The year was 1957. U.S. Surgeon General Leroy Burney linked smoking with lung cancer. Russia launched Sputnik I, and Leif Svendsen, Camas High School’s first exchange student, spent the year as a Papermaker. Flash-forward six decades and Svendsen is heading back to Camas to attend his 60th class reunion. This Saturday, Svendsen will serve as co-master of ceremonies for the reunion, along with his former classmate, Linda Freeman-Westfall.
Svedsen is looking forward to connecting with friends, who have made it through extremely difficult situations and are open about life’s challenges.
“It’s…impressive sometimes how they have coped,” he said. “It’s meeting the great-grandmother with the same laughter and the same spirit as she had in high school, and others who have much the same qualities as in high school. Changes on the outside, but the inside hasn’t changed as much as younger people think. I am also pleased that I have made friends with classmates that I didn’t know so well in high school.”
“We still claim (Leif) as our own,” Freeman-Westfall said. “We will mingle, have dinner and reminsice about the ‘old days’ when the city population was 5,500 and the graduating class was made up of 106 students.”
Approximately 59 of those classmates, plus significant others, plan to attend Saturday’s reunion. In addition to hosting the first international student, this class has the distinction of being the last to graduate from the original Camas High School at Northeast Garfield Street.
Svendsen also attended the fifth-year reunion in 1962 and several others during the following years. In the past 20 years, he has traveled from his home in Oslo, Norway, to his “second home” in Camas almost annually.
“It was an overwhelming experience to come as a 17-year-old in 1956 to spend a year with a family I didn’t know, and (come) to a school and a country that I didn’t know either,” Svendsen said. “Probably, it was also an adjustment to the school since I was the first (international exchange) student.”
He notes that in those days, continents were far apart and misconceptions were common.
“What immediately struck me was the friendliness that I was met with. Later, I have come to see this as a typical American trait,” Svendsen said. “My family on a farm on Prune Hill, the kids at school, also those I was not in class with — smiles, questions and genuine friendliness. That was also the case with the principal and the school office, as well as the teachers.”
During his time in Camas, Svendsen gave talks at the Chamber of Commerce and local service organizations, and was interviewed by The Post-Record.
“Everywhere (was) the same genuine interest, good questions and friendliness,” he recalled.
In addition to the people, the area’s scenery, with its snow-capped mountains and forests — and the girls in his class — also made a strong impression on the teenaged Svendsen.
“The girls were incredibly pretty. And I sensed some sterling qualities inside, which was contrary to my prejudice (that) girls in the U.S. would be spoiled, could not face the challenges we had in Norway, and could not manage the outdoor life we had at home,” Svendsen said, jokingly. “Not that I brought any of them back to Norway, but they would have managed well. So much for prejudice!”
Saturday’s reunion committee is made up of Claudia (Young) Leick, Dawn (Horn) Coonrod, Audrey (Ladd) Rancore, Midge (Bainter) Snell and Westfall.
“I have some really strong memories (of) my classmates that have stayed over the years,” Rancore said. “It’s going to be really nice to see everyone.”
Coonrod notes that the class of 1957 is the first to have an official 60th reunion.
“It can be a lot of work, but I really try to keep in contact with everyone and keep all of the class information updated,” she said.
Over the years, several of Svendsen’s classmates have visited him in his native Norway — many of them after retiring. The bonds remain strong, he said.
“Now I should write a glowing paragraph (about) what the year meant to me,” he joked in an email written from his plane ride to the U.S. “But I honestly think that the way I come back for reunions speaks for itself.”