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A strong friendship after 40 years apart

Staff writer

Ingrid Rojas was a foreign exchange student at Peabody High School during the 1970-71 school year. She came from Caracas, Venezuela, and stayed the year with three families in Peabody — the Ira Coons, the Clint Hill, and the Randy Robinson families.

“I came to America in the exchange program because my mother wanted me to learn English,” she said. “When we signed up for the program, we did not know where we would go. I loved being here. I made good friends and still feel very united with them.”

Rojas now lives in Valencia, a small town in Venezuela. Her husband is Italian and her married name is Locantore.

“With Italian people I am Ingrid Locantore, but in Venezuela, I can use Locantore or Rojas,” she said. “Usually I just use Ingrid Rojas. All my legal papers just use that; the same as when I was here.”

Rojas and her youngest daughter, Liza, will be in the U.S. until mid-July. They arrived May 4 and are staying with Sherri (Hicks) Bowlby in Wichita.

Rojas said of her American friend, “I can talk and share with Sherri. We have maintained a long friendship, more than any other I have. I feel united with her, she is like a sister.

“When we arrived in Wichita, it was so exciting that I still can’t believe I am here — after 40 years. We were met by Sherri and she was the same person I knew 40 years ago. The same laughing smile, laughing eyes, and the same joyful spirit that is characteristic of Sherri.”

Rojas and Bowlby began their friendship soon after the school year began in 1970.

“I think Ingrid and I share a personality trait to make friends for life,” Bowlby said. “I was always intrigued by the fact that she was from another country. We grew close because we had to create our own way of communicating. We would point to something and tell each other what it was in our native tongue or sometimes have to act out what we were trying to tell one another. We had fun learning to communicate. Over time, Ingrid’s English was good enough that we could carry on conversations.”

Both women relied on the postal service to stay in touch for years after Rojas returned to Caracas.

“Every now and then one of us would call the other, but due to the cost, it was not very practical,” Bowlby said. “Several times there were a couple of years between communications. Then one day the phone would ring and it was Ingrid and we picked up where we left off.

“In the last three years or so we have talked more by phone than ever before and more recently with the computer and e-mail we are in even closer contact.”

Although Rojas was from Caracas, a metropolitan city, she was not unhappy to be in a small town.

“I was not shocked by the size of Peabody,” she said. “I liked it here. The people I stayed with were good to me. Some things were different. I remember at the Coons’ house we slept upstairs and I got very scared when it was raining and I could hear it on the roof and hear the thunder and see the thunderbolts. I had never seen that before and I couldn’t sleep.”

Clint Hill was principal at Peabody High School when Rojas stayed with his family.

“I spent December with them and my father came to Peabody to visit me then,” she said. “We had cookies and tea for Christmas and this was the first time I saw how the Christmas arrangements were in America. We did not have that in Venezuela. Now we do, but it was very new to me then.

“I made my first snowman in Peabody. We have snow in the mountains in Venezuela, but I saw it all around for the first time here. I was at the Robinson’s and Joyce and I made the snowman.

“I remember Joyce’s mother taught me to cut up a chicken and I never forgot this. She was a good cook and a very sweet person.”

When Rojas went back to Venezuela she had to take additional courses to complete her schooling.

“She was a good student when she was here,” Myrna (Lowden) Wood said. “She was involved in PHS activities as well.”

Rojas, Wood, Bowlby, and Cindy (Brunner) Dallke reminisced about their activities and remembered not only the senior trip to Six Flags Over Texas, but being in pep club, Kayettes, chorus, color guard with the band, and Future Homemakers of America.

“We were pretty good kids,” Wood said. “Ingrid fit right in and we had a good year.

“One of my favorite memories is a slumber party in the Robinsons’ camper — right there in the driveway. We had fun,” Wood said.

Rojas and her husband have three daughters, Bonnie, Fiorella, and Liza. She recently retired from a career as assistant to the program director of the Venezuelan Congress.

“With (Hugo) Chavez, everything has changed,” Rojas noted. “We have an assembly now, not a congress. When they were changing our jobs, we would show up for work and sign in, but could not go to our desks. We would just ‘hang around.’ Then we would sign out for lunch, back in after lunch, and back out to go home. But we never did anything. Eventually I decided to retire.”

Rojas looks forward to reuniting with some of the other people she remembers from her year in Kansas.

“Already it has been good to see Sherri, Cindy, and Myrna. Forty years is a long time,” she said. “But I feel we are very united. The years go away and it is as if we are girls again.

“It is so good to be back,” Rojas said.

Last modified May 19, 2011

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