Grosse Pointe teacher visited every country on earth

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

It wasn’t a bad hotel — apart from the stopped-up toilet, human filth, and rats roaming the room at night.

In its defense, the joint was super-cheap and had great cross-ventilation, useful in the tropics. An entire exterior wall of the room on the 26th floor in Cayenne, French Guiana, was missing. One false step, and your trip takes an exciting new direction.

“I don’t want to brag,” said Grosse Pointe schoolteacher Rufus McGaugh, 68, who’s just published a book, “Longitude and Latitude, with Attitude,” about his quest to travel to every country around the globe, “but I’ve stayed in the worst hotel on planet Earth. Nobody’s going to beat my story.”

McGaugh’s taught social studies in the Grosse Pointe Public Schools for 45 years, most of that at Brownell Middle School, where generations of students remember “Rufus” and his atypical, entertaining methods.

McGaugh, who’s visited 252 countries over 49 years, traveled every summer, and applied what he learned the next year in classes enlivened by tens of thousand of his own slides. (He’d be happy to show any doubters the nine passports crammed with customs stamps.)

Libya last May was the very last — as McGaugh notes, he left the hard, dangerous ones till last.

(If that seems like a lot — the United Nations has just 193 member states — McGaugh’s list includes non-countries like Antarctica, as well as a number of distinct geographic entities such as Greenland and Puerto Rico, owned by other nations.)

Teachers always wonder if they have impact. With McGaugh, there’s little question.

“When I was 12 years old, I was lucky enough to have Rufus McGaugh teach me social studies,” former student Katie O’Neill recently wrote on Facebook.

“I learned the map of the world,” said the Grosse Pointe Park resident, as well as “Country Joe and the Fish, the importance of reading the paper every day — that a well-drawn political cartoon really is worth a thousand words, that dissent is patriotic, and how much world there is to see.”

All this from a teacher who never used a textbook when teaching about foreign cultures.

Erik Nicholson, now national vice president for the United Farm Workers, had McGaugh for eighth-grade English back in 1979.

“Every day, he made sure we had access and time to read the newspaper,” he recalled.

Asked how he’d describe McGaugh, Nicholson suggested, “real, passionate, and visionary in a Rufus kind of way.”

Everyone tells McGaugh he should write the “Guinness Book of World Records,” but he says the quest was never about checking countries off a list.

“I did it for me,” McGaugh said, chatting in his Grosse Pointe living room with his wife, Monica, who’s accompanied him on 74 of his trips.

He traces the start of his obsession to his time with the 5th Marines in Vietnam. The death and destruction he saw there left him with a fierce hunger to see the world.

“I decided if I ever got out of that mess alive,” he said, “I wasn’t going to let anything stop me from seeing as much as I could.”

Of course, when you visit countries from North Korea to Nauru to Nepal, you’re bound to have fun experiences kids will love, like getting arrested and interrogated by the Zimbabwean military.

The first question from the scary armed men was: “Why did you blow up our Air Force?”

McGaugh admits he was stunned. “For a guy who usually has the gift of gab,” he said, “even I was speechless.”

As luck would have it, Brownell School played an indispensable role in springing McGaugh from the military prison where he was held about 24 hours.

Well into the interrogation, they finally asked what he did for a living, and McGaugh said he was teacher.

“Prove it,” they demanded. And he did.

“I always carry my Brownell ID card to get into museums and castles cut-rate,” McGaugh explained. “So I pulled it out, and that changed the whole tone.”

Suddenly his captors wanted to know if they could get him something to drink.

McGaugh attributes the 180-degree switch to the respect education enjoys in African culture, but it’s also possible that an American teacher’s ID clued the authorities in to the fact that they really had the wrong guy.

McGaugh was released, he said, “with no indication whatsoever why I was picked up.”

With scrapes like that, it’s easy to see how a clever storyteller could overcome even the stoutest student resistance to geography and history.

Take Tom Coyle, for instance, who was at Brownell in the mid-80s.

“I used to hate history and social studies,” he wrote from Washington, D.C. “Rufus changed that.”

Not only did those subjects become his favorites, they also steered Coyle to his present calling.

After graduating from West Point and serving in the military, Coyle entered the U.S. Foreign Service, where he continues to serve as a diplomat.

“I have traveled around the world for work and pleasure,” he said, “as a direct result of Rufus’ influence.”

(313) 222-6021

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy

‘Longitude and Latitude, with Attitude: One Man’s Quest to See the Entire World’

By Rufus McGaugh

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