U.S. Information Agency / Samantha Smith Grant – Mainor School of Economics, Tallinn, Estonia & North Atlanta H. S.
Introduction: 1990 – A dream year of teachable moments for the Social Studies:
1990 was a social studies teacher’s dream year. My traveling through the Soviet Union at the end of 1989 added urgency to my lessons on the extraordinary transitional period the world was experiencing with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Cold War suddenly ended with a whimper; the remaining scars of World War II were erased virtually overnight. A great new Europe, the unification of West and East unified, was in the making. Those people who knew how to successfully lead these new states from communism to pluralistic democracy were stepping up to become the leaders of a new Europe.
The year before I had had the pleasure of being a teacher – chaperon on a new Close Up Foundation summer learning program. The study tour taught high school students the history of the European Union and how it worked in the three capitals – Brussels, Strasbourg, Luxembourg – from “Close Up”. At that time, the EU included nine tightly integrated western European economies. A year later, a new Central Europe was born and immediately asked to be integrated into the EU which was thrilled by this historic opportunity. A vision for a phased integration of a Europe stretching from Iceland and Ireland to the Urals Mountains was at hand and began to move forward.
The theme and purpose for the Close Up study tour was that the Europe of 1988 worked splendidly. The nine nations had achieved an amazing level of free trade and political cooperation. A special focus of the trip was a visit to Bonn, Germany for a “close up” examination of the efficiency of the minimalist-sized, German government located in the small, sleepy, river city. Since the capital was moved to Berlin, who goes to Bonn anymore? Or even heard of it recently?
The Close Up tour afforded me the opportunity to meet many European leaders in government, business, and academia. When my wife Sue and I began planning for a 1990 summer tour of Central Europe and the Baltic States, I was able to line up many leaders and experts to consult with while passing through their countries.
We landed in Frankfurt, acclimated, then took a train to Prague, Czechoslovakia. A few years later, the Czechs and Slovaks decided that they had little in common and amicably divorced. A preoccupation among some Americans at the time was which of the old / new Central European nations would achieve economic take off first? Essentially, which countries still retained enough knowledge of capitalism and entrepreneurship sufficient to start up a business and create jobs and wealth. The early betting was on Prague and the Czechs because they were a Germanic people; also the Estonians because they had been so good at it before communism.
From 1947 to 1949, 80,000 Estonian men were rounded up by the KGB and deported to Soviet Gulag camps in Siberia – that was over 20% of the male population. The crime of the deported capitalists was that they were guilty of knowing how to start up or manage a business. The workers, who did not possess this skill set or risk-taking mentality, were put in charge. The sons of the workers not deported grew up yearning for a better life and tried to make money on the side.
In 1984, Michael Gorbachev, was trying to save communism by reforming it – actually adding inputs of capitalism to economically restructure (perestroika) the socialist system. Gorbachev looked around to see who still had enough entrepreneurship knowledge and moxie to make a private company work. A wood making and furniture company in Estonia called Mainor was brought to his attention. Supposedly, the company had a deal with Ikea to provide plywood and inexpensive furniture. With western contacts, the company stood a chance of success so Gorbachev blessed the new Mainor Group as the first private company in his new Soviet Union.
June 1990: Prague and Czechoslovakia – When There Was Almost Nothing
The optimistic view that Prague and the Czech Republic would become a beautiful city and prosperous country – and tourist magnets – has proved very true. But in June 1990, there was only one private business, a café that served good coffee and bakery goods. There was a modern high rise hotel that was just being taken over by a western hotel management group and served decent food. But we had the privilege and good fortune of befriending many warm and witty Czech people who showed us sides of Prague few Americans saw at that time.
Before we were to depart, a Prague professor inquired of our next stop and how we were getting there? “Budapest and the train.” “Why the train?” he asked. “To see the countryside”. I said. “What’s to see – the communists destroyed the countryside – collectivized all the farms and dismantled peasant life, the villages are in ruins, the land is a big green rolling nothingness of un-ripened wheat fields.”
Sue and I were both shocked the next days prospects – she looked at me with great worry in her eyes. I could only shrug my shoulders and resign myself. “We leave in an hour – it’s too late to change to a plane, I guess we must do it – sure will be a journey.” He hugged us and said that we would survive the train – Sue was not comforted by that. We went to the train station only to learn it was not the right one – ours was located across the city. A sweet woman agent was a saint and voluntarily helped lug our bags and almost carry Sue onto a crowded bus, then an even more crowded subway train. By some miracle, we made it just as the train to Budapest was starting to move and she managed to get us on board.
But the hard part was just beginning. The train, old rolling stock poorly maintained by the bankrupt communist government, was filthy, the toilets were littered with turds on the floor, gypsies and farm animals roamed the corridors. Sue was miserable and let me know it. She was right – it was disgusting and the conditions were impossible to ignore. The country-side was as barren and boring as the professor had described. About ten of the worst hours imaginable passed and we finally entered Hungary. It seemed that we were leaving night and entering the light of day.
Hungary: A light unto Sue
The countryside was suddenly dotted with small farms and a far more visually interesting landscape. Relaxed people trimmed grape vines, rode tractors, walked the pedestrian streets of attractive villages that came and went. Sue perked up and was smiling as she left Budapest Station. Limited private enterprise in Hungary was permitted and vastly improved the countryside’s quality of life and the restaurants of Budapest. From there, we flew to Warsaw, Poland and met with a number of personable academics before flying off to Moscow in order to catch a flight to Riga, Latvia from where we would head north to Estonia Finland, Sweden, Norway and finally Berlin. Gorbachev had closed Lithuania that month in a feeble attempt to keep them in the Soviet Union.
Riga, Latvia: Under communism, we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.
Perestroika had yet to make it to Riga – there was the usual one hotel with the only restaurant. I prepared Sue for my bribery attempt with; “In communism, we pretend to work, they pretend to pay us.” The waiters pretended to be waiters, they sat and watched us, the only patrons. I held up a $5 bill and three packs of Marlboro’s – they scampered over like all normally attentive, professional waiters. I instructed them they would earn my tip after two nights of serving us dinner. I noticed that the menu listed 4 entrée choices: beef, pork, chicken, fish. The waiters informed us the kitchen only had roast chicken and roasted potatoes, the only dish they had in stock. The food was decent and the waiters motivation remained pumped up both nights. They even managed to scavenge some caviar, beer and wine – that earned them another $5 bonus. At that point in time, $5 was equal to a month’s wages.
The morning that we were leaving Riga to take the train to Tallinn, Estonia, we overheard in the hotel lobby an American couple from Ohio telling another couple from New York that whatever they do, don’t take the train. “It’s terrible, dirty, a nightmare”; the woman from Ohio repeated twice. Sue, thinking of the hellish ride to Budapest, started to cry – the couple noticed and figured; “Ahh, you’re headed to Tallinn, right?” “Yep”; I shrugged. “Don’t do it.” He said with urgency in his voice. My eyes and hands begged for his advice.
He points to the cabs in front of the hotel and says; “Do what I did – find a Russian taxi driver, offer him $50 and a carton of Marlboro’s and a six pack of coke and he’ll drive you to Siberia.” “Tallinn’s close enough…thanks.” We walked up to a Russian taxi driver and offered him our deal. Vladmir flashed a big smile and off we went to Tallinn 250 miles to the north. We fed him smokes and Cokes and as he chewed up the rough road in his compact Lada.
Four hours later, we pulled into Tallinn having crossed a country-side bereft of toilets and other convenience stops – communists didn’t invest much in plumbing, no one was supposed to move around. The one big hotel with the one restaurant was down by the harbor and Old Town where the sole privately owned café had opened. The next day in front of the hotel I was approached by an Estonian man about my age and size. He recognized that I was an American, begged for the opportunity to speak English to improve his, and offered to introduce me to the leaders of the Singing Revolution. Uno gave me a slip of paper with an address located on the main square and to meet him in an hour.
I later walked to the big square where an elderly lady was denouncing the past Soviet sins against the Estonian people. I waited for Uno in the doorway – a half hour went by and no Uno. Finally, I stepped forward and a man waiting in the next doorway did so too. We look at each other in wonder. The address was 37-39. I went to 37, he went to 39. Uno led me to the below amphi-theater which he called Ground Zero of Estonian independence from the Soviet Union and freedom.
Dr. Uno Traat: The Singing Revolution and the Rebirth of Estonia and Tallinn:
Dr. Uno Traat was born in 1947. His father was not a laborer, so he was not deported but still listened nightly to the Voice of America broadcasts which really kept hope for freedom alive in the Baltic States. As a child, once a year at Estonian Christmas time, he was given a slice of bread and butter sprinkled with a little sugar – his lone annual dessert and treat. But they subsisted alright on the fatty beef and pork, potatoes, cabbage, beets and brown Russian bread. Uno grew up to become a sociologist / anthropologist with a Estonian national focus.
When the Velvet Revolutions swept Central Europe, the moment to free them selves bubbled up among the Estonians. One day 20,000 people, about 5% of the nation, assembled in the above amphitheater and sang national folk songs that had been banned by the Soviets for 40 years. That was the moment of Estonian emotional independence from Moscow and the people set out to rebuild their nation. Uno Traat dedicated himself to restoring the traditional culture and began working on a vision of a theme park that illustrated traditional life before the Soviet takeover.
Uno Traat becomes the first Marketing Manager of Mainor
Uno and I accomplished a lot during a short two hours – we met with other leaders of the independence movement in the Old Town Café – and made plans to stay in touch and set up a network after I returned to Atlanta. Sue and I finished up our tour of Scandinavia and Berlin and returned to our busy lives. Uno and I traded short updates of our projects and activities over the next two years. One day in 1994, Uno announced that he was the Marketing Manager for the Mainor Group. Mainor, under the leadership of Mr. Toomas Saals, had expanded from wood and furniture making to diversification in to chemicals, IT, marketing, hair products, and had started the first private business college to train the new business and marketing professionals who would build the economy. Mainor was also a joint distributer of Acer Computers in Estonia.
Uno’s first goal for the new business college was to partner the Mainor School of Economics with North Atlanta H. S. as it was important to develop friendship and trade relations with western organizations. He had befriended the new local U. S. Information Officer stationed in Tallinn and had interested her in sponsoring Mainor to engage in a Samantha Smith Program funded student exchange.
North Atlanta and Mainor: The Last Samantha Smith Grant awarded before Congress and Newt Gingrich abolished it.
Samantha Smith was a young Maine elementary school student in 1985 when she wrote to Soviet Premier Michael Gorbachev to plead that the U. S. and Soviet Union try harder to avoid conflict. She was a little girl and wanted to live in a more peaceful world. Gorbachev recognized a public relations gain and invited her to come to Russia and witness how hard they worked for peace. Samantha Smith took Gorbachev up on it, she visited, was shown many examples, and left feeling better about the chance’s of peace being maintained.
Several years later, Samantha Smith suddenly died in a tragic plane crash. The chill in U. S. – Soviet relations had thawed a bit and she was given some credit for the improvement. Congress honored her memory by increasing funding of U. S. – Soviet student and other types of exchanges. Over the next six years, many high schools, colleges and universities, cultural groups engaged in exchanges to help build common structures. First Lady Hillary Clinton spearheaded a new program that reached out to the New Independent States of Central Asia – “the Stans”. Gingrich also wished to reform the Cold War inspired programs to meet the new, emerging realities which was realistic. Uno and I made a special effort to submit a grant proposal under the deadline.
After school let out in June, I chaperoned a North Atlanta High IBP group that was enrolled in a three week long Marketing course offered by Gateshead College located on the other side of the Tyne River in Newcastle, England. I took off for a couple of days to visit Mainor and Tallinn to assure North Atlanta Administration, parents, students and the Atlanta Public Schools that the Mainor School could satisfactorily host the Atlanta delegation. I was impressed by the Mainor School and Mainor Group’s resources and capacity to host my students and show them an appropriate time. I was received by Mainor Director Mrs. Maia Oblikas who over the next decade would open eleven Mainor School branches located across Estonia. Mrs. Oblikas was a very able and formidable partner, a woman of vision and energy, and a great pleasure to have shared this magnificent venture with.
The visit coincided with the celebration of St. John’s Days, an important national holiday. The Mainor hosts took me to lunch at the Hotel Pirita and to Toompea for dinner Saturday night. On Sunday, we toured the National Park of Lahemaa and Rakvere and I headed back to Newcastle to join my students on a side trip to the Scottish Highlands.
(Top) Arnold Heller and Maia Oblikas in a Tallinn restaurant. (Above) Uno Traat, Arnold Heller, Maia Oblikas and a Mainor student visiting a new Estonian national park.
Sharing a good Estonian country lunch meal (top left). (Top right) Being taught Estonian folk dance by young maiden (top right). Touring Uno’s ethnic heritage theme park.
History of the development of the first private business college established in post-Soviet Estonia:
Mainor School hosting schedule for North Atlanta students:
Documentation of North Atlanta student delegation of their student exchange to Estonia and side trips to Latvia and Lithuania:
I am smiling for Maricela Chavez’s camera during our flight to Tallinn, Estonia.
Ami Chan getting in to taxi to meet up with her host family and head home for evening.
Picture of Old Town Tallinn taken by Ami Chan.
Famous church in Viljandi.
NAHS students got creative at the Estonian National History Museum.
Luis Uribe and Lawanda Cooper cook a group spaghetti dinner.
Maricela, Lauren, and their teacher playing in the snow at Sangaste Castle in southern Estonia.
Mainor opened a fabulous nightclub / discothèque that honored the exchange with a party the night before leaving. Maia Oblikas and I, celebrating a very successful and enjoyable tour of Tallinn, Estonia, and the Baltic States, with some nifty moves on the dance floor.
The Mainor students did a great job hosting the North Atlanta delegation and kick back as they celebrate a new partnership.
Highlight: Ervin Latimore had been an NBA power forward who while playing in Europe discovered Estonia and the absence of Tex-Mex food. He opened his Mexican Restaurant in 1993 and became a Tallinn fixture. Mr. Latimore generously treated the group to platters of Tex-Mex dishes and Kansas City style ribs which they ravenously consumed.
Stephen Helin and Lwanda Cooper catch up on stories missed during past couple of weeks in Baltic States.
I wish to recognize and thank Mr. Toomas Saals, Mainor Group Director, Maia Oblikas, Mainor School Director, Mr. Uno Traat who helped develop Estonia’s armed forces and police training academy for the friendship, support, vision that they shared with me. Many other Estonian people worked hard on our behalf to make our visit comfortable and memorable. Mainor and North Atlanta would jointly participate in four Super-Exchanges held in four different countries. Toomas and Maia valued North Atlanta’s global network of audacious sister schools as a means of Estonians connecting with the greater world. And they invested hugely in helping to expand that network and strengthen the bonds. I will always be grateful to these three significant Estonian patriots who played a critical role in building the International Business Programs.
Mainor School Visits North Atlanta H. S. Dec. 1 – 21, 1995
Limited North Atlanta profile and overview of student exchange hosting challenges:
The International Business Program annually averaged from 1994 – 2004 two or more student exchanges abroad and also received two groups a year at home – some years that included a Super-Exchange (five or more countries). The active exchange program revealed a key truth about humans that hosted visitors: Nine to ten days – two weekends wrapped around a work week – was ideal for busy families spread across a large geographic district to extend themselves without problems developing. The formula was:
· Guests arrive, acclimate over the weekend, receive a welcoming party and Sunday tour of city with visits to interesting pockets / places / attractions
· Visiting school delegation arrives at school in morning along with host student ready for on-campus learning activity or off-campus educational experience
· Final weekend: Friday night recreational activity with host student, Saturday night farewell party, Sunday airport send-off.
This formula worked very well and still does – evidence being the 2011 Atlanta Sister Cities Commission Sixth Super-Exchange that successfully employed it. The Mainor exchange, however, was for three weeks. The range of North Atlanta IBP and sister school programs was normally 15 – 18; Mainor being a business college, averaged 19 – 22, two of whom were 25 or more and married with a child or two. These two factors made home placement particularly difficult.
A third factor was North Atlanta’s location in the upscale Buckhead residential district – the Mainor students arriving at the school for the first time assumed that they would be staying in one of the million dollar homes surrounding the campus. North Atlanta was a magnet school – it’s student body was drawn from across the City of Atlanta to foster integration. North Atlanta was blessed with multiple fine academies (IB, IBP, Performing Arts, other small group clusters) that met the critical mass of student learning needs required for a strong culture of achievement. The school’s strength was drawn from students of different backgrounds – wealthy to poor – having shared interests, ability to communicate with each other, and find their place in respective academic tracts. North Atlanta’s great success was the school’s ability to mute the differences of race and social class through high quality instruction, high academic expectations, meaningful applications for real life preparation.
Some Mainor students were placed in nearby mansions and were thrilled by the opportunity to experience upscale America. But given the IBP’s mission, many of the program’s students were minority group members of working class to lower-middle class, socio-economic status. Other Mainor students, finding themselves in a modest ranch house on the south side of Atlanta hosted by a family of limited means, balked, bolted and placed themselves in more comfortable circumstances. These students did not appear to be – nor act – racist in any manner – they pleaded that they had not come to America to live with a poor family and struggle. I viewed their pleas as misguided expectations over-ruling any personal concerns about hurting host family feelings. An expanding group of students began staying with Nancy Lynah, a sweet, generous business education teacher who hosted Maia Oblikas.
We all worked through the housing challenge by providing an excellent daily program and the Estonians unfailingly good manners over the course of two weeks. During this time, the delegation made friends with other North Atlanta teachers. Gifted Teacher Bob Grillo brought the whole group with him to Florida to stay at his family’s house in St. Petersburg for several days during the third week. Maia Oblikas was known for her fondness for the line; “Alls well that ends well” which was the case in North Atlanta’s wonderful tour of Latvia and Lithuania that happily occupied our second week in the Baltics.
Mainor School of Economics Itinerary for Dec. 1 – 21, 1995 visit to North Atlanta H. S.:
Sampling of key activities provided the Mainor School of Economics delegation:
Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) provision of seminar for Mainor School Delegation:
Marketing seminar with Mr. Albert Maslia, President of Social Expressions (novelty items):
Mainor School participates in Super-Exchange I hosted by North Atlanta H. S. April 19 – 28, 1997
List of Super-Exchange I School Delegations / Participants:
Mainor School of Economics, Tallinn, Estonia:
Ms. Tiiu Voodla, Group Leader – hosted by Meg Taylor and family
Ms. Olga Katina, Mainor School Secretary – hosted by Jennifer Stuart and family
Kaarel Saal – son of Toomas Saal – hosted by Luis Uribe and family
Rasmus Lindma – hosted by Jonas Rueckel and family
Iviku Palatu – hosted by Lauren Rigg and family
Crisly Tammekivi – hosted by Griselda Tinoco and family
Riga Commerce School, Riga, Latvia:
Mrs. Sandra Rone, Academic Dean – hosted by Hershene Borrin and family
Ivo Chapin – hosted by June Neumark and family
Ilmars Poikins – hosted by Stephen Helin and family
Martins Lapsam – hosted by Fielding Carter and family
Aiga Goldmane – hosted by Lawanda Cooper and family
Aigars Lusis – hosted by Kartrina Clowers and family
Montego Bay High School, Montego Bay, Jamaica, West Indies:
Mr. Michael Willis, Business Education Instructor – hosted by Arnold Heller and family
Alexis Chin – hosted by Dionne Lewis and family
Toby Chung – hosted by Nikki Marshall and family
Anju Held, – hosted by Amber Adams and family
Juanita Reid – hosted by Bobbi Johnson and family
Michelle Forrester – hosted by Lakisha Knight and family
Talia Cooke – hosted by Talia Reid and family
Gateshead College, Newcastle, England:
Victoria Reed – hosted by John Yeargin and family
SE I Farewell Party Cake Mr. Michael Willis having fun with a six foot long sandwich.
SE I Proposal: Establish the Network of Cooperative Global Business Education Programs (NCGBEP), formerly the Arc of Enterprise Entrepreneurship & Trading Network
United States Information Agency (USIA) Contracts Compliance: Meet / surpass all thematic objectives:
Mainor School and Riga Commercial School involvement in Super – Exchange II hosted by Montego Bay High School, Jamaica: Included students from Port O’Spain, Trinidad
and Salcedo, Dominican Republic too:
Michael Willis taught a basic accounting class and provided a business foundation lesson.
Estonian students shop for metal art pieces (wine racks, candle holders) at a fabricator’s outlet store.
Super – Exchange III hosted by Mainor School in Tallinn, Estonia April 17 – 22, 1999; Riga Commercial School April 22 – 27, 1999
Tallinn skyline and panorama of thousand year Old Town.
Mainor School and business entrance. Mr. Toomas Saals, Director
Mainor School farewell party for Super – Exchange III
North Atlanta and Montego Bay girls go out on town for evening in Old Town Tallinn.
Riga Commerce School Welcoming Party Riga Commerce School host students
The words Thank You are inadequate in describing the contributions to International Business Program development made by Dr. Jurisch Stebbins, the first Principal and later
Director of the outstanding Riga Commerce School in Riga, Latvia. Dr. Stebbins, a brilliant man with a mission to make Latvian education the equal of any nation, virtually built the Riga Commerce School with his bare hands to become the best private / public high school in the country. Dr. Stebbins later renovated the Latvian educational system with the latest, best practices and data driven applications. Jurisch involved the Riga Commerce School in four of five Super-Exchanges and two other exchanges with North Atlanta over the years.
I believe that Jurisch is one of the greatest educators I have ever met and it was an honor to have worked so closely with him.
The same applies to Mrs. Tatyana Strauthmane, the second Riga Commerce School Principal. Tatyana was a tireless advocate of maintaining the special partnership between the Riga Commerce School and North Atlanta High School. She, too, was a great contributor to the IBP mission and made us feel like members of the family when we stayed with her.
Mainor School of Economics joins North Atlanta High and Montego Bay H. S. for Girls in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad for Super-Exchange IV
After Super – Exchange IV, there was a pause in the great Mainor – North Atlanta partnership. Mainor was unable to send a delegation to SE V in Atlanta that was sponsored by the Global Catalyst Foundation. A temporary change in Mainor leadership caused the rupture until Toomas Saals regained control of what was becoming a large equity company.
Summary of North Atlanta High School & Mainor School of Economics partnership 1994 – 2004: