He went into his "sun room," a parlor with light yellow wall that he painted himself. He leaned on the leather chair in front of his computer. The chair reclined so much but he was so relaxed that he did not seem to worry at all.
Lou Lerda, a six-foot-man in his 70s, clicked open a folder on his computer and started to show me photos that he took on his recent trip with his daughter Maria to the New River Gorge in West Virginia.
He stopped at a photo of an arch bridge, "this is the largest arch bridge in the United States. It is… hmm… around 300 meters high." Being with international students for a long time, Lerda does not need too long to convert feet into meters, which is more familiar to those who are from outside America. After a vivid description of his trip, he stood up and moved to the living room, poured some coke in his big blue mug and opened a diet one for me, and sat down in a cozy couch near the fireplace.
"I didn't really have connection with Wilson until the September of 2007," Lerda recalled while taking a sip of coke, "Karen Hively, the girl at Wilson who attended our church asked if I could help her and some international students move some stuff from South Hall to Disert because she knew I had a pickup truck. And I agreed." That was how everything began.
"I met Lerda as a shuttle driver but found out he is so much more than just that. It is not everyday that you get to meet a 72-year-old who can be a friend who makes you laugh as well as a father who gives you great advice. Not to mention his and Linda [Lerda's wife]'s helpfulness. Also, Lerda gives me the tightest and the most fatherly hug!" said Jyotsna Dhakal, a freshman from Nepal at Wilson.
Lerda and his wife Linda met Wasima, a girl from Afghanistan the day when Hively asked him to help moving. In the following week, Lerda invited Wasima to a block party and the next week took her shopping.
"Wasima said what we did with her in that two weeks was more than things her Friendly Family did in that entire year," Lerda laughed, "and then she went to Paul Miller [international student and scholar's advisor]'s office and told him, ‘Lou and Linda are going to be my new Friendly Family.'"
Lerda regards himself having a close relationship with education. He is from a family of educators. He started his career as a teacher teaching arts to elementary school students but soon realized that he was not interested in it. He then found out his real passion in aviation and shifted his career entirely. He was once an Army Reserve Aviation technician in Baltimore County, Md. He also participated in the Vietnam War as an aircraft maintenance officer and a test pilot for 13 months from 1965 to 1966. Later when he came back to the U.S., he worked for Federal Aviation Administration in Seattle for 14 years. His jobs enabled him to work with people from Asia, Europe, Australia and almost all parts of the world.
"Most people gave the opportunity to be friends with you," he said matter-of-factly.
However, when he first entered the real job market, he was by no means an outgoing person as he is today, "Actually, after I graduated from college, I was so scared and intimidated by the authority of the job I had then. I didn't do what was the best even though I knew it, because I didn't want to offend the authority." Lerda admitted that this might be something people don't know about him.
What really changed Lerda was his job in the aviation industry, "I became very outgoing and very good at dealing with people? My experience has absolutely, one hundred percent affected me to be so involved in international students today. That was actually how I became willing to associate people from other cultures," he said proudly.
Every international student knows Lerda, and he knows everybody's name too. "He loves to talk, sometimes too much," a group of international students joked in the dining hall one day. "He is so nice. He's always there whenever we need him. We all know that," said the Lebanese student Mariam Khalifeh besides "complaining" about Lerda talkativeness.
Indeed, students who take the shuttle would never feel bored on the ride because Lerda can always find something interesting to tell them. His topics range from his father's teenage years to his encounters in Vietnam and to his grandchildren's performance in school. He talks about history, war, politics and anything you can imagine.
"The girls always stare at me and say, Lou, how did you know all this stuff?" he burst into a long laughter. His face was lightened up by the afternoon sunshine.
The Lerdas are currently the Friendly Family of a Korean exchange student. But Lou's house seems to open for every other international student. When some of them do not have a place to stay during breaks or decide to stay on campus for holidays, Lerda always invites them to "hang out" in his house and have a delicious meal prepared by Linda.
"I just enjoy being a friendly face, someone that International students would feel safe to be around, and I want my home to be a comfortable place for them to be here," Lerda grinned.
To Lerda, being a friend of international students is a way to let them know more about a real American family, a family that is not like the stereotypical ones portrayed by popular media, a family that is just like everybody else's in any corner of the world which has happiness, problems and concerns.
"And you have no idea how much you've given back," he indicated, sitting upright and readjusting his position in the couch, "you are part of our life, part of what we do. You tell us about your culture and customs and teach us about your country. If more people open their minds, they will be amazed."
To Lerda, one of the most impressive rewards towards his deeds was that, during Wasima's graduation, her mother called him and Linda from Afghanistan. Lerda said he had never seen Wasima's mother before except on photos. But on the phone, she was with an interpreter and thanked them for taking care of her daughter.
"You cannot put a monetary value in that experience. You just can't." Lerda said affectionately.
"It is not altruistic. This is based on my Christian faith. You are willing to give yourself to something that you don't normally give to others. I'm always thinking: if my daughter is at school in another country, I would hope someone there to be her surrogate grandfather. Well, I'm not in an age to be a father or boyfriend anymore," he laughed exuberantly, which was too often to hear in that warm afternoon, "I think this is the compassion and concern a Christian should have for each other."
Lerda sees himself a positive man: "I'm upset to see people who are not positive about life. I'm upset when people sell themselves short. It is good to be optimistic, but also be realistic in what you are looking for. You know, some people always think, ‘what's my next promotion' but I'm thinking, ‘what's my next fun job?'"
Nevertheless, Lerda does not have to look for a new fun job, at least at this moment. Being a part-time van driver at Wilson has already kept him busy. And for the rest of his time, he does not stop his busy pace either. He helps his wife with housework, takes care of his grandchildren, plays around with his large collection of model trains, automobiles and helicopters and sometimes even does some illustrations since he was an art major back in college. He is also an enthusiast for antique automobiles. He is extremely proud of his 1967 yellow and black American Motors Marlin car and nicknamed it "Miss Daisy." "I'm taking ‘Miss Daisy' and the kids to a big car show in Hershey tomorrow," said Lerda, radiated with an obvious happiness.
"If you don't do anything except watching the grasses grow, you will die in a hurry," Lerda laughed.
Towards the end of the conversation, there was one question that put him in the longest contemplation: Was there anything in your life that you feel regret for?
Lerda thought for almost two minutes. I could tell that the film of his 72 years of life was shuttling in his head. And finally he answered with one word, in an incredible certainty and crispness: No.
"Well, if I had to do it all over again, there may be three years that I want to change… but I don't see how things would turn out differently anyway… And almost everything I tried was ok."
Interestingly, that same night when I went back home, I happened to read a quote by John Barrymore: "A man is not old as he is seeking something. A man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams."
That sounds like he is talking about Lou, I said to myself, with a big smile on my face.