Exchange student from Iceland joins her 1966 Cranberry mates

Hildur Gunnarsdottir, a 1965-66 exchange student at Cranberry High School, checks out the diary she kept then. She has been staying with her host sister, Amy Ziegler, to celebrate classmates' 70th birthdays today. (By Judith O. Etzel)

Seventieth birthdays are meant to be celebrated with gusto, even if you have to travel thousands of miles to get to the party.

That was the task put to Hildur Gunnarsdottir, an American Field Service foreign exchange student from Iceland in 1965-66 and Cranberry High School’s first exchange student, who will join many of her former American classmates for a birthday bash today.

Hildur, a resident of Reykjavik, the capital city of Iceland, stayed with the Clem and Louis Stephens family on Euclid Avenue during her exchange stint in the U.S. Her host family included Amy as well as younger twin sisters Joyce and Janice.

“We kept in touch over the years, though there was a long gap,” said Amy Ziegler of Cranberry Township. “Later, I began searching on the internet and I found her five years ago. We started communicating and I told her to ‘come here and celebrate our 70th birthdays.’ And she agreed.”

The 70th birthday party, an idea that Amy said was prompted “by the great time we had at our 50th class reunion in 2016”, is set for 3 p.m. today at the Fertigs Community Center.

“We’re having cake first, just because at 70 we can,” said Amy with a laugh. “Then a catered dinner at 4 p.m.”

While Hildur has revisited the U.S. a few times since the senior year she spent at Cranberry, including a brief 1973 stay with the Stephens family, her current stop is the first one targeted specifically to reminisce with former classmates.

“Early this spring, when Amy asked me to come to the 70th birthday picnic, I decided to do it,” said Hildur. “I was a bit unsure, though, because I thought I won’t know anyone.”

That’s when her diary, a personal notebook that chronicled her year at Cranberry High School, came into play.

“I picked it up and read it on the flight here,” she said. “I had such a good time reading it.”

In chatting over the past few days since her arrival, the diary has come in handy.

“I’ll remember something we did together or somewhere we went and Hildur will open her diary and have all the details,” said Amy. “She even remembered our Euclid Avenue address and our phone number back then. It’s been fun.”

One diary entry refers to pizza, a dish Hildur had never tasted before.

“I’d never had a pizza until I came here. And so I made a pizza right after I got home to Iceland,” she said. “And I remember not being able to speak English very well so school was a bit hard at Cranberry.”

This visit to the U.S. included a trip to the new Cranberry High School, a much newer version than the old school in the 1960s.

“That’s the biggest difference, really, a much nicer school. And I am seeing that we have a much higher cost of living in Iceland because most everything has to come in since we are a small country and an island,” said Hildur. “But, we have the best fish in the world!”

Her nation has become a major tourist destination in just the past few years, she said.

“I’m seeing a lot of tourists and they were everywhere. Ten or 15 years ago, there were none. We weren’t really prepared for it, though,” said Hildur.

Recently retired as an accountant for the Lutheran bishop of Iceland, Hildur, a widow, has two children and five grandchildren. She is a member of a traveling choir that often performs abroad.

“On Monday I leave to go home and the very next day I leave for Stockholm for a concert,” she said.

For Amy, also a fan of traveling, a trip may be in the works to Hildur’s home in Iceland.

“I’m hoping I can go. It’s certainly on my bucket list,” she said.