|5 Oct 2022
AES Friendships and School Spirit—A Lifetime of Inspiration (Ken Torbett)
By Clare Perry (AES Content Writer and Alumni Link)
Ken Torbett recently contacted the AES Communications Office with the simple request for a new AES cap like the one he got at the school in 2015:
“I love it, wear it every day, but as I found out, so does my Rottweiler Puppy. It’s pretty chewed up and on its last legs….I would hope to purchase a new one…that would be Teeka!! ...I know this is probably a strange request but my time in Delhi at AES 62 + years ago are still some of my most precious, treasured memories. Every time I put this hat on it sparks another memory.”
Ken’s request represents his loyalty to AES and to India, but also speaks to his sense of fun, adventure, youthfulness, and community that was sparked so many years ago in New Delhi. Indeed there is a keen playfulness and energy in Ken’s voice as he shares his early memories.
While moving abroad today involves plenty of planning, packing, and even last minute panic, imagine what it was like for 15 year-old Ken and his family back in 1960, boarding the SS Independence or a month-long ocean voyage that would land them in Delhi. Leaving friends behind, with nothing but good old fashioned airmail to stay in touch, Ken was launched into a new chapter on new soil.
When Ken talks about this time, he likens both his life and the earliest years of AIS/AES to orange seeds that had generated blossoms here and there, but that on new soil would grow deep roots and develop groves of sweet success. Indeed, when Ken first arrived on new soil, there was not a high school at AIS/AES. Students his age had the choice to go to a missionary boarding school or take University of Nebraska correspondence courses. Ken did a bit of each but when the opportunity presented itself to go to school in person at AIS/AES, he jumped.
In 1962, Ken joined a group of 15 other students, one from India, one from Lebanon, and the rest from the US to form the inaugural senior class of AIS/AES.
To take Ken’s analogy a step further, the time was ripe for AES and these teenagers—so very far from home, but with such direct access to the positive influence of people like John and Jackie Kennedy (Jackie visited in 1962), and Ambassador Galbraith, who presented the first diplomas. Perhaps, it was the challenge of adapting to a new place, perhaps the greater need to rely on each other away from home, or perhaps the sense that India—with all its richness—was somehow more nourishing, Ken describes India as getting into his blood, or as though through some unspecified ritual, becoming his blood brother.
AES would also be home to Ken’s newfound passion for playing basketball. And basketball would be the basis for a team of friends, the Delhi Wallas, who while benched for 45 years, were never forgotten and have been back at making plays together since 2008.
When asked what impact AES had on Ken, he talks about basketball as representing a lot about how he grew—not much in height, by way, as he was the shortest on the team—but definitely in terms of his scramble. In fact, just before the team took off for their championship game in Woodstock, in a kind of spirit rally, the cheerleader, petite Lee Lee Woodman mimicked Ken— hydrating on the fly, dribbling fast and furious, animating his name as the Taj Tiger’s Sparky.
And Sparky he was and certainly still is. Ken describes AES’s impact: “it was as though I was a 100 watt light bulb with a short in it, and AES flipped the switch to make it work.” He credits the culture of the country and AES—both offering him the chance, spirit, and support to try new things. After Ken graduated in 1962, he headed back to Florida with a heavy heart, but weighted in a way that would inspire great success in his life.
Perhaps Ken’s most notable values are loyalty and authenticity balanced with his excitement about new chapters. And this balance has served him in his career and family life. While he was quite proud of setting out on his own after college, he also saw the appeal of working for the same company his father had—Paul Revere Insurance, now Unum, was his father’s work for 32 years and Ken’s for 34. While the company was, in a sense, family, building the Atlanta office from a small operation to a huge one was like working the frontier.
Ken’s loyalty to his work aligns with his loyalty to family and friends—just as in sales, Ken believes “no one wants a hard sale, but everyone wants to buy"; Ken is all about honoring the human element. Being married for 39 years to Debra ended with her death in 2014, and while he misses her terribly, Ken was never afraid to embark on other adventures. He took two trips to India in the two years following Deb’s death, and he is engaged to be married to a woman he met through the charity his wife set up to support victims of ovarian cancer.
Today, Ken can be found planting the summer’s second crop of tomatoes in Northern Georgia with his fiancee, Karen, the hat-hungry dog, Ellie Mae, and their rescue cat, Gus Gus. When asked when he might return to India, he considers how much fun his grandkids could have and where he might find the best nimboo pani. Planning for a second dog, Jed, and their wedding, Ken is busy but never too busy to take time out to reminisce about his time at AES.