Home away from home
Four college friends left Eastern Oregon College and scattered across the U.S.: Satwant lives in California now, Sami is outside Washington D.C., Riad’s out in Ohio, and Sally lives near her mother in La Grande. But when they get together, it’s like no time has passed at all.
This year their reunion was inspired by Riad’s “dear, departed brother,” Fouad Ajami, ’68,who received the EOU Alumni Association’s 2018 Distinguished Alumnus Award for his work as a scholar and political advisor on the world stage.
The group gathered to receive the award at Homecoming and celebrate his memory. In 50 years of changing locations, occupations and relationships, they’ve all held onto a special fondness for Eastern Oregon.
Two of the bunch, Sally (Brownton) Wiens, ’66, and her sister Carol, ’64, grew up in La Grande, where their father was a well-known judge. Sally remembers bringing her friends from the International Student Club to her parents’ neighborhood get-togethers, and said those bonds were an integral part of their experience.
“We’ve been a college town for so long,” she said. “We know that we benefit from learning new things, and from the diversity people bring.”
Sally enrolled at Eastern Oregon College in 1962, and Riad Ajami arrived in January 1963.
“I was the first person from the Middle East, from Lebanon, to attend Eastern,” he said. “People were kind, and I felt very welcomed.”
He had first seen information about Oregon at the John F. Kennedy Center in Lebanon, and sent a letter to the registrar at EOC. His father was on-board to let Riad study abroad, but he was thinking France or England would do.
“I wanted the farthest place from home — Washington, Oregon or California,” Riad said.
He and his younger brother, Fouad, had heard that the U.S. was a place of freedom and opportunity. Plus, maybe they could meet Elvis.
Riad and his new roommate, Satwant Singh Thind, didn’t have much in common at first. Satwant, an international student from India and a member of the Sikh religion, wore turbans and a long beard, while Riad blended in more with his American peers.
Riad remembers Satwant asking: “You always have dates on the weekends, what about me?” Riad responded: “Satwant, I cannot date you.”
His first attempt to set Satwant up with a friend was thwarted by Satwant’s heavily scented beard wax, as well as his pungent breath.
“Between girls and garlic, he’d pick garlic,” Riad said.
Satwant eventually found a date who didn’t mind his beard or his breath: Carol (Brownton) Lindsay. The two went together when Carol returned to EOC to finish her degree.
On a trip to Walla Walla, Riad suggested that Satwant cut his beard and hair. But Satwant’s parents would stop his allowance if the annual photo he sent revealed that he’d shaved.
“So I brought six shirts and six turbans to a photographer, and we did photos with each different outfit,” Riad said. “I told him, ‘Now your education is assured.’”
Satwant and Riad soon met the rest of the Browntons, and when the girls’ parents embarked on a world tour in 1964, Riad’s parents were ready and waiting to greet their son’s American friends.
“My dad attended a World Peace Through Law conference in Greece for a week,” Sally said. “And they made it a seven-week ’round-the-world trip, including a stop in Lebanon.”
Riad’s uncle, a member of the Lebanese parliament, greeted the Brownton’s alongside the police chief, whose son Sami Asfahani was Riad’s childhood friend. During that meal, Riad’s parents found out their son wasn’t studying medicine like he’d promised, but was preparing for a career in engineering.
“My dad stopped sending me money,” Riad said. “He read me the riot act, but it all worked out in the end.”
Riad went on to graduate from Western Michigan University, and then earned his master’s and doctorate degrees. He started as an assistant professor at Ohio State University, and has since held positions at prestigious institutions such as Harvard University. He is an expert on the petroleum economy, teaching at Wright State University while conducting research, publishing books, and hosting clinics around the world.
But the Browntons’ trip had other effects. Sami and Fouad decided to study in La Grande, too, and arrived in 1965.
“Suddenly La Grande became a hub for Lebanese and Middle Eastern students,” Riad said.
He had taken a Greyhound bus from Portland to La Grande, and he suggested Sami do the same. But Sami and two other students had a different idea. They hired a taxi to drive them 260 miles from the Portland airport all the way to campus.
“I was in Hoke Hall trying to find coffee or Coke or a date or something, and this car pulls up that says Portland and Sami got out,” Riad said. “The story started circulating in town about these rich foreign students who paid a taxi to drive them from Portland to La Grande.”
Fouad Ajami was a more serious student than his big brother, and graduated from EOC in just three years.
“Fouad was smarter than I’ll ever be,” Riad said.
Riad’s work earned him features in People magazine and on ABC News, but he said his brother’s famous connections far outstripped his own. After earning his Ph.D. from the University of Washington and taught Middle Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins University, Princeton University and Stanford University.
He advised three sitting presidents and received the National Humanities Medal from George W. Bush in 2006. He was also a MacArthur Prize fellow and an advisor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
“Anderson Cooper interviewed Fouad extensively on CNN,” Riad said. “He knew more important people than most. He was my brother and my friend.”
Riad has established a scholarship through the EOU Foundation to honor his brother’s memory and his lasting connection to the region.
“La Grande was a wonderful place for us,” Riad said. “I love Eastern Oregon. It was an excellent experience for me, and a great beginning.”