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home : columns : dave fjeld
August 17, 2019

7/10/2019 3:18:00 PM
One last Byam-Sher story
A two-part story on 2019 Windom Area High School Alumni Hall of Fame Inductee Betty Byam-Sher apparently wasn't enough.
Yes, a little more space was needed for an international story with a very Windom connection. And, again, Betty, in her role and connections as a foreign service staff officer, played a very key part.
Betty sent me the story that was written by Linda Witt in a May 1978 New York Times story about Windom native Alan Van Norman. Many of you probably know his sister, Heather, better than Alan, but Alan was in the international news in May 1978.
According to the story, Van Norman, 22, was involved in a three-way prisoner exchange in April 1978 among the United States, East Germany and Mozambique. Mozambique released an Israeli citizen and, in turn, the U.S. released a former U.S. Air Force intelligence clerk convicted of passing secrets to the Soviets.
The third piece of the puzzle was East Germany's release of Van Norman, who had been arrested in East Germany while trying to smuggle a German doctor, his wife and son to the West. Van Norman was held in an East German prison for nine months.
The story by Witt explains that in 1976 Van Norman had taken a year off Concordia College in Moorhead to work in England at a Lutheran retreat. A friend of the East German chemist contacted the retreat seeking someone "open-hearted enough," as Van Norman told Witt, to take the chemist, his wife and son into West Germany.
The head of the retreat couldn't, but he knew someone who might - Van Norman.
Van Norman went back to Windom and told his parents, Don and Millie Van Norman, his plans, despite his parents' pleas not to do it.
But he followed through with the plan anyway.
On a dark East German road, he put the family in the trunk of his car and passed through one police check point, but was stopped at the second.
Of course, he was arrested and, Witt writes, he was interrogated day and night for two weeks. He was tried and sentenced to 2½ years in prison.
So, where, you might ask, does Betty Byam-Sher enter into this story?
Betty tells the rest of the story in an email:
"Windom Attorney Tom Lewis was hired by Alan Van Norman's family, after Alan was arrested and in prison in East Germany. At the time I was on assignment working with Andrew Young, our Ambassador to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations.
"Tom wrote to me to ask if I could be of any help in getting Alan freed. Lucky for me, I had worked with David Bolen at the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. It was during that time that David was promoted to become a U.S. Ambassador. Eventually, Ambassador Bolen was appointed to serve as our Ambassador to East Germany.
"I wrote a letter to Ambassador Bolen, passing along information regarding Alan and told him Alan was from my hometown in Windom, Minnesota.
"I was glad to have been able to bring Alan's imprisonment to the forefront of Ambassador Bolen and to learn that it had a great impact for Alan's release in the 'prisoner exchange.' The exchange of prisoners was fully orchestrated by our Ambassador to East Germany, David Bolen."

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