Anne Ford 0000-00-00 00:00:00
When a sudden illness struck Lion Keith Pontius a few years ago, it arrived with all the timing of a Hollywood melodrama. Pontius, then the 12-0 district governor in Tennessee, fell seriously ill with a virus while attending the 2002 international convention in Osaka, Japan, with his wife and two granddaughters. He was still weak from the heart bypass surgery he’d had six weeks prior, he didn’t speak Japanese, and—worst of all— a typhoon was due to hit the country at any moment. “All of a sudden my teeth started chattering,” he says. “For two hours, I couldn’t stop. I didn’t know what we were going to do.” An employee of Pontius’ hotel managed to get him to a nearby hospital. The real cavalry arrived soon thereafter—in the form of one of the family’s many former Japanese exchange students, Tomoko Oikawa, whom the Pontiuses had hosted in 1974 through the Lions Clubs of Ohio. Oikawa, who lives in Tokyo, grabbed the last flight to Osaka before the typhoon hit, having heard about Pontius’s medical crisis through another of the family’s former exchange students. In addition to bringing him a shopping bag full of soap, towels, toothpaste and other amenities, which Japanese hospitals don’t provide to patients, she cleared her schedule and stayed in Osaka the rest of the week to help the family navigate the Japanese health care system. “I’ll never forget when she walked in that hospital room,” says Pontius, now president of the Fairfield Glade Lions Club in Tennessee. “We just can’t believe what she did for us.” Oikawa’s gesture was a natural response to the care the Pontiuses have shown the many Japanese exchange students they’ve hosted through the Lions. Oikawa’s reassuring presence also brought the Pontiuses full circle. The Pontiuses first visited Japan in 1969 when they attended the international convention in Tokyo. Over the last four decades, Pontius and his family have built longstanding relationships with their Japanese students, many of whom they’ve come to think of as family. Those enduring bonds have formed because, as Pontius’ granddaughter Emma Fitzpatrick says, both the family’s Japanese friends and Lions such as her grandfather “show their affection in hospitality and service.” Those ties have spanned times of joy and discovery and days of sickness and death. Lionism crosses borders and unites people; the Pontiuses have learned that being involved in Lions and its exchange programs can bring families together to the extent that the definition of family expands. Pontius first experienced Japanese hospitality on that initial trip to Tokyo in 1969. For the popcorn-carton manufacturer from Ohio, who at the time had never so much as stepped foot outside the United States, it might as well have been a journey to another galaxy. As then-chair of the Ohio Council of Governors, he attended the convention in Tokyo with his family because an Ohio Lion, Dick Bryan of Doylestown, was being sworn in as international president. In the days before the era of easy-breezy international plane travel, going to Tokyo with his wife, Joan, and their three children (10-year-old Laurie, 12-year-old Brenda, and 14-yearold Jeff), was, to put it mildly, “all a new adventure,” Pontius says. They found a city where Westerners were then so rare that they were stared at on the street; where, to Laurie’s dismay, fish were sometimes served head and all; and where cars and buses were cleaned with giant feather dusters. Besides being charmed by these and other cultural differences, Pontius was impressed by the generosity of the Japanese he met: “They were very hospitable,” he remembers. “We got on a bullet train, and they got us on the wrong train. They were so embarrassed. It wasn’t really a problem, but they apologized over and over about that.” Perhaps it was that experience of extreme hospitality that sparked Pontius and the other Lions of the state of Ohio to set up a Japanese student exchange program a few years later. During the program’s first year, in 1972, the Pontiuses hosted two students, Kenji Watanabe and Kazunori Miyazaki, for six weeks. The family bent over backwards to welcome them, taking the two to many national parks and on trips to New York and other big cities. The visit wasn’t without its challenges. The students’ limited English, as well as the Pontiuses’ all but nonexistent Japanese, made communication difficult sometimes. “One time we made reference to the ‘birds and the bees,’ and we had to figure out how to get them to understand what we were talking about,” Pontius adds with a smile in his voice. “Most of the time it was like playing charades, but it was quite fun,” says youngest daughter Laurie Fitzpatrick (Emma’s mother). Language difficulties or not, a longstanding friendship was forged, helped along by the Pontiuses’ gift for expressing affection through action instead of relying solely on words. That’s a particularly Japanese trait, says Emma, who decades later lived in Japan herself. As she puts it: “Americans say ‘I love you’; Japanese show ‘I love you.’” Perhaps that’s why Miyazaki was so touched when the family threw him an enormous birthday picnic on their 13-acre farm—and all 225 local Lion host family members and students came to help celebrate. And perhaps that’s why to this day Watanabe, now an orthopedic surgeon in Japan, says, “I think of Keith and Joan as my American parents.” Two years later, the Pontiuses hosted Oikawa. In the years afterward, they went on to welcome several more students, including, eventually, Watanabe’s son and nephews. In turn, the Pontius children made visits to Japan to stay with the families of Watanabe, Oikawa, and other former exchange students. “I’ve lost track of how many times we’ve seen each other,” says Dean, the Pontiuses’ youngest son, who, with Watanabe’s help, obtained an accounting internship in Japan during his senior year of college. “I bet we haven’t gone five years without seeing each other.” Oikawa’s 2002 visit to the Tokyo hospital where Pontius lay ill was not the last time one of the former exchange students would go to great lengths to visit the family. Pontius’s wife, Joan, was diagnosed with liver cancer in January 2008. “When Tomoko found out my wife was sick and dying, why, she came over specifically to spend a few days with her at the hospital,” he says. “It was quite a tribute for all of us.” His wife passed away in April, just 10 days after Oikawa arrived. Oikawa says simply: “Joan is alive in my heart.” Meanwhile, the family’s Lion-inspired connection to Japan is alive and flourishing in the third generation. In 2002, Emma went with her grandparents to Osaka to sing at the Lions International Convention there. “When I came back, I said, ‘I have got to live in Japan someday,’” she says. That’s why, last year, she got a job as a performer with Tokyo Disney Resort. Oikawa once again leapt into action, taking Emma sightseeing on her days off and frequently coming to hear her sing. “She became my Japanese mom, basically,” says Emma. “She would always tell me, ‘The time that I spent with your grandparents 35 years ago was the best time of my life.’ I know that she feels about my family the way that I feel about hers. The way she treated me was in response to the way she had been treated by my grandparents. They were always, in that same Japanese way, so eager to share whatever they had.”
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.
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