Almost 30 years ago, a teenage girl from Toowoomba, Australia boarded a plane and braced herself for a 20-hour flight to a small farming town in Central Illinois as part of the Rotary Club youth exchange program.
This week Diana Ruhle returned to Shelbyville for the fourth time and to the US for the sixth, showing that international ties made through student exchange programs can have lifelong impact.
Her month-long visit began in California for a week, then on to Oregon, Shelbyville, and then New York before heading back.
On Monday, Ruhle attended a luncheon which included some of her old host family members at the Rotary Club meeting held at Shelby Memorial Hospital.
Rotary member and former host, Don Behl remarked, “Little did we know that in 1985 we would host a young lady from Toowoomba who would someday come back to see us. When she got the letter (from Rotary) telling her she would be going to Shelbyville, IL, she must have thought, ‘Where in the world is that’?
Ruhle who is an elementary school teacher in Brisbane says that her opportunity to travel abroad opened a window to the world that would change her life forever.
When Diana was in Shelbyville in 1985 she attended Shelbyville High School and was assigned to eight different host families: Mr. and Mrs. Jim Swartz, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Heckler, Mr. and Mrs. Dwight Campbell, Mr. and Mrs. E.C Eberspacher, Mr. and Mrs. Bob Segabart, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Pancoast, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Johnson and the family of Mr. and Mrs. Don Behl.
“There was not one family I did not bond with,” said Ruhle. “Americans are the best hosts. You really know how to make people feel comfortable.” Behl said he is planning to return the favor and visit Diana soon, “We are putting the final points on the trip now.”
On this return trip, she is spending Thanksgiving with the Behl’s before heading to New York as part of a month-long trip that began in California at Disney Land.
Before coming to SHS, Ruhle had already graduated in Australia making her school time a lot more fun. “One class I did well in was Mrs. Sweeney’s speech class. For my demonstration I got to show the class how to make a Vegemite sandwich.”
Jerry Yockey was one of her classmates and remembered her well. “We were looking at some of the old videos from school and you are in them,” he said.
Someone suggested posting a You Tube to which Diana threw up her hands and said, “Oh nooo!”
Diana’s love of travel and of the people of the US is now being passed to the next generation, her adoptive daughter Mei Lan from Viet Nam. When Diana was 15 years into her teaching career, she went to a job fair in New Zealand and looked at teaching for a designated amount of time in other countries.
“I thought about Asia in general—China and Mongolia, but sent in my resume and found the best offer was Viet Nam. I stayed in Ho Chi Minh City and met Mei Lan when she was only two days old and decided I couldn’t live without her. She is now seven and has added so much joy to my life. I returned to Australia in 2007 and resumed my quiet life and teaching career. I want to make Mei Lan a healthy, functioning member of society. I am pleased to bring her to Shelbyville with me and show her this very special town and very special people.”
Don Behl remarked that while on her fist visit, Diana became addicted to Hostess Twinkies. “A near disaster was averted when Hostess went out of business for a while but last night we were able to present her with a Twinkie and a Ding Dong to Mei Lan.”
Shelbyville Rotary president Ted Bogart discussed weather and holiday differences with Ruhle.
Bogart asked if turkeys were available in Australia. Ruhle said, “Yes, but the ones in the US are huge! We don’t have that many kinds of turkey there and they are much smaller.”
She also remarked about heat waves over 100 degrees F; floods and brush fires that often plague Australia just as they do us and other countries.
Sometimes it takes a person from another country to help you appreciate your own.
Ruhle said, “I think it is wonderful the way your country puts such emphasis on Thanksgiving and takes a special time to give thanks. Australia is called the ‘Lucky Country’ but we lack in our society the emphasis you put on Thanksgiving. We do have a thanksgiving in March, but it is not what you have here. I will take this home and share it. I am impressed that you take the time to bring families together and be close. We [Australia] as a nation often fail to do that.”