Westside teachers skeptical about allegations against author who inspired them
River Falls educators heard with disbelief and sorrow recent allegations that a bestselling author many of them have supported for years may have misused donations and exaggerated his heart-touching tales.
In a "60 Minutes" report that aired this month, CBS News investigators said there are "serious questions" about how millions of dollars have been spent by Greg Mortenson's charity, Central Asia Institute; whether he personally benefited from the charity; and if stories in his books are true.
The CBS report said its investigators looked at 30 of the 141 schools Mortenson has said he helped build in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
According to "60 Minutes," some schools are "performing well" but about 15 are half empty, built with someone else's money or not receiving any support from CAI.
People interviewed in the program claimed substantial amounts of CAI funds were used to promote Mortenson's books, though the money from book sales never made it back to the charity, and that Mortenson fabricated a story about being kidnapped and held for eight days by the Taliban.
"Greg Mortenson is one of my heroes," said Darrell Anderson, Westside Elementary School's library media specialist.
"He's a very down-to-earth guy and that's why the whole news story shocks all of us," said Anderson, who was teaching fourth-grade at Westside when he first met Mortenson, the son of the school's then-principal, Jerene Mortenson.
"I just think he's a very humble kind man who wants to help people," said fifth-grade teacher Sue Moriarity, who is in her 25th year of teaching at Westside. "I don't think he would intentionally deceive or cheat anyone."
Moriarity, who became and still is a close friend of Mortenson's mother, met Greg at his sister's funeral -- even before his initial trip to Pakistan.
She said liked him from the first.
"He is a very introverted man," said Moriarity. "He's on the quiet side, and actually seemed uncomfortable in the limelight."
Although Moriarity had met him before, most of the students and faculty of Westside School encountered Mortenson in the early years of his work in Pakistan.
One of the oldest photos the school has of him was taken in 1995 and shows him with students trying out his mountain climbing equipment.
"I remember him showing slides of his going out in the mountains and things like that," said Moriarity. "It was all very positive. The kids were interested."
She said Mortenson talked about seeing the Pakistani children using sticks to write their lessons in dirt and how the villagers of Korphe helped him, a story similar to the one in his book, "Three Cups of Tea," which was published in 2006.
"He was quiet, unassuming, very interesting," said Anderson of that first presentation. "He did a good job with the kids, talking to them about his experiences."
"I didn't get the sense then that he was asking the kids to donate their money," said Moriarty. "I didn't feel like it was a sales pitch."
But one of the 4th graders suggested he'd give the money in his piggy bank to help the Pakistani children.
"Out of that came Pennies for Pakistan," said Moriarity. "It came out of that fourth-grader saying, 'I can donate my piggy bank.'"
The students and teachers embraced the effort because even the youngest could donate pennies and because they knew how much even a little money could help the Pakistani children.
The name "Pennies for Pakistan" was chosen by the Westside teachers, said Anderson. The school raised $623.40 that first year.
Mortenson came back again in 2003.
"His personality hadn't changed a bit," said Anderson. "He's not comfortable in the limelight but still does a good job (of public speaking)."
Mortenson has built schools and they are used, said Anderson.
He said his friend and fellow teacher, Mary Cashman, traveled to Korphe and worked at the school there one summer before her death. She said the school was exactly as Mortenson described and the girls studying there were doing well academically.
"The people that she met were some of the same people that were in the books and interacted with Greg as he details in the books...," said Anderson, adding that even if every detail in Mortenson's books is not accurate, the Korphe school was built and girls were being educated there.
"Reading the book after she had been there, it was like 'This is what Mary had experienced,'" said Anderson.
Westside continued Pennies for Pakistan for a few years, but then dropped out when other causes caught their attention.
After an article about Mortenson appeared in "Parade" magazine, Westside again adopted the drive, now called "Pennies for Peace."
"We thought it is part of the legacy for Westside," said Moriarity, and the Student Council agreed to be involved.
Anderson has kept in touch with Mortenson's mother and family and knows how they live. The family owns no mansions or yachts, said Anderson. He doesn't believe Mortenson has spent donated money on himself.
"I know that's not his lifestyle," said Anderson.
"He sacrificed a lot of time with his family for this project," said Anderson. "He would be the last guy I would expect to be trying to make a personal profit off this thing."
Anderson added, "He is sincere in his desire to help kids in that part of the world. He's sacrificed his life for that."
"I also feel that he sacrificed a lot of time with him family to be there," said Moriarity, adding that Mortenson put himself in danger to help others.
"I just find it really hard to believe some of those things, knowing Greg the way I do," she said.
"Our students have benefitted from the Pennies for Peace program in so many ways," said Anderson. "We have used the program to teach the students about another culture and that life in many other places in the world is very different than the life we enjoy in River Falls. We discuss the importance of education in our lives and how different our lives would be if we did not have the privilege to go to school.
"There have lessons in a variety of curricular areas such as math and language arts integrated into the Pennies for Peace program as well. Perhaps most importantly, the program has shown the students that they can make a difference in the lives of others: They can actually help children halfway around the world."
Last week, as Westside classes talked about how great it is to be able to go to school, a couple of children bought up Pakistan, said Anderson.
"They were still proud of the money they raised to help those kids there," he said. "They're proud of the money they raised, and I am too."
While she admitted that he may not be a detail-oriented person, Moriarity hopes the good Mortenson has done won't be overlooked in the current controversy.
Editor's Note: For more reaction to the Mortenson allegations, please see Superintendent Tom Westerhaus' opinion column