Aussie-U.S. bond spans 9,600 miles and 51 years

Love binds Grafton family and their AFS ‘daughter’
By 
MITCH MAERSCH
Ozaukee Press staff

Pat Leaman scoffed at the idea of hosting a foreign exchange student and disregarded a letter from the American Field Service.

“I got the letter that said you’re highly qualified. I threw it in the wastebasket,” she said.

But AFS didn’t give up, and Leaman finally gave in. That was 1971.

“Hopefully, we’ll get a student who will fit in with us, and we did,” she said of her thoughts at the time, adding it helped that Leaman’s wedding anniversary was on the same day as their guest daughter’s birthday.

The six-member family welcomed Sally Schultze (then Sheppard) of Melbourne, Australia, into their Grafton home and forged a lifelong bond. Members of both families, along with their children and grandchildren, have made the 9,600-mile, 40-hour trip back and forth several times.

“I think there’s genuine love,” Schultze said.

“She’s family. There’s just no other question,” her American sister Donna Ohm said.

“So much good has kept us together,” Leaman said as she pressed her fists together.

Schultze attended the Grafton class of 1972’s 35th reunion 15 years ago and its 50th last Saturday.

Leaman wasn’t the only member of the family who was initially hesitant about taking in an exchange student. Her oldest daughter, Crystal Berg, wasn’t thrilled.

“I was away at nursing school, so bringing Sally into the family, into my bedroom, did not seem like a good idea at all,” she said.

She changed her mind halfway home after the Leamans picked Schultze up at a bus stop near Milwaukee. 

“Her caring about everything — she leads with it, surrounds you with it and makes you want to care more about everything,” Berg said.

For Ohm, it was “love at first sight. We got along famously right from the beginning. She was adorable. Very, very sweet, very nice very kind. I just loved her dearly.”

Her new American brother Dan Biedenbender said he loved her accent.

“She became a sister quickly,” he said.

Her other brother Steve was in the hospital having his tonsils out when Schultze arrived. He remembers having ice cream with her, and she remembers him making her tea.

“She was probably a lot cooler than my sisters,” Steve said.

Ohm and Schultze were seniors at Grafton High in1971-72. Leaman said her late husband Dale was shocked that her parents let their daughter come to America, given the civil unrest here at the time. News clips showed women burning their bras on college campuses.

AFS, however, did background checks and home visits to ensure their students’ safety and wellbeing.

Schultze, 17 at the time, was nervous but wanted to come to America.

“I felt very much a part of the family from the beginning,” she said. “I felt supported and loved, which is what you need when you’re away from home.”

Schultze immersed herself in the American Midwest high school experience, joining the ski club with Ohm.

“I hadn’t seen snow,” Schultze said. “I really enjoyed it but it was very cold.”

She once walked two miles to the family’s home on River Bend Road from school in a skirt, not thinking to “ring” her “mum.” Her legs became discolored and nearly sustained frostbite.

“Put it this way. I didn’t take up skiing in Australia,” Schultze said.

In the schools production of “The Sound of Music,” Ohm was Liesl and Schultze was one of the nuns in the choir.

“She doesn’t really sing so she just mouthed it,” Ohm said.

“Thank you, Donna,” Schultze quickly replied.

Schultze went to prom with the president of the school’s AFS Club, and she loved pep rallies — she didn’t have those in Australia — and bus trips to away athletic games.

Schultze left halfway through her senior year in Australia, given the Southern Hemisphere is on opposite seasons, and her classes in America didn’t count back home. So she took fun ones such as dress making and some science.

American history class was new, of course, as were coed discussions in English class. Schultze attended an all-girls school in Melbourne.

Grafton seniors often skipped ahead in the lunch line. Schultze remembers being dragged along by her friends while she apologized to everyone they passed.

“It was so embarrassing,” she said.

Schultze only got homesick once at Christmastime. Communication was through expensive long-distance phone calls she only made a few times. AFS gave her $50, and the Leamans matched the total for a five to 10-minute phone call.

Schultze’s parents came for her high school graduation, and she and the Leamans had committed to staying in touch.

“Sending Sally back to Australia was one of the most painful and difficult things I ever did,” Berg said. “I was not sure how we would stay connected half a world away, but after our first family call it was obvious our hearts were not going to let each other get lost in our separate lives.”

Ohm visited Australia for a month in 1973.

Schultze returned in 1974 for Ohm’s wedding and even went to Hawaii with the couple on their honeymoon. Her father had given her money to take the newlyweds out for a Hawaiian dinner.

The connections continued generation after generation. Schultze’s grandchildren sat on Leaman’s lap during trips to Australia, and for high school graduation she offered her grandchildren a paid trip to Australia or the monetary equivalent. Seven of the 10 took the trip.

Schultze ended up having an exchange student from Paraguay, but the Leamans never got another one.

“Not after her,” Dan said with a laugh. “Perfection is hard to duplicate.”

Leaman has since also changed her mind about AFS.

“I love that organization,” she said.

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