My Fulbright Experience – R. Eugene Harper – Croatia 1995

My Fulbright Experience – R. Eugene Harper – Croatia 1995

Dear Fulbright Colleagues, as a long retired 82-year-old Fulbright Alumnus, I am not interested in any active involvement with the Association at this point in my life. Nevertheless, I believe that my experience as a Lecturer in Croatia in 1995-1996 might be of some value to relate for others. I do so not only because the actual experience was extraordinary, but also because it led to so many post-assignment connections that highlight the best aspects of the Fulbright experience.

Let me begin with some context. I taught American History for 37 years at a small private college in West Virginia, Morris Harvey College when I began, but which became the University of Charleston in the 1970s. I never had any desire or belief that I would be a Fulbright Scholar. In the early 1990s my current wife had returned to school interested in history and enjoyed travel. Being divorced, in time we became a couple, and before long she suggested from time to time how nice it might be to live abroad for a while. Maybe I could get a Fulbright or some such thing. Of course I explained that Fulbright grants went to serious scholars at major universities, not to professors at small colleges without strong research interests who teach a variety of courses. With a mind of her own, she wrote for the applications! And of course we did not fit any number of the suggested positions. Croatia, however, was requesting a position that seemed generally to fit my resume, and particularly mentioned historic preservation in which I was deeply involved in West Virginia. So we applied and were selected much to my surprise.

The grant was for 1995-1996 at the time when Croatia was much involved in the wars breaking up Yugoslavia. There were at least 13 scholars and students selected for Croatia, but because Zagreb had been shelled by Serbian forces, there was talk of cancelling the program there. Croatia, believing cancelation would be an insult to her new sovereignty, urged allowing those not needing to be in Zagreb, to be allowed to come to areas not affected by the war. So it was that two scholars and three students went to Rijeka on the Adriatic coast, and Susan and I embarked on a truly remarkable, wonderful year.

I was assigned to the Law Faculty of the University of Rijeka to teach first year law students a course on the origins and creation of the United States Constitution. It was a class of about 40 English speaking students. (Most were tri-lingual with Italian as well as their Croatian-which they made clear was not Serbian.) In addition to the normal lectures and discussions, we also held a mock Croatian constitutional convention with students representing various Croatian cities. Traditional practice there was for professors to have closed doors; mine was always open and students soon came. Just one example: toward the end of the term, a few students came in to ask how to organize a Christmas party. The very fact they wanted help to do something most American students would have never thought to ask was itself enlightening. The party they organized went just fine.

Our first term went so well, we opted for a second, and it was granted. For some reason, the Law Faculty had a stash of Political Science 101 textbooks in English, maybe given at some point by the U.S. Embassy or other source. So that is what I taught second term. By then the war had largely ended, and 1 I also taught a weekly night class on early nineteenth century American History in Zagreb, taking the train, teaching the class, staying overnight in the dorm and returning next day. Access to Zagreb allowed me to be meet with historic preservationists in Zagreb and I gave a public lecture on how the historic preservation program worked in the United States. Later in that spring term, I was invited to participate in an international Seminar: Political Aspects of the Enlargement of Western Europe, April 26-27, 1996. The twenty-four papers were published by European Movement Croatia, Europe House, Zagreb as “Let’s Re-think Europe!” As in so many other ways, the staff at the U.S. Embassy were most helpful with research materials as was my most-helpful university librarian back home who faxed many items to me at the Law Faculty throughout the year.

Those were my official duties, and they were extraordinary in themselves. To watch Croatia going through its own democratic founding process, and to see the more authoritarian and more democratic factions competing for influence was a seminar itself. There was so much more, however. First, the family we lived with were extraordinarily kind and helpful in every way possible. We lived in the downstairs “grandmother” apartment with the upstairs Lenac family-Stanko, Delores, Sinisa, Ivan plus Gun, their cute dog. The house was on the hillside overlooking the Adriatic across to the resort town of Opatija. They provided shopping hints and help learning to use the washing machine and old stove. We exchanged dinners and shared the blossoms and fruits from Delores’ beautiful gardens. The police stopped by when we continued for the second term, and they took care of all the questions for us. Sinisa helped on many occasions, most crucially when my daughter Heather could not find her passport as she was ready to return home from her visit. She recalled having it at an Opatia jewelry store the previous day, and Sinisa phoned to learn it was there, then drove like a mad man to pick it up just in time for Heather to catch her transportation to the airport.

The Law Faculty provided some social events for us which took us to the island of Krk, and we visited ancient historic sites in Pula and Poree. We quickly made contacts in Opatija whose mayor was quite progressive and welcomed us warmly. The city had a very active Four Plus Club for bright students for whom the city provided various stimulating opportunities to enhance their secondary education and with whom we had various interactions. Those law students who inquired about the Christmas party came from this group, and several became fast friends. Another student, Zoran, also worked as an usher at the beautiful Rijeka Opera House which led us to some wonderful evenings at the opera. Two other students took us to see Croatia’s world-class natural area at Plitvice. That trip also allowed us to see some of the war damage as did those train trips to Zagreb as we passed near Karlovac. Rossana Grzinic and her family particularly were most help with all sorts of issues from getting a haircut to taking us to Venice. Momma Grzinic insisted we have dinner with them from time to time, and they took us to visit Grandmother’s farm in the middle of lstria. Although never moving, Grandmother had been a citizen of Austria-Hungary, Italy, Yugoslavia, and Croatia during her life.

Susan’s experiences also were unique for her. Shopping was done at the open market in Rijeka. Peasant ladies selling vegetables, great cuts of meat hanging in butcher shops, and a fish market with its unforgettable smells. Learning to buy a pola kilo of potatoes or carrying eggs home in a plastic bag while riding on a crowded bus were part of daily life. As were doing laundry in a vintage washing machine that took two hours to cycle and then dry outside or on the radiators, and cooking on an equally vintage 2 electric stove. But we adapted quickly and soon became almost normal Croatians. Two of my children visited us as did a very close friend of Susan. And we entertained some of those Opatija students.

Before we left, we arranged for a tour of the Dalmatian coast. It was a delightful trip on a small boat. We sailed past the Kornati Islands, had a brief swim in the Adriatic, stopped at Split, Hvar, and Korcula. The stop at Dubrovnik was most impressive. To look at a map upon entrance to the walled city that depicted each of the buildings that had been damaged by Serbian artillery from the hills above, and then to walk the wall and see the old roofs, the new roofs and buildings still without roofs was breathtaking. The old city was nearly empty. We had a most memorable seafood dinner at a small cafe on the upper level street that had been open only three weeks due to the war devastation. Some years later, visiting on a cruise ship, the city was overrun with so many tourists as to be painful. We did, however, squeeze in another seafood dinner-not the same place–on that upper level street now crowed with tourists.

Indeed our year in Croatia was simply an unforgettable and life-changing experience. However, it did not end there. After we got back home, with the assistance of my Dean, a fellow historian and friend, we arranged to hold a two-week summer Seminar in American Democracy for six students from the Law Faculty accompanied by a faculty member. The students raised the cost of their own airfare, and we covered everything else. Over the next four summers, twenty-four law students, four faculty and one faculty daughter came to the University of Charleston. The first group were particularly special because they included six students I had in class, including Rossana Grzinic, Daniella Luksic (both Four Plus Club members) Irina Dukie, Ivana Kunda, Vladimir Palen, Mario Besic and Professor Sandra Lalita.

Each seminar started in Washington, D.C. My wife Susan and I, traveling in a borrowed Athletic Department van, met each group at Dulles Airport. During our stay in Washington, each group had a conference with Senator Robert C. Byrd and our Congressman Bob Wise. Congressional staff normally could scare up enough passes for a tour of the White House, and we visited other landmarks in the city. On our way back to West Virginia, we always stopped in Harpers Ferry at the home of Kip Stowell and his wife, who provided dinner and overnight accommodations in their home. Kip was not only an architect with the Design Center for the National Parks Service located in Harpers Ferry, whom I had gotten to know through Historic Preservation activities in the state, but he was also Mayor of Harpers Ferry. The next morning Kip would take the students to City Hall, seat them in council person chairs, and discuss governing small towns often having the students “vote” on solutions to his proposed issues. We then loaded the van and headed over the mountains to Charleston where the students were matched with their faculty member host who provided a home for the balance of the seminar.

In Charleston, we provided tours and interactions with a wide variety of governing agencies. They always had a conference with Governor Gaston Caperton during their tour of the capitol, its House of Delegates and Senate chambers and Supreme Court chamber. (The Court’s interior is similar in design to the US Supreme Court because both the West Virginia Capitol and the US Supreme Court were designed by famed architect Cass Gilbert.) They visited City Hall and the County Court House where judge Todd Kaufman discussed the role of the judiciary with the students. Friend and City Police Officer Rita Wilson talked with them in detail about the intricacies of policing, and we toured the regional jail, interesting to both the students and the inmates who crowded cell doors as the young ladies in their Italian fashions walked by. There was always a session where the students sat down with a group of 3 local state legislators to talk about the legislative process in some detail. And there were sessions with the local media, both print and broadcast (including Giles Snyder, now working for NPR) about issues of press freedom. Perhaps the highlight for some came as we arranged with local law firms to place each student for a “day in the life of a lawyer” experience.

All was not just government and legal matters. Individual faculty hosts had their own evening dinner and activities for their student. Each year a member our English Department and her husband, a Union Carbide executive, hosted a delightful dinner experience for them in their lovely home. We even took the first students to Kennywood Amusement Park near Pittsburgh, a task formidable enough not to be repeated. Of course, there was always time for shopping at the mall. It seems that blue jeans were a popular item to stock up on to take home. The students also got their obligatory tour of the university and its comparisons to Croatian universities. Two of these initial students returned to the University of Charleston that following fall, Rossana and Vladimir. Not surprisingly, no student from following years ever came back to the University since none had had prior personal experience with us.

Vladimir majored in English and Speech and I have lost contact with him. Rossana, however, whose family was so kind to us in Croatia, majored in computer science and has remained a close friend. She lived with us, and when she graduated, her parents stayed with us. She interned with Eastern American Energy Corporation in Charleston, and after some work on a Masters Degree at the University of Kentucky, went to work for Eastern American Energy in Denver ultimately coming to head the department as well as completing her degree and doing online teaching for the University of Denver. At Eastern American, she met her partner Cary. We attended their marriage in New York City, and four years ago Rossana gave birth to twins Lucia and Lorenzo. We have visited them in Denver periodically.

We have had other continuing contacts. The second year of the seminar, Susan took three girls from our University’s Colleague Program, a program in leadership development, back to Opatija to work with students in the Four Plus Club. When Lara, a Four Plus Student who had given us a personal tour of Opatija Parks, was in Baltimore, we had occasion to visit with her. She is now a member of the Economics Faculty. We met up with Zoran, who had been the usher at the Opera House in Rijeka, when he was in Cleveland once. And Ivana Kunda visited us here in Kentucky a few years ago at Derby time. She is now a member of the Law Faculty in Rijeka. Susan remains in Facebook contact with several Croatian contacts. We returned to Rijeka for a reunion fourteen years after our Fulbright year, and nearly 40 students came back for a reception arranged by Ivana, and Zoran phoned greetings from Zagreb. We also had a delightful reunion with the Lenac family during that visit, and it is about the Lenac family that more must be written.

We have continued to exchange Christmas greetings, and we had delightful visits with them when we went back for that reunion. However, there is also a sad chapter. Eldest son Sinisa was a very talented young man with degrees in theology and maritime engineering, but also a very talented artist. Several of his works were in the house, but the only job he could find in the economy then was painting bus shelters for the transportation company. When we returned home, we found a way for him to study in Charleston on an English as a Second Language program. Within one semester, his work in our art department was so exceptional, our instructor arranged his transfer to the much larger department at Marshall University in Huntington. There he thrived; one of his works made it to the Annual Governor’s 4 Juried Exhibit. Upon completing his degree at Marshall, he enrolled for graduate work at Miami University of Ohio and did very well there. However, tragedy struck. He developed a rare form of cancer, was hospitalized and died. We shared deep grief with his parents who came as he struggled in the hospital and died. Some time after they returned home, examples of his work were hung in a Rijeka Gallery, and a retrospective catalog was published. We have a copy of the catalog, and on our walls are one of his Charleston works and that Governor’s Juried piece, which was so large he had us keep it for him. His most untimely death was tragic in so many ways to so many people. We will always remember.

One footnote I had no intention of writing. Finishing this just after the 2020 election whose outcome hung in the balance for days as the President refused to concede, Susan got a hysterical call from Rossana. What if the President wins the election, she worried. She had lived through and left an authoritarian government. Would she be deported? Would her same sex marriage be made illegal under a second term? Would her twins be taken from her because she was an unfit mother? Thankfully, the answers will be no. Her initial anguish and subsequent relief, however, indicate just how deep the tentacles of the Fulbright Program do run; may they continue to do so for generations.

R. Eugene Harper – Fulbright to Croatia 1995

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