LA CROSSE, Wis. (AP) - The five friends hadn’t met face to face in 35 years, but their brotherly rapport hadn’t skipped a beat and it wasn’t long before nostalgia kicked in.
“You should have seen us outside the airport,” Emmanuel Oke told the La Crosse Tribune . “It was such a beautiful moment. We see one another and we give a big hug.”
“It never went away,” said Phil Larbi. “We were a close knit bunch and we still are.”
Oke, of La Crosse, greeted his fellow Viterbo alumni - Larbi of St. Louis, Richard Oni of Minneapolis, Theo Koranteng of Worcester, Massachusetts, and Bill Jong-Ebot of Pembroke Pines, Florida - with open arms on Friday, ready to play tour guide for the group’s reunion in the Coulee Region. The group, along with three others unable to make the the trip, were the largest contingent of African students, coming from Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon, to attend Viterbo, from 1978-1982, and formed a special bond with both each other and their classmates and teachers before going their separate ways after their 1982 graduation.
Each married with kids and busy with careers and philanthropic endeavors, the friends had stayed in communication with texting, email and Facebook but realized a gathering was long overdue and would be the perfect opportunity to discuss a charitable collaboration of sorts. Between them, the group have volunteer and occupational experience in behavioral analysis, teaching, conservatorship, research science, child services, auditing and agriculture.
“We all have different endeavors, mostly nonprofit, and we can pull all our different resources together, all our different passions, and sort of converge and utilize each other’s skills,” said Jong-Ebot, associate professor at Florida Memorial University and executive director of the Foundation for Rural and Economic Development in Africa. “We are giving back, and this is just the beginning. We’re going to give back big time. That is what humanity should be all about.”
Of course, the reunion, which, in a twist of fate, started on the same date as Larbi’s 1982 arrival in La Crosse - Aug. 25 - wasn’t all business. Over the course of the weekend the group packed in a ride on the La Crosse Queen, a trip to the bluffs and a walk through the Viterbo Campus, the school to which they attribute their success and which was, for all but Oni, their first experience in America.
“Coming to America new. … it’s good to start in a small school, small town, before expanding,” said Larbi.
The generous financial aid Viterbo provided to international students was the initial draw, but each found the school, and the community, to be endlessly hospitable. A local businessman sponsored Jong-Ebot’s room and board, and former admissions director Janet Lindbaum continuously renewed his admission. Korateng met the mother of fellow incoming Viterbo student Debbie Clements on his initial flight to La Crosse, and she offered him a ride to campus and welcomed him to holidays with the family in Bangor.
“The father was mesmerized. … he was crazy about the way I spoke,” Korateng laughed. “People opened their hearts to us, and that’s why we’re able to achieve what we wanted to achieve.”
Jong-Ebot, who majored in English and journalism, aspired to write for the newspaper and had his first job working in the basement press room of the La Crosse Tribune.
“I walked from Viterbo every morning, carrying my little lunch bag, and went downstairs,” Jong-Ebot recalled. While he never wrote for the Tribune, he served as editor of The Lumen, Viterbo’s student paper.
Each had a campus job, from cleaning to maintenance, and payday meant dinner out, usually at McDonald’s.
“At the end of the week you got that $35 check - you were king,” Koranteng said.
“A burger was 89 cents, with fries to boot,” Larbi added.
American dining was a favorite of Larbi’s, who insisted the group have their reunion breakfast at old favorite Kaddy’s Cafe in La Crescent, where he grew to love biscuits and gravy.
“Back then he had them with two six ounces glasses of milk,” Koranteng remembered, as the others broke into hearty laughter. “It was symbolic.”
The two glasses of milk are a running joke, though Larbi was shocked his friends remembered his habit. At the time, the campus cafeteria only supplied small glasses, so Larbi filled two at each meal without fail.
When not studying, working or dining, the group played on the Viterbo soccer team, which they formed, attended Friday night parties and used Koranteng’s Mustang for dates. Larbi recalls a first taste of pop culture, purchasing a Billy Joel album downtown.
“I thought, ‘Billy Joel - this is America for sure,’” Larbi said. “I asked one of the nuns, ‘Why don’t I see Billy Joel walking around here?’ She laughed. … I learned, ‘Oh, La Crosse is a small place.’”
While exciting, American life wasn’t always easy for the group. The cold weather shocked the system. They weren’t used to the multiple choice testing system - Oke calls it “multiple guess” - and they spoke British English, which didn’t always translate in papers. For four years, they went without seeing their families, and at an estimated $25 a minute, international calls were a luxury.
The parents and siblings of each still live in Africa, and they make a point of bringing their kids to visit every few years and to share their culture. The balance is something they maintain in their own lives, and each would encourage future international students to explore overseas education and the lifelong friendships and academic opportunities that come with it.
“We thank the sisters and the citizens of America for the experience,” Larbi said. “If anybody asks me if I’d do it again, I’d say, ‘Hell, yes.’”
“Yes,” Koranteng agreed. “In a New York minute.”
Information from: La Crosse Tribune, https://www.lacrossetribune.com
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