By Sophie Tulp
A key from Alcatraz, a pair of Milwaukee Brewers tickets, a photo of Dolly Parton looking right at the camera and dozens of group pictures. All are memorabilia contained in five albums commemorating 25 years worth of friendship and travels.
From South Korea to Qatar to Dubai and about 15 states in between, “Seoul Mates” is a group of Americans who met when stationed in South Korea as international teachers and military personnel. The group met in 1990 at a military base hosting a dance, bonding over their mutual interest in country music and dancing, as well as their “expat” status.
Twenty-five years later, Mission residents Jo Jean and David Schulte are bringing it back to where the very first reunion was held, hosting this year’s Seoul Mates reunion in and around their home here in the Kansas City area.
“We’ve made every reunion, we make it a point to be there every summer,” Jo Jean said. “We’ve gotten to go to places that we never would have been to. A few years back we were in Chico, California, and that’s not a tourist destination. We’ve done some big city places and some small town places, but for a long time we’ve said for the 25th anniversary we are going back to Kansas City.”
Since 1991, Seoul Mates reunions have taken the members to tourist destinations and the small town homes of some members, from Colorado to Nebraska, Wyoming, Wisconsin, Texas, South Carolina and Virginia.
They’ve driven around in a van at the Texas Nascar Speedway, and they’ve gotten pictures with country music stars like Joe Diffie at small venue concerts. The one rule for each trip: there always has to be country music or dancing involved.
David and Jo Jean are among the original founders of Seoul Mates, hosting the first reunion in 1991.
They met at the military base during a Country Western dancing class, a Morale, Welfare and Recreation program (MWR) for the non-commissioned officers stationed there. Jo Jean brought a friend from the “Seoul Foreign School” in Korea where she taught, and that’s who Dave, a member of the Army at the time, danced with until he noticed Jo Jean.
David and Jo Jean were both experienced dancers, who learned to dance from their moms and dads at small-town events back home. Jo danced like David’s mother, and that’s what he first saw in her.
“They would come to pick up the guys, because you know men were plentiful on the base,” David said. “So these two came for the dance lessons and that’s when I had met them. Jo danced like my mom, so we got to be friends and we would dance a lot. Eventually we started dating over time in Korea.”
Jo Jean kept coming back to the base every Sunday for dance lessons, adding new friends who liked to dance — single 30-somethings at the time — growing their network into a larger group. They all came home for the summers, and vowed to host reunions and keep in touch.
David and Jo Jean shared a joint wedding with another couple in Seoul Mates a few years later, and after 17 years in South Korea, they have since traveled to Cairo, Egypt as international teachers together and back to Mission, where they “put down roots.”
This year, David, Jo Jean and their 16 guests are staying at the 816 Hotel in Westport, eating plenty of barbeque, visiting the World War I Memorial and of course watching the Royals. They plan to top off the five-day reunion with Western dancing at Kanza Hall at 119th and Metcalf, bringing them back to their original days at the base in South Korea.
At the end of the reunion, they’ll take out their cowboy boot keychain — a Seoul Mates ritual used to choose the next years’ hosting member. After pitching to the group why their home state should host the next reunion, the group votes on a destination and adds a penny to the boot, minted in the year of the current reunion.
After Monday, the boot will contain 25 pennies.
And after all the years, Seoul Mates has had their fair share of mishaps — like the time they booked a not-so-great motel in Cheyenne, Wisconsin for a country music festival and ended up having a massive sleepover at someone’s house. But Jo Jean says that the past 25 years have taught her that it’s not about the destination but staying in touch that matters above all else.
“When you live overseas you kind of make family out of the people that you’re working with,” Jo Jean said. “You have a more instant intimacy, a stronger bond with people immediately. Those people become your pseudo family. As we’ve aged it’s been less about the wild, late night partying and more about…[just being] together and reconnecting, and laughing over good times.”