Hosting foreign students has brought Fort Wayne-area family lasting joy
Pat Ehle describes the finished basement of her home as the “international” room.
“These walls hold a lot of memories,” Ehle, 88, said after reaching the bottom of the stairs.
Small banners from Lions Clubs around the world hang along one long wall, all places Ehle and her late husband, Ross, have visited or from which a Lions Club member has visited them.
Red thumbtacks dot a world map, showing the home countries of man of the foreign exchange students they hosted as well as the nations from which Lions Club visitors have come. Photos of foreign exchange students also fill a quarter of the oversized posterboard jammed with pictures of family, friends and fun times.
Some of those students returned for an Ehle family reunion in late September, including Hiroshi Iseki of Japan, who flew in just for the event. The Ehles and their eight children formed strong bonds with their visitors — bonds that still connect them today.
“We got so much out of that,” said Pat Ehle, who lives near Harlan in northeast Allen County.
Her children learned about the world through the exchange students and later got to travel and see the world by visiting some of those students who became close friends.
“It broadened their whole outlook on the world,” Ehle said.
On his birthday, “I get more emails from friends overseas than from friends locally,” said Mike Ehle, one of the Ehles’ sons.
The Ehles, who farmed, decided to host their first foreign exchange student — a young man from Thailand – about 50 years ago through the International Farm Youth Program at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Pat Ehle said. She connected with the program by chance while attending a farm women’s conference.
“We all fell in love with him, and that was the beginning of taking in kids,” she said.
They hosted 35 to 40 exchange students from about the late 1960s to about 2000, including a group of five at one time, she recalled.
Ehle, who likes to cook, never had a problem feeding a few extra faces along with her own large family. She also asked each exchange student to cook one meal from their home country so the Ehles could try it.
Iseki, however, wasn’t one of their exchange students, she said. He flew to Los Angeles and then pedaled here on bicycle to visit a Japanese girl who was an exchange student with the Ehles.
He was only here a couple of weeks before pedaling off to Chicago and then New York, from where he flew home, said Ehle, who was stunned to see him at the recent family reunion. But the experience really stuck with him and with the Ehle family, who have stayed in close contact with him since.
Iseki even asked to send a brother and his two sons to spend time with the Ehles so they could have the same experience he had, Mike and Pat Ehle said.
The Ehles’ two-story farmstead also became a haven for international students at local colleges, especially those attending Indiana Tech, Pat Ehle said.
Years ago, a woman at Indiana Tech who worked with the foreign students asked her if she could help with a student from Pakistan, she recalled. That led to inviting the international students out to the house on American holidays, which the students loved.
Later, she took an Iranian student to daily cancer treatments after he became ill while attending Indiana Tech, she said. They Ehles eventually moved him out to their home so they could provide better care for him.
The Ehles since have hosted two wedding receptions at their house for two different Pakistani students, and they saw the young Iranian student go on to graduate, marry and have a family before cancer returned and claimed him in recent years.
“They get to be like your own kids,” she said. “You get really close to these kids.”
Having even more teens join an already large family never bothered the Ehles’ children, Mike Ehle said.
“It helped us, too, as kids,” he said. “It got us off of the farm.”
His parents would take exchange students to do other things and see other sights, such as the Henry Ford museum near Dearborn, Mich., or to get their passports stamped in Canada, and the Ehles’ children got to go, too, Mike said.
After the Ehle children grew a little older, they had opportunities to go overseas and visit former exchange students, he said. For example, he spent the entire summer of 1976 staying with two different families in Mexico.
Mike Ehle can only guess why the exchange students formed such strong bonds with his parents and he and his siblings.
“We are easy-going,” he said. “We treated them like family.”
With so many Ehle children in the household, they always had other young people around, he added. He thinks many exchange students, who often came from busy, wealthier families, also liked the Ehles’ lifestyle.
“They got over here, and things slowed down a bit,” he said.
Some of the students even invited Pat and Ross Ehle to come visit and stay with them in their homeland, she said.
Between their former exchange students and visiting Lions Club members, Pat and Ross had the opportunity to visit Thailand, Iran, India, Pakistan, Scotland, England, other parts of Europe and South Africa, she said.
“You find out people are people,” she said of their exchange student experience. “They are the same all over the world.”
People may speak different languages and look a little differently, she added, but they laugh and cry the same.