U.N. chief helps dear friend in Va. mark 100th birthday

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 25, 2009

Forget a form-letter birthday card from the White House or the shout out from Willard Scott. When former high school history teacher and retired Red Cross worker Florence Tupper celebrated her 100th birthday Saturday at her retirement home in Alexandria, she wanted a personal visit from the secretary general of the United Nations.

And she got it.

"Friends, let us propose her continuing good health," said Ban Ki-Moon, hoisting a glass of wine in a corner of the nursing home dining room as curious seniors looked on. "Long live, 10,000 years, Florence Tupper."

Every birthday is special at the Fountains at Washington House, but those including advance visits from a State Department security team and three-car motorcades with police escort are extra exciting, and Tupper looked pleased and a little tired in her wheelchair. The secretary general, who flew in to be with his wife Saturday afternoon for the private visit, also made it to Tupper's 98th birthday party and has visited her several times at the modest brick high-rise just off Seminary Road.

"It's always so nice to see him," Tupper had said earlier in the day. "We've been friends for a long time."

The world's chief diplomat and the resident of Apartment 321 go back 47 years, when a young South Korean farm boy came to see the United States on an exchange program and Tupper was the volunteer "VISTA mother" who took him in. In 1962, Tupper, then 53, was based at a Red Cross field office in San Francisco. She offered to serve as a sponsor, guide and decipherer of American culture to 10 foreign students coming with the organization's Operation VISTA program.

"One of the things they all liked to talk about was what they wanted to be when they grew up," said Tupper, looking back half a lifetime from her small living room. "The boy from India wanted to be a writer; the girl from Canada wanted to be a nurse. The boy from South Korea said he wanted to be a statesman."

The 18-year-old Ban was a "tall, slender, nice-looking boy," Tupper said, adding that he stood out for his command of English and his solicitous manner. The group traveled the country for weeks, a tour capped by a visit to the White House to meet President John F. Kennedy.

Tupper fell out of touch with most of her wards after a few years. But Ban stayed in her life. When the Red Cross assigned Tupper to visit hospitals in Asia, she visited Ban in Seoul. When he was posted at the Korean Embassy, they exchanged dinners, she hosting people in her apartment at Seminary Towers in Alexandria, and he and his wife serving Korean food at their home in Potomac. Each year, Ban marked her birthday with a card or visit, even as he marched up the career ladder to ambassador, foreign minister and, ultimately, head of the United Nations.

"He's been very faithful," Tupper said.

And so as Tupper's family prepared to mark 100 years since she was born in Sharon, Pa. -- about the time the Wright Brothers delivered their first airplane to the military -- relatives were not too surprised to hear Ban would be on hand.

Ban said he was determined to mark 100 years of the woman he credits with introducing him to the broader world.

"That trip was really eye-opening for me," Ban said. "She showed me all the corners of American life. That really inspired me."

And then the head of the United Nations sat down to beef tenderloin with his one-time "VISTA mother" and her family. The worries of the world could hold for an hour or two. Swine flu could wait. And briefly, the only afghan at issue would be the one draped over his dear friend's lap, keeping her warm.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company