Ramon Britez, left, and Brad Lawrence together again.

Minneota's first AFS student returns

•Paraguay's Britez attends 50th class reunion

Ramon returns. With an indelible smile and positive attitude, Ramon Britez of Paraguay, Minneota's first-ever AFS student, returned for his 50th class reunion this past weekend.

Even though it's been many years since Britez was last here, he was still able to point out where many of the locations of former businesses in town, as well as the names of his classmates and teachers.

"I remember there was a barber shop on main street where I would always go to get my haircut. Of course, that was when my hair was darker," he said, laughing as he ran his fingers through his graying hair. Britez's host parents for the 1968-69 school year were the late Carl and Audrey Lawrence. Their son, Brad, was in the same senior class as Britez.

Ten years after he graduated from Minneota, Ramon and his wife Ana and newborn daughter Laura, returned to visit friends and classmates in 1979; the year after Brad traveled to Paraguay to visit. But Ramon had not been back until now. Because of political dictatorship for many years in Paraguay, Brad lost track of Ramon.

"I basically disappeared," explained Britez. "A lot of people in Paraguay disappeared because we were not able to communicate much with the outside world." Lawrence and his wife, Patricia ("Kit"), have lived in Phoenix since 2005. "I've been searching for Ramon for 35 years," said Brad, who works in Business Development that takes him all over the world. "Finally, Susan Boatman found Ramon's wife Ana on Facebook. We knew her name from when they visited here in 1979. So we contacted her and she got us in touch with Ramon."

Lawrence was then eventually able to connect with Britez via email. "We reminisced a little through emails," said Lawrence.

"I asked Ramon if he would be interested in coming back for our 50th class reunion and he said 'yes' right away." Ana, a retired judge, elected not to make the trip to the United States with her husband this time. "

She knows I'm a good boy, so she let me go alone," joked Ramon about his wife. The Britezs also have a son, Marcos, 35, besides their daughter Laura, 40. Britez and the Lawrences arrived at the Twin Cities Airport within 10 minutes of one another. Brad and Ramon gave each other a big hug.

"I got a kiss on both cheeks," Kit said proudly. Britez graduated from law school, but switched professions and has worked as a general manager for a pharmaceutical import/export company in Paraguay for many years. Paraguay is one of only two landlocked countries of South America (Bolivia is the other).

The majority of the people in the poverty-stricken country struggle to make a living. "I live a good life there, though," said Ramon. "But many others do not." Karen Rae Swedzinski has known Lawrence and his family for many years. She was Audrey's caregiver up until her death a few years ago.

"When we were cleaning out the house after she passed away, I saved a lot of items that Ramon gave the Lawrences, or letters and pictures he sent them after he went back to Paraguay," Swedzinski said. Swedzinski brought some of those items to Duke's Corner Café in Taunton to show Ramon. "I remember all of these things," he said.

"It's a little emotional. A lot of the buildings in Paraguay that are in these pictures are not there anymore." Lawrence found out a little secret that he never knew until this weekend when Britez visited. "Before Ramon came here to live with us (in 1968), he wrote a letter telling us how excited he was to be coming here," Lawrence said.

"I thought to myself, 'wow, he knows perfect English'. But when he came here, he didn't speak English very well at all."

Fifty years later, Britez admitted that a nun in his Catholic school actually wrote the letter. As Lawrence relayed the secret, Britez laughed out loud. Britez and the Lawrences took in the class reunion on Friday evening at the Heritage Event Center outside Taunton.

Of the 72 members that were in the class of 1969, 40 returned for the reunion. Ten from the class have passed away.

Britez, who assists in helping orphans in Paraguay, brought 100 engraved leather coasters with him to the reunion that the orphans made and gave them to his former classmates as a gift. Each one read "Minneota High School Class of 1969".

"We were also able to visit some of the sites in Minneota this weekend such as the house we lived in, the high school and the cemetery where my parents are buried," said Lawrence. They also attended some of the Boxelder Bug Days festivities over the weekend, including former classmate Cathy Josephson's Icelandic presentation at the Minneota Manor.

"Ramon enjoyed every minute that he was in his old neighborhood," said Lawrence. "Many memories are brought back as we look at the town of Minneota the friends from the past."

Ramon Britez, Minneota's first foreign exchange student, returned from Paraguay to attend his 50th class reunion this weekend. Britez got emotional looking over some of the items he gave to his host family but hadn't seem them in many years. Staff Photo by Scott Thoma.

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