There were some picture boards set up with bits of their lives, everything from adorable pictures of them as children to embarrassing pictures of my brother and me as kids.
And then there was a picture of two men talking, with a typewritten (in a real typewriter) caption below it. Below that, my father had written:
This conversation is responsible for our coming to the U.S.
I'd never heard this story.
So, it seems that in 1956 - while the U.S. was still in the grip of McCarthyism - a group of American clergy and academics took a trip to Eastern Europe. They started in Yugoslavia and met with a number of important people, including Marshall Tito. Rev. Joseph Kennedy had a conversation with Tito, during which he asked if he could arrange a scholarship for a Yugoslav student to come study in the U.S., would Tito's government allow it?
"Of course," Tito responded. "We are a democracy. Everyone is free to do anything they wish in our country." Yugoslavia was perhaps the least repressive of the Soviet era communist regimes, but that is faint praise. However, Tito was not without his merits - he had very cleverly managed to peaceably eject the Soviet Army out of Yugoslavia immediately after WWII, and maintained a position of neutrality between the "Eastern Bloc" and the West.
Fortunately, there were pictures, and stenographers had recorded all this for posterity.
The Americans then toured Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and returned home. Except for Rev. Kennedy. He went back to Yugoslavia and stayed for a time at my Grandmother's Methodist church. My father was the only one in the congregation who spoke English, and became his translator, and was soon selected as the student who would receive the scholarship to study in the U.S. After a call to the Marshall's office to remind them of the conversation, everything was set.
Kennedy went home. The scholarship letter arrived. The application process started. You see, in order to do this, my father needed to get exemptions - exemptions from universal military service, and so on. After 2 years, he finally admitted defeat - the bureaucracy had become insurmountable. Any of you who have struggled with governmental bureaucracy can understand some of this, but even Katrina-era FEMA pales in comparison to the quicksand that is Communist bureaucracy.
Fortunately, Marshall Tito, supreme dictator of Yugoslavia, was a man of the people, a man who understood what the common man was going through, who stood up for the common man. He was a man who could cut through all the rules and regulations (that he had established) and make things happen for his people. All very publicly. His people loved him.
A letter from the president of Florida Southern College to the office of the Marshall was all it took. A deferment of military duty was given, and a passport materialized.
Of course, by that time, my parents had met, and my father decided he couldn't leave her behind.
But that's another story.