Montagna makes it home for 1967 H.V. Cooper High School 50th reunion
Fifty years ago a teenage boy from Cremona, Italy, traveled 6,000 miles to Vicksburg.
He came to the U.S. as a foreign exchange student and spent a year learning about the culture, while at the same time making lasting friendships.
Last weekend, Claudio Montagna returned to the River City to reconnect with a member of his host family and to take part in the H.V. Cooper High School 50th class reunion.
“He was the most popular person at the reunion,” Paul Ballard said.
Ballard and his family served as the host family for Montagna while in Vicksburg. Through the years the men have stayed in touch.
“Paul and I had already exchanged ideas about the opportunity for me to come here. You never know when you get old what is going to happen tomorrow, so I said ‘Paul, you and I need to get together again, shortly,’” Montagna said, adding this conversation had occurred in 2011.
Talks about returning to Vicksburg continued, and the year 2017 had been finally set-aside as the goal.
“Then I received the invitation for the class reunion, so my proposal was, why don’t we put the two events together,” Montagna said.
During the weekend events, about 80 former students out of a class of around 180 attended the reunion, which included a gathering at the Bazinsky house, a walk in the Vicksburg National Military Park and a tour of the school, which is now Vicksburg High School.
Montagna said he enjoyed seeing “old friends” but admitted he had trouble recognizing some of their faces.
Five decades changes one’s appearance, “but the spirit is the same and that will never change, I think,” Montagna said.
While classmate’s faces may have changed, Montagna said he felt like the city looked “about the same.”
“There are some new areas in town, and Paul Ballard moved from one location to another one.”
Montagna said it touched his heart to see the old house that was located at 418 Groome Drive, which is in the Broadmoor Subdivision.
When asked if the men had gotten into any trouble during their year as “brothers,” Ballard said the pair had been perfect and had lived “exemplary lives.”
“That’s the story and we are sticking to it,” Ballard said.
All kidding aside, both men said they had focused on their schoolwork and for Ballard a plethora of afterschool activities.
Montagna said at the beginning he was busy learning the language, and although he struggled with English, trigonometry and chemistry classes came much easier.
When asked if Montagna had a girlfriend during his stay in Vicksburg, he said foreign exchange students were advised not to get a girlfriend or a boyfriend, because it would make leaving that much harder.
However, even though there was no special girlfriend, leaving was still hard he said.
“The people were friendly to me and at the end of my year here, I realized overnight I was fixing to go home and that really hit me, and it was a really big hit, because I was feeling at home here. Dr. Ballard, Kathy, Paul and Barbara (Ballard’s parents and sister) were all so nice to me,” Montagna said.
And one thing Montagna said he wanted to make clear to everyone is that Vicksburg is his home, too.
“No doubt Vicksburg was my second home, and the Ballard family was my second family, and there is no difference between the first and second,” Montagna said.
“My son and daughter fully know this because when you come to another country and are well accepted and you feel at home, there is nothing compared to that,” Montagna said.
“Foreign exchange programs are one of the best things in the world,” Montagna said, and added it was one of the best decisions he had made in his life.
These programs are essential in today’s world, Montagna said, and Ballard agreed.
“The more that you know someone and understand them and understand where they come from, it’s easier to accept different points of view and different philosophies,” Ballard said.