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Travel is Family Affair for Globetrotter Mark Gordon

Monday, August 28, 2017  
Posted by: Laura Fenstermaker
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Some people collect souvenirs from their travels to remind them of where they’ve been. Mark Gordon, dean of the Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, Harvard Law School graduate and avid international traveler, seems to collect new additions to the family as well as more traditional souvenirs on his journeys hither and thither.

Photographs from around the world occupy prime wall space in his office. He remembers when and where each photo was taken, such as a stunning mountainside Buddhist shrine in Myanmar (still called Burma in those days). The government’s idea of a tourist attraction was what it said was Asia’s largest cast-iron bell, he recalls. What really rang his bell, however, was the sight of the Buddhist shrine perched in the nearby hills.

The shrine photo hangs among the other reminders of Gordon’s international journeys: Spain, Latvia, Turkey, China, Malaysia, Romania, Poland … dozens of framed photos, taken by his wife, Anne, representing all – or nearly all – of the countries visited by the Gordons over the past 30 years of far-wandering travel. Gordon never misses a beat as he walks a visitor through the collection, quickly and confidently naming each represented country.

He tells the story of the time he and Anne hired a Tibetan driver and his Jeep for a private tour of the Forbidden Land. The Chinese authorities only permitted westerners to see Tibet by way of a guided tour. The Gordons like to travel informally, without much in the way of fixed schedules, so he and Anne went on a tour for two. One particular memory from the trip still resonates with Gordon today: their Jeep driver had a single musical tape, containing just one song, played with merciless repetition over the course of the trip.

Gordon’s family history hinges on a travel story.

The Belgian connection: escape from Germany.

Gordon’s mother’s family fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s, abandoning their home near Berlin. A Belgian family took his mother in for a couple of years. Gordon’s mother, then just a child herself, eventually made it to safety in the United States.

Gordon grew up in and around New York City, coming of age in the 1960s and ’70s. But his Americanized mother never forgot the kindness of the Belgian family that rescued her from the Nazi horrors. In 1967, 22 years after the end of World War II, the Gordon family, Mark in tow, visited Belgium — and the family that had extended a saving hand to his mother.

As a high school student, Gordon traveled to Germany and stayed with a family, and he has stayed in close touch with them. “They are my adopted family, too,” he says of his German friends. He visits the German side of his “family” with some frequency, as his travels, personal and professional, often take him to Western Europe. He stays in close touch with his two German “sisters,” both teachers, and a “brother” who runs a prosperous wine distribution business from Hamburg, Germany.

He formed a similarly deep bond with a family in Costa Rica who hosted him as a teenager.

Even after visiting about 60 countries, Gordon’s thirst to visit far-away destinations remains unquenched.

A chance conversation with a seatmate on a flight to Maine led Gordon into the world of higher-education administration. His new acquaintance, upon learning of Gordon’s background, suggested Gordon might be interested in applying for the then-open position of dean of the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine. Intrigued, Gordon applied for the job. Although he lost out to a candidate with a stronger connection to the state of Maine, he decided to continue to test the waters. When the position of dean at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law opened up, he applied — and the school hired him to start in 2002.

He did have some previous graduate-level teaching as an associate professor at Columbia University in New York City, and as a teaching fellow/teaching assistant at the Kennedy School of Government and at Harvard College.

Bringing defiance into the world

Located midway between Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Toledo, Ohio, Defiance, Ohio, (2010 population: 16,494), derives its name from Fort Defiance, a key U.S. military outpost during the Northwest Indian War of the late 18th century. It’s also the county seat of Defiance County and home to Defiance College, a 167-year-old private liberal arts college. The school draws students primarily from the surrounding rural communities. Many students come from small-town backgrounds, with limited opportunities for traveling to distant places. It was there, in the midst of the bucolic splendors of northwestern Ohio, that Gordon’s burgeoning career in higher-education administration took him in 2009 to serve as college president.

“Many of the students came from the immediate area, from families of hard-working people who have lived in the area for generations and don’t travel much,” says Gordon, who remained at Defiance until accepting the dean’s job at Mitchell Hamline in 2015.

Gordon launched a program at the school that guaranteed an international experience for every student. The program was warmly received by students, from the sounds of it. Groups of student-athletes found themselves playing soccer and basketball in foreign lands; others landed in places like Costa Rica, Jamaica and Peru, where they performed community service work while learning about the local cultures.

Travel opens your mind, heart and eyes, Gordon says. When that happens to young people, good things happen in return, he says. On a soccer trip to the Netherlands, he rounded the kids up for a visit to the American Cemetery, the final resting ground for U.S. soldiers killed in fighting around the Dutch capital in World War II. Many of those fallen warriors were no older than the students themselves when they died, as one of the students noted to Gordon. Of all the lessons on display at the cemetery about the horrors of war, that one simple observation drove home the significance of the war to that student and many of his teammates, says Gordon.

The international travel program came with an unexpected benefit to Gordon, as well. “I didn’t realize at the time we were setting the program up that it meant that the president of the college got to travel all over the place with the students,” he says.

Dreams of the dairy farmer’s life fulfilled

Now that he’s worked his way west to the Twin Cities, Gordon resides a little closer to his adopted American family in Oregon. That family connection grew out of a trip he made to Mexico as a teenager. As part of the program, he met a nun from Oregon, Sister Juanita Villarreal, who connected him to a family with a dairy farm in Oregon. Gordon, big city kid that he was, had longed to work on a dairy farm. So when the opportunity to spend a summer with the cows on a farm near Hillsboro, Oregon, came up, he jumped.

“I learned how to milk cows and shingle roofs. It was great,” he says.

He also learned something about Catholic convent life. While on the farm, he visited Sister Juanita and the other nuns at the convent often. One day, he found himself out on a date with two girls from the convent’s parochial school body. The “date” was a suggestion from a sister at the convent; the girls, Adele and Betsy, took him to see the local dog races, thinking that would be of interest to an Easterner such as himself. Betsy had career interests in drama, but Adele stayed on to join the order, and today serves as president of the corporation that oversees the convent’s ministries. She is, of course, still a close friend to Gordon, as much a member of his greatly extended family as is the family of his former hosts on the dairy farm. Gordon reconnected with the Oregon friends and family last year, on a visit that included a trip to the St. Paul Rodeo, in St. Paul, Oregon.

His dairy farming days also held him in good stead on a trip he and his wife made to New Zealand some years back. Delayed en route by a herd of cattle crossing the highway way out in the outback, Gordon had nothing else to do but get out of the car and start chatting with the owner of the cattle, a local dairy farmer. Gordon’s dairy farming background provided a common ground for discussion, and soon enough the farmer had invited the Gordons over for dinner that night.

Gordon and his wife continue to stay in touch with New Zealanders they befriended on that trip, part of the couple’s ever-expanding global family.

Global ambitions for Mitchell Hamline too

Gordon hopes to expand international travel opportunities for students at Mitchell Hamline too. The school partners with other law schools that have programs in Malta, Galway (Ireland) and Chile, to offer reciprocal international studies programs between Mitchell Hamline and the various schools. Mitchell Hamline also offers its own programs in London, Jerusalem, and elsewhere.

Most recently, Gordon visited Norway on a mission to strengthen ties between Mitchell Hamline and its Norwegian counterparts. He fired up his linguistic skills for the trip, acquiring a rudimentary knowledge of the Norse country language so that he could speak a few words in the native tongue. The work paid off with an enhanced relationship with law schools in Tromsø and Bergen and with Tromsø’s promise to start sending students to study at Mitchell Hamline. Mitchell Hamline will also offer its students the opportunity to study in the Norwegian schools. A summer school program to send Mitchell Hamline students, and possibly some Minnesota judges, to Bergen for comparative criminal law studies is also under discussion.

What’s next on the travel horizon for Gordon? The World Atlas suggests that the world held 194 countries in 2016; the United Nations lists 193 members. If Gordon has set foot in about 60 countries, then he and his wife still have some work — pleasurable work, to be sure — to do to get to even the half-way mark.


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