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Rob Howard, right, and his Rotary Group Study Exchange team meet up with American exchange students studying in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Both groups were attending a Rotary district conference in the Czech city of Brno. (Submitted photos)

Mission accomplished: Rotary team builds goodwill abroad

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Mission accomplished: Rotary team builds goodwill abroad
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The main goal of a Group Study Exchange trip that Hudson Rotarian Rob Howard led to the Czech Republic and Slovakia earlier this year was to further international understanding.

And that's what happened, according to Howard.

The five-member team from Minnesota and Wisconsin learned about and experienced the culture of the two countries during the tour from May 10 to June 8. And they shared what life is like back here in the Twin Cities area and Hudson.

There are similarities - and differences.

"It's cheese, farming, beer and lots of potatoes," Howard said laughingly of rural areas of the two eastern European countries. "And fried cheese. You'd have cheese with cheese. You'd have deep-fried cheese."

His fellow team members -- all Minnesotans -- made jokes about Howard being a cheesehead, which the Czech and Slovak audiences didn't quite understand, but found humorous anyway.

The Czechs' and Slovaks' perspective on history, however, is significantly different from ours, according to Howard.

"We have such a short history," he said. "There, the buildings that are 200 years old are new. That's the new church, because the original church was from 1250."

When Rotary groups from other countries come to our region, local clubs tend to focus on showing them the projects they're working on, Howard said.

"There, there's so much history, to learn the region you've kind of got to go see the castles. You've got to see the great cathedrals. That's really who they are," he said.

"We are so much about what we do. It seems to me they are more about who they are."

Howard, a North Hudson resident and long-time Rotarian, went through a daylong interview process with other candidates to be selected to lead the Group Study Exchange.

The four non-Rotarians picked for the Rotary District 5960 team were:

--Ann Meier, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota;

--Tricia Mensing, a financial representative for Northwestern Mutual;

--Deb Most, the interim director of the Minnesota Social Service Association; and

--Jamie Hopkins, a management analyst for the Minnesota Department of Revenue.

Howard said the other team members understood the goodwill mission of the trip and were excellent at carrying it out.

"They were so good I didn't have to do much," he said. In their visits to 11 Rotary clubs, the team members would mingle with the local Rotarians, striking up conversations even when language differences made it difficult.

The team prepared a presentation to give to the Czech and Slovak clubs before leaving on the trip.

Howard would talk about Rotary District 5960, the Minnesota and Wisconsin district that the Hudson Rotary clubs are of part of.

He borrowed Garrison Keillor's line from "The News from Lake Wobegon" to describe it as a place where "the women are strong, the men are good-looking and the children are above average."

In Slovakia, the team learned a popular folk song, "Tonsuj Tonsuj," and opened their presentations by singing it.

"They all liked it. It was a nice way to break the ice," Howard said. "They would actually sing along."

After the introduction, each team member would speak about their home, family and work.

Unlike in Hudson, the club meetings usually revolved around an evening dinner at a restaurant. The dinner and meeting evolved into a social hour and "a lot of conversation," Howard said.

Upon arrival in the Czech Republic, the team spent two nights in Prague to recover from jet lag and do some sightseeing.

They then took a five-hour ride across the country to Slovakia for their first GSE stay. There, they attended their first club meeting, made their first presentation and stayed in the homes of host families.

On their visits to different cities, the individual team members would have vocational days, visiting places and with people in similar vocations to theirs.

"Of course my experience was amazing because every day was a vocational day," said Howard, a senior design architect for Pope Architects in St. Paul.

Everywhere he looked there were architectural wonders. Prague is called the city of 100 spires because of its many historic churches and other public buildings.

"It's a beautiful city," Howard said of Prague. "It's amazingly historic. They never tore things down and rebuilt. The old stuff all stayed."

Howard spent time with architects that designed Slovakia's national theater in the capital city of Bratislava, and with architects in the Czech city of Prostejov.

Early on in the visit, the team attended the annual conference for Rotary district from the Czech Republic and Slovakia, held in the Czech city of Brno.

They then crisscrossed the two countries, visiting Rotary clubs in four cities during one five-day stretch.

They spend 10 of their nights in Prague at three different times. The final stay in Prague was shortened by the flooding the city experienced in the final days of their tour.

Howard noted that the Czech Republic has been free of Communism for just 23 years.

He said team members heard stories about what life was like under Communist control, and how people died trying to escape from it.

Young people were told what occupations they have. People lived in dreary apartment flats and were afraid to let visitors in fearing they might be government informants.

"The whole cultural learning part of it was very interesting," Howard said. "You absorbed it from your host families over time, talking to people, hearing stories."

"People were so gracious and generous and hospitable," he added. "They were so free with their time, arranging for our visit and taking us around."

Randy Hanson
Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.
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