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Exchange student reconnects with OFA classmate 55 years later in France

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OGDENSBURG – Driving to Laon from Evreux, France, Pierre “Pete” Vanderschelden and Bruce H. Maine reminisced about old times as classmates at Ogdensburg Free Academy in 1957.

The two shared their first laugh in over 55 years since Mr. Vanderschelden, a French foreign exchange student, returned to France after spending a year in Ogdensburg:

“Hey Bruce, do you remember that big guy,” Mr. Vanderschelden asked.

“Yes, Lee “Gus” Murray,” replied Mr. Maine.

“Remember when John Hillers dressed me up in that football uniform, but I could not catch the football,” said Mr. Vanderschelden.

“Well, the first time I caught that ball, that big guy ran towards me and wham. He tackled me right onto the ground. After that, it was no more football for me,” he joked.

Mr. Vanderschelden was 17 and Mr. Maine was 19. The two first met when Mr. Vanderschelden played French horn and Mr. Maine played drums in Ogdensburg Free Academy Band. Though Mr. Maine said he and Mr. Vanderschelden “hung out in different circles” and shared only two courses together, band and chorus, he remembered Mr. Vanderschelden fondly.

“Everybody knew Pierre,” said Mr. Maine on Friday. “He was a very outgoing and a nice young man, who represented his country very well.”

After high school, Mr. Vanderschelden returned to France to work at an Air Force base. He was later drafted into the French Army to fight in the Algerian War. Mr. Maine joined the U.S. Air Force’s 317th Transportation Squadron as a heavy equipment operator. When Mr. Maine’s unit was stationed in France, he thought of searching for his classmate.

The opportunity presented itself while Mr. Maine and several members of his unit were delivering vehicles to Belgium. Mr. Maine’s truck broke down a few miles from Cambrai, Mr. Vanderschelden’s hometown. Mr. Maine asked a French officer if he would find Mr. Vanderschelden’s home, and the officer agreed to take him there.

When he arrived at Mr. Vanderschelden’s house, Mr. Maine learned that Mr. Vanderschelden was stationed in Algiers. However, Mr. Vanderschelden’s mother welcomed Mr. Maine with open arms.

“My French was not so good, but we made small talk of what I knew in French, and she treated us to cognac,” Mr. Maine recalled. “We got out Pierre’s 1957 yearbook and started looking at the pictures.”

During his four-year assignment in France, Mr. Maine did not see Mr. Vanderschelden.

Another opportunity did not present itself until 55 years later, when Mr. Maine was invited to attend a reunion at the French Air Base in Evreux of the 317th squadron veteran’s group. The base was three hours from Mr. Vanderschelden’s home in Parfondru.

“I thought this might be the last time I will be able to visit France. Why go such a long way and not just try to hook up with Pete,” he asked himself.

Mr. Maine decided to see Mr. Vanderschelden again. This time, he called first.

“When I called him, I told him I was the skinny drummer in the band,” Mr. Maine said. “Later, he emailed me and we exchanged photos, and I sent him a picture of myself in 1958 at Evreux, but he knew who I was.”

The two began emailing back and forth. Eventually, the two finally reunited in France on June 25. Mr. Vanderschelden drove three hours to pick up Mr. Maine in Evreux, and they drove to Mr. Vanderschelden’s home for lunch. Afterwards the two men took a tour of the old city of Laon. Mr. Vanderschelden said he was shocked that anyone had remembered him.

“When the telephone rang asking if it I really was Pierre Vanderschelden...the shock was violent, in a few seconds I had a flashback from 55 years ago, and all of a sudden memories, souvenirs came back to my mind...,” Mr. Vanderschelden said. “That year was the year for me. It was a tremendous experience, wonderful people, a lot to remember during my whole life, you cannot wish for better.”

Mr. Vanderschelden said he still has fond memories as a French student studying English in Ogdensburg.

“I had a great time with my classmates and even the teachers,” he said. “They did a good job since I can still speak English 55 years later. I have a granddaughter, 21, and I used to help her with her English courses, and once she said, ‘How come you remember your English some 50 years ago, and I have problems remembering my lessons two weeks after.’ I gave her the answer, ‘It depends on the quality of the teachers.’”

Mr. Vanderschelden said his son, who lnow ives in California, gives him the opportunity to return to the states.

“It is not next door, but I’ll try to manage to go see Bruce, return his visit and have the pleasure of speaking of the good old days,” he said. “I still don’t know how he could remember me so well. Thanks to him, he give me the chance of getting back these wonderful souvenirs. I am speaking like an elderly man, but I am still 17.”

Mr. Maine, who now is retired and lives in Illinois, said he hopes his recent reconnection with Mr. Vandschelden will encourage other classmates to contact him as well.

“At this late age of 74, I thought, ‘Why not?’ At this point in our lives, the best thing we can do is reconnect and chat just to see how each other is doing. Just a simple act of saying ‘Hi,’ can be a wonderful thing.”

For classmates who would like to contact Mr. Vanderschelden, they can email Mr. Maine at gunship3@att.net.

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