Memories of Emery: Former exchange student from Slovenia reflects on time in United States – Mitchell Republic

EMERY — As an 18-year-old in the former Yugoslavia in 1972, Stanko Kranjc was hoping to expand his horizons, and maybe improve his English skills, as a foreign exchange student from

Slovenia.

What better place to do that than in the United States? And what better place to do that in the United States than Emery, South Dakota?

It may not have been the first destination on the mind of a young man eager to visit America, but for Kranjc, it turned out to be the perfect place to learn more about far-away people, their economy and their social life. And last week, Kranjc returned to the United States for the first time in a half-century when he attended his 50th high school reunion in Emery.

“It’s hard to explain,” Kranjc told the Mitchell Republic in an interview. “The feelings are strong. It’s exciting. It doesn’t happen so many times in life that something suddenly becomes believable.”

Kranjc and a few members of his family arrived in the United States last week, just as he did in 1972 as a member of the

Youth For Understanding Program,

a program designed to give international students a chance to gain intercultural understanding, learn mutual respect, and develop a sense of social responsibility. The experience abroad gives them leadership competencies necessary to meet the challenges and benefit from the opportunities of a fast-changing global community, according to the program website.

Hailing from Slovenia, a member republic of the former country of Yugoslavia, Kranjc said he was intrigued by an opportunity to visit the United States, a country that was well-known but often misunderstood abroad due to the many sources of information on the country.

“The American government wanted to show — especially with countries with a different economic and social system — the American way of living and see how it is here because in those various countries there was different information on what was going on in America,” Kranjc said. “This was exactly the time when the Iron Curtain between East and West was the thickest.”

At the time, Yugoslavia operated under a socialist government, but reforms slowly picked up speed in 1987, and in 1990 the population voted to form an independent Slovenia. In 1991, Slovenia became an independent country. Yugoslavian military forces tried to maintain control of the country during the Ten Day War, in which the Slovenian Territorial Defense and the Yugoslav People’s Army fought against each other. It lasted from June to July of 1991, when the Brioni Accords were signed.

But in 1972, Slovenia was still part of Yugoslavia, and viewed as a communist country by the West, though the country enjoyed relatively good relations with the United States due to its opposition to Stalinist ideals and the fact it was not considered a Soviet-bloc country.

The Youth For Understanding program was a passageway to a new experience, and Kranjc soon found himself applying to come to the United States, a privilege afforded only to 42 students in the country. He had to pass an English test, but he was soon approved and on his way to the United States for a yearlong sojourn into a foreign land.

There was only one problem: he wasn’t sure where in the United States he would end up. Upon his arrival in America, his fellow students fanned out across the country, but he lingered behind while organizers tried to place him with a family. It was tricky, as not every family was enamored with the idea of hosting a student from a community country.

Fortunately, he found a welcoming family in Emery.

“What I really wanted to do was become a journalist, but at school at that time it was very hard. But this America invitation came along, so for one year I will go to the United States. Maybe I’m losing a year (of career work), but I had already graduated. So I went,” Kranjc said. “I came here and I was very lucky to be with a really good, free-thinking family.”

That was the Bill and Barbara Hanlon family. They agreed to take Kranjc in at the last minute, something he learned on the drive to their home from Sioux Falls.

“I have a very big respect for the Hanlon family. The principal of Emery High School met me at the Sioux Falls airport, and he told me that just a couple of hours before they had found a family for me. And I was already here!” Kranjc said. “I will never forget this for what they did at that moment. They decided to accept someone they did not know at all. I felt, with this family, very much at home.”

Upon his arrival, Kranjc set about immersing himself in the life and times of Emery in the early 1970s. Randy Ahrendt, a classmate of Kranjc and an organizer of the 50th reunion of the Class of 1972, said it wasn’t long before Kranjc was on the sidelines of the local football field learning the game and ready to contribute to the team.

“I remember when he first came to Emery it was right before school started and football practice was just starting. And even though he didn’t know what it was all about, he wanted to be on the team. He wanted to be a part of the school community,” Ahrendt said. “And he was part of the team right away. He did play soccer and could kick the ball, so he would be our extra-point kicker. It didn’t take long for him to feel comfortable and fit in with the guys.”

Kranjc, a friendly, outgoing man now approaching 70 years old, found a welcoming bunch in his new community.

“I found some friends in Emery, some very good guys, even better than in Slovenia. In a couple of months, I felt totally relaxed,” Kranjc said.

Kranjc said Emery was a place unlike any he had visited before. It was small. It was quiet. Everyone seemed to know each other. There were six churches in town. It was different from the much more urban setting he usually called home.

“I came to South Dakota, not New York or Los Angeles or any of those bigger cities. This is special even now,” Kranjc said. “The biggest surprise was nobody had a fence around their house in Emery. In Yugoslavia you wouldn’t think about not having one. Nobody locked their car. It was open. No crime. There were 450 people and six churches. In Yugoslavia we had the Christian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church and they were fighting each other. And here there were mixed (religious) marriages. Here, nobody cared about that.”

He spent his days in school with his classmates and afterward would work alongside Hanlon in his store, occasionally heading out to local farms to help him with repairs, where he learned life lessons in plumbing as well as repairing air conditioning, a novelty for him coming from central Europe at the time. The Hanlons took him on a trip to the Black Hills, and he got to go fishing and pheasant hunting.

It was an experience that left an impression on the young man.

“It was perfect,” Kranjc said.

Kranjc returned to a Yugoslavia that was slowly changing. The country was opening up to more private enterprise, and a workforce that had been primarily employed in government jobs were making the transition to working for entrepreneurs. The war for independence was thankfully short, but it was still a scary time.

Amid a changing economic scene, he eventually left his job in Slovenia working for a large truck and bus manufacturer and took jobs around the world, including Frankfurt, Vienna and Cairo. As he did, he saw a Slovenia and a Europe that was growing to look more like the United States all the time. Large American companies began to do more business in his part of the world, and the formation of the European Union created an environment that made life feel closer to what he experienced in the United States.

Though the transition could be difficult at times, he said he is happy about this, especially in light of the Russian war in Ukraine. His time in the United States made him realize the importance of the word “united” in the name of his adopted country. For centuries, Europe was a fractured continent, but the European Union allowed many countries to show a collective front against aggression, something that seemed impossible just a few decades ago.

“The United States – already the name means the states are united. You have a vast surface area but with more or less the same regulations. It is part of how America began. You cannot just declare independence and everything will just be okay. With independence comes responsibility,” Kranjc said. “It was only recently with the European Union that things began to change and get better. So Europe became more and more like the United States.”

More countries in Europe are realizing their own importance in working together, both for economic and security reasons. Kranjc noted that Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša was

one of the first to visit Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky

in a show of solidarity with the embattled country, something that would not necessarily have happened in decades past.

It is all part of learning and growing as a member of the world community, he said. That was a perspective he himself gained during his time in Emery years ago, he said. The relative stability of the United States made him appreciate peace and reinforced his hate of war.

“War should not be a means of solving diplomatic problems. At the end of the war there are going to be more negotiations and talk, so why are all these people suffering now? We are sending people to the moon and we will be on Mars someday and on the other side we are fighting like 7,000 years ago in old Egypt,” Kranjc said.

Karnjc returned to Emery last week to spend time with 22 members of the 28 living members of his old high school class. Ahrendt said it was wonderful to welcome his old classmate back to his adopted home.

Ahrendt said it was a pleasure to welcome Stanko’s family to the community, just as it was to welcome him in 1972.

“It was a nice, good weekend. And it was just fun to have Stanko and his family here. He has an amazing family, and they were so happy and excited to be here. They could see what his life was like 50 years ago. It was fun to see their excitement,” Ahrendt said.

Bill Hanlon passed away during Stanko’s time away, but Kranjc had a chance to meet with Barbara Hanlon, who now lives in a nursing home, and the couple’s three daughters. They shared memories now a half-century old but still fresh in his mind.

He and his family departed Sunday for a visit to the Black Hills, the first ever for his family and his first trip there since his first visit to South Dakota. He has planned some extra time to explore the area, with a little time set aside to hopefully visit Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. It’s the chance of a lifetime for his family, he said.

His family is now getting that chance because it was given to him 50 years ago, when the Hanlons and the community of Emery opened their doors to the young Yugoslavian and offered him a year of living and learning in small-town South Dakota.

It has been a time of reflection and many rekindled memories, but like his first adventure in South Dakota, it’s one he won’t soon forget, he said.

“It’s the sort of sensation that’s hard to put into words. Really,” Kranjc said. “But I’m really glad I could make it.”