It was 1959 when Jose Ripol traded a country living with a dictatorship and one accepted religion and entered the land of the free, a move that turned his 17 years of knowledge of the world upside down and started an exchange in Marietta still changing lives today.
Ripol, from Spain, became Marietta High School's first foreign exchange student that year. Now, 50 years after his graduation, Ripol has returned to town to visit the place he says helped shape him as a man.
"My time here impacted me a lot," Ripol said Friday, just after arriving in Marietta for a weekend visit that coincided with a Class of 1960 reunion. "I came here as a grown-up boy at 17 years old and went out another person really. I wasn't prepared for such a big change."
KATE YORK The Marietta Times
Bill Wigton, left, and Jose Ripol, were reunited Friday in Marietta. Wigton’s family hosted Spanish exchange student Ripol 50 years ago when Ripol was Marietta High School’s first foreign exchange student.
In a 1960 high school newspaper article, Ripol, who still looks remarkably like the slim boy pictured there, told his classmates he would miss America and "remember the high school, the dances in the Betsey, the city of Marietta, the coke machines and the English language" as well as his friends.
Today, decades removed from his exchange experience, it's the deep contrast between the two countries at that time - particularly when it came to democracy and civil rights - that he says left a lasting mark on him.
"I wasn't prepared for such a big change," said Ripol, who vividly remembers the first opportunity to vote for a leader in Spain in the late 1970s. "It was a shock, but it allowed me to see something different."
The foreign exchange students who have followed in Ripol's footsteps say times may have changed and political issues are of a new variety, but the opportunity to live in another culture is still invaluable.
Now, there are typically a handful of foreign exchange students in Washington County every school year and local students sometimes have a chance to study abroad as well.
2010 Marietta High School graduate Lauren Stabler said the year she spent in Germany during high school "changed her life forever, " although she struggled sometimes with feelings of isolation and with academics in a foreign country.
"My newfound freedom along with immersion into a foreign country and culture has dramatically increased my independence," she said, in online journal entries she wrote while in Germany. She added that she would never regret the experience.
Ed Osbourne, of Marietta, said he and wife Karen grew themselves after opening their home to a student from Switzerland, gaining "a better understanding and appreciation of people from other parts of the world."
The student, visiting during a presidential election, was able to observe the political process in the U.S. and develop his English skills to the point that he was offered a scholarship in the U.S.
Along with personal growth for all involved, Osbourne said he feels exchange programs have a broader purpose: To foster friendly relationships among different countries and avoid future conflict.
"Through a better understanding of people from other countries and the friendships that are developed through foreign exchange programs, the world may become a more peaceful and friendly place," he said.
It's an idea echoed by Ripol, the original Marietta exchange student, in his high school newspaper article.
"A country gets closer to us when we know somebody from it," he wrote then, urging those at the school to keep the exchange program going.
Ripol said he still has fond memories of Marietta High School.
He remembers morning announcements from the principal, Mr. Manning, kept in touch with his English teacher until her death and has attended a reunion every 10 years since 1980.
It's the only place in America he visits, said Ripol, who still lives in his hometown of Barcelona, had a career as an electrical engineer and now has three children and two grandchildren.
"I have no interest in coming to any other place," he said. "If I come, I come to Marietta and see places where I lived."
Ripol also sees the people he lived with. Picking him up from the Mid-Ohio Valley Regional Airport Friday was his "brother" of one year, Bill Wigton, part of the family who hosted Ripol all those years ago.
Like the countries they came from, the teens were very different from each other back in high school, but formed a lifelong connection, said Wigton, who now lives in Maryland.
"I played football and track, and he ran with the intellectuals," Wigton said. "But he was a good person and a good friend. He brought his Spanish customs into our house, and since then all of us have been to Spain."
Wigton's sister, Beth, just visited Ripol in Barcelona a few weeks ago, Ripol said.
"I have a very close connection with the family and am so thankful for them," he said.
Getting a glimpse of Marietta only once a decade, he said the town really hasn't changed so much, particularly the downtown area.
"It's similar," he said. "When I was here in 2000, I went to Wal-Mart, so I see that the outside of the city has changed but in the center it's the same."
Now 68, Ripol said he doesn't want to wait another 10 years to see his former classmates and what he called his "second motherland" in that 1960 high school newspaper article.
"I'd like to come five years from now," he said. "Ten years ... now that's just not enough."