Wolf Bickel

Coming home

On a sunny day this April, Wolf Bickel of Switzerland returned to the campus of LaGrange College.

It had been 50 years since he had studied here as a Rotary exchange student, but he says everything about his year on the Hill is just as clear as it was in 1963.

“I am so astonished,“ he says. “I am 73 years old and I know everything we had in class – history, American literature, philosophy – it's all still here in my head. I loved my time at LaGrange. It changed my life."

Bickel's journey from Switzerland and Germany to LaGrange started in Hamburg in 1938 – thanks to his grandparents and a woman from Athens, Ga.

His grandparents lived in Hamburg and owned a large home. They would often rent out a couple of rooms.

“They had an American student who wanted to learn German, so she lived with them in 1938,“ Bickel says. “My grandparents said she didn't learn a lot, but she had lots of fun."

She stayed in contact with Bickel's family, even during World War II.

“She went to the Red Cross so she could get back over to Europe to be of assistance," he says. “She got a job helping war brides get over to the United States."

 Years later, Bickel lived with his grandparents while attending the university in Hamburg.

“I was studying history and English, but my English was very poor because I didn't have a chance to practice it, except in school,“ he says. “I knew I needed to go to England or America, so my mother suggested I get in touch with our family friend in Georgia."

As it happened, the woman's father had been a Rotarian so she knew about the Georgia Rotary Student Program. She suggested Bickel apply.

“I wondered how I could apply because I hadn't been a very good student, " he says. “But they didn't want to see any grades, they just wanted people who were good with communication and international understanding. The Rotary program in Georgia really cares about that."

To his surprise, Bickel was awarded a scholarship for a year at LaGrange College. But he had mixed feelings at the beginning.

“I had planned all along to stay with our friend in Athens and study there, but coming to LaGrange was a good thing – I loved it."

Bickel says his experiences on the Hill were life-altering.

“I had been a lazy student in Hamburg,“ he says. “Fraternity life was much more important than anything else then. But when I got here, I thought, 'These Rotarians have spent so much money to get me here, I must be worthy of that money.

What can I do to be worthy?' "

The answer was simple.

“I studied," he said with a smile. “And LaGrange made it easy to study."

He said the university in Hamburg had 22,000 students, making it difficult to have much interaction with his professors. But things were completely different here.

“You could see any professor whenever you wanted," he says. “Even in the evenings, they had time for you. I visited some of them outside of class and in the breaks between classes."

While at LaGrange, he studied history, American literature and philosophy. And he made Dean's List the entire time.

“I had friends who would tell me, 'You study all the time; come with us and go out,' " he says. “I did it sometimes, naturally, but studying became important to me. I was an A student without doing anything special – I just did what they told me to do. When I went home, I knew how to study, and I did."

Bickel says a musical talent led him to some fun activities.

“I play the accordion and I played it one time for a Rotary Club meeting. I sang music from France, Italy, Russia, Germany and Switzerland. I sometimes didn't even know what the text meant; I just learned it by heart. They loved it."

Word began to spread, and he was invited to play for clubs, schools and hospitals.

“I didn't mind,“ he says. “It was fun. I could give something back and that was important."

In the years after Bickel returned to Switzerland, he taught English and history and was elected to his local parliament.

“I am a member of the Green Party," he says. “I am very fond of the green ideas – anti-pollution and working for a better world. And being an historian, I cared that they didn't tear down the old buildings. I love to preserve as much as possible."

As he toured a much different campus during his April visit, Bickel says he was pleased to note the important things remain the same.

“It's great to have new buildings and opportunities for students, but I understand that your classes are still small and the students still have access to their professors. That is so important, and that is why I loved LaGrange College."