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Remembering a 30-Year-Old Passage to India : Former UCLA Students Who Shared Friendship Mission Hold Reunion

July 31, 1985|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

In the summer of 1955--six years before there was a Peace Corps--a dozen UCLA students set off for India on a nine-week mission of friendship and diplomacy. Their hearts were young and filled with dedication and "Project India" was to affect their lives deeply.

The Project India kids got together again for the first time on Sunday, all but one of them; many in the group had not seen each other since college.

"This Is Your Life!" hollered Ed Peck as Mary Ann (Buford) Green, a late arrival, fell into the arms of Jerry Lewis, another of the "PI Kids." Peck was the tall fellow wearing his official Project India shirt, a whimsical sacred cow print retrieved from years in storage, and a name tag identifying him as Edward Peck, student guest, at a Rotary meeting in Lucknow, India, on Aug. 19, 1955.

"Ed -ward , is it!" teased the others, one of them giving the former U.S. ambassador to Mauritania a hail-fellow-well-met slap on the back.

Everyone agreed that George Wakiji hadn't changed much, save for the gray sideburns. But Ron Pengilly was able to boast of being "the only one with no gray hair." Grinning, he added, "the only one without any hair at all."

They ate curry, delicious fare that resembled not at all some of the concoctions they remembered from the kitchens of no-frills guest houses in small towns in the South of India. But, with strict instructions never to refuse anything, they had hewed to what Pengilly called a "hold your nose and eat course," even when the entree was porridge with boiled water buffalo meat.

They passed around snapshots and talked about their children and did all the things people do at reunions. But this one was different; these weren't people who happened by biological circumstance to be in the same high school graduating class.

These were people--among them an ambassador, a rabbi, a college dean and a congressman--who had been chosen to share a grand adventure that, they agreed, had profoundly influenced them and the course of their lives, an experience that is remembered for a lifetime but can be shared really only with the other adventurers.

When just about everybody had left Rosemary (Wooldridge) and Ron Plue's house in Encino on Sunday night, Sanford (Sandy) Ragins smiled, looked about the room and said, "Gram was a presence that was hovering here tonight."

Founder of Project India

"Gram" was Miss Adaline Guenther, the founder of Project India and the taskmaster-headmistress-tour guide figure who had kept her charges in line with discipline and wisdom served up in equal measure. She was also executive director of the University Religious Conference, a multi-denominational campus organization at UCLA.

Conceived as a way of helping to ward off the threat of communism in India by showing Indian students "the real America," the project continued into the late '60s, when changing student attitudes and the advent of the Peace Corps combined to make it somewhat anachronistic.

Gram, who died about nine years ago, had been an agile, white-haired woman of 58 that summer of 1955. It did not go unmentioned that the older members of that student team are now just about that age.

The Gram stories abounded. Gram warning her charges not to lick their lips lest they ingest some frightful germ. Gram had been more than agitated when George Wakiji and Bob Stein had eaten some locally canned fruit. And both Gram and the American consulate were furious when Sandy Ragins and Wakiji, a Japanese-American, decided on what Ragins called "a college boy lark" to pop into the consulate of the People's Republic of China in Calcutta. "They didn't know what to do with us," Ragins said, "especially George."

Battery of Tests

The 12 adventurers, who were accompanied also by Bob Jaffie, a former UCLA student body president then teaching at Burbank High School, had been chosen from more than 100 volunteers after a battery of tests over a three-month period to determine their maturity and adaptability. Each had to come up with $200 expense money; the major funding, more than $20,000, was from the Ford Foundation.

This was no grand tour for spoiled college kids. Most of the participants came from modest backgrounds. Their lodgings in India were not four-star hotels; much of the time they slept on grass mats that covered hard wooden slabs and they bathed with a gallon or two of water in a pan.

Bob Stein said, "We lived a lot better than most Indians, and a lot worse than most tourists."

It was hot and sticky and generally uncomfortable much of the time; the young Americans' senses and sensibilities were assaulted by strange and sometimes awful sights and smells. But, as Ruth (Taketaya) Hirano, now 51, said, "We were young and flexible and we were all so seduced by the experience that conflict just never really came up.

"I had never traveled. I was a chicken farmer's daughter who grew up in the country. Project India was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me."

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