A video shot of the University of Havana baseball coach holding his cap over his heart during the U.S. national anthem was one of the flood of memories shared with the St. Thomas community at a welcome-back ceremony held for the baseball team and another 40 faculty and staff who returned Saturday from a weeklong trip to Cuba.
“Several words come to mind when I think about the trip,” commented Dr. Miriam Williams, associate vice president for academic affairs, “and the first was friendship. This was my third trip to Cuba, and the most memorable. I really hated to finally get off the plane”
Images of friendship were abundant in the video that was shown at the opening of the celebration, held over the noon hour in O’Shaughnessy Educational Center auditorium. The images included sights and sounds of Cuban and American students swapping stories, competing, dancing, learning, eating, worshipping and even marching.
The second word, Williams said, was faith. The Sunday Mass in a towering old Havana church was beautiful and demonstrated how universal the Catholic faith is, she said, recalling also how missing windows in the church allowed birds to fly in and lend their voices to the choir.
Faith also played a role in a Thursday night parade held annually since 1953 to honor the birthday of Jose Marti, a 19th century leader of Cuba’s independence from Spain. Although it was voluntary, virtually all the St. Thomas team members joined members of the Cuban team for the “Marcha de las Antorchas” (torch march) that ran about five blocks from the steps of the university to a Marti museum. This year’s parade was dedicated to little Elian Gonzalez, now the center of an epic custody battle.
There were 30,000 marchers, most holding either Cuban flags or torches, and as the route grew nearer to the museum, the streets narrowed. “At that point our hosts decided to escort us away. Each of us had someone holding on and leading us we felt so secure, there was a real sense of faith and trust as they led us through the crowd (and back toward the hotel),” she said.
Her third word was patience. “You need to have patience with all those who ask us to tell them stories about Cuba,” Williams told the team. “This includes patience for those who don’t want to hear positive things about Cuba.”
The fourth word was gratitude. Williams first thanked the Rev. Dennis Dease. “This was his vision,” she said. Others she thanked included the Pohlad Foundation for its $100,000 gift to pay for the trip, and a possible return trip to Minnesota in April or May by the University of Havana team.
“This has been one of the best experiences of my professional life,” she said.
Baseball coach Dennis Denning praised his players “for the way they presented themselves. I’m so proud of them.” He did say, however, that members of the team needed to take some dance lessons.
“This was an experience to remember for the rest of our lives,” he said. “It was just great, but it wasn’t just about baseball, that was secondary. It was more about experiencing another culture we saw the poverty and we saw the greatness of the people.”
JoAnn Andregg of the Athletic Department said “St. Thomas was well represented by the team they were gracious winners, and I know they would have been gracious losers.”
She also noted how the trip gave faculty, staff and students who normally don’t get to work together the chance to become better acquainted, and praised the work of staff members who often work behind the scenes. She presented three honorary athletic letters to members of Instructional Support Services: Ron Riley and Brad Jacobsen, who filmed the trip, and photographer Roger Rich.
Many of the players took turns sharing some of the most vivid memories they carried home from the island.
Mike Honsa, a team captain, will remember “Christmas in Havana,” and the look on the faces of the Cuban team members the night St. Thomas gave them gifts of baseball gloves and other gear.
John Frein will remember the Wednesday baseball game and especially the fans, the music and singing, the cheers at every pitch. “I wish it was more like that here.”
Dan Novak will remember how grateful the Cubans were for everything and how “we never felt an ounce of hatred toward us.”
Jonathan Guion, Paul Rafferty and Tom Wilberg remember getting to know particular Havana team members. “We talked for hours,” Guion recalled, “and Ernesto invited us to his home. We saw how little they have, and now think how lucky we are.” Wilberg discovered after many philosophical discussions with a Cuban friend how American and Cuban college students share so many similar hopes and aspirations.
Assistant coach Patrick “Huck” Shields recalled three things: the sense of mission shared by the St. Thomas group; the sense of history; and the sense of wonder about “how did all this happen.”
Assistant coach Michael Reeder remembers seeing “our players shine. They shined on the field, and they shined as ambassadors.” He also was struck by the Cubans’ passion and love for life, despite hardship. “They don’t let the little things get to them.”
For Dr. Alan Sickbert, it was experiencing “the gift of giving.” All members of the St. Thomas group brought bags of gifts, mostly things you might purchase on a “Target run,” to share with the Cubans. “The last night when our team members passed out their bags to the Cuban students, we saw the Cubans begin sharing what they received with each other, and with other Cuban students who might not have received a bag of gifts. When we give, we get so much back.”
And at the end of the program, Marv Davidov, who teaches at St. Thomas in the Justice and Peace Studies program and a veteran of
six trips to Cuba, told the team how impressed he was with the courage, insight and compassion of the citizen diplomats.
“Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for what you did,” he told the team.
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