Longtime resident Bill Brown, the mastermind behind the Haddonfield-Japan Exchange, has guided his last intercontinental gathering between Haddonfield Memorial High School students and those from a Japanese counterpart.
Brown surprised many by announcing the move at the end of the annual HJE Sayonara Dinner at Tavistock Country Club on July 23, electing to step down as director to devote more time to family matters.
“I sort of stumbled through it. It was difficult. It was planned. Because I’m not the most vocal speaker, I typed everything out in large print so I wouldn’t have to have the glasses on,” Brown deadpanned during a conversation with The Sun on July 26.
And so the Brown’s tenure ended just as abruptly as it began 13 years ago, during a chance meeting with (then-Mayor) Tish Colombi in – of all places – the parking lot of the Acme on Ellis Street.
“I said, ‘Tish, how about an exchange program with Japan?’ and she said ‘Go for it,’ so that’s what I did,” he said. “Originally, I came up with the idea to send guests and invite guests. And then I thought someone on the committee will see how it’s done and they can take over.”
Instead, Brown served as steward from the moment the idea received the seal of approval until the completion of this year’s exchange. In fact, the idea of an exchange program between the two regions stretched back long before it came to fruition in the borough.
Brown taught in the communications department at Roxborough High School, in Philadelphia’s northwest section, in the 1990s, and the principal wanted to do something that drew attention to the school.
“I said, ‘How about an exchange program with Japan?,’ and he said, ‘Go for it.’ So I did.”
Brown then contacted friends in Japan, and set up an exchange with Omiya, a town in Saitama Prefecture located just north of the capital of Tokyo. After several successful exchanges, Omiya became sister cities with Pittsburgh, effectively ending the program as it would not have been appropriate to send students from Philadelphia.
Brown, who has visited Japan 14 times – everywhere from Sendai in the north to Nagasaki in the south – retired from teaching in 2000. The following year, the principal from his alma mater, Northeast High School, asked if he could set up an exchange program. Brown agreed, but increased safety concerns for students traveling abroad following the events of Sept. 11 scuttled those plans.
“All of a sudden, it became 2006, and that’s when I approached Tish. I contacted some old friends in Omiya and asked if they could recommend a school. Keiko Tanagawa, who was the international relationship person, recommended Kasukabe. She gave me the principal’s name and I called him. He spoke perfect English which was a big plus,” Brown explained.
“We talked for about an hour, and everything seemed to be falling into place. The big question was, who was going to be visiting first – and I was pushing for our kids to visit first. He said ‘Bill-san, I am 59 years old and I would like to come first.’ He wanted to do it because, at 60, you have to retire, so he wanted to get it under his reign that they visited (Haddonfield), and I said ‘OK, you can come first.’”
Brown was later stunned when Kasukabe’s principal eventually admitted to him that it was an all-girls’ school, but signed off on Haddonfield sending boys, and the exchange proceeded, tenuously, for years.
“After that, the principal-ship changed and it kept getting tighter and tighter because they had difficulty finding host families for the boys. Finally (last fall), they said we need all girls. We gave them several options and alternatives, but they would not budge,” Brown said.
“So we contacted a number of schools and Sendai was very enthusiastic about exchanging.”
Next year, HMHS students will return the favor and visit Sendai, though Brown acknowledged the finalized plans for that sojourn may not be revealed for a while.
“I sent out an email to Japan, outlining what dates, how many students, etc. and so we haven’t heard anything back yet. I’m sure it will be a month or two before we hear anything. Even then, they may not have all the details until 2020,’”he said.
Despite the enthusiasm of the HJE committee, which currently boasts 14 members, no one has come forward to take charge as new director. Brown, however, has faith that one of his colleagues will rise to the challenge.
“As a matter of fact, I approached several (members) but no one wanted to take it individually. I’m sure, since it’s a good committee and a good group of people and it’s a real team – and I’m sure somebody on that team will surface.”
For more information about the exchange itself or how to become involved, visit the organization’s website at: https://www.hjex.org.