The scene is a high school gymnasium in Neenah. The year is 1951. A girl sits alone on a bleacher.
The girl’s name was Ruth Schulten, and she was a 16-year-old AFS exchange student from Essen, West Germany. She had been in Wisconsin about a month, and it wasn’t going well. Her host family in Neenah had not really engaged with her. Ruth knew English grammar, but speaking was something else. She did her best, but she was lonely, doubting her decision to study abroad in the United States.
As Ruth sat on the bleacher, another student approached. Jane Loehning, whose father was an attorney in Neenah, sat down next to Ruth. The girls had never met. “How are you?” Jane asked.
This week in Madison, 62 years later, Ruth — now Ruth Meyer ter Vehn — and Jane — now Jane Loper — recalled that simple act of kindness.
“I saw you sitting all alone,” Jane said.
“I told you my whole story,” Ruth said.
At the time, that story led Jane to talk to her parents about the lonely exchange student from West Germany. What happened next was admirable, but what’s happened since is remarkable.
Through events large and small, weddings, births, funerals and more, Ruth and Jane have stayed close across six decades. More than that, they’ve encouraged their children and grandchildren to emulate and take advantage of their long-distance friendship. As a consequence, American young people have found a home in Germany, and Germans in the United States, sometimes as exchange students, sometimes not. What started on a high school bleacher in Neenah is now a globe-spanning tale of two extended families who might as well be one.
During her visit with Jane in Madison this week, Ruth, now 79, talked of how it all began.
Her childhood in Essen, near Cologne, was not easy. She lost her coal miner father to lung disease, and Essen was bombed repeatedly during a long, losing war.
One day in the early spring of 1951, listening to the radio at home, Ruth heard about an opportunity to attend school in the United States.
“I wanted to go away,” she said, and, at 16, she sent in an application. She got a letter asking her to go to Dusseldorf for an interview. Her mother, uncertain and anxious, reluctantly allowed her to go, and Ruth was selected. She boarded a ship in August. On board, Ruth met another German exchange student, Rolf Meyer ter Vehn, who was spending the year in Kansas City. They were not romantically involved, not then, but they stayed in touch and eventually married.
In 1951, their ship docked in New York the day before Labor Day. They boarded buses. Ruth’s stopped in Chicago, then Milwaukee, and finally Neenah, where her host family was expecting her. Yet there was no one to meet her at the bus stop. It was dark.
“I thought I was at the end of the world,” Ruth said.
Fifteen minutes on, the host family arrived, and took her to their home. Over the next few weeks, they never really clicked, leading to Ruth’s meeting with Jane on the gym bleacher, and Jane’s telling her parents that night of the visiting girl’s unhappiness.
The result was Ruth moving in with Jane’s family, her parents Gaylord and Louise Loehning, and Jane’s sisters, Helen and Gail. It was everything her previous situation had not been. By Christmas, Ruth recalled, she really began to feel at home. There was one sure sign: She was dreaming in English.
She was also drinking Coca-Cola, a rare treat in Germany. Ruth boasted to her mother about all the Coke she was drinking, and her mother sent a concerned letter. Jane’s mother wrote back. “I’ll make sure she doesn’t drink too much Coca-Cola.”
At some point prior to Ruth’s returning to West Germany in June 1952, she and Jane made a pact. They would stay in touch, write each other letters. If they had children, they would be exchange students.
That August, Jane’s dad, Gaylord Loehning, sent Ruth a letter in West Germany. “Be certain to keep in touch with us,” he wrote, “and don’t forget us. Remember you will always be one of the family.” He sent more than a letter. For more than two years Jane’s dad sent monthly checks to West Germany so Ruth could continue her education.
Jane came to college in Madison, and married Carl Loper, who became a prominent professor of materials and engineering at UW-Madison. In 1977, one of their daughters, Cynthia, became the first of the second generation to visit Ruth and her husband, Rolf Meyer ter Vehn, for a summer in West Germany.
Subsequently, two of Rolf’s and Ruth’s children, daughter Antje and son Martin, came to Madison as exchange students, staying with Jane and Carl and attending Madison West High School. Carl Loper must have made an impression on Martin, who followed him into a career as a metallurgical engineer. When Carl died in 2010, Martin, working in China, came to Madison for the funeral.
A third generation got involved, too. Antje’s daughter, Henriette, lived as an exchange student in Nashville with Jane’s sister’s daughter and her family.
There is much more — other friends and family members traveling and taking advantage of the mutual generosity — so much so it can be hard to keep straight who exchanged where, and with whom.
What’s certain is that it all started in that gym with Jane and Ruth back in 1951. Ruth’s visit to Madison this week was the first time she had seen Jane in a decade. They picked right up, close as ever. Gaylord had it right in his letter. Ruth would always be one of the family.