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Florida educators try living in Lahore

After Peter Armacost retired as president of St. Petersburg's Eckerd College in 2000, he and his wife, Mary-Linda, settled into safe, comfortable lives as consultants. Then one night in May 2002 he popped a question as she lay in bed in their Vinoy Place condo.

How would you like to move to Lahore?

Lahore, as in Pakistan, the huge Muslim nation at the vanguard of the war on terror. The country where Osama bin Laden is thought to be hiding. Where U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl was beheaded. A place the State Department considers so dangerous that families of American diplomats are no longer allowed to live there.

Half asleep, Mary-Linda Armacost thought of none of this.

"In all candor, my first answer was, 'It's hot in Lahore.' Then I opened my eyes and looked at him and saw in his eyes the most marvelous sparkle. I said to myself, 'Mary-Linda, you're going to Lahore.' "

So at 67, Peter Armacost again became a college president, this time of a run-down, financially strapped Christian institution that had nearly fallen into the grip of Islamic extremists.

The Armacosts would embark on an 8,000-mile journey to a crowded, steamy city where they routinely mingle with Pakistan's elite yet live next door to wrenching poverty.

Along the way, mobs have stormed their house, smashed car windows and paraded around with a coffin bearing Armacost's name. But the couple also started their own school and watched illiterate mothers and grandmothers learn to read.

Little did Mary-Linda realize how prophetic it would be as she answered her husband that night in 2002:

"Lahore is hot, but gracious, it sounds interesting.''

25 burly wrestlers

Founded in 1864 by Presbyterian missionaries, Forman Christian College was once regarded as the finest college on the Indian subcontinent. Among its many notable alumni are Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who in his new book describes it as a beautiful place that "taught me independence."

In 1972, though, Forman began a sharp decline when a socialist-leaning government nationalized it and other private schools. Academic standards plunged, and as Islamic fundamentalism grew in Pakistan, Forman all but closed its doors to Christians.

Hoping to regain control of the school, the Presbyterian Church USA approached Armacost in 2002, his wife recalled.

"They said, 'We have this college in Lahore. We are trying to get it back and we have reason to believe we might be successful now that Musharraf is in power. But we need a president and you would be ideal,' and he truly was."

At Eckerd, Armacost had a distinguished career marred only by the discovery that poor investments and other expenditures had substantially reduced the endowment fund. He knew a lot about Pakistan, thanks to an Eckerd diplomat-in-residence, Jamsheed Marker, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States.

In June 2002, Armacost flew to Lahore, capital of Punjab province, and was hired on the spot to take over as president once the college was denationalized.

The campus, he saw, "was a mess." The grounds, renowned for their lush tropical landscaping, were dirty and overgrown. The stately red-brick buildings had been crudely whitewashed. Classrooms were overcrowded.

"The government had put no money into the college," Armacost said. "It was operating on a shoestring."

That wasn't the only problem. Punjab's governor had agreed Forman could return to private control, only to change his mind because of an uproar by faculty members afraid of losing their jobs.

Nonetheless, the Armacosts crated up their piano and furniture and moved to Lahore in January 2003. The welcome was not a warm one - the college still had a president, and professors shouted "Go back, Peter!" Some spray-painted his name on a casket and carried it to the provincial assembly.

Supporting the faculty were dozens of students from a radical Islamic group, Jamaat-e-Islami. Armed with AK-47s, they had long terrorized the campus and had a major voice in college affairs.

That March, an angry crowd marched on the Armacosts' home and started to scale the gates. The couple locked the doors, closed the curtains and sent an armed guard to the roof, with instructions to wave the weapon so demonstrators could see it. After much yelling, they finally dispersed.

The next day, Mary-Linda's muscles were so tense she couldn't move her head.

"But during that time I was totally calm. Not for a second did Peter and I have a discussion about going back. They thought if they could scare us into leaving, then the government would have no reason to give (the college) back because it wouldn't have a president. But after that, they realized they had simply lost the battle and the government turned it over" on March 19, 2003.

Even after denationalization, tensions continued. Another demonstration forced the postponement of final exams. Armacost didn't want armed guards on campus, so the governor sent over 25 beefy wrestlers for protection.

But as president, Armacost was finally able to start cleaning up the college. The red brick was restored, the sidewalks swept. New business and science buildings will ease classroom crowding.

Among the biggest challenges was getting a good faculty. Many professors failed to meet the new academic standards or remained violently opposed to denationalization. Others ran private "academies" that charged students steep fees for lessons they should have had in class.

Today, only 35 of the original 207 faculty members remain. But the staff is more diverse - 120 Muslims and 68 Christians, compared with just four Christians three years ago. The 3,878 students include 495 Christians, up from 20.

In a country that is 97 percent Muslim, Armacost said, "We're trying to be a model of interfaith harmony, and address one of the major problems of society today, which is Muslims versus Christians."

'No joy in their faces'

For the Armacosts, living in Lahore has been a series of culture shocks.

Mary-Linda is afraid to drive. In a city of 7-million, most of whom ignore traffic rules, "I'm horrified I'll run into a motorbike with five kids."

Living costs are so cheap, however, that the Armacosts were able to afford a driver, along with a cook and cleaner - all for just $350 a month. The servants and their families live in tiny cottages behind the main house.

"The most challenging thing was coming to grips with being so privileged in the midst of so many people who are not," Mary-Linda said. "There's poverty in St. Petersburg, but it's not literally next door."

In a country where government-run social services are almost nonexistent, the Armacosts quickly learned that employers are expected to be the safety net. When servants get sick, the Armacosts pay the doctor bills; they've also paid for weddings, a roof and a refrigerator.

Still, they struggled with a nagging question: "How to make a real difference and not just handouts?" Mary-Linda said.

A former college president, she was appalled that 65 percent of Pakistani women are illiterate, including those working in menial jobs on the Forman campus. So the Armacosts hired a teacher and started the Madeleine Case Sorber School, named after Mary-Linda's late mother.

Three times a week, 23 women meet in a classroom and practice reading and writing Urdu, their native language. One woman achieved an eighth-grade reading level in just one year. Some are learning English.

Before, "there was no joy in their faces, they were very meek and down," Mary-Linda said. "Now they have much more confidence. That's what thrills me."

As the women progressed, they realized what a poor education their children were getting in public schools. They begged the Armacosts to start classes for the kids; now, one woman studies upstairs while her four children study downstairs.

Since the furor over privatizing the college abated, the Armacosts have encountered nothing that "has made us feel unsafe or disliked," Mary-Linda said. They travel with only a driver, never a guard.

Still, anti-U.S. feelings spurred by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan run high enough that the number of Americans in Lahore has dropped to where they fit comfortably around the Armacosts' dining table. The couple's social circle now includes many of the Western-educated Pakistanis who make Lahore the country's intellectual and cultural capital.

The Armacosts "are our American angels," said Shamime Malik, the wife of the Anglican bishop of Lahore.

"Denationalizing this college is the only good thing Musharraf has ever done," Syeda Abida Hussain, a former diplomat, said of the Pakistani president.

A craving for red wine

The Armacosts plan to stay in Pakistan a few more years, long enough to see the college meet rigorous U.S. accreditation standards. Mary-Linda, 63, is wistful about eventually bidding farewell to Lahore.

"I'm in the most marvelous position," she said over tea in the high-ceiling living room of the president's house. "I hate leaving here and I hate leaving there."

She spends three months a year in the United States, checking on the Vinoy condo and teaching in a doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania. She also indulges cravings denied in a conservative Muslim country: bacon sandwiches, roast pork and a "lovely glass of red wine at dinner."

Her days are far busier in Lahore, where she takes Urdu and yoga lessons, plays the keyboard at church, serves on various boards and hosts frequent dinner parties, including five separate Thanksgiving meals.

Yet overall, "this is a much calmer, more spiritual life,'' she said. "I'm less materialistic, more focused on the people around me."

As for her husband, four more years of Pakistan may be enough.

"Then I'll be 75 and it'll be about time to come back and take it easy. Mary-Linda keeps saying, 'You can work until you're 90,' but I don't think that's in the cards."

Susan Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

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