Swedish exchange student returns to walk Tyler

Published on Thursday, 26 June 2014 20:48 - Written by BY EMILY GUEVARA, eguevara@tylerpaper.com

The first time Erik Reudersw¦rd, of Sweden, set foot in Tyler he was a 16-year-old exchange student who had never traveled to the United States.

Now, 50 years and many travels later, he is touring the city on foot taking in all the sites and seeing what has changed.

“I have never experienced Tyler on foot,” Reudersw¦rd, 66, said.

So far, he has toured downtown, visited the gravesites of his host parents Judge Connally and Glee McKay, and stopped by their old house and his Tyler high school, Robert E. Lee.

“Everything I’ve seen, I actually haven’t seen for 50 years,” he said.

Reudersw¦rd was raised in Link￶ping, a city in southern Sweden about halfway between Stockholm and Gothenburg.

As he tells it, his parents wanted to make a man of him. So, his father, a Rotarian, had him participate in an international exchange program through Rotary.

Reudersw¦rd had never traveled to the U.S. and had never heard of Tyler, but said it was similar in size to his hometown. So he thinks that may have been why they placed him here.

It was a long flight across the Atlantic Ocean, “both terrifying and exciting,” he said. Upon arriving in New York, he and another Swedish exchange student visited the 1964 New York World’s Fair. After a car ride from New York to Tyler, he started his East Texas adventure.

The first thing he remembers about Mrs. McKay was that she was shocked by his size.

“He’s just a little boy,” he said she said at the time. The McKays, who had two daughters and one son, lived on West Second Street. Only their son, Robert, lived at home.

During his stay, from 1964 to 1965, Reudersw¦rd attended Lee. But he didn’t exactly make a splash on the social scene at school.

“It took me until after Christmas until I started talking,” he said.

“I became a bit of a loner there, and it was hard to have friends because I didn’t have a car, you see,” he said.

Still, he excelled at school and learned a lot about history and English.

Much of his time here was spent at church, which was something he was not accustomed to from his life in Sweden.

He said the Swedish are “not as into religion” as he found East Texans to be. In Tyler, he spent time at Green Acres Baptist Church on Sundays and Wednesdays.

“The greatest experience in church, of course, was singing the hymns,” he said.

“How Great Thou Art” was his favorite because of its ties to Sweden. The Christian hymn is based on a Swedish poem, and the melody is a Swedish folk song.

“When I realized that, I (felt) good,” Reudersw¦rd said.

He also remembers visiting the Blackstone Hotel and the Willow Brook Country Club.

The year he was here, the McKays’ daughter Elaine was the Texas Rose Queen, which was an exciting time for the family, he said.

He also traveled to Colorado with Young Life, a trip he said was a “great experience.”

He grew several inches during his yearlong stay in Tyler, which helped his social skills.

“I was not comfortable socially until I got a little bigger,” he said.

Upon returning to Sweden, he completed two more years of high school and one year of military service.

Although he studied architecture in Stockholm, he went to work teaching English, Swedish and math to high school students. Later, he taught adults, and now he is semi-retired.

Although he has visited Tyler since his exchange year, he has never walked the city, which is what he set out to do this time.

Over the years, Reudersw¦rd has become quite a walker, making extensive trips every year on his own two feet.

In 1991, he walked the Swedish coast, which spans about 2,000 miles from the Finnish border to Norway.

He’s walked the coasts in Denmark, France, Spain, Russia, Greece, Croatia and Turkey.

He has walked the Alps and did what he calls an “Iron Curtain” walk from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean.

Once he ran out of Europe, he thought, “Should I take the step to the U.S.?”

And he did. In 2000, he started in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, and walked down the coast to Key West, Florida.

He typically walks about 6 miles an hour and covers between 25 and 30 miles a day — his record is 40 miles.

Reudersw¦rd said on his trips, he typically tries to stay with locals or in hostels, which makes it cheaper. He eats in the morning and evening and doesn’t eat during the day while he is walking.

“What you learn is of course to depend on yourself,” he said. “You’ve got plenty of time to think.”

A huge Elvis Presley fan, Reudersw¦rd sings Elvis songs to entertain himself as he walks. He said his love of Elvis has opened doors with strangers.

His journeys also have brought him into harm’s way. He has been chased by wild dogs, spent the night in an abandoned building and was hit in the groin by a full beer can thrown from a vehicle.

He doesn’t bring much with him on his travels. He carries a Karrimor rucksack that weighs about 12 pounds when full.

He wears white T-shirts and khaki shorts, with size 11 Asics athletic shoes and socks. On this trip, he is carrying five to six white shirts with him and about six of everything else.

Elaine McKay Harman, 67, of Dallas, one of the three McKay siblings, said she has known Reudersw¦rd as an adult more than she did when he was an exchange student. That’s because he’s visited her and her husband in Dallas.

“My parents enjoyed having him, and he enjoyed being a student at Robert E. Lee and going to Green Acres Baptist Church with Mother and Daddy,” she said. “It was a mutually enjoyed experience.”

She said it’s wonderful that Reudersw¦rd has so many special memories of Tyler and the relationships built here and experiences he had.

“I think the city as much as possible opened their arms to him, and I guess that’s why he wanted to come back,” she said.