By Emily Bialkowski
Retired educator Lee Grippen made a lasting impact on hundreds of local schoolchildren but also influenced dozens of students from abroad as a foreign exchange parent. His desire to share a bit of American life landed him a free trip to Norway this May, compliments of these students.
In 1974 Grippen and his then wife Gayle hosted their first exchange student, Eiliv Kummen of Norway. Over the succeeding years, the couple welcomed many more students. Most were from Norway, but a few came from other countries. The Grippens were also local representatives for Youth for Understanding and helped place other exchange students in the region.
Through email and Facebook, Grippen has kept in contact with many of the students, who now have families of their own.
As a thank you and surprise for his 70th birthday, a dozen of his former exchange students pooled their resources and purchased Grippen a round-trip ticket to Norway. He left on May 14 and returned two weeks later filled to the brim with joy after reuniting with so many of the people he came to love.
When he was notified of the gift, Grippen said, “I sat at the computer and cried. I was so overwhelmed by this.”
It had been 15 years since Grippen last visited Norway – he’s been there a total of nine times – and three decades since he had seen some of the students.
“The ones that lived with us, I connected with all of them,” he said.
Kummen told Grippen that his initial communication with the other exchange students was very positive and that everybody immediately jumped on board to offer their assistance. Kummen orchestrated a schedule for Grippen that allowed him to visit everybody.
“It was just wonderful,” he said, “They were all so hospitable.”
And the food – Grippen said it was very good. “The first day I was there, I was served a very nice salmon meal with salads, potatoes and lots of vegetables and fruits. They are very healthy-minded people – very active people,” he said.
The weather was nice while Grippen was there, but the country has experienced a great deal of rain, much like Caledonia, and flooding has taken place.
He got to enjoy Syttende Mai, Norwegian Constitution Day, while friends back home celebrated the same holiday in Spring Grove. He even listened to local radio station Z93 while a passenger in a car with one student.
“He’s real techy and hooked his computer up to the car and got the station through the Internet,” Grippen said.
It’s a wonder anyone drives in Norway at all with gas at a whopping $11 per gallon right now.
The last time Grippen was in Norway, one of the students was pregnant with twins. On this trip, he met the now 15-year-olds.
Generations continue to be affected by this mutual adoration and hospitality. One of Grippen’s former exchange students will be sending his daughter to the U.S. this fall to live with Grippen’s daughter, Rachel Storlie.
“It’s been so enriching for my family to have all these people in our family,” he said. “I don’t have pictures of scenes; I have pictures of people because that’s what I’m about. It was a dream of a lifetime, and I’ve decided all my substitute teaching money will go into a pot to go back,” Grippen said.