2016-12-22 / Life in Leelanau

Home for the Holidays

Exchange student pays peninsula visit to spend time with former host family
By Amy Hubbell
Of The Enterprise staff


THE GUTIERREZ family from São Paulo, Brazil will be ‘home for the holidays’ with James and Marilyn McCormick of Bingham Township. Pictured here are Gabriel, second from right, who lived with the McCormicks in 1974 while attending Suttons Bay Public School, his wife Cecilia and sons Bernardo, left and Mauricio, right. THE GUTIERREZ family from São Paulo, Brazil will be ‘home for the holidays’ with James and Marilyn McCormick of Bingham Township. Pictured here are Gabriel, second from right, who lived with the McCormicks in 1974 while attending Suttons Bay Public School, his wife Cecilia and sons Bernardo, left and Mauricio, right.

Gabriel “Biel” Gutierrez is coming home from Brazil for Christmas this year.

He and his extended family will be in Bingham Township visiting retired District Court Judge James McCormick and his wife, Marilyn, for Christmas, continuing a friendship that is going into its third generation.

The McCormicks hosted Gutierrez for the 1974-75 school year and for the 42 years since have stayed in close contact with him. He went to Suttons Bay High School as a participant in Youth for Understanding, an international educational exchange organization.


JIM AND Marilyn McCormick of Bingham Township, from left, will have their Brazilian son, Gabriel Gutierrez, and his family home for Christmas this year. They are pictured here with Gutierrez’ son, Bernardo, right. JIM AND Marilyn McCormick of Bingham Township, from left, will have their Brazilian son, Gabriel Gutierrez, and his family home for Christmas this year. They are pictured here with Gutierrez’ son, Bernardo, right. “We became so close … when he left it was like losing a son,” McCormick said.

Gutierrez didn’t know where he was going until immediately before he boarded the plane from São Paulo to the United States.

“I knew it would be cold with a lot of snow. But I was surprised at how much,” the Brazilian said.

McCormick remembers his arrival very well.

“He didn’t have a warm coat. After all, it is summer that time of the year in Brazil,” he said. “We were going out on the (Old Mission) peninsula to visit. We had him wrap up in a blanket.”

Gutierrez had studied English for several years, prior to making the trip. However, no amount of “book learning,” in a foreign language can prepare you for a trial by fire.

“I didn’t speak English well,” said Gutierrez, a native Portuguese speaker, who during the exchange spent his evenings talking about language with McCormick. “Jim spoke Spanish, so we would communicate a little right from the beginning.”

A love of languages and a common faith in Roman Catholicism formed a lifelong bond between the Brazilian and his American host family.

After his year in Suttons Bay, Gutierrez returned to Brazil to study civil engineering.

“The hardest part was having to go back to Brazil because we were so close,” Gutierrez said.

To ease the break, the McCormicks traveled to Brazil the following year and spent three weeks exploring the country with Gutierrez.

In an age before email and Skype, the friends maintained contact through letters.

There would be a seven-year gap in “in person” visits, but the Brazilian traveling to Leelanau County for the holidays in 1982 to visit his adopted family.

Gutierrez traveled to his adopted northern Michigan home for his honeymoon in 1987, “presenting” his wife, Cecilia, to the McCormicks.

“My exchange was a very important part of my life,” he said, calling it one of the five most important events in his life. Skills developed during the trip helped him in his career and throughout life. “It gave me a confidence, improved my English, and taught me how to bring people together as a team, which is important in my profession.”

Love for his adopted family and appreciation of their efforts resulted in Gutierrez extending an invitation for an extended stay to the McCormick children.

This didn’t happen at the high school level. But an opportunity presented itself in 1999.

“My youngest child, David, had just graduated from college and didn’t know what to do next,” said McCormick.

David was a drummer with great interest in Afro-Brazilian music. His father suggested he take Gutierrez up on his offer.

“David said, ‘Dad, that’s so long ago, I don’t think his standing offer would still apply.”

Ironically, the following day, the McCormicks received a 10-page letter from their Brazilian friend who expressed disappointment that none of the McCormick children took them up on the offer.

David McCormick would spend more than a year in Brazil as Gutierrez’ guest, where he received specialized music instruction and taught English to supplement his income.

Not unlike his host, David McCormick grew close with the Gutierrez boys, Mauricio and Bernardo, taking the kinship to another level.

The Gutierrez boys participated in an exchange program which took them to Pennsylvania in 2009. But they took time to travel to Michigan and visit the McCormicks.

In 2011, McCormick and Gutierrez traveled to Jerusalem together and explored the Holy Land, on which McCormick has studied and authored books.

“It was a very special trip. I thought it would be the last time we were going to see one another,” said Gutierrez. “I’m 60 and Jim is now 82.”

Friday evening the Gutierrez family — Gabriel, his wife, Cecilia, sons Mauricio and Bernardo and their girlfriends Camilla and Isabella — will be arriving home for the holidays.

The visit north is most unusual and expensive as the Brazilian economy has taken a nosedive over the past two years. The currency, the “real,” is equal to one-third of a dollar.

But it takes on a greater importance at this time of the year, when thoughts turn to “Peace on Earth” and goodwill toward men.

“It’ll be a very special moment to see this relationship continue,” Gutierrez said. “It’s like going home again.”

Return to top