Arriving Thursday at Eppley Airfield, a Japanese man was surprised to see his long-lost Omaha “sisters” wearing summer kimonos — the yukata dresses he had presented to their family a half-century ago.
After smiles and embraces at 4:45 p.m. in the south terminal, Yoshinori Akiyama stepped back, looked again at the yukatas and asked, “How did you manage to keep them?”
Mom did so, said Jan Cronin and Julie Sorensen, members of the Hassel family when “Yosh” first arrived in Omaha on Aug. 1, 1965. He spent the school year living with their family near 58th and Pratt Streets, and he graduated in 1966 from Benson High.
As an American Field Service exchange student, he immersed himself in U.S. life, attending classes, dances and movies, as well as football and basketball games.
“Everything was new,” recalled Yosh, 68 and retired from the Mitsubishi Corp. “I learned that American people are very fervent, avid sports fans.”
He smiled when reminded of the school mascot and gave a quiet cheer: “Benson Bunnies, hurray!”
As a young businessman in the ’70s, Yosh visited Omaha a couple of times, but he married and had two sons and eventually lost contact with the Hassel family. But in April, he learned that his name had been posted on Classmates.com, and he discovered a 2009 message from Jan and Julie’s brother, Rick.
After excitedly replying, Yosh was saddened to learn from another Benson classmate that Rick had died at 65 on Sept. 12, 2014 — a year ago today. In May, he contacted Julie and Jan, and they since have exchanged many emails, which led to his first trip to Omaha in nearly 40 years.
After arriving, he paid respect at the graves of his American “parents,” Virgil and Dorothy Hassel, whom he called “Dad” and “Mom” when he lived with them. Virgil, a firefighter, died of a heart attack at 41, two years after Yosh left. Dorothy lived to 74.
Yosh’s own father died while he was in Omaha, but his mother delayed telling him so that he wouldn’t cut short his exchange year. He found out two days before graduation, and his host family wept with him.
Said Jan: “I learned a lot about the value of sharing other people’s sorrow. We all embraced him, especially my mom and dad, and we surrounded him with love and support.”
On Friday, Yosh visited Benson High, and the sisters planned to show him their old home, the rejuvenated Benson business district, Benson Park and Fremont Lakes, where they camped and swam with him long ago.
They also planned to see Immanuel Lutheran Church in Omaha, which he had dutifully attended with the Hassels, though he is a Buddhist. (He recalled apologizing to the pastor for nodding off.)
Yosh, who lives in Kawasaki, a city of 1.4 million, then will join the sisters at Julie’s lake home more than an hour west of Omaha — in Bellwood, Nebraska, population 435.
The year he lived with the Hassels, Jan was 12 and Julie was 7. He recalled double-dating to prom with Rick, who drove. Beforehand, Jan practiced dancing with him.
Jan works in molecular imaging in Sacramento. Julie is a pharmacy tech in Columbus.
The sisters presented him the program with his name in it from his Benson graduation, a keepsake from what he calls “one of my most memorable years.”
“Now,” said Jan, “the three of us feel we are family again.”
Because of church ties, you might think that the 20,000 Mormons in Nebraska all rooted for BYU in last Saturday’s game against the Huskers.
“Oh, that would really be wrong,” said a chuckling Sharla Behan of Omaha, a church spokeswoman. “A lot of us had a hard time deciding what to wear and who to root for.”
Sharla wore blue for Brigham Young University, but her husband, Wayne, a native of Bridgeport, Nebraska, wore red for the Huskers. Their group of nine Mormons at the game split five for NU, four for BYU.
NU fans, Sharla said, were extremely gracious toward folks in blue after the last-second loss. It turns out that lots of local Mormons, despite feeling a tie to BYU, are latter-day — or even longtime — Husker fans.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has a long history in Omaha, dating to when Mormons stopped here on their trek west to Utah — several years before Omaha was founded in 1854.
In 2001, the white-granite Winter Quarters Nebraska Temple was completed on a hilltop near 34th and State Streets. A Mormon Trail Center sits nearby, as does the Mormon Pioneer Cemetery.
Alas, the team from a Mormon university won on a Hail Mary pass. No, Sharla said, Mormons don’t say that prayer, but in football, “we know what a Hail Mary is.”
Deborah Johnson, who grew up in Omaha and graduated from Duchesne Academy in 1966, last week received the 2015 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction — the first woman and first African-American to do so.
She is the author of “The Secret of Magic,” said to embody the spirit of Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The award was presented at the Library of Congress.
Johnson, based in Columbus, Mississippi, lived for many years in Rome, where she worked as a translator and editor of doctoral theses at Vatican Radio.
The “Ediar girls” are holding a reunion in Omaha this weekend, with tours of Lauritzen Gardens and the Kaneko gallery, a walk on the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge and other events.
You may ask what is Ediar?
It was started in Omaha in 1958 by Jewish girls about 14 years old who attended Central High. Ediar continues today in Omaha as a teenage girls organization, part of B’nai B’rith.
Cookie Hoberman of Omaha, one of the originators, said the “girls” have held reunions since they were 50 and remain lively in their early 70s. Eight of the original members, some from other states, are joining in the fun.
What’s the value of reunions like this? Cookie explained it in a way that could apply to all of us and our early, longtime friends.
“It sparks memories of your youth and the kind of values you cherish,” she said. “There are only certain people you were wallflowers with and you blossomed with. You cried and laughed together.
“It’s just about being together, facing this time of your life with people you are so comfortable with that you know you can say anything and it’s understood.”
So what about that name, Ediar? Perhaps a Hebrew word with deep religious or cultural meaning?
No. Cookie said the group was named for a prominent car dealer of the time, Edward Rosen —Eddie R.
Partly personal: In 1987, during a decade I served as this newspaper’s sports editor and sports columnist, Marvin and Charmian Thomson hosted me at their summer home in Morristown, Tennessee.
Marvin had retired in 1976 as The World-Herald’s night sports editor, where he addressed everyone as “maestro,” and was known as “Colonel” Thomson — always spelled “Kunnel” to match his Tennessee accent.
Whenever he met a military colonel, Marvin demurred: “I’m just a mint julep colonel.”
Marvin showed me around the University of Tennessee’s athletic plant, where everyone from Coach Johnny Majors on down seemed to know him, and we visited just-completed football skyboxes.
In 2004, at 92, he died in Omaha after 69 years of marriage to the charming Charmian Thomson. Friday, after her death this week at 103, she was memorialized at Dundee Presbyterian Church.
An obituary Tuesday by colleague Steve Jordon told of her life, including running a survey business that employed up to 80 at once and staying active with daily exercise and swimming. In retirement, she never lost her zest for life, including world travel, parasailing and hot-air balloon rides.
When people mispronounced her name as “Charmaine,” she might gently correct them. Charmian is a distinctive name, also used by Cleopatra’s confidante and the movie actress (Carr) who played Liesl in “The Sound of Music.”
Even after Marvin’s death, Charmian wore her wedding ring. Just before she died, son Bob Thomson said Friday, she asked him to help remove it — and present it to his sister, Melinda Schechner.
As Melinda said, her mother had lived “a fully-packed, long life.”
Contact the writer: 402-444-1132, email@example.com