March 22 08:26 AM

From Capac to Emerald Isle

Host family visits memorable exchange student in Ireland 46 years later

May 06, 2009
CAPAC — When Grace Hassard was welcomed into the Mills family in 1962, life in the tiny rural village was a big step up for the teen from the Emerald Isle.

Where Grace lived—Bangor, County Down, Northern Ireland—she had no central heating, no refrigerator and no washer and dryer at home. So life in Capac with Bobbie and Dorothy Mills and their two girls was good. Modern. Comfortable. Amazing.

The Mills owned and operated the Capac Shell Station on the corner of Church and Main (where the Holmes Enterprises building currently sits). Their kids—daughters Kathy and Jan and sons Richard and Greg attended Capac schools. The family hosted Grace through the Youth for Understanding program—once so popular in Capac that there was always a couple of exchange students attending school each year.

But there was something about Grace that stood out. She was warm and open and was quite a hit around town. The Mills loved her—she was one of the family. So much a family member that more than four decades later Dorothy and her daughters Kathy and Jan made a long-dreamed of trip to the Emerald Isle to see life through Grace's eyes.

Small town,

big impression

Doug Hunter was about 12 years old when Grace came to Capac. That was quite a few years ago, but the 1969 Capac High School graduate remembers her visit well.

He lived on Neeper, right across the street from the Mills' Kempf Court home where Grace stayed.

"She was a very popular girl," Doug says. "Everybody in town liked her."

Especially Doug and his other young friends.

Kathy (Mills) Frankforther, Wilnor Swann, Dorothy Mills, Grace Hassard Swann and Jan (Mills) McIntyre put a touch of the Irish in photo op during trip to the Emerald Isle.

Grace, a high school senior, took a job at the A & W Drive-In on Main Street (Dr. Horgan's dental office is there now) and Doug and his friends would ride their bikes around town looking for pop bottles to return to get money to buy a root beer.

"I remember picking up bottles for two cents apiece just so we could go up and buy a pop and see her," Doug chuckles.

He'd also make trips into town on horseback because Grace liked horses.

"I kept a horse at my grandfather's place in Emmett and I'd ride it up during the weekends and she'd pet the horse," Doug laughs. "She'd ride it a couple of times too."

Doug says Grace had a boyfriend, though he doesn't recall his name—and Grace's winning personality made her popular with everyone.

"If there was ever a nice girl next door like you see in the old movies that was her," Doug says. "She was down to earth. She'd talk to anybody at any level."

Doug chuckles at the memory and continues, "The young guys liked her...heck, the old guys liked her too!"

Teenage crushes aside, Doug remembers Grace a genuine, down-to-earth individual—personality traits he appreciates even more today.

"Looking back, I would say grace Hassard is one of the few people I have met who would truly take the time to be kind, caring and considerate to everyone she met," Doug says. "The people of Ireland could have sent no better representative of the Irish spirit than her. The Mills family and Capac were the real beneficiaries of this ambassador of good will."

Close calls

Grace almost didn't make it to Capac, and once there she almost had to go back to Ireland.

Jan remembers going to Metro Airport with her family to pick up Grace—a memory she'll keep forever.

"When the plane landed she came to us and literally threw herself into our arms," Jan says. "When the plane was landing (the passengers) were told to prepare for an emergency landing, they were told they didn't have any landing gear."

The runway had been foamed, and Jan remembers fire trucks waiting nearby.

"She was just so happy to have made it," Jan says.

Within a few weeks, though, the Cuban Missile Crisis almost put an end to Grace's visit.

"Youth for Understanding contacted us and said to have her bags packed because if the situation gets one step worse we would have to rush to the airport and she'd have to leave because they thought the U.S. was going to be involved in a conflict," Jan recalls.

Fortunately, things leveled out and Grace stayed with the Mills for a full year.

Family ties

"Grace was an immediate member of the family," Jan says.

She and older sister Kathy were the same age, and together they got involved in a lot of school activities.

"I was the little sister watching them with wonder," Jan recalls.

The year flew by. Grace and Kathy graduated from Capac High School in 1963, and soon it was time for Grace to go back to Northern Ireland.

Many happy returns

Grace stayed in touch with the Mills family over the years, and came back to Capac more than once for a visit.

She'd always urged the family to visit her in Ireland, and like the Nike ad, Dorothy eventually realized she should 'just do it.' At age 84, she knew it was a now-or-never-type thing.

"She said 'If I don't go now I never will,'" Jan says. So they arranged a trip and the mother/daughters trio were off to the Emerald Isle.

"She (Dorothy) was just thrilled that we went," Jan says. "She did so well—that's quite a trip over there and Grace wanted us to see as much as possible while we were there."

And they did. Grace took them to high tea at Dromoland Castle, they toured the Tyrone Crystal Factory and the Belleek Factory and they even had a personal tour of Stormont (the Irish White House) by Mayor and Mayoress Leslie and Irene Cree.

"It was really amazing that we were inside Stormont because it was completely closed down because British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was expected for a visit," Jan says. "We were inside looking at all the press waiting to report on Gordon Brown's arrival."

The group also enjoyed a very special visit to Belfast, which they toured by bus. Though it's just a ten minute drive from Grace's home, she had never visited the city.

"We heard a lot about their 'times and troubles,' that there were armed guards everywhere and that you couldn't even go into a grocery store without being searched for a lot of years," Jan says. "But because of the lessening of the 'times of troubles' it was the first time they allowed themselves to go to downtown Belfast."

Jan says it was memorable because it was a first for everyone—even Grace.

"It was exciting to see it through their eyes, to see the killing fields and hear the stories," she says.

After a whirlwind two weeks, it was time for Dorothy and her daughters to head back to the USA.

Ireland was "gorgeous," Jan says, and she was impressed with all of the available history.

"It was amazing looking at things from the 1200s," she says.

Most of all, they enjoyed reconnecting with their 'Irish relative' on her turf.

"Grace talks about her wonderful memories and friends while living in Capac," Jan says. "She has now given her American family wonderful memories of Northern Ireland."

Grace, now 64, and her husband Wilnor are retired school teachers. They have two children, Heather and Peter, and two grandchildren, Luk and Jake.

Grace's sister Pearl Hassard, was personally recognized at Buckingham Palace and was awarded by Prince Charles for her volunteer work with the Girls Brigade in Northern Ireland.

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