Exchange student renews Culver connections -- more than 40 years later

Many in Culver will recall what might be considered the "heyday" of the foreign exchange student program which once thrived here, though not many who participated have the surprising and moving reunion Susie Mahler of Culver did recently.

Monica Vasquez of Chile spent three months, from January to March of 1969, in Culver with the family of Charles J. Baker, his wife Edna, and his children Barbara and Charles, according to Vasquez, who still lives in Chile today.

"I was embraced with lots of love. Even today I have beautiful memories," she notes.

Vasquez returned to the United States because her oldest son Ignacio finished his Masters degree at the University of Notre Dame (he's currently working for in Seattle). While in South Bend in May, Vasquez and her son paid a visit to Cafe Max, which is owned by Baker's granddaughter Susie Mahler.

"It was great," says Mahler. "She was asking shop owners about Charlie Baker. One of the owners knew I was his granddaughter so they sent Monica down to the cafe. I was standing at the hostess stand when she walked in. She said she use to live here when she was 15. I cut her off mid-stream when I said her name. She was shocked I remembered since I was only 6 years old."

"Seeing Susie Mahler was very emotional and enjoyable," Vasquez says.

"I wanted to return to Culver to find out what had become of the family that had taken me in. I asked if anyone knew something about my 'dad,' but nobody did. I decided to go around town asking if anyone had any information. To my great surprise, I was informed that the niece of Charles J. Baker had a cafe on Main Street. When I asked for her and I see her, I was seeing Barbara, her aunt! My emotions were profound. She took me to see her mother Sharon, who remembered me."

Vasquez and Mahler spent the next two hours together, Mahler "driving around, showing her son the places she used to go," and Sharon giving Vasquez a photo of the Bakers to take with her.

A January, 1969 article in The Culver Citizen noted Vasquez attended school here for eight weeks before leaving on a 12-day tour of the eastern U.S. She visited Culver by way of International Student Exchange, Inc. In the article, one of the stranger customs of the U.S. to Vasquez included eating three meals per day (instead of four with an afternoon tea), though she enjoyed American hot dogs in particular and loved basketball, which was rarely played in her country at the time.

Vasquez, who currently works for the ministry of education in Santiago, Chile, adds, "I feel like my life has a connection to the United States because I lived there when I was young, lived with an American family, and went to college there. (Susie) has invited me to visit her her house whenever I want."

Vasquez adds she expects to return in the summer of 2014.

"I have excellent memories of the hospitality of Culver," she says.

*Thanks to Marina Cavasos for her assistance with this article.