Christine Thomas (‘70) returned to Martinez for two weeks last month, 43 years after she arrived here as a seventeen year old American Field Service (AFS) exchange student at Alhambra. Her experience here, which she firmly believes changed the entire course of her life in many positive ways, also had a positive impact on the many students and adults at the high school and throughout the community who got to know her that year. Certainly my experience with Chris and other AFSers as a member of the Martinez AFS committee and later as AFS District Representative changed my outlook and my life – I never would have taught for a year in Australia if not for AFS. And there’s no doubt in my mind that everyone who participated in AFS in whatever way at Alhambra between 1956 and 1986 would say something similar about its effect on them.
American Field Service seems an odd name for a youth exchange program unless you know the history. Before the US entry into World War I in 1917, young men on the East Coast who wanted to help the Allies formed a volunteer ambulance corps to transport wounded Allied soldiers from the trenches to the field hospitals. At the end of The Great War as it was then called, the volunteers disbanded the active organization but sponsored graduate fellowships for French students and attended periodic reunions. In 1939 when the Great War turned out not to be the ‘war to end all war’ and got its own number, AFS was re-formed, again as a volunteer group which served throughout World War II on a number of fronts. But when World War II ended, AFS leader Stephen Gallati decided not to disband but to change the AFS focus to preventing wars by increasing everyone’s knowledge of other cultures, other nations, other peoples. He chose high school as the best time to plant the seeds of tolerance and understanding by engaging high school students and their families and communities in the United States and throughout the world in a way that would reduce distrust and fear and build tolerance and understanding.
AFS took an ancient Sanskrit saying as its motto: “Walk Together, Talk Together, Oh Ye Peoples of the World. Then and Only Then Will we Have Peace”. Communities across the country and on every continent took that to heart and sent their teens off as ambassadors for goodwill, understanding and yes….peace. Every AFSer I ever heard speak about the experience wherever they were from always said “I found out that (despite differences in language, customs, history, etc.) people are the same everywhere.”
AFS arrived at Alhambra in the late summer of 1956 when Franca Smargiassi of Rome, Italy moved into the Charles Laird home as AFS sister to their four children. Soon she was being welcomed by organizations throughout the community, enrolled in her classes and greeted by the school’s AFS student club who helped her adjust to a quite different school system. Before long, she was speaking to the community’s many service, interest and social clubs from Kiwanis and Soroptimists to Martinez Woman’s Club, AAUW and various church and social groups. By the end of the 1956-57 school year, Franca had made many friends and everyone knew much more about Italy and her family and life there just as she now knew much more about the United States and our lives here.
The late John Spade, Alhambra’s Dean of Boys at the time, is generally credited with bringing the AFS program to Martinez. He convinced the Alhambra Union High School district and school staff, the student body and a host of local organizations to help raise the money needed to secure a student from AFS. He helped arrange for host family candidates to be submitted for selection by AFS in New York and generally facilitated the program’s launch successfully with an adult AFS committee that managed the program here for the next 30 years. Longtime AFS committee members laud John’s efforts and note that the Lairds were an excellent host family and Franca a perfect “first” AFSer making many friends and creating a great deal of enthusiasm for not only continuing the program but to expanding it by selecting and funding Alhambra students participating in the Americans Abroad program to spend summer or entire school years in other countries all around the world.
The first AFS committee was led by Phyllis Wainwright (’34) as president. Other officers included Dr. S. P. Williams, Carolyn Chrisman, Fern Bell, Lorraine Laird, Dolores Walther, John Spade and Irene Wells.
Over the years the program grew with two students coming per year in the late 1970s and early 80s and Americans Abroad Summer program students heading out from Martinez each year from 1957 to 1984. Later, eight Alhambrans met the challenges of the School program spending an entire year in a country learning the language as they attended school each day. AFS expanded to add the American Indian Program in 1972 whereby an Alhambra student lived on a reservation with a native American family and attended school briefly while the family’s youngster came to Alhambra.
Martinez families, some of whom had never expected to travel overseas in their lives, found themselves going to Germany, Japan, Brazil, Australia, wherever to visit their AFS children, meet their families and tour their countries. AFSers such as Chris come back periodically as she did recently to celebrate the 90th birthday of her host mother, June Satre.
In the late 1980s, it became harder to find host families able to commit to an entire school year mainly because more and more women were going to work full time and were thus reluctant to take on the responsibility of being a host parent. The AFS program still exists nationally in a somewhat modified form but it has not been active in Martinez since the late 1980s. For a number of years, it was replaced here by smaller programs featuring a group of students from Japan most often who came for two or three weeks, attended group-sponsored classes and trips during the week and enjoyed activities with their host families on weekends.
But for those of us, whether high school student or host sibling, teacher or administrator, host parents or parents of an Americans Abroad student, committee members and volunteer district coordinators, or members of a group hearing a young person speak about his or her stay here or overseas, AFS was a stirring experience that broadened our understanding and provided a perennial booster shot of hope for the future of the world.
Chris Thomas, for one, is quite disappointed she can’t be here for the Alhambra Decades Class Reunion. But to help us all rekindle memories of Alhambra’s AFSers, I will put on a separate Local Voices submission, the list of all the AFS students and all the host families who turned Alhambra into an embassy of good will and international understanding for three decades.
In a separate Local Voices posting next week, Christine Thomas (AFS 1969-70 from Australia) and Folke Jesperson (AFS 1966-67 from Denmark) will share their Alhambra experiences – Chris looking back last week to 43 years ago and Folke writing for the Martinez News-Gazette in May, 1967 to say good-bye at the end of his AFS year.
As always, thanks to the Martinez Historical Society and to Andrea Blachman and Marlene Thompson (’52) for finding the materials and to all sorts of people who gathered them together over the years and made sure they ended up on file in the Martinez Museum for history buffs like me.
By the way, a Reunion Weekend Museum Open House especially for Alhambra grads and their friends and family will be held with a special exhibit including a “Panther” jacket worn by the Alhambra Alumni football team, three generations of cheerleading/majorette uniforms and all sorts of other exciting high school memorabilia gathered and put together by Dorothy Lucero Buffington (’68) and Andrea, Marlene and MHS board member Annie Holter.
--Martinez Museum, 1005 Escobar Street (cnr Court & Escobar)
--Saturday, August 18 from 9 a.m. to noon (drop by before heading up to Rankin Park for the picnic)
--Sunday, August 19 from 1 to 4 p.m. (drop by before or after visiting Art in the Park for a last chance to touch base with old and new friends at the historic spot where last year the Decades Reunion idea for this year was hatched by the Remembering Martinez Facebook group