You May Not Be Able To Find Slovakia On A Map, But I Know The President
One of the 'perks' of my job is occasionally getting to 'rub elbows' with some well-known people.
Over the years, I've been lucky enough to cross paths with rock stars, actors, athletes, and comedians. But I never thought I'd be lucky enough to meet a President - until now.
Just last week, Slovakia elected its new leader, Andrej Kiska, a man who had never run for office before, and a man who I've just happened to know since 2007.
So how is it that the new President of a country in Eastern Europe and I are on a first name basis? We share a common bond: his daughter Natalia (or as we know her 'Natalie').
Back in early 2006, my wife and I were approached by ACES - American Cultural Exchange Service - about the possibility of hosting a foreign exchange student for the school year.
I had some experience with exchange students; my family had hosted a girl from Germany when I was in high school, and my sister spent a summer in Sweden as an exchange student.
My wife and I talked it over and decided with my oldest daughter heading off to college that fall, it made sense to host a student then.
In August of 2006, Natalie arrived from Slovakia and she immediately fit in with our family. She spoke nearly flawless English, was a straight 'A' student, was fun-loving and kind. Natalie attended Washington High School during the 2006-07 school year.
We were lucky enough to meet her mother and brother early on, but we didn't get a chance to meet her father, Andrej, until the spring of 2007.
He and I hit it off right away because we had some important things in common: we're the same age, we're both divorced and both had teenage children. But his life had been far more of an adventure than mine. He was raised in the old Czechoslovakia, a communist country, where he had spent time in the military before the fall of the Iron Curtain in the late 1980's.
Once he was free to pursue his dreams, he came to America in an attempt to try to start a business he could someday bring back to his home country. His initial attempts provided more challenges than successes, but he did eventually start his own business in Slovakia in the 90's - a very profitable credit company - that he sold in 2005.
He used the money he made in that sale to help start Good Angel, a charity that contributes money to the families of seriously ill children. I remember touring Sanford Children's Hospital with him in 2009, during his second visit to Sioux Falls, and know that it is his dream to someday build a facility like that for the sick children of Slovakia.
In between his visits to South Dakota, Andrej welcomed us to his hometown of Poprad in the summer of 2008. There, he was our personal tour guide for a few days, including one very memorable afternoon on the Dunajec River, which forms the border of Slovakia and Poland. That day we were treated to the hospitality of the locals, who made us 'honorary citizens' during a ceremony complete with native garb and the most elaborate 'toast' I've ever been a part of!
Our paths crossed again in May of last year, when Natalie graduated from Northeastern University in Boston. It was there that I first learned of Andrej's interest in running for President of Slovakia in March of the following year.
Since then, I've been checking the internet for the latest information, knowing that as a political outsider, he had his work cut out for him in a relatively short period of time.
But in typical Andrej fashion, he rolled up his sleeves and got to work, finishing second in the preliminary round of voting March 15th, forcing a March 29th runoff election with the top vote getter in round one, the current Prime Minister Robert Fico.
During that two week stretch, Andrej went from 455,996 votes (24%) to 1,307,065 votes (59.4%) to become Slovakia's fourth President since the country gained independence in 1993. He will be officially sworn-in June 15th.
Congratulations Mr. President!
Thanks again for sharing your wonderful daughter with us, and for your friendship.
I'm here for you if you ever need an ambassador or something...