Val has retired from Apple after 14 years with iTunes. He is now vice chair of the Board for the Land Trust of Santa Cruz (Calif.) County, and he has joined the board of DigitalNEST in Santa Cruz. He is spending lots more time with his family, drinking good beer and generally having fun. At K, Val majored in economics and business and studied abroad in Madrid, Spain. He earned his M.B.A. from the University of Chicago.
Sarah manages the Klamath Bird Observatory’s bird monitoring work on the Trinity River Restoration Program in northwestern California. Body temperature and blood work-ups provide indicators of human health; in a somewhat similar way birds are indicators of a functional river ecosystem. Sarah manages research looking into how changes in habitat structure associated with river restoration are related to bird abundance, diversity and demography. Results shape and assess river restoration activities. Sarah joined KBO in 2013 after earning her Ph.D. at the University of Maryland and the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. She studied the ecology of the endangered Kirtland’s Warbler. At K, she majored in biology with a concentration in environmental studies. She studied abroad in Ecuador. KBO is a scientific non-profit organization that achieves bird conservation in the Pacific Northwest and throughout the migratory ranges of the birds that frequent the ruggedly beautiful and wildlife-rich Klamath-Siskiyou bioregion of southern Oregon and northern California. KBO emphasizes high caliber science and the role of birds as indicators of the health of the land, and the organization specializes in cost-effective bird monitoring and research projects that improve natural resource management. It nurtures a conservation ethic in local communities through outreach and educational programs.
Something about the K-Plan inspires the desire to start a journey, and, according to John Hitchcock ’78, develops the wherewithal to make it work. Things like planning, leadership, and adaptability. John shares the story of such a journey. He graduated with a major in psychology and did his foreign study in Aix-en-Provence, France. Today John is vice president and managing director for Energy Intelligence Group in New York. Mentioned in the story are Leo Hurley ’78 and the late Kate Plaisier ’77. Leo majored in health sciences and did his foreign study in Caen, France. He is an epidemiologist for Kaiser Permanente in northern California. Kate earned her B.A. in biology. She passed away on August 29, 2012.
To invite 20 students on a seven-day ski trek along the northern edge of the Upper Peninsula, you need SNOW. Snow is non-negotiable. It’s also not controllable. Even as a sophomore two terms away from a course in experimental design I knew what an uncontrollable variable could do to you. Tarps, food, fuel for stoves, sleeping bags, boots that fit, skis that glide—all those could be reliably assembled and accounted for. Not snow. Not even in late December in Michigan’s most remote wilderness; not even in 1975, decades before global warming had cast its existential pall. An end-of-fall-quarter cross-country ski expedition would be nothing without snow.
Thanksgiving came and went without a meaningful accumulation of snow in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The four of us who had organized the trip prepared to refund to 16 trusting souls the $80 they’d each paid for this first-of-its-kind finish to the fall quarter. And then, the weekend before final exams, a storm crossing Lake Superior brought a half-foot of snow—enough to turn the century-old logging roads that were the national park’s entry points into skiable paths.
We became intimate with the weather reports after developing an intense appreciation for what could be learned over the telephone; at first from daily calls from our dorm room phone to the recorded voice of the Upper Peninsula Michigan Bell weather lady, and, later, from more desperate conversations with state troopers stationed in Munising, the only town bordering the Pictured Rocks preserve.
Some of the life skills learned in Kalamazoo’s mid-1970s foray into wilderness education (the origins of today’s LandSea program) were imparted even before we reached the wilderness. “Working the phones” was one. These lessons in rotary technology would later contribute to my career as a journalist covering Iran from outside Iran, China and Indonesia from Tokyo, and Margaret Thatcher’s rise and fall at a careful distance from the sharp edges of her blue handbag. Phone work could uncover so much.
In true K fashion, some of our lessons were learned on the road. We drove the 405 miles to Pictured Rocks the night after finals in a school van and three private cars, led by freshman Kate Plaisier’s Volkswagen Beetle. Her car would become as important to our journey as the Lunar Module had been to the Apollo 11 moon mission six years earlier. At times it seemed as cramped.
By the middle of the morning after finals we had reached a store near an eastern entrance to the park. The mounds of snow described by the weather lady and troopers six days earlier had sagged. The sky was an unbroken gray, the temperature a degree or two above freezing. We drained the store of its coffee and drove the final 20 minutes to the trailhead we had picked to be our base camp. As uninspiring as the weather was, our site, by contrast, buzzed. The 20 of us divided into our carefully chosen patrols of 10. Tarps were set up. Fires lit, cooking areas organized. Skis were laid out. A gentle mist set in.
Many of us had never skied before, much less winter-camped. The open area at the trailhead, cleared by loggers and forest fires decades before and now rimmed by white pines, became our practice ground. Northwest of base camp, a three-day ski away, awaited our destination: the sandstone cliffs and dunes that dropped more than 200 feet into Lake Superior, to be reached via two separate routes through stands of birch, hemlock and beech, winding past marshes, streams and waterfalls.
The mist continued overnight, but under the tarps life was dry and still. Besides, sleep lost from finals week and the previous night’s drive left no one awake to complain. But by morning the snow had disappeared. The drizzle, the mud, the above-freezing (though barely) temperatures were more than an inconvenience. They threatened our plan, which had been to send the patrols on their separate ways after breakfast. We considered carrying the skis and doing the first day’s trek in boots. The forecast was for colder weather, which would eventually bring the comfort of dry snow. But what if the forecast continued to be unreliable?
Lunch came and went, and still it rained. I don’t recall anyone from either patrol upset. They all seemed to think it was an improvement over finals. My leader-mates and I were less at peace: we’d lose daylight in four hours. One leaky boot, one irreversibly cold foot and we’d be forced to evacuate in the dark, and to where? If there was to be a Plan B, better to search for it now. Leo Hurley and I volunteered to head off with Kate Plaisier in her Beetle to visit the state police post an hour’s drive to the west.
The troopers couldn’t have been more amused by our muddy, wet-woolly selves. They also couldn’t have been more helpful. Could they make a call to a church or a school where our soggy band could put up for the night? Three hours later the 20 of us were camped in the Munising High School gym, cooking Sunday supper on the parquet floor. There we slept until students filed in for a Monday morning assembly.
Overnight, rain had turned to snow—perhaps no more than an inch, but it was falling at an encouraging pace. We broke our gym-camp and were ready to return to the woods. Except for a single leaky boot. It belonged to a sophomore who had been bravely mum the day before. She was already shivering despite our night indoors. Her toes were numb.
Weeks before, planning the trip over a meal in the dining hall, we had figured 10 percent of the trip budget would be adequate for an emergency reserve. I pulled the 10- and 20-dollar bills of our reserve fund from the plastic sandwich bag buried at the bottom of my pack. Marquette, a university town two hours by car to the west, offered a hospital and an airport. Off we went.
Leo, whose career would be in medical research, and Kate, who would specialize in adolescent psychiatry, proved great company in a medical evacuation. For our shivering skier there was nothing a round of hugs and a ticket home to Kalamazoo couldn’t cure. We walked her onto the runway and reassured her as she boarded that all would be well. Back at base camp, the two patrols would be off on a trek in fresh snow. Yes, we had lost a day’s skiing to the weather, but we’d make up for it with an early pre-dawn departure the next morning. Our “wounded” comrade, in turn, had a good story to tell. Everyone wins.
The plane lifted off. The storm stiffened. Leo, Kate and I drove the two hours back to base camp. The snow had drifted over the narrow roads. The Beetle, propelled by its rear-mounted engine, ploughed on. We reached camp well after nightfall and dinner with a plan to wake up in the middle of the night to ski.
The cloudless midnight sky gave us our first look at the Upper Peninsula in winter wonder. I remember a full moon, but the night could as easily have been lit by the stars alone. The trails were unbroken and glowed magically. For an hour or more the three of us skied in silence through the forest. The way emptied into a small clearing. We paused, still without speaking. A quarter of an hour went by. An owl, backlit by the moon or the Milky Way, flew in from the right, dipped into the snow at mid-field, and lifted a rabbit into the sky.
Snow was abundant for the remainder of the trip. We reached Lake Superior as planned. I remember being so frightened by its wind and waves that I turned back immediately. The woods, by contrast, were peaceful. No toes were lost. Maybe it was the diet of gorp, mac-and-cheese and hot chocolate. Maybe it was the regular breaks for under-the-armpit foot-warmings. We returned home two days before Christmas Eve.
Nearly 40 Christmases later I’m left with a fine wilderness education, one that includes phone skills (which are now digital), an eagerness to take up nature’s invitation to come out (often) and play, and a confidence in what small groups can overcome—not to mention a favorite story.
When Kalamazoo College officials went searching for LEED certification for the Fitness and Wellness Center, they looked to the students who will use it.
After plans for the center were announced in 2014, the Kalamazoo College Climate Action Network, a student-organized group that advocates for sustainable and effective measures to address climate change, looked for ways to ensure the new construction was environmentally friendly. One idea was to have the addition LEED-certified.
K’s Sustainability Advisory Committee, which included faculty, staff and students, agreed, but suggested a modification of the idea. Rather than paying for LEED certification, then perhaps the College should instead hire two student LEED-equivalent auditors, training them in the design, energy and sustainability criteria that inform LEED. The College gave the green light to that idea and will divert the estimated $50,000 cost of formal certification to fund the student auditing project.
Junior Michelle Sugimoto and senior Ogden Wright were chosen from a dozen applicants. They have met with designers and builders every few weeks since late last summer. The actual cost of their training and stipends will be a fraction of the cost of LEED certification. The savings will be invested in a 12 kilowatt solar panel array installation on campus that will offset 5 percent of the new fitness center’s energy costs.
The new, $8.65 million center (29,000 square feet) will feature cardio and weight rooms, multi-purpose fitness areas and racquetball and squash courts. The scheduled opening is July 31.
Collaborating with the project’s design and construction teams, Sugimoto and Wright have been evaluating several factors to assess the LEED-like certification potential of the building. Among others, those factors include water and energy efficiency, proximity to public transportation and air quality.
Associate Vice President for Facilities Management Paul Manstrom, who is advising the students, says their work is another example of K’s commitment to provide students experiences with profoundly relevant real-world applications.
“It’s a case of the administration sharing a challenge with students and saying, ‘Join us,’” he says. “While we are using LEED standards to audit the construction of the building,” Manstrom adds, “there’s really no template for what we are calling a student-audited LEED simulation. We’re being creative and designing the process as we go through it.
“Buildings constitute a large part of the amount of waste produced in the United States each year. Putting the money up front saves the College money in the long run, while at the same time giving these students an incredible learning experience.”
The U.S. Green Buildings Council sets the standards for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). Building projects earn points from certifiers based on the type and degree of sustainable practices integrated into a structure, from LED lights to insulation to the use of alternative forms of energy, and many others.
LEED-certified buildings are resource efficient, use less water and energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Around 1.85 million square feet are being certified daily, according to the Council. Two other buildings on K’s campus are LEED certified: the Hicks Student Center, with a Silver designation, and the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership, which is expected to reach Gold-level certification soon.
“It’s one thing to complain about climate change, it’s another thing to try to change it,” says Wright, a native of Kingston, Jamaica. He participates in K’s 3/2 Engineering Program, a dual degree program where three years of core classes are taken at the College before a student transfers to an accredited engineering school for higher level courses. He currently studies Civil Engineering at Western Michigan University.
Having worked in Facilities Management last summer, Wright applied for the auditor position “because I wasn’t ready to throw away my ties to K,” he says. “It keeps me around here, keeps me grounded in the College, and we’re providing a service for K.”
In return, the students gain vital experience. LEED is the new trend in building, and helps us understand how we are going to treat our environment, planet and people around us,” says Wright. He and Sugimoto are qualified to do the work.
“It helps that we’re physicists,” Wright says. “We know what’s meant by Kilowatt hours, BTUs, R-Factors (the measure of insulation’s ability to resist heat going through it).“
“And we’re not just on our own,” Sugimoto adds. “The designers and builders work with us as colleagues. I think the coolest thing is that the students here are always willing to take on a challenge and engage with the administration on it, and that the administration is willing to support real actions on the ground.”
The students will write a report for the Board of Trustees and the College community. The fruits of their work will be concrete and long lived. Says Manstrom: “The real story of what they did—duplicating the process used by LEED certifiers—will be in the building. We’ll have an idea of what our certification would be even without the official designation.”
Ladislav Hanka ’75 has a mind that buzzes with constant activity, always attracted to the sweetness of an idea with a twist. His degree is in biology, and his love of the natural world is evident in his art. His etchings, prints, and drawings illustrate the intricacies and mystery of nature: craggy trees, elegant fish, round-bellied frogs, fierce raptors and delicate song birds, dank mushrooms, the occasional napping old dog.
So the idea of combining living bees and his etchings seemed, well, natural. He saw it as collaboration.
Some five years ago, a friend had given him a box of bees.
“There was a little bit of sugar water in there, something like mosquito netting, and the bees were climbing around inside the box,” Hanka says. “And I thought, so cute! Like having a puppy!” He laughs. “Suddenly, I was a parent. It was on that level of forethought that I became a beekeeper.”
Where the idea came from to place his etchings inside the beehives, among the living bees, Hanka can’t say.
“Who knows where ideas come from,” he shrugs. “You wake up some night, and there it is. It seems such a simple idea, too, but I’d never seen anyone do it. So I put the etching in after soaking the paper in hot beeswax, brushing it on, and the bees seem to like that paper. Typically, they start on the chunks of old, recycled beeswax and avoid the lines of the etching. Perhaps it’s the flavor? Or the waxy aromatic paper? Otherwise they tend to chew up and destroy any foreign substance intruding on their hives. Then again, they may just be critics.” Hanka grins.
Standing in his studio, a building he constructed where the garage once stood at his residence in Kalamazoo, just a few blocks from Kalamazoo College, he leans in close to take a look at his etchings. He has them lined up in a row on a small ledge along the end wall. The etchings closely match what he exhibited in ArtPrize 2014 in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
ArtPrize is an annual art competition judged both by popular vote and a jury. This past summer more than 1,500 artists from across the world exhibited their work in and around downtown Grand Rapids. Hanka’s panoramic etching in ArtPrize 2011 won the Curator’s Choice award and was purchased by the Grand Rapids Art Museum for its permanent collection.
Hanka’s 2014 ArtPrize entry, “Great Wall of Bees: Intelligence of the Beehive,” is his third since the competition’s inception. Contained inside a glass case along the length of a wall just inside the entrance of the Urban Institute of Contemporary Art (UICA), live bees buzzed and danced and chewed over three rows of Hanka’s etchings—detailed images of toads, salmon, trees, insects, birds—building honeycomb along the curves of his lines, indeed in surprising collaboration.
Great Wall of Bees was collaborative art and environmental message. In a description of his work on the ArtPrize website, he wrote:
“The additions bees make to the etchings are as inevitably elegant as the gently curving veils of honeycomb you find hanging from the domed ceilings within a bee tree. There is an undeniable intelligence at work in a beehive. You learn to respect that and care about these highly evolved creatures, which brings me inescapably around to bees being in trouble—not just here but worldwide.
“The cause of bee die-offs is hardly a mystery. It’s much like the growth in cancer rates. No single factor causes it. The crisis is due to a summation of assaults on the organism, until it’s all too much. Bees face a gauntlet of toxins, habitat loss, electromagnetic pollution, exotic diseases and imported parasites. …”
Hanka’s living exhibit drew a great deal of attention. He estimates that 80,000 to 100,000 persons viewed the Great Wall of Bees. His work was short-listed in the top 25 in both popular and juried categories for three-dimensional entries.
“For the three weeks of the exhibit, I was the bee-man,” says Hanka. “I heard people talking about the bees in cafes and on the street. People still come to talk to me about the artwork and the bees, even though the show is over.”
It was profoundly gratifying, he says, to interact with the public coming to see his art and to watch the bees build their honeycomb around it. Bees crawled along the glass where children pressed their noses for a closer look. Some expressed concern over dying insects, and it gave Hanka a chance to explain something about the four-week life cycle of a bee and the difference between natural daily die-offs versus the massive losses bees currently suffer in beehives everywhere.
He dips a bare hand into one of his hives, set in a circle beside his house, and the bees emerge, almost lazily, spinning a hum of circles around Hanka’s head and landing on him. They swarm over his bare hands and land in his beard.
“They are not aggressive with me,” Hanka says. “Frame of mind is important. They respond much like any animal would. You have to be sensitive to their mood and show some respect..”
The bees do sting him occasionally, he says, especially when stressed, but Hanka shrugs it off. All a part of the art and all part of the natural order of things. As for the way the insects weave their intricate combs along his drawings, Hanka shrugs about that, too.
“I try to be realistic about that, how much intelligence is in the bee,” he says. “There is a spirit. I have no explanation for some of it.”
Hanka considers ArtPrize carefully, now that the citywide exhibit is done, his wall of bees packed up and brought back to the hive again. During subsequent weeks he contemplated the moment of fame.
“The space is clean and no evidence remains of the effort invested,” he says. “Honey gathering and art are both among the first recorded events in the mists of human history. My work invited people to partake of genuine, unfalsified sacraments. I saw they were truly moved by the beauty they encountered and by their concern for the fate of bees.”
Landing on the competition’s short lists gave him a few seductive moments of contemplating the financial prize (ArtPrize awards two grand prizes worth $400,000, and eight category awards worth $160,000). Those moments quickly evaporated in the final stages of the competition.
“Of course, there was a build-up and then disappointment,” Hanka nods. “Though we may ardently desire the accolades and money these votes confer, it isn’t why we make art.”
What remains, Hanka says, is the message he wanted to deliver: the interaction he had with his audience and his art, the near-mystical experience he had with another tiny life form. He acknowledges the influences that have remained with him from his years at Kalamazoo College, where he studied with Marcia Wood, Johannes Von Gumppenberg, Peter Jogo, and Bernard Palchick (all former professors in the art department). Equally, in biology, he credits Professors Paul Olexia, David Evans, and Fred Cichocki.
“I still keep in contact with many of them, and I value their influence in my life,” Hanka says. Ideas, he believes, are born in the buzz of many minds working at their purpose; they are built one upon another.
Hanka walks between the aisles of his beehives in the same way he walks between the tables in his studio. Both are covered with pieces of his work. He leans forward to study a detail, and then he leans back to contemplate the whole.
He is done with this particular project, this artistic collaboration with the bees that carried over years. Now, the bees will return to what they do best: making honey. The artist will let his mind spin and dream and buzz a little, until it lands on his next big idea.
Whether he’s dealing with smoke in the air, oil in the water, or contaminants in the ground, Ben Houston ’06 has a passion to help the environment. As an attorney he’s volunteered his services on countless occasions, usually through his ‘Of Counsel’ position with the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, located in Detroit.
Among his current cases is the contesting of a permit to allow fracking (hydraulic fracturing) in Kalkaska County (Michigan). Another case deals with a Detroit incinerator. It burns garbage to produce electricity, but the smell it generates is a detriment to those who live in the area.
Houston is also working with Detroit community groups that are concerned that a proposed expansion of I-94 will result in the removal of overpasses, decreasing pedestrian mobility in nearby neighborhoods.
In the recent past he became involved with the 2010 oil spill into the Kalamazoo River caused by the rupture of a pipeline operated by Enbridge Incorporated.
His contribution to the cause also includes being a co-author of two published articles about the Great Lakes; one is about its governance, the other about managing the demand for fresh water, especially in light of climate change.
Houston’s arrival at K in the fall of 2002 was preceded by a visit the year before, during a road trip with his family after his junior year in high school. It turned out to be a case of love at first sight.
“We had already visited some other schools by the time we got to Kalamazoo,” Houston recalls. “But once I saw K, I said, ‘We can stop now. This is where I want to go!’”
Among the sights that captured his interest during that first visit was what he describes as the “Sisyphus statue” (the spiral, flame-like sculpture by the late Marcia Wood ’55, professor emerita of art and art history, located on the Light Fine Arts Building lawn). “I liked that a lot; it just resonated with me.”
Houston was enthused to attend K, and his years on campus (2002 to 2006) didn’t disappoint. “I loved every minute of it. It was perfect. My foreign study was in London, at Goldsmith College. That was great, too.”
After graduating, Houston spent eight months overseas, in Zagreb, Croatia, with his aunt and uncle. There he worked for the Academy for Education Development, an organization that disbursed USAID money to local nonprofits.
“One of the local agencies we dealt with provided social services to the Roma people” a disadvantaged ethnic minority. “Another agency we supported removed land mines that had been left behind from the Bosnian war in the early 1990s.”
One incident helped Houston understand that the war was still a very sensitive topic with Croatians. “I got into a discussion about which side in the war was responsible for the destruction of a famous bridge in Mostar. Next thing I knew, things were getting really heated; I made an expeditious retreat.”
Houston enjoyed his time in Croatia. “I’d go for walks and intentionally get lost just so I could see the city. People liked to talk to me so they could practice their English. That happened so much that at times it was a bit exhausting.”
What brought his time in Croatia to an end? “I ran out of money.”
After a year spent as a “landscape architect,” Houston resumed his education, beginning his studies at the University of Michigan law school in the fall of 2008. Helping him feel at home in Ann Arbor was the fact that he roomed with his former K roommate, Ben Connor Barrie ’06.
“Because of my time in Croatia I thought I might like international law, but at Michigan I took an environmental law course and that just clicked for me.”
Three years of law school apparently wasn’t enough for Houston. After graduating from Michigan he traveled west, to Portland, Oregon, where he earned, in 2012, a Master of Law degree from Lewis and Clark Law School.
“I wanted to get a deeper understanding of environmental law, especially water law and policy,” Houston says in explaining his move west.
While in Portland, Houston worked as a clinical student in the Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center (now the EarthRise Law Center). He helped with a number of environmental cases, including those relating to the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.
“Portland was great. For one thing, you can’t fall down without being close to a good restaurant. And I ran into an old K friend, Noah Manger ’08, who really introduced me to the city.”
Houston now practices law with his father, Charles O. Houston III, in their office in Mount Clemens. The firm’s focus is real estate, corporate law, and estate planning. “Working with my father allows me the freedom to do the environmental pro bono work I love.
“Another thing I really like doing is helping local businesses get off the ground,” Ben explains. He did that recently for fellow K grad, Lisa Ludwinski ’06.
“Lisa had moved to Detroit from New York and she wanted to set up a commercial bakery. It’s called ‘Sister Pie.’ She had received $50,000 in seed money from Comerica Bank and the Detroit Lions.”
Among the advantages to having such a client: “She sometimes gives me bakery stuff that doesn’t pass her standards of quality, but it’s still excellent!”
Houston lives in Detroit with a friend from law school. By living in the city and working in a suburb, Houston has morning and afternoon drives that are “opposite of typical rush hour traffic. Those drives take me about 30 minutes, but that’s half of what it would be if I was doing the typical suburb-to-city commute.”
Having grown up in greater Detroit, Houston Is pleased with the city’s recent developments. “Detroit is really going through a lot of great changes. The area is vastly better than it was a few years ago.”
Through his work to help the environment, Houston hopes that the area’s environment will be better, too.
Like most K first-year students, Connor Vogt ’18 is looking forward to going on foreign study. Unlike most of his classmates, however, Connor has already studied abroad, twice in fact. And his travels during those two occasions have been extensive—the list of countries he has visited is up to 21.
Those opportunities came as a result of Connor’s mother, Amy, and her job as a senior manager for the automaker BMW. In 2007 the company asked her to consider relocation to Munich. She agreed, so her family (Connor, his father, Richard, and his younger brother, Brandon) left their home in Greenville, South Carolina, and moved to Europe. They stayed for three years, which for Connor were grades 6, 7, and 8.
“I loved it over there,” Connor recalls. “I went to an international school. There were kids from about 50 countries, and we got along great. In Germany I learned to snowboard, which I’d never done before.”
On weekends Connor travelled outside of Germany. “My family took trains and went to almost all of the West European countries.”
His favorite? “Maybe Ireland,” he says after a moment’s thought. “It’s so … homey.
“But I really liked living in Germany. For one thing, I’m a huge soccer fan and the game is so big over there! It’s just cool how popular it is.” Emblematic of his passion for the game is one of his Hoben Hall dorm room wall hangings: a large Liverpool Football Club white and red flag.
Playing soccer inspired Connor’s fluency in German. “My school classes were taught in English, but I played soccer on a club with a German coach and players. It was when they started yelling at me to do things in German that I realized I had to learn the language. I got to be fairly proficient.”
He also came to appreciate certain government benefits. “Germany has socialized medicine, so anyone can get medical treatment. My brother had to go to the hospital once, and it didn’t cost anything. And going to college is free. Of course, their taxes are really high.”
After Connor’s 8th grade year BMW asked his mother if she’d accept a position 4,500 miles to the east, in Beijing, China. She agreed, and the family moved directly there. That stay lasted two years, Connor’s 9th and 10th grade, again in an international school that was home to students from some 50 nations.
China presented a new set of challenges, not the least of which was the language. “Chinese is a lot harder for me to learn than German. Their writing is entirely different. Instead of letters representing sounds, they have characters that represent words. When I saw their signs I couldn’t even guess what they meant. In speaking, subtle little differences in pronunciation dramatically change the meaning of the word.
“For example, the word ‘ma’ said one way means ‘mother,’ but if you say it slightly differently it means ‘horse.’”
As they did in Europe, his family took trips to nearby countries, albeit fewer in number than was the case during their stay in Germany. “We went to Japan and Thailand, but China is so big that we could travel a long ways and still be in China.”
His travels also took him to the Great Wall. “That was really cool. It’s so long. You can hike on it for days. But parts of it are really in disrepair, with vegetation growing over it.”
Conner came to enjoy Chinese food. “The food I had there is not like Chinese food in America. When I described to my Chinese friends what we eat in America they said, ‘Oh, that’s what our grandparents used to eat!’ One of my favorite items was ‘baozi,’ which is like a dumpling. They fill them with things like pork and sweet potatoes.”
He also came to enjoy the Chinese people. “They are very . . .” he said, struggling to find the right word. “Upfront. Uninhibited. Once we were at a restaurant and the waiter, out of the blue, asked us how much we paid for rent. He didn’t see that as a personal question; he just wanted to know. Another time a girl approached me and asked if she could run her fingers through my hair to see what it felt like. And when we got away from the cities, where people didn’t see a lot of westerners, they’d come up to me and ask if they could have their photograph taken with me.
“I loved China. I’d live there if it wasn’t for the air pollution.”
Oh, yes, the pollution. “It was amazing,” Connor said, shaking his head. “I went for a walk once and got lost because I couldn’t see more than 200 yards in front of me. That was disconcerting. Another time I had to clean off something in our backyard. It had about an inch of grime and grit on it!
“There are numbers to measure pollution. In Kalamazoo the number is about 20. A bad day in Los Angeles might be 120. Beijing regularly hit 300, and on bad days it was 500. Sometimes they wouldn’t let our school cross-country team go out running.”
Like most of the Chinese, Connor looked forward to important foreign dignitaries coming to visit because it was on those occasions that the Chinese government took the pollution problem seriously. “They’d shut down the factories and shoot some kind of rockets into the air to make it rain. Then the air would be so clean and the sky so blue. That was great!”
After two years in China, and five overseas, the family decided to return to South Carolina. Having come to appreciate the life of an “ex-pat,” Connor had mixed emotions about the move. “I’d made friends from other countries, like Japan, France, and the Netherlands, so I actually was not excited about going home. I didn’t want my living abroad to end.”
But end it did. Connor finished his last two high school years in a small Catholic High School where he became a star cross-country runner (with a best 5K time of 17:18).
When Connor began his college search he initially focused only on larger universities. All the high schools he’d attended were small, so he thought he’d go to a college that was large, like Texas or Michigan or Clemson. Had he gone to one of those schools he had no intention of running cross-country.
But things changed after Conner’s father, Richard, offered some advice that had a touch of irony to it.
“When my father was in high school, in the late ’70s in Flint, he was recruited by K to run cross-country. He basically blew off the offer because he wanted to go to a bigger school, which turned out to be Michigan State. I don’t know if he regretted that decision, but he was the one who suggested I consider K. I never would have applied to K if he hadn’t encouraged me to do it. After I did, K really started to recruit me. They called me on the phone several times and had me come in for a visit. Once I knew I was coming to K I decided I’d also run cross-country.
“My first few weeks on campus, last fall, were challenging, but it’s been great since then. Running cross-country has been amazing. I’m the only freshman male, but the older guys have been very welcoming. I tore my sartorial muscle in my quad, which made me miss a few meets, but my last meet was almost my best time of the season.”
Conner’s father also has been pleased with how things have turned out.
“When I first suggested to Connor that he apply to a small school, such as K, he agreed to do it, but he did it sort of kicking and screaming. But I really thought K would be a good fit for him, partly because of K’s study abroad program, and partly because I knew he wouldn’t end up in classes with hundreds of other kids.”
After a moment’s pause, he added, “To this day I sometimes think it might have been interesting for me to have gone to K and run cross-country.”
K’s first-year cross-country coach, Kris Koster, has been impressed with what he’s seen of Connor. “Even when he was injured he was upbeat. He has a lot of potential.”
As to where he might go for his study abroad, Connor is considering London—which he has visited (“I loved it there. There’s so much to do!”)—and Bonn, Germany—which would be, surprisingly, uncharted territory for him. “We just never got to Bonn when we lived in Munich.”
Wherever he chooses to go, with five years of overseas study already under his belt, there is little reason to think he won’t adjust quickly to a sixth. And, even more importantly, learn deeply from the experience that author Jim Harrison describes as the “traveler’s displacement,” when “Where am I?” becomes “Who am I?”
Perhaps it was something about Stetson Chapel.
When Robert Sewell, Sr. and Rowene Pionke were married there (October 30, 1948) they hoped the children they planned to have would fulfill their own dreams of graduating from Kalamazoo College.
Dreams come true. Robert Jr. and his younger brother Richard graduated from K. They also discovered careers in Alaska, where their parents eventually moved—a second dream-come-true for their fisherman father.
Robert Sr. retired in the 1980s, left Kalamazoo to visit Rich in Anchorage (and fish for anything with fins) and never looked back. The boys’ mother also embraced the northern lifestyle and found work there. The two now are buried at Ft. Richardson, after a number of happy years in Alaska near their sons.
Richard Sewell ’78
“I had wanted a small liberal arts college in the Midwest, without a lot of religious affiliation, in a small urban area,” Rich says. “I’d taken tennis lessons and played on the Stowe Stadium courts from the time I was six years old, and Robert, who is two years older than I, was enrolled at K.”
Rich credits K for preparing him to explore options, seize opportunities, and adapt to circumstances that might otherwise have defeated him.
He appreciated the variety of opportunities at K. “I took hockey ice skating at WMU through a contract they had with K,” he says.
“I worked with hand ringing and we got involved in fund raising to buy the tower bells for Stetson Chapel,” he adds, recalling his parents’ ties to the place they were married.
And Rich found the professors and classes special.
“Professor [Lawrence] Barrett taught freshman English and helped me learn to write, and he encouraged me to say what I was thinking,” Rich says. “It was near the end of Dr. Barrett’s career but he was still enthused about helping freshmen.”
During summers Rich worked at the Eckrich meat packing company.
“I was paid well,” he recalls. “With that and my scholarships and grants, I was able to pay my own way. I realize students today can hardly do that.”
After graduation Rich was hired at the South Central Michigan Regional Planning Commission in Kalamazoo. In July 1981, when his job was eliminated because of funding cuts, Rich left for Alaska. He figured he’d stay a few years and then return to Michigan or explore elsewhere. Instead, the economics major sunk his roots in Alaska.
He was hired as regional economist for the department of planning in Anchorage, where in late 1984 he predicted an economic crash.
“I’d been a foreign exchange student from Plainwell High School to Santiago, Chile, in 1973, and I’d seen things go bad there,” Rich says.
“City officials wanted me to revise my forecast. When I refused, I was out of a job.
“In 1987 there was a major economic downturn, forerunner of the national housing crash when 50 percent of Alaskan housing value was lost,” Rich recalls. His predictions had come true, though they cost him his job, but his K experiences had prepared him for change.
After losing the Anchorage position Rich reoriented himself by driving back roads through Germany, Greece, Yugoslavia, Italy, France, and other European countries.
“At K I had learned to be adaptable to trying different things and figuring things out,” he said. “Travel gave me time to think and reminded me I was supposed to be always learning new things,” he said. “I visited museums, reread Homer’s Odyssey and followed the route the hero took. And I learned there was an opportunity for seafood exports in Europe.”
Rich returned to Alaska, took a French course at the University of Alaska, and started a seafood company that processed and exported salmon to Europe, Asia, and Hawaii.
When the Valdez oil spill occurred, salmon took a hit. So Rich, who had done research about blue crabs during one of his off-campus experiences at K, reviewed what he had learned and obtained a grant through the Alaska Technology System to learn about the live king crab market. He switched to shipping king crab and returned to school for marketing and management classes. That led to the offer of a fellowship in the business school, and he enrolled in a master’s program.
“That proved to be a creative way to move forward with my business and do something productive,” Rich said.
When Alaska law declared that only six companies could buy crab in the Bering Sea, Rich found himself again out of business. He went to work for the Alaska Department of Transportation (2004) where he continues to be employed.
His first assignment was a posting at the isolated borough of Bethel.
“I was a foreigner there,” Rich said. “Some people still speak only Yupik. I needed a translator, so I took a class at the University and learned the Eskimo language.”
Rich has worked for government agencies, owned and operated his own seafood companies, and ridden the ups-and-downs of a volatile economy, oil spills, and unpredictable government regulations. The survival skills he needed, he says, he learned at K.
About 10 years ago Rich met Ellen Provost, a physician who is now director of epidemiology for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. The couple recently celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary.
“Now I have a stepdaughter, Rachel, and a baby granddaughter, Addison,” Rich says.
“Many people come and go to and from Alaska. To avoid that phenomenon, my solution was to encourage my family to move here.”
Robert Sewell ’75
Rich’s older brother Robert was a student at K when Rich enrolled.
After his first year at K he volunteered at the National Institutes of Health (Bethesda, Maryland) as a volunteer for phase I safety studies of new medicines.
When he returned to the College, he did an independent study internship at the Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital, working as a research technician in a study of aggressive behavior. As a result of that experience he became increasingly intrigued by behavior analysis.
Robert eventually transferred to Western Michigan University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree (major in psychology and a minor in chemistry). He continued his education at WMU with a master’s degree (1982) and doctorate (1985), each with an emphasis on behavior analysis.
He visited Rich in Alaska in 1983; and two years later accepted a position as a professor of psychology at the University of Alaska in Anchorage. Like his brother he planned to stay only a few years, but also like his brother he has remained in the “last frontier” for more than 30 years.
Today Robert manages Alaska’s SHARP program, an effort he conceived and initiated in 2007. The State agency, a division of Alaska’s Health and Social Services, provides direct financial incentives for health professionals.
“We need to encourage people to come to Alaska and stay,” Robert said.
Robert has stayed. “Michigan was my home,” he said, “but I love the magnificent scenery, the people, and the native culture here.” He and his wife Olga and his 17-year old son, Luke, live on Douglas Island near Juneau. His stepdaughter, Lauren, is a registered nurse who works in oncology in Portland, Oregon.
The brothers remember the occasion when they were lab partners during a biology class at K. In a sense, says Rich, he and Robert continue to collaborate. Both now are on the Board of Directors for the Alaska State Employees Association. And their adopted home is now, simply, home. Their forbears are buried here.