It seemed like a dream retirement job in an idyllic desert nation when Dennis and Diane Herris left Canton Township in August to teach overseas for two years. Six months later, the 60-year-olds found themselves in the midst of a violent revolution, unable to book a flight out of their host country as they heard gunfire outside the school’s walls.
It seemed like a dream retirement job in an idyllic desert nation when Dennis and Diane Herris left Canton Township in August to teach overseas for two years.
Six months later, the 60-year-olds found themselves in the midst of a violent revolution, unable to book a flight out of their host country as they heard gunfire outside the school’s walls.
Last week, the U.S. State Department helped the Herrises, fellow Malone University graduates Bruce and Tammi Shreve and about 180 other Americans safely flee from Libya, an Arab nation experiencing unrest and a developing civil war due to the government’s ruthless crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.
The Herrises and the Shreves were among 338 passengers who endured a rough, eight-hour ferry ride Feb. 25 chartered by the State Department from Libya’s capital, Tripoli, to the island nation of Malta.
They didn’t depart for about two days due to choppy waves on the Mediterranean Sea, as White House officials fretted that the Libyan regime might take the Americans hostage.
Despite the turmoil, the Herrises, who spoke this week with The Repository by phone from their hotel in Malta, say they want to return to the nation and Libyans that they grew to love during their six-month stay.
“They were just very, wonderful people, and the school was very amazing,” Diane Herris said. “Very hard to leave. Which is why to a person there is not one person from the school that I’ve talked to that doesn’t want to go back.”
Last year, the Herrises spoke with their longtime friends, the Shreves, who asked the couple to join them as one of about 27 teachers at the American School of Tripoli. Many of the 160 students from 35 nations are children of diplomats, American expatriates and other nationals.
The Shreves had taught for years at overseas schools and knew the Herrises through their association with Malone and a church organization. Bruce Shreve’s parents also live in Canton.
It sounded like an amazing opportunity for the Herrises. Dennis retired after 11 years of teaching music at Canton South High School; his wife Diane worked as a Canton City Schools teacher’s aide.
“People in general would say to us, ‘You’re going to Libya? Is it safe there?’ ” Diane Herris sai d. “We’ve found it extraordinary.”
Upon arriving in Libya, Dennis Herris became the school’s music teacher while Diane was a first-grade teacher. They settled into a lifestyle that included relaxing at cafes along the Mediterranean, joining an Anglican church and going on a desert excursion.
Around Feb. 16, a few days after protesters in neighboring Egypt successfully pressured the nation’s president to resign, protests began in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.
Page 2 of 3 - Diane Herris sent an Internet message to her daughter, Krista Hussar, 32, of Bethlehem Township, that said the couple was fine. After all, the protests were taking place far from Tripoli in western Libya.
Within days, the unrest had spread to Tripoli.
The regime shut down cell phone and Internet service as pro-government mercenaries reportedly shot at unarmed protesters. Dennis and Diane Herris lived on the outskirts of the city, so while they saw a greater number of checkpoints, they did not witness any violence.
However, Libyans who worked at the school said they had witnessed shootings or feared for family members who were missing, the couple said.
Fearing she would lose contact with her teachers amid the chaos, the American School’s director later instructed the faculty to pack a suitcase and come in a convoy of vehicles the next morning to stay at the school, which had security guards and limited satellite Internet service.
The Herrises took Dennis’ valued trombone, his laptop, a few days of clothes, Diane’s purse and Dennis’ gym bag. They didn’t know that they wouldn’t be returning to their Tripoli home. Though they were stopped at a checkpoint, the convoy got to the school safely.
On the night of Feb. 22, the couple heard machine guns firing, horns blowing, yelling and possibly firecrackers.
“It got evident it was safer to not be there,” Dennis Herris said. “It just made you realize there’s a lot of unrest going on, and it’s getting closer to where we were.”
By that week, the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli was urging all Americans to leave. The Herrises tried to book a plane to Italy but flights were repeatedly canceled. The airport in Tripoli was overwhelmed with a frenzied exodus of expatriates.
By then, the embassy had chartered a ferry to take the Americans to Malta. The staff at the American School departed early on Feb. 23 in a caravan of five minivans. They managed to get to the port through the central area of Tripoli during a lull in the violence.
After the Americans’ passports were stamped, the ferry was unable to leave for two days due to high waves. Dennis Herris spent the time watching on the ferry’s monitors Disney cartoons, Disney movies and the Star Wars trilogy. He noticed the number of guards had increased at the port.
Another of the Herrises’ daughters, Rebecca Fostyk, 27, of North Canton, became concerned when she lost contact with her parents. She called the office of U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci, R-Wadsworth, whose staffer contacted the State Department to find out her parents’ status. Her father was able to get a cell connection on the ferry and call her.
Page 3 of 3 - Amid wind, cold and rain, the ferry finally set sail at 1 p.m. and arrived in Malta more than eight hours later. Diane Herris got seasick. After they disembarked, they gave an interview to a CBS news crew, which their daughter Krista Hussar later saw on television.
“I was so relieved to see a picture of her,” Hussar said.
Jean Shreve of Canton said she saw her son Bruce Shreve on CNN after he got off the ferry.
“You just don’t know how relieved I am,” she said. “I know they left so much behind, but they’re out with their lives, and that’s the main thing.”
She said her son, a 1978 Malone graduate, and daughter-in-law, a 1981 Malone graduate, were heading back to their home in Naples, Fla.
Once in Malta, the Herrises said they would fly to Rome, then New York and return to Canton by late this week. The Herrises plan to get acquainted with the four grandchildren who were born after they left, but their hearts are still in Libya.
“We became so engaged in life in Libya and with the people and with our kids at school,” Dennis Herris said. “It really makes us sad. ... we know the (Libyan) people just desire to have choices and right now, they’re not allowed to do that.”
“What we’ve experienced and the changes we’ve had to make abruptly are nothing compared to what our friends in Libya are dealing with right now,” Diane Herris said. “I’m just desperately sad for the people in Libya. It was very hard to leave.”