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Still family: Ties of affection strong three decades after exchange

HANGING ROCK — It seems as daunting a task as tracking down that proverbial needle. Try to find the exchange student who lived with your husband and his family when he was a student 32 years ago at Rock Hill High School.

Now add to that the extra challenge that the name of the student in question is Pedro Mendoza. Yes, that’s a name strange sounding to Lawrence Countians, but as common in Venezuela as John Smith is over here.

That’s what Kim Wagner was up against a few months ago when she thought contacting Mendoza as her husband, Steve, was gearing up for his high school reunion would be just the ticket.

Her first step was to check the Internet, a search that quickly showed her what she was up against.

“There were hundreds of them,” Wagner said.

Nevertheless, she sent out emails to every one of them, explaining who she was and what she wanted.

“Seven weeks later, I got an email saying he knew he was the Pedro I was looking for,” Wagner said.

Next came the invitation: Would he like to come back to the home where he spent a year. The occasion was Steve Wagner’s 30th reunion at the school where Mendoza had studied as a senior when Wagner was a junior.

There was no question about it, Mendoza would be coming to Hanging Rock.

So this past week the family of Fern and Danny Wagner, their son, Steve, and daughter, Debbie Rogers, played host again to Mendoza. Only this time there were a few additions, namely Mendoza’s wife, Marjorie, and their three children, Marjorie, 19, Andrea, 13, and Delfin, 10.

It was the school year of 1977-78 when the Caracas native, then 17, came to Hanging Rock as an exchange student as part of the Youth for Understanding program.

“I wanted to come to the United States. I wanted to learn the culture and thought it was a good experience,” Mendoza said on Saturday before a family cookout at the Wagners’ home on State Route 650.

However, to learn about American culture, he first had to get a better grasp of the English language.

“I wasn’t very fluent,” he admits. “It was a challenge. I remember going to school with an English-Spanish dictionary. People would talk to me and I would be looking up the words.”

After that year Mendoza went back to Venezuela, but returned in 1980 to go to aviation school in Oakland, Calif. Again he returned to his country to work as a pilot for a small commercial outfit.

Today he lives in Caracas running a family farm with his brother.

“I have great memories of all my year here,” he said. “I remember this house.”

He also had great memories of Fern Wagner’s apple pie, which he had already dived into before the cookout began.

As Saturday’s honored guest was recalling his time there, most of the Wagner family was outside grilling hot dogs and setting up Cornhole boards in the side yard. Casseroles, pots and a pan of pineapple-upside down cake covered the kitchen stove.

Through it all Fern Wagner sat quietly as Mendoza reminisced, before she shared her thoughts. A friend of her husband had encouraged the couple to get involved with the exchange program, but the first few days had some trepidation for her.

“At first I thought am I going to be able to understand him. It was an experience. We still have the dictionary,” she said. “But we were Mom and Dad then and we’re still Mom and Dad. His son even called me Grandma.”