KANSAS CITY, Mo. — In the summer of 1966, America was a beguiling mystery 5,000 miles across the ocean to 17-year-old Rita Wissler.
The German teenager wanted to be a foreign exchange student in the American Field Service. She had in her hands a letter and family picture from Valerie Smith, a Central High School student in Kansas City who wanted to be her host.
But the field service had also inserted a note.
This was a black family in a black neighborhood, it said. The service could connect her with a white family if she wished.
Rita, now Rita von Vopelius-Feldt, remembered translating it for her parents.
"I was confused," she said. "We didn't have a TV." All they knew of America, she said, was "John Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Louis Armstrong — that was about it."
The warning note hinted at both risks and life-changing opportunities she couldn't possibly sort out from so far away.
There was no way for her to understand the racial dynamics swirling about Central High School and the nation in the 1960s.
Here was a school that had changed from mostly white enrollment to almost entirely black in the span of a decade.
Here was a city caught in a growing storm — like so many cities in the nation — that would erupt in violence in neighborhoods near Central in April 1968.
But here also was a school whose students — who have gathered in Kansas City this weekend for their 40-year class reunion — were sheltered from the storm.
"A unique place and time," Valerie said.
They were black students, propelled by their teachers and their own ambitions to seize the opportunities in education opening to their generation.
Central excelled with academic clubs, math and science clubs, foreign language clubs, athletics — and in seeking international awareness by starting a chapter of the American Field Service, said Don Wofford, the AFS chapter president that year.
"A cutting-edge school," he said.
But Rita didn't know all this. She and her parents didn't know what to make of the note's warning of race.
Instead, Rita kept returning to the letter Valerie's family had sent. She kept looking at the faces in their picture.
"It was such a sincere letter," Rita said.
She trusted the Valerie in that letter and said, "Why not?"
Rita, now a physician in Munich, Germany, and Valerie, a school district administrator and former principal in suburban Lansing, Mich., call themselves "sisters" now, 40 years after they became the talk of the town.
Rita's arrival in Kansas City for the 1966-67 school year drew citywide attention. A Kansas City Star story in March 1967 told of the German student living in the "Kansas City Negro community," attending school with Central students who had been "trusted with the greater responsibility of being host to a girl."
Headlines called them a bridge between cultures.
But what seemed novel and even risky to the rest of the city simply didn't resonate the same way with Central students.
"Race never defined us," Valerie said.
She and Rita were standing inside the new Central High School this week with several other friends from the Class of `67.
"The news media and the adults made it a bigger deal," said Aaron Anthony Ward.
"We were sheltered," said Ruth Pearson Wiggins.
Said Willa Dillard Washington: "Our parents never dwelled on hatred. Our community insulated us."
The school they attended was knocked down after the new Central was built in 1991. They were touring its spacious replacement, with its Grecian columns, Olympic swimming pool and indoor track, which were all part of the court-ordered construction that mostly failed to undo the racial segregation of Kansas City's schools.
They found connections to their old school in engraved plaques on the walls etched with some of their names as donors to the Central Alumni Educational Foundation. They stood in shadow under the vast ceiling of the field house as the lights came on, and they saw the blue and white banners declaring their athletic champions.
State champs in track, 1967. Co-champs in football. Second place in the state in basketball.
"The only game we lost was the championship game," Julius Bunn said. "And we won it in 1966."
Rita was at that state tournament in 1967 as a cheerleader. Valerie remembered how Rita "was swept up in all the activities."
Rita would go with Valerie and her boyfriend to movies and school dances, and her school friends always had an escort for her. Looking back, Valerie realizes how onlookers outside Central might have seen it, a girl who was white with escorts who were black.
Valerie can't recall, all these years later, even worrying whether any of her friends would want to escort Rita.
"I never got the sense of, `Oh, no, we can't do this,'" Valerie said. "We really accepted each other for who we were. She was so much just one of us."
Over the years, Rita and Valerie traveled between the continents on adventures, always taking opportunities to visit each other and their families.
That senior year at Central changed their lives, although it was not always easy to explain how.
In 1969, while Valerie spent several weeks in Europe with a group from college, she was interviewed by a television reporter in Austria. By then, the U.S. and Kansas City had exploded with racial violence that had been international news.
The reporter was trying to get her to compare the racial dynamics she was experiencing in Austria with what she had left behind in the U.S.
She couldn't do it. It wasn't fair to talk about the wonderful time she was having in Europe and compare it to the race riots and try to convey what was frustrating so many people in her community back home.
Her Central years were past. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. She couldn't put into words "how so much had changed," she said.
But she knew this: She was about to go to Freiburg, Germany, to see Rita again.
(c) 2007, The Kansas City Star.
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