Tag Archives: Rotary International

Time of My Life, Part 33: Hoping it would hit the fan

My career as a print journalist allowed me to do many remarkable things, and to see many remarkable places.

Two of those career elements came together a decade ago. I now will explain.

About two or three weeks after I reported for work at the Amarillo Globe-News, my boss — publisher Garet von Netzer — informed me that someone from the Rotary Club of Amarillo would call me and invite me to join that Rotary club. “We need to have someone in that club,” von Netzer said. Thus, I was slated to join the Rotary Club of Amarillo. When Garet von Netzer said I would join, well, I had no choice.

I got the invitation from the late Basil Walker. I joined and then settled into my membership. I made a lot of new friends. More than that, though, I developed many valuable sources for potential issues I might cover as editorial page editor of the Globe-News.

Some years later, in 2008, I applied for — and received — an appointment to lead a team of young professionals to Israel as part of Rotary International’s Group Study Exchange.

That journey illustrated how my career allowed me to travel abroad. I was able to travel twice to Southeast Asia; I traveled three times to southeastern Europe; as president of the Rotary club, I was allowed to travel to Denmark and Sweden to attend Rotary International’s annual convention in 2006.

Then came this Israel adventure.

I was torn while training with my team members for this event. In late 2008 and early 2009, violence erupted in Gaza. Hamas terrorists lobbed rockets on Israeli communities. The Israelis responded with brute force, inflicting considerable damage at quite a cost in human life.

If the Israeli counteroffensive were to continue, our trip might be canceled. My Rotary mentor — with whom I was working to prepare for the trip –told me that RI was working closely with the State Department monitoring the situation in early 2009.

Israel’s potent armed forces took control. They put down the Hamas uprising. Order — if not peace — eventually was restored.

Our trip commenced in May 2009. We would spend four weeks in Israel. We stood on the doorstep of the Gaza Strip. We looked down onto the valley below the Golan Heights. We stood below a fortified fence along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, where another terror outfit, Hezbollah, was capable of doing damage.

For the entire four weeks, I harbored a wish; it wasn’t exactly a secret, although I don’t recall sharing it with our Israeli hosts. I wanted all hell to break loose while we were there.

No, I did not want to put our team in danger. I would have hoped we could get them on the next plane out and headed for home.

However, the reporter in me wanted to be able to cover events unfolding in real time.

It didn’t happen. Our journey was spectacular, even in the absence of violence and mayhem.

Don’t misunderstand me on this. I have never, ever harbored an instant of regret over the peace and tranquility we enjoyed while traveling through one of the world’s most thrilling nations.

If it had gone the other way, though . . . I was ready.

These are far more than mere ‘friends’

This blog features commentary on “politics, policy and life experience,” but you likely know that already. I want to talk in this post about the third of those items.

I want to share a life experience with you in two parts.

The first part involves an event that occurred 10 years ago this month. I had a wonderful chance today to relive that moment with four of my best friends in this whole world.

I want to back up just briefly to a time prior to that experience.

The Rotary Club of Amarillo, of which I was a member, is part of a West Texas district that runs from the top of the Panhandle to the Permian Basin. In 2008, the district leadership paired up with another district in Israel. Rotary International, the worldwide governing body of the civic organization, had established a program called Group Study Exchange. It charged each district that took part to select a team leader to take a group of young professionals to the partner district.

That year, our Rotary district decided it would send a team to Israel. It needed a Rotary member to lead that team. I applied for the position. I interviewed for it. The committee that heard my pitch — along with those of three other Rotary members — selected me to lead that team.

My first task was to select four non-Rotary members to join the team that would travel to Israel for four weeks in May and June 2009. I completed that task. I selected three young women and a young man to make that journey. They are pictured with this blog post.

Fernando, Aida, Katheryn, Shirley and I then trained for several weeks. We learned the customs of Israel. We sought to acquaint ourselves with the nature of the country that seems to be in the news almost weekly. Often, the news is grim, filled combat, turmoil and assorted forms of violence in that volatile region of the world.

We were sufficiently trained over time. Then we took off from Amarillo’s airport. These four individuals would meet with professionals in Israel, share experiences and knowledge with them. Thus, the name of the program was brought into play.

We spent four weeks traveling through Israel, seeing the country from top to bottom — Nahariya to Eilat and everywhere in between; we sampled their cuisine; we visited holy sites; we stayed with families that opened their homes to us; we saw a marvelous nation up close and in a way that most foreigners never get to see it.

After a month in Israel, we came home. We went our separate ways. We have stayed in touch, however, over the past decade.

Which brings me to the second point of this blog post.

We have maintained friendships unlike any other I have ever known in my nearly 70 years on this good Earth.

And today, we gathered at the home of one of our team members to salute each other, to remember that marvelous journey, to express our love for each other and to revel in what I believe is the rare fete of continuing the relationship that began when we met as total strangers a decade ago.

In my more than 20 years in Rotary, I have met many Group Study Exchange team members and team leaders. They all tell me the essentially the same thing: Their relationships ended when their tours ended. They went home and rarely have shared any time together upon their return.

That’s not nearly the case with this group of friends my wife and I have made. Today capped off one of the most remarkable life experiences either of us have ever known. We don’t see each other nearly as often as we did immediately after returning from the Holy Land. That doesn’t matter. We still know what each other is doing. We maintain an interest in everyone’s lives. We still cheer each other on, we offer emotional support when the needs arise and we still communicate via various messaging platforms available to us.

The best part of this experience? It’s far from over. Our lasting friendships won’t allow it to end.

Time of My Life, Part 25: Trying to score a huge interview

News about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pending indictment on corruption charges brings to mind an interview that didn’t occur, but one that I worked real hard to get.

While I was working as editorial page editor of the Amarillo (Texas) Globe-News, I received a life-changing opportunity: I would be allowed to lead a Rotary International Group Study Exchange team to Israel; we spent four weeks there, meeting with professional peers and living with host families who showed us one of the world’s most fascinating countries.

I went there as a member of Rotary, but I did not forsake my professional responsibility.

So, with that I sought to score an interview in May-June 2009 with Benjamin Netanyahu. How did I make the effort? I got in touch with the Israeli consulate in Houston and became acquainted with the consulate’s press officer.

I asked him if it was possible to meet with the prime minister. He wasn’t very receptive. I kept working on him.

I told the young man that since I was going to be in Israel for four weeks that I could take some time away from my schedule as a Rotary team leader to meet with the prime minister. I didn’t require a lot of time. Maybe a half hour would suffice. An hour would be better.

Indeed, in the weeks prior to our arrival in Israel, the Israelis were putting down an armed rebellion among Palestinians living in Gaza. There was some concern from our Rotary district that the State Department would disallow us to travel there. It’s too dangerous.

Well, the Israelis put down the rebellion. Gaza settled down.

I wanted to talk to Netanyahu about all that and wanted to discuss Middle East security in general. Who better to talk about that with an American journalist than the Israeli prime minister?

The consulate’s flack then asked me about the circulation of the newspaper that employed me. I told him that the G-N was part of a group of newspapers that circulated to many thousands more readers. The interview could get significant coverage in all the papers. Just allow me to speak to the prime minister and I would arrange to get the Morris Communications news bureau to distribute it among all the papers within our group.

I didn’t get the interview, which saddened me greatly. The Israeli flack said Netanyahu would be in-country while we were there. He just didn’t have the time to meet with me.

That all said, my position at the Globe-News allowed me to join a Rotary club in Amarillo, which led to my being allowed to lead this team of young professionals to the other side of the world. I’ll have more to say about that journey later on.

The Benjamin Netanyahu interview was a near miss, but I had a blast trying to secure it.

Soccer or football? Still a foreign game to Americans

I don’t know when — or even if — soccer will ever catch on in the United States the way it has in much of the rest of the world.

Indeed, the game we call “soccer” is known as “football” in places like Mexico, Brazil and in most of Europe. The Spanish term for “football,” by the way, is “futbol.” Get it?

The World Cup is over. They’re going nuts throughout France, which defeated Croatia 4-2 in the final game. I’m glad for the French. It’s their second World Cup title.

To be candid, I remain decidedly lukewarm toward soccer. It just doesn’t thrill me the way it would, say, my extended family members in Greece, where soccer is a big deal, too.

I’ve been exposed once in my life to World Cup fanatacism. It happened in June 2006.

My wife and I were in Copenhagen, Denmark. We caught up with some friends from Amarillo, Texas, who were in Copenhagen attending the same Rotary International Conference as my wife and me. We were strolling through the city looking for a place to eat.

We would stick our heads into this or that restaurant. They were full. Everyone was watching TV. Oh, what were they viewing? A soccer match between Denmark and (I believe it was) neighboring Germany.

The Danes were screaming their lungs out at every move their national team made on the field, er, pitch. We could hear them from everyone eating establishment up and down the street.

The four of us had difficulty that evening finding a place to eat. We finally did, though.

My point is that I had never witnessed such soccer/football fervor. It consumes Europe, Latin America, as well as portions of Asia and Africa.

I still get worked up over the Super Bowl and the World Series. The World Cup? Not so much. I’m afraid to tell my soccer-loving friends that at this stage of my life, the World Cup isn’t likely to hook me.

Remembering the journey of a lifetime

One of the many wonderful aspects of social media is the ability to share wondrous anniversaries with those along the media network.

Today is one of those days.

Nine years ago today, I walked off a jetliner at David Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel. I accompanied four of my best friends in the whole world to the Holy Land as part of a Rotary International Group Study Exchange. The GSE had a couple of key objectives: One was to build and promote international friendship between Rotary districts; another was to help promote Rotary membership to young professionals.

I traveled to Israel with these four young West Texans: Fernando, Aida, Shirley and Katt. They weren’t in Rotary. I was a member of the Rotary Club of Amarillo and was selected by our Rotary district to be the team leader of this marvelous group of individuals. Some of them joined Rotary when we returned home.

We toured the entire country of Israel during our four weeks as ambassadors from our Rotary district. Our host Rotarians provided lodging for us and welcomed us into their families.

It was — and this is no overstatement — the trip of a lifetime.

We learned so much about Israel, its history, its place in the world, its people. We spent four weeks traveling through this oasis in the Middle East. We swam in the Dead Sea, the Red Sea and in the Mediterranean Sea.

We visited churches, mosques and synagogues. We mingled in a multicultural society with our hosts. We also walked along holy and sacred ground in Jerusalem, Nazareth and Masada. We told our West Texas story to Rotary members.

We made friends for life.

I cannot possibly share a “most memorable moment” during that journey. It was full of them, from beginning to end.

My goal here is merely to recall that dreams do come true. Mine did on this day nine year ago when we landed in the Holy Land and saw it through the eyes of those who live in this wonderful and, yes, perilous region of the world.

We learned a greeting while touring Israel. “L’chaim” translates from Hebrew to “to life.” That marvelous journey, I am proud to say, made my own life much more complete.

Goofy mug shot offers warm memory

Every now and then I get asked about this picture.

It appears on my Facebook profile. I haven’t changed it since I posted it around 2010. A member of my family has told me that in her view “It’s the best picture ever posted in the history of Facebook.” She has ordered me to never change it.

I appreciate her comment and I’ve told her so … many times. I’m not sure whether I’ll keep it forever. I do intend to keep it well past the foreseeable future, though.

But here’s the actual reason why I like displaying it: The picture reminds me daily of one of the most glorious experiences of my working life.

It occurred in May-June 2009. I was selected to lead a Rotary International team to Israel. The program once was known as Group Study Exchange, which enabled our Rotary district to assemble a team of young professionals to interact with other professionals from another Rotary district. In 2009, our district interacted with a district in Israel.

I received the high honor of leading that team. I helped select four of them from our West Texas district. We met for several weeks preparing for the four-week tour of Israel. We departed in early May 2009 and spent the next month touring that country from top to bottom — from the Lebanese border to Eilat at the southern tip of the country — along with another team from The Netherlands; we forged friendships along the way with our Israeli hosts and with members of the Dutch team. Indeed, just a year ago my wife and I caught up with two Dutch team members on a trip we took to The Netherlands and to Germany.

Oh, the picture? It was taken at the Dead Sea. We drove through the Judean Desert to this remarkable body of water on the Israeli border with Jordan. It sits more than 1,000 below sea level. Its salinity is many times greater than the ocean. Swimmers’ buoyancy is beyond description.

We slathered ourselves in this Dead Sea mud. From the waist up we covered ourselves in it. Our Israeli friends told us the mud contained some sort of “restorative value” contained in its mineral content. The idea is to let it dry. Then you wash it off with fresh water.

It’s supposed to make you look and feel younger. I remember washing it off and asking our team members, “Do I look younger?” Many of them laughed in my face. For what it’s worth, I felt younger … and that’s all that mattered.

The picture reminds me of that glorious adventure and the enduring friendships I made with the young people I accompanied across the ocean and with those we met along the way.

That is why I don’t intend to change this picture.

Mourning the loss of a dedicated servant

I am a sad fellow tonight.

A few hours ago I received word of the death of a man who played a significant role in granting me the honor of participating in a life-changing event.

Ted Holder is gone. I will miss him. I also will forever honor his memory and will thank him for the rest of my life for the part he played in changing my life.

Ted was a member of the Levelland, Texas, Rotary Club. In late 2008, he was serving on a West Texas Rotary District committee assigned to select a Rotary member to lead a team of young professionals to Israel. The journey would be taken under the auspices of Rotary International’s Group Study Exchange.

The GSE team would comprise four non-Rotarians. They would be “led” by a Rotary member. The group would interact for four weeks with professionals in the host Rotary district. The 2009 Rotary GSE host district for our team would be located in Israel.

But first things first.

Our Rotary district needed a team leader. I was one of three Rotary members who applied for the honor to select and then accompany this team to the Holy Land.

We gathered in Lubbock to interview with the Rotary district committee. Ted was one of the committee members.

We made our pitch, all sitting around the same table at the same time. I gave it my best shot. After a lengthy interview, we all dispersed. I drove home to Amarillo.

Later that day, I got a call from the committee chairman, who informed me I had been selected to lead the Rotary GSE team. I was stunned. I choked back tears.

It would be quite a while later that I heard from a member of the committee about what Ted had said about my presentation. You see, Ted was a police officer; he served several years as Levelland chief of police. As you might guess, he didn’t much like media types. I was a media type at the time of my interview; I was serving as editorial page editor of the Amarillo Globe-News.

One of the committee members confided to me that Ted had told the panel that he “think much of the media, but I sure liked John’s presentation. He gets my vote.” The individual who told me this seemed to suggest that Ted’s endorsement of my pitch to the committee was decisive in the committee selecting me.

Well, the rest is pretty much history. I have shared much of that marvelous experience with you already on his blog. What most of you didn’t know is much about how that experience came to pass.

Ted Holder helped changed my life by granting me the high honor of representing Rotary District 5730 on a journey for the ages. My GSE teammates, I am quite certain, agree with that.

I am happy to report that the last time I saw Ted, about a year ago at a Rotary meeting, I took a moment to thank him — yet again — for the honor he granted me.

We have a lost a good man.

Awaiting a joyful reunion

I am in a reminiscing frame of mind this evening … so I believe I will share a memory with you.

Eight years ago this week, some friends and I embarked on a four-week journey through Israel. We were part of a Rotary International Group Study Exchange team. I had the honor of leading that team, which comprised myself and four young professionals who would get to share their work experiences with colleagues in Israel.

We all formed lasting friendships with each other, as well as with members of a Rotary team from The Netherlands that joined us on that Holy Land excursion.

We got to see that marvelous country while living in host families’ homes. They were part of a Rotary district that took part in the exchange with our West Texas Rotary district. The essence of the trip was to expose us to life in Israel as seen through those who call that country home.

Not only did we make lasting friendships among our team members, we made friendships with our hosts.

Here’s the really cool news: Very soon, my wife and I are going to hook up with one of those host families. A couple with whom I stayed in Israel is traveling to the United States to attend a Rotary International Conference in Atlanta. Before that, though, they’re going to Nashville, Tenn., for a little sightseeing before heading deeper into Dixie.

My wife hasn’t yet had the pleasure of meeting Alon and Sari, with whom I stayed in Lehavim, a town near Be’er Sheva, which is on the edge of the Judean Desert in Israel. I am absolutely certain she will fall in love with them as I did during our time together.

Indeed, we not too long ago reconnected with a couple of my fellow Dutch exchange members while on vacation in Europe. That, too, was a marvelous reunion.

Our plan this time is simple. We’ll load up our fifth wheel RV, hook it up to the rear of our pickup and get on down the road eastward toward Nashville. I’ll get to reconnect with people I met in their homeland and they in turn will get to get a taste of Americana.

Oh, how I love it when friendships become strong enough to last over lengthy distances and over spans of time.

Accelerating the transition … just a bit

retirement_road

This is the latest in an occasional series of blog posts commenting on upcoming retirement.

People essentially have two ways to move from their working lives to retirement.

They can jump into full retirement immediately, all at once. They walk away from the job, put their wristwatch into the drawer and never worry again about missing a deadline or an appointment.

Or, they can do it slowly.

My wife and I have chosen the latter approach to retirement.

We’ve decided to stay busy with part-time work. However, the time is approaching for us to make the transition fully into retirement.

So, we have decided to accelerate the pace of that transition … just a bit.

How is that acceleration taking place? I won’t go into too many details. Suffice to say, though, that we’re making more definitive travel plans. We also have begun some serious rehab on the yard, which — because we didn’t install an irrigation system when we had the house built in 1996 — suffered quite a bit during the drought of 2013-14.

We own a recreational vehicle that we enjoy taking on the road. Our plans involve more extensive travel in it across this fabulous continent of ours.

Just this week, for example, we penciled in a date next June to travel to the southeastern United States to visit some friends who are coming here from Israel. I met this lovely couple seven years ago while on a journey through the Holy Land; I stayed in their home in Lehavim, a city on the edge of the Judean Desert.

They’re coming to Atlanta to attend the 2017 Rotary International convention and plan to tour New Orleans and Nashville while they’re on this side of The Pond. We, too, are hoping to find them in either place and get caught up with them.

I’m going to stay busy with my part-time work. Two of the jobs involve the media. Eventually, I’ll have to part company with those jobs, which I enjoy beyond measure. They continue to challenge me and they keep me alert.

The time is fast approaching, though, to complete this transition.

We are looking forward with hope and with great joy at encountering what lies ahead.

Bring on the future!

Women play key role in defending Israel

female pilots

This picture showed up on my Facebook news feed today and it brings to mind something I witnessed six years ago during a four-week tour of Israel.

Yes, more women fly F-16s than drive cars in Saudi Arabia. I’m not going to thrash Saudi cultural norms. I am, though, going to remember one of the major takeaways from my tour of Israel.

It is that the country must rely on every single able individual — men and women — who are able to serve in the armed forces.

Israel has a mandatory conscription law. If memory serves, men must serve three years in the military; women are called up for two. And, yes indeed, women are ordered to perform dangerous duty in defense of their country, such as flying high-performance tactical jet aircraft; for that matter, so are American women.

I arrived in Israel in early May 2009 as part of a Rotary International Group Study Exchange team. One of the first sites we visited was a military museum in Be’er Sheva, a modern city on the edge of the Judean Desert.

It was at that museum where we were told that enemy jets can cross the width of Israel in less than five minutes. The individual who told us that was a young woman who was serving in the Israeli air force.

Later on our tour, I stayed in the home of a family in Karmiel. One of my hosts was a young woman, the daughter of the couple who owned the home, who had just gotten out of the Israeli military. She informed me of her country’s insistence that all young people don the uniform of their country. Israel does grant religious exemptions to Hasidic Jews — which I also learned is a source of some tension among less-observant Israelis.

But the women of that small but mighty country are asked to step up and to do their part. Who should doubt that the entire country is on notice to serve? It comprises slightly more than 8,000 square miles; it is home to around 7 million residents. It is surrounded by nations with which it has gone to war multiple times since Israel’s founding in 1948.

Israel has peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt. However, it holds the Golan Heights, which once belonged to Syria … and we all know what’s happening there.

It’s good to put some things in perspective as we consider the cost of war and whether we’re asking everyone to commit to its defense.

In Israel, such a commitment becomes essential for the embattled nation’s very survival.