Dream. Believe. Do. Interview #18 All because a professor said, “You need to take risks in life.”

Michael Cooper is the Director at Colombo Americano, a language culture center in Medellin, Colombia. Michael originally came to Colombia on a two-year contract to teach 6th grade. That was more than 30 years ago. It happens. He arrived before the infamous drug wars led by Pablo Escobar and stayed during and after them – for reasons even he can’t explain. I had a chance to visit with him when I was in Colombia.

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Dennis: And yet, you can’t answer the question why you stayed…

Michael: Why did I stay… You know, there was another American that was here with me – he and his wife. They came the year that all this started. Michael and I - his name is Michael too - he and I would talk all the time and we’d say, “If this happens then we’re leaving. We’re out of here.” Then that would happen. Then we’d just kind of set that limit one step more… “Well, it really wasn’t what we thought it would be…”

But you know how I ended up here. I graduated from Ohio State University. Well, when I was in university, I took a - and I was studying elementary education - I took a semester abroad and we went for music appreciation and history of art. So we studied that, very intense, at the beginning of the semester. And then the last part of semester we went to Europe to put that into practice. 

When I was there at one of the hotels we stayed at, and it was in Venice, Italy, there was a whole school group and they all spoke English. That’s when I found out that international schools existed. There are international schools all over the world that are looking for American teachers to work at these international schools and I said, “That’s what I want to do. I want to do that sometime. I want to go and live abroad and teach.” That’s a great way to be able to see the world but you’re getting paid for it.

Dennis: Absolutely.

Michael: I think it was in my last year of the university undergraduate and so I got a job in Ohio and I always said I was going to do that, and always was very interested in doing that. Then I start working on my masters. I had a teacher, a professor. I was doing a masters in Guidance and Counseling. He was a psychology teacher. That night his topic was on taking risks in life.

Dennis: Interesting.

Michael: I had a drive, it was about 45-minute drive to the university back home, and that night when I driving back I thought, I had said I wanted to do this, I want to go overseas, but I haven’t. I’ve talked about it but I’ve really never look to see how. I don’t know where I’m going to be next year but I’m not going to be teaching at Ohio anymore. I’m going to be in some other part of the world.

I found an organization that worked with matching up teachers with overseas schools and so I went through a recruiting fair for international schools.

Dennis: Wow!

Michael: They have them all over the States and Canada, which I didn’t know they existed.

Dennis: I’ve never heard of them. Right.

Michael: Yeah. What happens is that the international schools from the world sign up for these different fairs and the fairs have different ways of promoting it. Some are free, some have a cause, some of the schools the international schools pay for. Then you go and they send you a list of the schools that are coming and what positions they’re looking for and you do a screening at a time and you say, “Okay, that would be a nice place to go.” Everyone wants to go to Europe. I didn’t think of coming to South America.

Dennis: Oh, there you go. Okay.

Michael: That was not on my list. I remember the head of this organization said, “Don’t cross other ones out of your view because if everyone wants to go to Europe -because everyone wants to go to Europe - the pay is not that great.

Dennis: Ah, sure!

Michael: Okay?

I think I interviewed with five different international schools and I got two offers. One was for Medellin and the other one was Tanzania, Africa, Dar es Salaam. Africa really appealed to me. But I looked at the negatives and positives of both sides and it was the first time I was going overseas. I was the oldest of seven kids. I was the first one that was going to leave the continental United States and live abroad. My family was having problems with that. Spanish was a language that I thought I could use better than an African language.

Dennis: Probably!

Michael: This is why so at least we’re in the same hemisphere.

Dennis: True.

Michael: Africa was going to pay me three times more than what I was making here but you weight all of those.

It was a two-year contract and I said, “Okay. I’m going to come as a 6th Grade teacher.” That’s what I was doing at the same time, I was teaching 6th Grade. That’s what I wanted to do. Right before I left I finished my Masters degree in Guidance and Counseling. Came down to teach 6th Grade.

Towards the end of the first year, the superintendent called me in and said “We’re going to have an opening at a high school guidance position next year and we’d like to offer that to you, if you’d be interested. But I want you two years in that position. I need you to commit that extra year.” That didn’t bother me.

Dennis: So two now becomes three.

Michael: Two became three.

And so, I took the guidance position at the school and I enjoyed it. The third year came and I enjoyed it. I had a year contract from that on and so it was my decision whether to renew or not – and at the school also but they were happy with what I was doing so I always had the offer. I just fell in love with the city. Like you said earlier, the people. The people, the city, the climate was… The climate was better than it is these days here. It was much cooler.

Dennis: Oh really?

Michael: Yeah. Oh yeah. It’s gotten a lot warmer. It was more… you knew when the rainy season was coming. So you didn’t have days like today where you would wake up and it’s raining in the morning. It would usually rain at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. There would be a hard down pour for about 30 minutes, it would clear up, and then it would rain at night. That was the rainy season. It would do that almost every day. It was usually September, October, and then usually April, May. 

Dennis: Interesting.

Michael: That was our winter, our rainy season. That was what they sort of classified here as winter but the rest of the time, that doesn’t exist anymore. Climate change, global warming and everything has changed everything. Of course, Medellin has grown and so because you have so much more construction, the temperature just is also going up. So it’s warmer than it used to be.

Year by year I said “Okay, I would stay. I would stay.” I was the high school Guidance Counselor for nine years. In my 9th year, the high school principal went home in the middle of the year for health reasons. I finally went to the superintendent and I said, “You know, every time you bring out a high school principal, I’m the one that knows the parents, the kids. I speak the language, I know the Colombian curriculum. And so I do a high school principal’s job for the first year but I don’t get paid for it.

Dennis: Right. Because you’re…

Michael: “So would you consider me for the high school principal?” He said, “We’ve been waiting for you to come to us.”                       

Dennis: Really?

Michael: Yeah.

Dennis: Why didn’t they come to you?

Michael: I know.

[both laugh] 

Michael: I finished out the school year. I needed to get some extra courses so I went back to the University of Alabama and picked up a degree in educational leadership. I was the high school principal for 13 years.

So I was, 23 years, at the Columbus School here in Medellin. But I also knew of the Colombo Americano. I knew the Colombo Americano from the second day I arrived because there was - and the Colombo didn’t sponsor it - but it was a theatre group. It was an English language theatre group made up of this whole mix of foreigners and Colombians who spoke English. 

Dennis: That’s cool.

Michael: And they would present English-speaking plays. 

I was in the theatre in college and in community theatre. They told me about that so they had a meeting the second I was here and they always had the meetings at the Colombo Americano. They always allowed them to use the space to get together. But it was Germans and French and some Brits and Colombians and Americans. But it was a really unique group of people. We would produce plays off and on. So I knew the Colombo and I knew the Director.

At that time the Colombo - the Colombo was still under the US State Department Program because I don’t know if you know how these binational centers started?

Dennis: No. I don’t actually.

Michael: Binational centers started after World War II. The US government said they wanted to open up these language culture centers throughout the world. They looked - maybe they started in capital cities throughout the world - and they looked for American citizens living there. And for natives, in this case Colombians or it could be Chileans or whatever, that felt that learning a second language was very important and opened doors to future opportunities.

So they opened up these language centers. Also, it was to exchange cultures. It was to exchange American culture with Colombian culture, Chilean culture with American culture. I always said it was a way of brainwashing the rest of the world but the American culture was okay because it was right after World War II.

Dennis: [laughs] Yeah, sure.

Michael: Okay?

They never put any money in the infrastructure but they did assign the Director’s position, which is my position. They did assign that position to someone from the Foreign Services. So someone from the government would come and be the Director of this language culture center.

Dennis: But no infrastructure in terms of facilities or…

Michael: As far as money for facilities.

Dennis: Right.

Michael: Okay? So that you had to work on with your little board of directors and so, of course, by selling English classes was the way you were be able to make money to pay for your staff and also to start looking at, “Okay, we don’t have to rent anymore. We have enough money. We can have our own site.”

So that program existed until 1983. So right after World War II, until 1983, these centers were being opened up all over the world.

Dennis: And managed by the State Department… well staffed or directed by…

Michael: And directed by… The Director was from the state department, okay? So in 1983, just like many good governmental programs anywhere in the world they said “Okay, that’s a great program but we’re done with it. We’re moving on to something else.” Everyone was informed, “We’re pulling out the director. Now you’re going to have to find your own director. You’re on your own.” That’s when we gained our freedom from the United States government.

[both laugh]

But in Colombia, nine centers were opened up in that program in nine of the major cities in Colombia.

Dennis: That’s a lot of centers

Michael: Yeah.

Today… and I just got back from the states from a convention. We have a network of the binational centers in Latin America. We are 107 that are still active today.

Dennis: That’s all through…

Michael: That starts with Mexico, Central America, and all the way down through South America.

Dennis: Wow! 107!

Michael: Yeah, 107. 

Now, of course, I think the largest country is Brazil. I think they’re the ones that have the largest number of binational centers. But we have nine in Colombia. We have our own little network but, like I said, we’re each independent. We have our own board, our own bylaws and so forth.

I knew… I came in ‘82 so I knew the outgoing person from the State Department, okay, from the US government. His wife, as a matter of fact, she was Chilean but she was in the theatre group. So that’s how I got to know him. 

But then, of course, when they went through this transition, the person that took over the Colombo, Paul, I knew Paul. I mean I knew him; we weren’t friends or anything but we, you know, on acquaintance because we practiced there. We use that as a meeting space. And I always said, “I would love to have that nice job. That would be an ideal job for me, to be Director of the Colombo Americano.” Why? Because it’s education. That’s what I was trained for. Culture which I, all through high school, university, was always involved in culture. And it has a social responsibility component to it that I thought was very important.

Then I thought, “Well, I’m older than Paul is. I will reach retirement age before Paul.” Paul has the same mindset as I do. He’s never going leave this country. He is more Colombian than he is American, just like me. So I thought, “Forget about it.” That’s when I decided to move myself up in the school system. From 6th grade teacher, elementary teacher, high school principal. I was very pleased with that. And then Paul got sick.

Dennis: That’s Paul Bardwell.

Michael: Bardwell, for which the gallery is named after.

Dennis: Right.

Michael: Paul got cancer and died in two months.

Dennis: In two months?

Michael: In two months.

Dennis: Oh my goodness!

Michael: In two months. Yes.

I was on the board. Paul had me on the board. I was on the board four different times. I was on the board at that time. I remember receiving that call from the board president saying “Paul’s in the hospital and the doctor said he’s not going to make it. We need to meet and see what we’re going to do, blah, blah, blah.”

We met. All of a sudden all these thoughts come back to my mind because I kind of blocked that out because knowing that Paul was going to be there forever and I worked my way up in the school. I thought “Oh wow! That position might be open. What am I going to do?” I have 23 years here at the school. I’m happy with the school…

I thought about for several different days and then finally I met with the board president. I just said, “I’m not pushing anyone out but I would like you to know that I would be interested when this comes open.” He said, “But you can’t leave the board because we have to make sure we have a quorum.”

[both laugh]

Michael: He said “There’s too many problems that we’ve discovered with this…”

So I was on the board but whenever they would talk about the position I would leave and that whole thing. But I really - and I had mentioned at the board meeting - I said, “I do not want it to be given to me. I want it to go through a process. It has to go through a process.”

That’s what they decided. They organized a team and they… I think for the position they had 15 applicants, three of them were international. They brought in the three that were international and those were the ones that went through the interviewing process and so then I received the call and said I would be offered the position.

Coming to Colombia thinking that I was going to only come for an adventure for two years and go and see the rest of the world, discover the rest of the world - which I still have been able to discover but not the original thinking way…

Dennis: Right.

Michael: …has turned into 34 years. This is where my professional career is going to end is here as the Director of the Colombo Americano.

I’ve reached retirement age here in Colombia. The board has said “But even though you’ve reached the age doesn’t mean you’re retiring.” I said, “Well, that’s good to hear because I’m still very interested in staying on.” I’ve said I hope I can make that decision as to when I’m not being productive anymore or can have a positive influence in the organization. That it’s me that knows it’s time to say, “It’s time to leave.” And not someone else coming in to saying “You know, we think maybe you’re not being as productive as you used to be...” Hopefully I can make that decision.

Dennis: So all because of a professor…

Michael: All because of a professor who said, “You need to take risks in life.” I can’t tell you what that professor’s name is. I do not know.

The other thing that doesn’t tie in with that, but when I was in high school, and I think I think back to this many times, I was not a star student. I was not one of the “in” people. I was in music. I was in theatre. I can remember that I had asked for an appointment with the guidance counselor because I wanted some help on what I was going to do once I graduated. I didn’t want to go to Vietnam so I knew I want to go to the university. But I also know I wasn’t the best student. The guidance counselor would not meet with me because he said I wasn’t university material.

Dennis: Get out of here!

Michael: Yeah. I could never meet with the guidance counselor because I was not university material. So I had to go myself and, of course, I went to Ohio State which is a state university. Back then if you were a resident of the state, they pretty much had to take you no matter what your grade point average was. I was not the best the first year. I was put on probation the first year but I kept that deferment, okay, for the Army. And then, of course, I remember it was my 3rd year when I had to declare my major, or the end of my second year. My grade point average was really poor because of my first semester.

Dennis: Everything else was good but your first semester…

Michael: My first semester was horrible. When you have a GPA, when you have grade point average, it just affects everything. It took a long struggle but I look at where I am today and what I’ve been able to do with my life... I look back to when I went into that guidance counselor’s office and him saying to me “You’re not college material.” So I think I’ve been able to do a lot with my life. I think I’ve been able to touch a lot of people’s lives.

Dennis: Oh, you have.

Michael: With the school but also what we’ve been able to do at the Colombo.

I’m very happy where I am. When I saw that the social security system does work in Colombia and you can get a pension check, I decided okay, this is where I’m retiring. I’m not going back to the States. I’m retiring here. I’m very happy here. To go back to the States, yes, I have family, but where would I go back to?

Dennis: Yeah, this is home now.

Michael: Yeah. I’ve been gone for so long. I’d have to move close to one of my brothers or sisters so I have some kind of support group, you know?

My support is here. My family is here. Even though I don’t have a family, my family, my Colombian family, my friends, this is it. This is your support system. I do go back to the States and I do visit family. My parents are still alive.

Dennis: Is that right?

Michael: Yeah. My mom’s 86 and my dad’s 88. They still live on their own. They still drive. Anytime I go to the States I make sure I head past Ohio for at least a weekend.

Dennis: Sure.

Michael: My other six brothers and sisters live throughout the east part of the Mississippi. We do, as a family, still have those tight connections. I think it was last year, we had a wedding and all of us were there. We all make sure we get home. It was a nephew that was getting married. I have a nephew graduating from high school. We all make sure we get there.

Dennis: Wow! That’s huge. There were eight of you?

Michael: Seven kids altogether.

Dennis: Seven kids.

Michael: Yeah.

Dennis: Wow, that’s crazy.

Michael: Yeah. Because people say, “Well, don’t you miss your parents?” You need to understand the concept of the American family. You can live in the same state and you only see your parents maybe Christmas and Easter, you know? That’s the way it is. One time I told my mom because she had said something and I said, “You know, you saw me this year. I spent more hours and days with you than Gary who lives just in the next state.” She goes, “Well, that’s right.” I said, “Yeah. It’s just that I’m not here on the same continent with you.’

Most of my brothers and sisters - not all of them - most of my brothers and sisters have been down with their families. I have two yet to convince.

Dennis: Ah, there you go.

Michael: Every time I go home I put a little plug in. My one brother who hasn’t been down but he did allow his oldest daughter to come down with her boyfriend this year.

Dennis: Nice.

Michael: Which surprised me. When she was here - this was just in May - and she was leaving she said “No, no, no.” She’s like, “I will get my mom and dad down to visit. Don’t worry.” [laughs]

Dennis: Oh good. Good! [laughs] Well, look, thirty-four years, the path you were on starting as a teacher and then guidance counselor of the school, Colombo Americano, any surprises along the way? Any significant surprises in terms of experience?

Michael: Well, I don’t know if you want to say surprising experiences. I mean the difficult times. If you’d like me to talk about the difficult times of being here for the drug wars.

Dennis: You were in the middle of that.

Michael: Yes.

When I came in ‘82, it wasn’t so big. I can remember… What you heard about Colombia at that time was there were a lot of pick pockets, okay, a lot of break-in to homes. But there really wasn’t the drug thing.

Now, Pablo Escobar was known and I believe it was around that time when he was getting into the politics, the Colombian politics. But as far as the drug wars, that did not start until, I believe, it was ‘90-‘91.

What happened was there was all this conflict going on because of the Medellin Cartel, Pablo Escobar, with the government. He had a lot of inside people in the government, shipping his drugs in and out and a lot of killings. He really was taking over the government. He really had control of the government because he had so many people that he paid off. He had an inside road. He knew exactly what was going on.

At that time there was talk of signing an extradition agreement with US government and the mafia was shooting off, was killing off those people in the government who was in favor of that.

There was a presidential candidate, Galán, and he was running on that note that extradition was one of his big things and he was going to make sure. He was assassinated at one of his political speeches, running for president. That’s when the president at that time came on the air and said, “That’s it. We will not deal with this anymore. We are at war with the Medellin Cartel.”

And then Pablo Escobar said, “Bring it on. I’m ready. You want to go to war? Let’s do it.” That’s when Medellin really became known internationally because that’s when the car bombs started in the city.

From one day to the next, Medellin made international news. It’s like watching your news on TV and seeing all these things that are happening in Iran or Iraq or Afghanistan where just cities are being torn apart with bombs - Medellin was that way.

Dennis: Overnight?

Michael: Overnight.

What it was was Pablo Escobar after politicians and the police department. But what they would do is they would plant car bombs outside a police station. And so, even though you are not directly attacked or not a target, you could have been at the wrong place at the wrong time.  

Dennis: And a lot of people were.

Michael: And a lot of people were. A lot of people were at the wrong place at the wrong time. I could remember this first - for about a week that we lived this. 

The other thing that happened was they usually, at the beginning, they were very careful and the bombs would explode in the middle of the night. Okay? So there weren’t a lot of people that were out wandering, okay? But then all of a sudden they didn’t care. They were after their target. They were going to get it. Didn’t matter what time of day, they were going to do it.

We would be at the school. At that time the school was in the city. Right now it’s up on the mountain top but it was right here in the city. So a bomb would explode in the city and, you know, we live like in the bottom of a bowl with all the mountains around us. And so no matter where it exploded you would hear it.

Dennis: Oh, wow!    

Michael: So we’d be at school and we would hear bombs go off and the next thing you know, we’re tuning on our radio and see what side of town it was.

One day, after about a week of this bombing, we had, at that time, at the school we had 42 foreign hired teachers. Several of them came in that morning with their suitcases and said “We’re leaving. We heard on the news that Bush” - that would have been Papa Bush at the time -“President say that all US citizens need to leave Colombia. There will be no protection for any US citizen that stays there.”

Well, it was not true; it was a rumor. That wasn’t really said. But the school called all of us together at the end of the school day and said, “We have decided to close the school for two weeks. We have arranged for all of you to go, the 42 of you, to go to Cartagena. We have apartments or hotels, places for everyone to stay. We’re going to be leaving over the next two days in eight different flights because we do not want to put…

Dennis: Everybody on one plane.

Michael: …all foreign hired foreigners on the same plane.”

Dennis: Right.

Michael: Remember, the big talk was signing extradition treaty with the US government, okay?

We, as a school, which we were known as the American school but 95% of our student population were Colombians. We really had no connection with the US government but we were “Americans.”

Dennis: You have a name on there.

Michael: Yes.

Dennis: Right.

Michael: And so they said, “We want to make sure that we’re going over in the next eight flights. You’ll all be traveling under Colombian names. Your tickets will be made out in a Colombian name. Take one suitcase, take your passport. We don’t know if we can come back. And do not tell anyone of what’s being planned.”

So, I remember I was living downtown at the time. I remember I had lived on a 13th or 15th floor apartment and had a big balcony. I remember sitting out there that night thinking - because I was leaving the next day - just thinking I might not be coming back here. And I can’t say goodbye to my friends.

Dennis: You can’t say anything.

Michael: I can’t say anything to anybody.

Dennis: Right.

Michael: I’m just going to disappear, you know?

So I went out the first day. I was in the first day of flights. And the second day of flights, the group of teachers that were scheduled the first flight out, before they got to the airport - the airport, at that time, we had the airport up that sits up above, the one that you flew into - there was a massacre. Just like you see in the movies, the men with machine guns, they’d go outside a building and just (sound of gunfire) the whole front of the building. They were after one of the Congressmen who was in favor of extradition, who was flying back from Medellin to Bogotá. So they were out to kill him and they didn’t care who they killed.

Dennis: They wanted him…

Michael: They wanted him and whoever was in his way they were going to take care of. I think there were like something like 10 people that died in that.

Our first group of teachers got there 15 minutes after the massacre. They had to walk over the dead bodies to check in to fly to Cartagena.

Dennis: [whistles]

Michael: Forty-two of us left and two weeks later, 42 of us came back to work.

Dennis: Everybody came back?

Michael: Everybody came back.

Now, this is the question that people ask me, “Why did you stay in Colombia all this time?!” And I don’t know why. I don’t have an answer to that question. The people… the people were a big part of it, okay? And that’s one of the things that you’ve mentioned, the people are a big part of it. I’ve always said the people, the weather, the climate, the scenery, the mountains, all of that. But the people were the big part of it.

But I could have - and any of us - any of us could have said, “We’re out of here.” As a foreign teacher, I could get a job anywhere in the world and that’s what I wanted to do.

Dennis: Right.

Michael: But I stayed and all 42 of us came back.

Now, during that school year, we had eight teachers who reached their breaking point and just said, “I can’t deal with this anymore.” The bombing in the city happened, like I said, it was big. It was really big. It was like a war at the beginning. And then after about two weeks - and we left at the beginning of the second week…

One of the main reasons was because we were getting so much pressure from all of our family and friends back home. All of us. “What are you doing? We’re watching this on TV. You need to get out.” The school was very smart and they said, “We’re getting you out of here.” Because probably more of us… probably a large percentage of us would have left.

Dennis: Right.

Michael: Okay? But because we were taken out and we could watch it from a distance – and we were in Cartagena – and Cartagena was not being affected. You could walk the streets. You could go to the restaurants. You would watch the news and see what’s going on back in your hometown or even in your neighborhood, but we were out of it.

After about two, three weeks then the whole bombing thing moved and it went to Bogotá. From Bogotá, it moved and went to Cali. They just kind of moved. The mafia kind of moved their attack to attack all main cities in Colombia. It never got to Cartagena.

But I think it was a very smart move on the administration of the school. I was a guidance counselor at the time so I was not the administrator. I can’t take credit for it.

[both laugh]

Michael: But it was a very smart move because the school would have closed. They would have closed. Because 50% of the teachers at the school were foreign hire and the other 50% were Colombians. The school was the only bilingual school in the city.

Dennis: Right.

Michael: We went and we all came back. Like I said, people reached their breaking point and they said “I’m leaving” and we lost eight teachers that year. We also, that school year, had one of our American teachers kidnapped on his way to school.

Dennis: Wow!

Michael: So not only did we have to deal with the mafia but we also had kidnapping directed at Americans. It was the leftists. It was not the drug traffickers, the narcos, but it was one of the leftist groups. It wasn’t the FARC. I think it was the EPL at that time.

He lived close to the school, which was not the best area, and he walked out every day and he had to walk through some pretty rough neighborhoods. I happened to be in the States recruiting for teachers to come.

Dennis: Oh nice!

Michael: Medellin is making the big news as the most dangerous city of the world.

Dennis: And you’re doing recruiting!

Michael: The coca capital of the world and I’m in the States trying to recruit teachers to come and work for us in Medellin.

I remember I had a weekend so I’d gone to visit my parents and I was out driving and I had the radio on and I hear, “Two North Americans have been kidnapped in Medellin, Colombia this morning.” I thought, “Oh my God! In Medellin!” There’s not many North Americans besides what’s at the school. Because by that time, everyone has left.

Dennis: All the…

Michael: All the other companies.

Dennis: …multinationals had pulled out.

Michael: Yeah. The theater group before that I was talking about that we were made up of a whole mixture of nationalities, I mean they were all with these multi international companies and they were gone. Our theatre group closed. We didn’t exist anymore.

I get home and the superintendent calls me. I think we have three people recruiting because we know we have to cover every fair. He calls me and he said, “Did you hear the news?” I said, “Pablo Coderes?” He said, “No, it’s David.” I said, “Ahh.” He said, “Yeah. He was on the way down. They kidnapped him. But what they want is they want publicity.” This was Bush who had a trip planned to come to Cartagena to have a discussion about the drugs that were going on and about extradition. He said he was kidnapped by this leftist group. What their demand is is publicity. They want the publicity. They have kidnapped a North American citizen.

The school had already… the school that I taught at was a school for the wealthy and the powerful and so we have all those connections. They’re going to get on all the news stations and all the papers they needed to be. And so it was done.

He was held for about three weeks and they let him go. But first of all, after he was released he told us the story. The reason they kidnapped him was they said, “We know you’re bilingual and we have a lot of documents that we have in English that we need to have translated in Spanish and we need you to translate them for us.”

Dennis: They picked him for translating services?

Michael: Yeah. They wanted him to translate these documents for them.

Dennis: There might have been a better way to ask that question, you know?

[both laugh]

Michael: But he was released because he had hepatitis. He had gotten sick and so they released him unharmed and he said, “I was never treated poorly. Never treated poorly.”

Dennis: Wow. Lucky man.

Michael: Yeah.

Of course, the school set him on an R&R to Cartagena for a while because he said, “I would like to stay.” He came back but of course, the pressure got to him and he just said, “I can’t. I can’t. I can’t deal with this anymore.”

So he did leave but then he did come back to Colombia several years later and go to Cali to work at the binational school in Cali. Yeah.

Dennis: Got in his blood.

Michael: See, the question is, why? What made you stay? What brings you back? You know? I don’t know what the answer to that question is for me. The only thing I know is the people. I fell in love with the people, the culture. And it was not easy living here. It was not easy living here. We were under curfew.

At one point I could remember when I was living downtown, you had to deal with all that noise of living in a major city downtown. Then all of a sudden we were on curfew. You couldn’t be out after 8 o’clock at night until 5 o’clock in the morning.

Dennis: That’s a long time.

Michael: A long time. All of a sudden you had no noise and so I couldn’t sleep because I’m used to sleeping with all the noise of the city and now it’s completely quiet.

Dennis: Right!

Michael: But I can remember one day I woke up because all this yelling and screaming woke me up. I had a balcony off my bedroom and I looked out and there was a taxi driver arguing with somebody. I don’t know how they were able to be out because it was curfew but all of a sudden the guy took out a gun and just shot and killed the taxi driver right there on the street and I saw it happen.

Another night I remember I heard this weird noise and all of a sudden here come these army tanks down the street into the city.

Like I said, the bombings at the beginning were a lot but it didn’t mean they ever stopped. Because then there was the war, not only with the government, but there was the war between the two mafia groups. Because you have the Medellin Cartel and you had the Cali Cartel. Then there was fighting amongst the two groups and there was still a lot of things.

Then they had an organization that was called The Pepes, which were People Against Pablo. And so you had this righteous group that was also fighting the mafia, the Medellin Cartel. What they would do, they’d use the same system – they used car bombs.

I can remember one time I was coming home, it was on a Sunday. Sometimes I would go into school on Sunday just to do my lesson planning for the week and get it done. I can remember I was going to drive home in the afternoon. It was probably about 5 o’clock. All of a sudden I happened to realize it’s bullfighting season and they’re just getting out and the traffic is going to be a mess because I have to go by that way. The bullfight ring is right in the middle of a four-lane highway – two lanes on one side and two lanes on the other.

As I was getting closer I saw they were just getting out and so I was able to get through before all the people and all the traffic started. But there was a car bomb right after I went through, 15 minutes after.

At that time the police were transported in these huge dump trucks to go to whatever event. So they always had two big dump trucks of police that would go to supervise and help out with crowd control – they’re bullfights. Well, there was a car bomb planted between the two dump trucks. When everyone, you know, when the crowd pretty much dispersed and the police got into the dump trucks to head back, they detonated that car bomb and blew up those two dump trucks and killed all those policemen. I went through 15 minutes before that.

Dennis: Too close.

Michael: Yeah. A lot of innocent people died in that.

Dennis: And yet, you can’t answer the question why you stayed…

Michael: Why did I stay… You know, there was another American that was here with me – he and his wife. They came the year that all this started. Michael and I - his name is Michael too - he and I would talk all the time and we’d say, “If this happens then we’re leaving. We’re out of here.” Then that would happen. Then we’d just kind of set that limit one step more… “Well, it really wasn’t what we thought it would be…”

“But if this happens we’re leaving.” But we never left. He also stayed. He worked his way up to become a superintendent in the schools but he’s international education and he’s now in Monterrey, Mexico. But, yeah, I had, as a guidance counselor and as a principal at the school, I probably went to a funeral every week.

Dennis: Every week?

Michael: Every week. Someone. Someone. A brother, a father, a mother.

Luckily, we did not have that many students. Alumni graduates. But, I went to funeral every week. Every week I had kidnappings of even students. I had students’ parents, grandparents, uncle. We had all kinds of kidnappings. I had three students who, as I was principal, that were kidnapped sometime during that time. All released. It was very difficult.

To see where Medellin is today, to see what we have been able to overcome and what… I mean, yeah, there’s lots of problems so there’s lots of poverty and there’s places that you don’t want to go to, just like in any other major city in the world. But to see where we are today, to see where Colombia, where Medellin - I mean Colombia, yes, but specifically Medellin - to see where Medellin is today, it’s unbelievable. It’s a completely different city.

Dennis: Not having been here before.

Michael: Right.

Dennis: Having been here now. Coming here, people were saying to me, “Do you know where you’re going?!” Even there’s that stigma.

Michael: Yeah, there still is.

Dennis: And still that label on. It’s like Dodge City, Kansas.

Michael: Yeah.

[both laugh]

Dennis: You know, or worse. But the place is amazing!

Michael: Yeah.

Dennis: It’s just an amazing city. I told you we’ve had an amazing trip and the people are truly lovely.

Michael: Yeah.

Dennis: They’re just lovely people.

Michael: Yeah, it was difficult. Even when the curfew was lifted, you didn’t want to be out after 7 o’clock. You tried to get home as fast as you…

I remember one night going up because I kind of lived up the mountain a little ways. But once I moved out of downtown and moved to the south into town, I remember driving up and I see what I think is a body off to the side of the road. I’m only like two blocks from my apartment but you don’t stop and help anybody. I mean that’s horrible to say but you didn’t. You didn’t do that.

So I got to my apartment and then I went to the portero, to the guard, and I say, “Would you call the police? I think there is a body down there.” He said, “Oh, I’m sure it is. We just heard five minutes ago shooting; a shoot out.” He said, “I’m sure it’s a dead body.” Sure enough, they came up and it was a dead body.

I can remember another one that we had at our school, since we’re an American school, of course we had prom and all those things that are American. Even though they were Colombians, they still had to have a prom.

Dennis: There you go.

Michael: I remember we had a prom one night, one year, and it was during all of this. We always had it at one of the big hotels and rented the ballroom. It was very different than the American proms because there was drinking because at that time there was no drinking age. Everyone drank. You would drink with the students. You would have a big party. It was a great time.

But that was when there was another big massacre in the city at one of the discotheques. Where the mafia went in because there were some other mafia people from other mafia groups and they - I think there were like 50 people there, half men, half women - they locked all the women into the bathroom. They told all the guys to lay on the floor, put their hands behind their head, and they shot and killed every one of them. Twenty-some guys. Several of them were alumni of the school; had been my students.

Dennis: Wow.

Michael: If we would not have had the prom that night, a lot of my students would have been there. Because that was one of the discotheques that they liked.

Dennis: Wow.

Michael: So, yeah, it was tough. But Medellin is a wonderful city.

[both laugh]

Michael: It’s a wonderful city.

Dennis: I’ve got to ask a question. With your experiences - you took the risk on a two-year contract, and what you live through during the drug wars in the city and you stayed through the whole thing and you’ve seen what Medellin has turned into afterwards and everything, what advice do you have for others? For the people thinking about taking a risk in their life or a chance in their life?

Michael: You know, the one thing when the professor had mentioned that, he said, “You know, you never know if the risk we take is going to be a positive or a negative move. It can go either way.” And it can. Mine could have gone a negative way. But you’ll never know that if you don’t take that risk and that’s true.

I think if you have something that you’re thinking that you want to do and you’ve always thought about it, I mean that’s like me. I always said I want to go overseas but I was dragging it out. It was this guy who gave that talk that night that made me say, “I’m going to do it.” I don’t know if it’s a positive move.

I remember at the time when they offered me my contract here, I was going to make one-third of what I was making back in the States. And I wasn’t making a lot of money as a teacher back in the ‘80s, okay? And I remember all of my colleagues at the school saying, “Oh, boy, you must going to make lots of money.” I said, “Well, it’s about the same.” I didn’t tell anybody I was getting paid a third of what I’m paid here.

Dennis: That’s a huge… I mean you just added a whole another level of risk to this equation.

Michael: Yeah.

Dennis: Wow.

Michael: But I remember… you need to trust people. I remembered telling the superintendent saying, “But it’s a third of what I make.” I think I made $5,000 the first year. I remember him saying to me, “The salary that you’ll make, you’ll be able to live comfortably. You’ll be able to save and you’ll be able to travel. I’m not sure if you’ll be able to travel internationally but you’ll be able to travel nationally.”

Now, part of the contract was the school paid for all your housing. So you had no housing to pay. You had to pay utility bills but utility… Cost of living was very cheap at that time.

After the end of one year, with $5,000 [laughs], I was able to save money. I was able to travel internationally, not just nationally. I went to the Galapagos Islands that year. It was true what he said, okay?

I think trust in people is very important. But I also think that if you have something that you’re thinking of and you think that it’s something you’ve talked about you want to do, I think you need to take that risk. Like the professor said to all of us, you never know if it’s going to be positive or negative. But you will never know if you don’t take the risk.

Dennis: There you go. Thank you, Michael.

Michael: You’re welcome.

Dennis Hodges
Dennis Hodges


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