a dutiful pilgrimage to the school when I would enthusiastically exclaim, 'Let's go to school to see your portrait!'
"Never could I have imagined, all these years later, that I would be involved in a major project involving these very portraits in an international adventure that has become so important to me, as well as to many others around the globe. The project has taken on a life of its own, which I continue to follow faithfully into the unknown; and it is not yet complete."
Walsh even made contact with one foreign exchange student of whom a portrait wasn't painted. David Liao, who came from Taiwan in 1967, was extremely surprised that anyone would be interested in the foreign exchange students, according to Walsh.
"My life would have been different without the act of kindness by the Poland family that could only be inspired by the good teaching of the gospel," Liao told Walsh.
A SELFLESS UNDERTAKING
Over the course of time, the portraits eventually ended up being taken down from display in the library, and were placed into storage. Many had been altered by time, and some had been damaged by water and mildew.
It was on a 2011 return trip to Maple Grove with Michiko that Walsh said she was first offered the opportunity to take the portraits home with her.
"After touring the school and a visit to the office to view the portrait, the secretary exclaimed, 'You can have this if you would like!' I was initially shocked, and thought the school was making a huge mistake. After all, this was part of our school history," she said. "Upon seeing the joy in Michiko and (Kazuhiro's) faces at the prospect of acquiring the portrait, I thought Alice, too, should have her portrait, and I would ask for it."
Walsh said the greater idea of returning all the portraits to their subjects then occurred to her. She began by asking permission to take the portraits from the building.
"It took a year to do that, but the request was made and granted," she said. "By the end of the summer of 2012, the adventure had begun."
Altogether, 20 portraits were procured by Walsh, including one of A.J. Sykes, former Maple Grove principal, and a more recent painting of a 2006 exchange student, Nienke Morije Vriesema, which was created by another student. The portraits were taken to the Frame & Glass Shop for evaluation, assistance and expertise. Though most did not require immediate attention, those that did received new mattes and clean glass. All were taken a second time to enhance, refresh and revive the portraits.
"The end result was thrilling, as the portraits truly are masterpieces of exquisite quality," said Walsh. "This process took several months, but in the end, the portraits were fresh and ready to be hung on different walls, in different locations, in different countries."
While waiting for the portraits to be refurbished, Walsh began her quest by researching information on the students. Unfortunately, no records were kept by the school, so she began requesting yearbooks from the school library and the Bemus Point Public Library.
Walsh said the bulk of the research was done during her spare time, of which there was little to begin with.
"I sifted through old yearbooks page by page until a name or a picture was found. While this took many hours over (the course of) months, in the end, I was able to find all but one name, and also some names of students with no portrait," she said.
She then began making phone calls and networking with contacts. The first big break came on Oct. 31, during a day off. Walsh found her first lead in a reunion booklet from 1959; an email address in Finland. Walsh sent an email about her intentions, and received a positive response within a few hours.
The search continued into November, which was Walsh's most productive time period. Ten more of the students were located, one via Facebook.
Walsh had found an entry for the 1962 Brazilian exchange student, Vito, but was unable to connect with him. With the help of her former Brazilian exchange student, and her family, she was eventually able to do so.
Additionally, she received assistance from Michiko in finding another exchange student from Japan, Yo Kimura.
"My search for Yo in Japan was fruitless until I contacted Michiko for assistance," she said. "She located information through some essays and, written in Japanese, which had been translated into Spanish for a class. He was located in Virginia."
Kimura, who attended Maple Grove in 1961, is now a civil servant. He has also seen success as a Japanese diplomat, a World Bank staffer, a U.N. representative, a professor of developmental studies, a freelance interpreter and an essayist.
Ultimately, Walsh was able to meet with Kimura while on a spring break to Washington, D.C., where she presented him with his portrait in person.
"It was one of the great honors of my life to be able to present his portrait - on behalf of the artist, the school and the community-to this extraordinary, yet humble, human being, who has done so much to promote peace and improve the world," she said. "It was a moving and poignant moment none of us shall ever forget."
Between January and May, 10 total portraits were sent via mail to several countries, including: Japan, Holland, Finland, Denmark, France, Switzerland and Brazil. Before they were sent out, the portraits were photographed and scanned by Walsh for historic preservation. They were also displayed during a Christmastime reception held at Walsh's house, at which Lurabel Colburn's children were present. Walsh said, according to Colburn's children, their mother would have been thrilled that the portraits were being placed into the hands of their subjects at this point in time.
In addition to the portraits, Walsh also sent along a package of brochures from Chautauqua County and Western New York, "so that these people might see how we have developed awareness of culture and history in our lovely region, and what it looks like today."
A PORTRAIT OF PEACE
Walsh's portrait project has brought many people and families, from multiple generations, together. This renewed connection has put several back in touch with members of their host families, with whom they had lost contact over the decades.
"Many have marveled at this undertaking with lofty praise, but I am truly only the architect of the project," Walsh said. "It has been as much, or perhaps more, of a blessing for me as it has been for these AFS students. Literally hundreds of people around the world have already been touched by this project, even those who have only heard of it.
"To date, 12 of the 20 portraits have been delivered," she added. "These long-forgotten masterpieces now have renewed interest and life for their subjects, as well as their families and friends in various corners of the globe."
Walsh has also offered to create an international display in a place of prominence for the Bemus Point Central School district, or somewhere else in the community.
THE SEARCH CONTINUES ...
There are still several former exchange students Walsh has yet to locate.
They include: Tore Aune, 1960, from Norway; Oswald Struder and Eduardo Cosin, 1964, from Switzerland and Spain, respectively; Wim Van der Minne, 1971, from the Netherlands; Diana Gibbons, 1972, from New Zealand; Janet Comley, 1974, from Australia; Carlos Perez, 1975, from Colombia; an unidentified blonde female, 1985; and Nienke Morije Vriesema, 2006, from the Netherlands.
If you have any information on these students or other Bemus Point Central School district exchange students since 1978, please contact email@example.com. Information will be forwarded to Karen Walsh.