Sheila Burrell’s eyes well up when talking about the recent reunion with her German exchange student, Frank Leyk.
“He once was lost, and now he’s found,” she smiles.
Leyk lived with John and Sheila Burrell and their son John, Jr. from 1981-82 through the American Field Service exchange program.
“It was serendipitous to get an exchange student that year,” Sheila says. “The school contacted us and asked us to consider it. It didn’t take us long to decide ‘yes.’ We’d always had other kids living with us, so we just thought we’d add another. We didn’t expect it to turn into a love affair with this young man. He still calls us Mom and Dad.”
Leyk was a senior at ECS that year. He made friends with just about everyone in the school and town, and he was a wonderful athlete, says John. Having played soccer (European football) for many years in Berlin, Mark Ward, who was the football coach at the time, asked Frank if he thought he could kick an American football. “Why not?” said Leyk. And so he did, and immediately became the team’s star kicker. He also was an MVP with the basketball team under coach Tim Bergan. And, of course, he’s a skier and enjoyed many days of skiing at Holiday Valley.
At the end of that year, talking Leyk into going home was difficult. “He really didn’t want to leave,” says John. It was so traumatic that AFS arranged to have all its WNY students meet up in Ellicottville “just to make sure Frank got on the bus to the airport!”
Over the next few years, Leyk came back to visit his American family and friends. “We had another exchange student one summer several years later. Frank heard about it and came back to live with us during that time. He must have been jealous,” John laughs.
And then he disappeared.
An invitation to John, Jr.’s wedding came back undeliverable. Letters to his parents were returned. “We kept looking for him for 16 years,” says Sheila. “We were sure something bad had happened.”
Well, it seems, life happened. Leyk had become a physical therapist, had kids, moved around, settled in a central-German town called Bad Zwesten, got busy with his patients, etc. “He said there wasn’t a day he didn’t think of us, but life just got in the way,” Sheila says.
Then a few months ago, one of his patients, Walter Desch, convinced Leyk to travel to the U.S. with Desch and his wife Kathe. The plan was to visit the Desch’s friends in the south, but Leyk said he would only join them if they could also travel to Ellicottville.
And so, after reconnecting with John and Sheila through John, Jr., Leyk and the Burrell’s had a reunion to beat all reunions for a precious eight days in October.
“Frank really was overwhelmed by the feelings he had on his return. So much has changed – Holiday Valley, new businesses and buildings – all the growth. But so much has stayed the same, as well,” says John.
Leyk had a chance to visit some old friends from ECS, including Mark Waters and Rick Jackson and Carrie Widger Roth (who just happened to be in town visiting as well). He visited with his former coaches Mark Ward and Tim Bergan, too. And mostly, he caught up with Mom and Dad Burrell, who don’t really care that they lost touch for a time.
“We’re just glad he came back,” they both agreed. “We won’t lose touch again.”