Whether it’s just reminiscing or bringing your classmates up to date on what you’ve been up to, we love hearing your stories! As our thoughts (and work!) are all things Reunion these days, we are delighted to share a post that arrived in our offices from Bill Anthony ’66. Enjoy this charming recounting of a very special reunion that took place in Heilbronn Germany with the former exchange students from Williston Academy and Theodor-Heuss-Gymnaasium.
To read his original story in its entirety, click here. Below is an abridged version:
On September 16, 2016, a group of eleven former exchange students from Williston Academy and Theodor-Heuss-Gymnasium met to share memories and reflections on the exchange experience and the profound impact it had on everyone’s lives, personally and professionally. The next evening, Saturday, September 17, 2016, they gathered; ten men and one woman, four Americans and seven Germans, in a villa tucked in the midst of vineyards overlooking
Heilbronn, Germany, stood up and proudly sang, “Arise Sons of Williston!” It was a capstone moment near the end of a magical reunion of “Ehemalige” (former) exchange students—now more advanced in years—participants in a school-to-school exchange program that started in 1956 and ceased some twenty years later. In total, the program exchange included 32 participants: 17 from the Theodor-Heuss-Gymnasium and 15 from Williston Academy and the Williston-Northampton School—29 men and 3 women. Nearly 40% of the former “exchangers” still living, were present for the reunion, making that evening even more special. They are: William Anthony, Charlie Benoit, Arch Bryant, and Ron Gwiazda – all from Williston; and from Theodor-Heuss-Gymnasium: Manfred Balz, Ulrike Brandenberger, Peter Fischer, Peter Hertner, Konrad Roth, Ulrich Schneider, and Lutz Wegner.
During the months preceding the reunion, these former exchange students began swapping stories and old photos, the highlights of which were lively email (and letter) exchanges with the first two German and American exchangers, Franz Schmitt von Muehlenfels ’57 and Corby Finney ‘57. Although neither Franz nor Corby could attend the reunion, they were very much “present” with their remarkable recollections of Phil Stevens and Karl Weiss and their vivid memories of school life not long after the war. Franz shared a photo someone had taken of him running the high hurdles on a wooden track that winter—next to the headmaster’s Homestead! In one letter, Franz recalls Coach Laurent bellowing “Franz, watch your language!” on his megaphone after Franz shouted an obscenity when he overstepped the foul line for his broad jump. You might say that language learning for an exchange student at a boys’ school takes on a new meaning and gaining a more varied vocabulary than found in schoolbooks… In yet another letter, Franz vividly recalled the “I like IKE!” buttons from that very different election 60 years ago.
In a way, these stories “seeded” the stories that were later told with great gusto all that weekend in Heilbronn last September, beginning with the opening welcome dinner on Thursday, September 16, so generously hosted by Ulrich Schneider’60 and his partner, Petra Rothfuss. As the exchangers around the table introduced themselves and their partners, any concerns they might have harbored about spending an awkward weekend with complete strangers, quickly were dispelled as they recognized kindred spirits in their shared memories.
The exchange was founded by, Williston’s Headmaster, Phillips Stevens, and the Director of the Theodor-Heuss-Gymnasium, Karl Weiss, following a visit by Weiss to Easthampton in the winter of 1956. When Weiss received a warm welcome—and, according to Phil Stevens, the only standing ovation that Willistonians had ever given a guest speaker, the idea took root. (Franz Schmitt ’57, who was eyewitness to that speech, recalled that Weiss’ talk about God and Nature was a lively counterpart to the sober Congregationalist backdrop, something he says the boys particularly appreciated.) Stevens had spent two summers in Germany in 1937 and ’38, while a teacher at the South Kent School, earning his Master’s in German at Middlebury. Later, as Williston’s headmaster, he and Weiss, both dedicated educators, almost certainly shared a common interest in re-establishing post-war US and German relations by means of a simple, school-to-school, family-to-family, 1:1 exchange. The origin of this exchange is all the more remarkable, given the fact that Phil Stevens’ younger brother, David, a US infantryman, was killed in Germany near the end of the war and Karl Weiss had been a prisoner of war. Thus, the founding of this exchange, quite literally on the rubble of war, barely a decade after war’s end, was truly an act of practical idealism carried out by two consummate educators who shared deep mutual respect for each other’s culture, and who sought to ensure that the next generation of students knew a more peaceful world.
This exchange functioned with quiet regularity from its start in 1956 until its final year, 1975, around the time when Williston Academy, now the Williston-Northampton School, closed its German language program. In its final years, after Williston-Northampton became co-ed, the once all-male exchange included several young women from both schools.