Thomas Hickey, local attorney and Rotarian, is back from a family visit to Finland with a renewed sense of friendship, plus some rekindled memories of his first trip there while he was still a teenager.
“My junior year of high school (in Anchorage, Alaska) I applied as a Rotary exchange student and was accepted,” Hickey said. “I was to go to Austria, and had taken a couple years of German, so I thought it would be a nice fit.”
Unfortunately, the Rotary Club in Austria was not sponsoring an exchange student at that time, and Hickey spent the summer thinking he wasn’t going to be able to travel anywhere the following year.
“Then, in August, on my sister’s wedding, I received a call from the Anchorage Rotary Club and they said, ‘Well, we have an opportunity for you to go to Finland.’”
So off he went.
At a recent meeting of the Kyrene Corridor Rotary Club meeting, of which he is a founding member, Hickey described his experience of meeting longtime friends while he was there this past December with his wife and their 6-year-old twins.
“I spent a wonderful year (in 1981) in a town that is about 250 miles north and west of Helsinki,” he said. “It was a life-changing experience—the people, the culture the food. My entire experience was just incredible.”
Hickey and his wife decided to venture back to Finland last year on a vacation, visiting some of the friends he had made while he was there the first time.
“I sort of lost that feeling of what it was like to experience a foreign country until about five years ago, when our (Rotary) club here sponsored our first exchange student,” he said. “It rekindled thoughts of the great time I had, and prompted me to try to reconnect with those people.”
Starting in July, Hickey said he started to email the families he had stayed with, tracking down friends he hadn’t heard from since his original visit.
“Remarkably, I was able to touch base with several of my friends and all the families, and decided that we (Hickey and his wife) were going to buy the tickets,” he said.
As to their recent trip, Hickey said his kids were overjoyed to experience the culture.
“The families there welcomed us like we were long-lost children,” he said.
Hickey said he reunited with one of the Finnish teenagers he met while there, and the now-grown friend recalled Hickey going on the basketball roster using his name.
“You had to be a resident of the town to play on this team…so we played a game, and I played under the other guy’s name,” Hickey said.
“He (the host brother) recalled that, the morning after, his name appeared in the newspaper, reporting that he scored 28 points—which would’ve been the best game he’d every had.”
During their 10-day trip, Hickey and his family traveled to several cities by train, even stopping at the Arctic Circle, where the kids were able to go on a reindeer-led sleigh ride.
“It was funny, because they (his twin boy and girl) were wondering why they weren’t flying,” Hickey said, chuckling.
And in a Finnish tradition, Santa Claus surprised the kids on Christmas Eve, bringing presents for all.
“One of the traditions in Finland is that Santa actually comes to your house and gives gifts,” Hickey said.
“When he showed up, it was a pretty magical experience for the kids; overall, it was a great time, and I think the kids really enjoyed it.”