It was the fall of 1991. Ro Gillooly and her husband, Dave, had just joined the Community Friends program that hosts the College’s international students, and Ro decided to give the young men a tour around the town. She knew they had arrived on campus early, didn’t know anyone in Crawfordsville, and might like to see a friendly face. And faces and demeanors don’t come much friendlier or more welcoming than Ro’s.
The first student she met was Faisal Ahmed ’95 from Bangladesh. Ro walked the students around downtown Crawfordsville, showed them the banks, restaurants, grocery stores, and a garage sale. (“None of them had ever seen one.”) Most listened politely but talked among themselves.
Except for Faisal.
“He walked with me the whole time, asking questions,” Ro recalls. “There was an immediate connection.”
It was the kind of exchange and diversity she and Dave had missed since retiring from the military (and Honolulu) and moving to Crawfordsville.
What Ro didn’t realize was that Faisal had already been on campus for a week, wandering the halls and living off the food his mother had sent with him. Community Friends volunteer Director Judy Schmidt had found him when she’d gone through Martindale to make sure rooms were ready for the incoming international students. She had invited him over to have dinner with her and her family.
“Faisal says that when he first saw Judy that day, he thought she was an angel,” Ro says.
He was pretty hungry for social contact when Ro met him, too.
They hit it off so well that the Gilloolys asked Schmidt to assign them to be Faisal’s host family.
“I went to The Children’s Museum and got a Bangladesh flag and put it on a chop-stick,” Dave laughs.
Their daughter, Kerry, came home from IU to be with her parents at the first Community Friends gathering of the fall. Faisal smiled when he saw Dave waving the Bangladeshi flag and found out who his host parents would be.
It was the beginning of a friendship that has only strengthened over the years.
“He is like a son to us,” Ro says.
“The son of our heart,” Dave adds.
“That’s what we call him,” Ro says. “He is the son of our heart.”
I WALK THROUGH THE ZEN GARDEN in the Gilloolys’ front yard in Crawfordsville’s Northridge subdivision on the one of the first gorgeous days of spring 2010. Dave and Ro greet me warmly at the door and lead me through their uncluttered home to a room infused with natural light and with a table for four at its center. It seems a place made for conversation.
“All kinds of conversations,” Dave says, recalling discussions that took place around this table during the four years that Faisal was at Wabash.
The only thing that impressed the Gilloolys more than the young man’s curiosity was his intelligence and ability to integrate new ideas.
Those first conversations with Faisal were one-on-one, but soon he was bringing his friends, most of them other international students.
“I think they felt comfortable coming over here, and they would talk about whatever was on their minds,” Dave says. “It was like an open forum—philosophical, political, religious, personal. What are women really like in the United States? What do you think of taking a break between college and grad school?
“Our home was his home, and that gave him a place to bring his buddies, a way into our culture for them.”
And a place for the Gilloolys to soak up other students’ cultures, too.
But Dave says the experience of hosting Faisal was almost as illuminating for the way the newcomer helped them to look at their own country with fresh eyes.
“We introduced him to a lot of cultural things—carving a pumpkin, hiding an Easter basket. One Christmas we took Faisal to Florida to see Disney World, Busch Gardens, and NASA. We went to the Martin Luther King Museum in Atlanta, the replica of the Parthenon in Nashville.
“It was wonderful for us just to see his expression and joy as he experienced so many things we take for granted,” Ro adds.
After Faisal learned how to cook from friends at what was then the International House, he introduced the Gilloolys to Bangladeshi food.
“When he comes to visit us he still wants to cook us a meal as a gift,” Dave says. “It’s a deeper understanding of cooking and eating than we tend to observe. He sees this in spiritual relationship to the people who are eating, part of sharing himself with us.”
NOW WITH THE INTERNATIONAL Monetary Fund and making his home in Washington, DC, Faisal has shown his love for the Gilloolys in many ways. When he and Rebecca were married, he asked Dave and Ro to serve as representatives for his family, who couldn’t make the trip to Minnesota from Bangladesh.
“He treated us like stand-in parents,” Dave recalls. “It was a very, very great honor, and we have a lot of gratitude for that.”
When Kerry was married, Faisal and Rebecca attended, too.
And last winter Dave and Ro flew to Washington, DC for two weeks after Faisal and Rebecca’s baby girl was born to help take care of the baby.
“Sort of like proxy grandparents,” Dave laughs.
While there, Ro got her first chance to meet Faisal’s mom face-to-face via the Internet connection Skype.
“After 20 years of knowing of one another, it was wonderful to see her, for us to see each other and be able to talk. We’re almost like co-mothers,” Ro says.
THIS YEAR THE GILLOOLYS’ Community Friends experience came around full circle. Faisal’s nephew, Aakash, was a freshman at Wabash. Guess who signed up to be his host parents?
But that’s only one of many connections Faisal has made for Ro and Dave. Thanks to those long conversations over this table, they still hear regularly about a number of international students from Faisal’s era at Wabash, including Waseel Azizi ’95, the former Afghan freedom fighter who co-founded the mosque in Martindale Hall.
“All these guys have hung together all these years, and because they have kept in touch with Faisal, they’ve maintained our relationship with them, too,” says Dave.
Ro describes the photo albums she made for each year Faisal was with them. She gave the set to him as a gift at his Commencement—a history of his adventure at Wabash and of becoming a member of their family.
I ask to see a recent picture of Faisal, and Ro pulls out one of Faisal and Rebecca. Faisal looks like a happy man.
“He is a wonderful soul. He is kind, loving. I wish people who don’t understand Islam or put the people of that religion into a particular category could meet him and see the beauty that seeps out of him,” says Ro, like a proud mom, of the son of her heart.
Photo: Faisal Ahmed (left) and his nephew, Aakash, join Dave and Ro Gillooly around the family table.