‘El Groupo’ Reunites 50 Years to the Day

On September 14, 1962, a Lewis & Clark professor and 23 students—along with a representative from the Experiment in International Living—boarded a bus heading for a four-month overseas study program in Mexico. 

On September 14, 1962, a Lewis & Clark professor and 23 students—along with a representative from the Experiment in International Living—boarded a bus heading for a four-month overseas study program in Mexico. As the bus pulled away from campus on that beautiful fall evening, hopes were high that it would be an experience of a lifetime. But no one imagined that most of the participants would reunite on another beautiful fall evening in Portland, exactly 50 years later to the day.

On September 14, 2012, 15 alumni gathered at the home of Nas Rassekh, professor emeritus of history, and his wife, Mona. We enjoyed their generous hospitality over delicious food while we celebrated being together again, sharing memories, and recapturing the highlights of that most amazing journey, oh, so many years ago. We laughed remembering the cast of characters, whom we affectionately refer to as “El Groupo,” who supervised our aptly named “Universidad de Cinco de Mayo” (a shadow college in which every student had a leadership role). The motto of the Experiment in International Living, “Expect the Unexpected,” could be aptly applied to the group. Whether laughing about the “Creeping Crud” (a school bus of erratic behavior) or recalling the festivities surrounding the Virgin of Guadalupe in Chiapas, attendees agreed that the overseas study program changed lives.

For some, it began a life-long relationship with the Spanish language: Linda Hanson Mendez BS ’66 married a Chilean and began her working career as a Spanish-speaking social worker; she later taught Spanish and English as a second language. Both Marlana MacDonald Opitz (who was unable to attend) and Karen Petersen Crane used their Spanish skills to teach English as a second language. Spanish came in handy for Lynn Barber Jones while teaching elementary school in a Latino community, and Gil Mathys BA ’66 became a medical social worker employing his language skills. Both Vic Baltursaitis BA ’65 (unable to attend because of a Peace Corps reunion in India) and Steve Wright completed postgraduate work at Thunderbird University. Vic worked for a mining company in Brazil and Argentina—Steve, in the cargo transportation industry on the West Coast, including stints as a marketing manager for companies operating between the United States and Mexico/South America. An evening at Pátzcuaro observing the Day of the Dead in 1962 led John Venator BS ’66 to a lifelong passion for Mexican folk art, now on display in his private museum in Valladolid. He retired as the president and CEO of a worldwide trade association and lives in Mexico.

Education and social work attracted several members of the group. Both Mark Gabbert BA ’66 and Mike Hobart BA ’66 earned PhDs in history and became professors, following in Professor Rassekh’s footsteps. Marsha Easterday Leaburn supervised curriculum and instruction at the Adult Secondary Education Office of Los Angeles. Judy Christensen Jantzen BA ’66, after pursuing a career as a Pan Am stewardess, taught nursing. Eileen Hodgson Skoog (unable to attend) also taught in a nursing program. Mary Helen Hodgins Higgins BA ’65 taught elementary school in Hawaii, and Barbara Roberts Robertson taught high school business courses in Montana.

Two of the program participants, William “Grid” Toland BA ’66 (unable to attend) and Joan Gebhardt Townsend BA ’66, wrote for the Lewis & Clark newspaper, The Pioneer, while in Mexico and later became professional writers. Grid’s postgraduate journalism degree led him to both newspaper and corporate writing. Joan coauthored 11 books with her husband on the topics of quality and leadership.

Rounding out the remaining 15 alums who attended were Carol Hillesland cas ’66, owner of a small business in Portland, and Virginia Lea Skilton, whose interest in botany has led to photographing the plants of British Columbia. Only one member of El Groupo is missing after half a century: Lawrence Hills BA ’66 returned to Mexico to do volunteer work before becoming a mechanical engineer, but his current location is unknown. Classmates Charles “Ren” Breck BS ’67, Mary Kemp Cline, and Barbara Perkins BA ’64 are deceased, as is Ruth Heckman, the group’s Experiment in International Living leader.

El Groupo expects to reunite again. Maybe a mini reunion like past ones in San Francisco or Holden, Massachusetts? Maybe a reunion with families in Puebla? Or maybe something totally unexpected.


—by Joan Townsend BA ’66