Remembering a 30-Year-Old Passage to India : Former UCLA Students Who Shared Friendship Mission Hold Reunion

Times Staff Writer

In the summer of 1955--six years before there was a Peace Corps--a dozen UCLA students set off for India on a nine-week mission of friendship and diplomacy. Their hearts were young and filled with dedication and “Project India” was to affect their lives deeply.

The Project India kids got together again for the first time on Sunday, all but one of them; many in the group had not seen each other since college.

“This Is Your Life!” hollered Ed Peck as Mary Ann (Buford) Green, a late arrival, fell into the arms of Jerry Lewis, another of the “PI Kids.” Peck was the tall fellow wearing his official Project India shirt, a whimsical sacred cow print retrieved from years in storage, and a name tag identifying him as Edward Peck, student guest, at a Rotary meeting in Lucknow, India, on Aug. 19, 1955.


“Ed -ward , is it!” teased the others, one of them giving the former U.S. ambassador to Mauritania a hail-fellow-well-met slap on the back.

Everyone agreed that George Wakiji hadn’t changed much, save for the gray sideburns. But Ron Pengilly was able to boast of being “the only one with no gray hair.” Grinning, he added, “the only one without any hair at all.”

They ate curry, delicious fare that resembled not at all some of the concoctions they remembered from the kitchens of no-frills guest houses in small towns in the South of India. But, with strict instructions never to refuse anything, they had hewed to what Pengilly called a “hold your nose and eat course,” even when the entree was porridge with boiled water buffalo meat.

They passed around snapshots and talked about their children and did all the things people do at reunions. But this one was different; these weren’t people who happened by biological circumstance to be in the same high school graduating class.

These were people--among them an ambassador, a rabbi, a college dean and a congressman--who had been chosen to share a grand adventure that, they agreed, had profoundly influenced them and the course of their lives, an experience that is remembered for a lifetime but can be shared really only with the other adventurers.

When just about everybody had left Rosemary (Wooldridge) and Ron Plue’s house in Encino on Sunday night, Sanford (Sandy) Ragins smiled, looked about the room and said, “Gram was a presence that was hovering here tonight.”

Founder of Project India

“Gram” was Miss Adaline Guenther, the founder of Project India and the taskmaster-headmistress-tour guide figure who had kept her charges in line with discipline and wisdom served up in equal measure. She was also executive director of the University Religious Conference, a multi-denominational campus organization at UCLA.

Conceived as a way of helping to ward off the threat of communism in India by showing Indian students “the real America,” the project continued into the late ‘60s, when changing student attitudes and the advent of the Peace Corps combined to make it somewhat anachronistic.

Gram, who died about nine years ago, had been an agile, white-haired woman of 58 that summer of 1955. It did not go unmentioned that the older members of that student team are now just about that age.

The Gram stories abounded. Gram warning her charges not to lick their lips lest they ingest some frightful germ. Gram had been more than agitated when George Wakiji and Bob Stein had eaten some locally canned fruit. And both Gram and the American consulate were furious when Sandy Ragins and Wakiji, a Japanese-American, decided on what Ragins called “a college boy lark” to pop into the consulate of the People’s Republic of China in Calcutta. “They didn’t know what to do with us,” Ragins said, “especially George.”

Battery of Tests

The 12 adventurers, who were accompanied also by Bob Jaffie, a former UCLA student body president then teaching at Burbank High School, had been chosen from more than 100 volunteers after a battery of tests over a three-month period to determine their maturity and adaptability. Each had to come up with $200 expense money; the major funding, more than $20,000, was from the Ford Foundation.

This was no grand tour for spoiled college kids. Most of the participants came from modest backgrounds. Their lodgings in India were not four-star hotels; much of the time they slept on grass mats that covered hard wooden slabs and they bathed with a gallon or two of water in a pan.

Bob Stein said, “We lived a lot better than most Indians, and a lot worse than most tourists.”

It was hot and sticky and generally uncomfortable much of the time; the young Americans’ senses and sensibilities were assaulted by strange and sometimes awful sights and smells. But, as Ruth (Taketaya) Hirano, now 51, said, “We were young and flexible and we were all so seduced by the experience that conflict just never really came up.

“I had never traveled. I was a chicken farmer’s daughter who grew up in the country. Project India was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me.”

The Project India-1955 crew was accompanied on five weeks of its Indian odyssey by a team of journalists from Look magazine, reporter Tom Morgan and photographer Bob Lerner, who would chronicle their story in a 10-page layout, “America at Its Best in India,” in the issue of Feb. 7, 1956.

Collaborated on Book

The two also collaborated on a book about the journey, “Friends and Fellow Students,” published that year by Thomas Y. Crowell.

Participants laugh today as they re-read Morgan’s impressions of them. Rosemary Plue, an attractive silver-haired woman with five children and a job as a Texaco-Getty Oil tax accountant, was described as “an apple-cheeked girl with curly brown hair and a boyish figure . . . somewhat strait-laced.”

Joe Michels, then 18, was an “all-American sophomore” with a build “like a blade of grass,” a fraternity man interested in philosophy. Michels, the one the others had trouble recognizing at the reunion, is 40 pounds heavier, but still slender, has acquired a beard, and is a professor of anthropology and archeology and an associate dean at Penn State.

Ed Peck was “an old-fashioned college boy (who) loved beer parties and quartet singing” and Heather, the UCLA girl to whom he was pinned. They would marry, have two children and divorce.

Jerry Lewis, now a Republican congressman from San Bernardino, had “long (by 1955 standards), carefully combed black hair and a clean, scrubbed look” and was “the most efficient conversationalist on the team.” UCLA student Sally Lord had worn his Theta Delta Chi pin and they wed secretly two weeks before he left for India. They had four children, now grown, and divorced after 22 years of marriage.

Sandy Ragins was “a seeker . . . a fair-haired, blue-eyed Jewish boy with the highest grades of all,” the son of a lunch-stand owner who had been killed the year before in a car accident; his mother was a saleswoman in a Jewish bakery.

Morgan told of arguments between Ragins and Ron Pengilly, an athletic, freckled red-haired boy who was “as deeply conservative as Sandy Ragins was liberal.”

Exchanges on Politics

Morgan recorded exchanges on politics between Indian and American students, including one in which Jerry Lewis, then a Democrat, was asked to assess the presidency of Harry S. Truman. “I believe,” he quoted Lewis, “that he was sincere but that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s shoes were too big for him.”

The curiosity of the Indian students was boundless. They asked their American visitors their opinions of Nehru, the Immaculate Conception, the price of tapioca and what goes on at petting parties. Because of restrictions placed on them socially, the Indians had a great curiosity about sex in America.

Morgan told of Everett Brandon, a 23-year-old black, “easily the most sensitive person of the lot,” having to come to grips with both his own self-examination and his desire to convey white America in the most positive image. In America, he told the Indians, “You would be impressed by the tall buildings, the subways, the endless fields of crops . . . and you would be depressed by the signs in the South that read, ‘Whites Only. Negroes Only.’ ”

The Communist Party had been proselytizing in India, which had become a democratic republic only five years earlier, and on occasion there was hostility toward the American visitors. They wanted to know why the United States had exploded a hydrogen bomb. They intoned the names of the Rosenbergs, Paul Robeson and Charles Chaplin.

The Indians asked about American internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Ruth Taketaya, who had been interned with her family, gave a conciliatory answer: “The government has been trying to make up for it ever since.”

Over the nine weeks, they would talk with 50,000 Indian students, on campuses and at coffee houses in Calcutta, two teams of six traversing India from north to south, east to west.

‘A Pretty Good Hunch’

Sandy Ragins looks back on that summer of 1955 with mixed emotions. “In view of some of the revelations that were made a few years ago about what the CIA was doing at that time,” he said, “I have a pretty good hunch that we were one of those groups that at least had some funds from the CIA.” He noted that United States Information Service representatives gave them advice and counsel while they were in India, entertained them in their homes and “watched us closely. I’m not really comfortable with everything we did.”

Were they propaganda tools of their government? Ragins has considered that possibility. He pondered the thought anew and asked, “Would it have made a difference? It wouldn’t.”

This was a person-to-person mission and there is not one among the 12 who does not believe that, in a small way, he or she contributed something to international friendship and understanding. Bob Stein put it this way: “In a 1950s kind of way, we thought we had a mission. We were a team and we were over there representing the United States and we were going to be 100% the best of America in the face of whatever.

“It’s just amazing that we’re all alive and well after 30 years,” George Wakiji said. Wakiji, public information officer for ACTION, the federal volunteer agency in Washington, was the one who’d had the idea for a reunion and it was, as he said, “a pretty good turnout.”

In fact, the only one of the 12 student adventurers missing was Patti Price Amstutz, who is in Hawaii where her husband, Harlan, a UCLA professor, is on sabbatical leave.

It was no accident that, among the 12, there were two blacks, two Asian-Americans and two Jews. Ragins said, “I can’t imagine something like it happening now because it would demand either blacks, Chicanos and Jews who have been co-opted or highly assimilated and would be willing to dance to those tunes. In those days we all danced to them, really, with very little self-consciousness.”

After dinner, each of the PI kids, in turn, told about their lives in the last 30 years, about marriages and divorces and children and jobs, about ambitions both sidetracked and fulfilled.

Ron Pengilly, an attorney with Pettit & Martin in San Francisco, reported that everything with him had been status quo: “The same firm, the same wife, same everything.”

Sandy Ragins, seated on a sofa beside his Japanese-born wife , told of his brief flirtation with “the idea of going into academia,” of his post as associate rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple.

George Wakiji of ACTION spoke with some pride of his daughter, Dana, 18, who will enter Dartmouth in September. “Maybe,” he said, “she will be the first Ivy League graduate (among the Project India offspring).”

Ed Peck told of a life in the foreign service that had taken him to Iraq and Sweden and Egypt, of two marriages and four children, ranging in age from 26 to 5.

Ruth Hirano reported a brief career as a fashion illustrator, a graduate degree and a six years as a social worker in Contra Costa County until she and her husband, Peter, now the planning director for the city of Concord, adopted two children, now teen-agers. Rosemary Plue talked of her children, of her return to UCLA in 1980 to get an MBA, of her job with Texaco-Getty Oil.

Mary Ann Green thanked everyone for the chance to “reminisce through your eyes.” She told of three children, a master’s degree from UCLA, her job as a director in the probation camps program for the county, working with youngsters in trouble with the law.

When it was Joe Michels’ turn, he said, “I was a philosophy student when I went to Project India, as you know.” This elicited a roar of laughter; young Michels’ bits of philosophy apparently had become a bit of a bore.

“I was always the first black everything,” Brandon said, reviewing his life, “beginning with the first black in Southern India.” Then came the first black stockbroker in San Francisco, etc. Just graduated from law school at Boalt Hall, he is deciding on a career direction.

Bob Stein told of a short career as a motion picture literary agent, followed by 15 comfortable years in the family’s motion picture theater business. (Like Jerry Lewis, he returned once to India as an adult adviser for another Project India group). Ten years ago, Stein said, “We went from being upwardly mobile people to being broke people.” Today, he is a partner in the Beverly Theater.

“The memories are very special for me,” said Lewis, who was in the insurance business when elected to the San Bernardino school board, a springboard to state and later national office. Earlier, Lewis said he thought even 30 years ago “I’d be running for office--but as a Democrat. Project India forced me to think about the contrast between opportunities there and in the United States. It seemed to me I ought to think about preserving those opportunities. There’s no question, it was a turning point.”

Ed Peck, who classifies himself today as “a chartered and licensed public skeptic,” looked back and said, “We went there terribly smug and supercilious . . . . We thought all we had to do was play Ping-Pong and sing songs, give them an opportunity to see us and love us and they’d immediately be converted.”