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Spotlight on Packing Light?

Ron Leadbetter (far right) with friends and colleagues in RussiaUT Associate General Counsel Ron Leadbetter is a world traveler, and he usually packs light for adventure.

But he didn't pack light when he ventured to Penza, Russia, last winter. He and a local traveling friend went to Penza with 9 metric tons of books to help start a library in an English language school.

The book project began back in August 2004 when Leadbetter and a couple of friends -- Steve Hillis, a city of Alcoa employee, and Joe Fornes, who formerly worked as director of purchasing at UT -- were traveling the Trans Siberian Railway from the Russian Pacific Coast to St. Petersburg.

They visited the city of Penza, about 450 miles southeast of Moscow. Once a center of nuclear and chemical weapons production, Penza is home to Penza State University and Penza State Pedagogical University.

Leadbetter was amazed as he toured around Penza and the colleges that there seemed to be "an amazing similarity between Penza and Knoxville."

While in Penza, Leadbetter and his traveling companions met Olga Meshcherykova, an English teacher at Penza State University. Meshcherykova also owns a private non-profit business called the Lingua Center where she teaches about 2,000 people, ages 3 to 70, to speak English. Speaking English is considered a must for Russians who want to succeed in their careers, Leadbetter said.

"We got to know Olga," Leadbetter said. "And she told us the Lingua Center had no English books for students to read, to practice English."

Before they left Penza, Hillis had pledged to collect some books to help Olga start an English library. When they returned to Tennessee, Hillis started making calls. Blount County Library, local businesses, Alcoa city employees, Alcoa Elementary School staff, and students and many others donated books and money to fund the project. Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale donated two computers.

The Challenge of Shipping Nine Tons of Books

By the time they finished, Hillis had collected a shipload of books to send to Penza. PacMail in Knoxville was enlisted to coordinate the delivery. The books were packed in 460 banana boxes donated by Food City. The boxes were then shrink-wrapped by Boral Bricks. The load was then packed in a 20-by-8-foot cargo container.

The books traveled from Savannah, Ga., to New York to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Barcelona, Spain, to Haifa, Israel, to Russia. "We had a dickens of a time working with the Russians to get them in," Leadbetter said.

Leadbetter and Hillis arrived in Penza in December 2005, but they found the books were still stuck at the port, waiting for Customs officials to approve their release. With a few phone calls to well placed officials, the Americans managed to get the books released two days before the library's grand opening.

This September, Meshcherykova and a colleague, Russian businesswoman Elena Snezkina, came to Knoxville to visit Leadbetter and the others responsible for the book donation. They spent some time at UT, talking to officials about the possibility of a growing relationship between UT and the colleges in Penza.

Although his Penza trip turned into a service project, most of Leadbetter's trips have been pure adventure. He didn't make his first international trip until 1984. "I had always said, 'I'm not interested in going out of the country. There's plenty to see here in America,'" Leadbetter said.

In 1984, a friend convinced him to travel to London for a U.S.-British Bar Association meeting. "From the day I set foot in London, I knew I'd made a mistake in the past. It was like catching a disease, a good disease," he said.

The next year, Leadbetter and his wife went to China. He sidestepped arranged tours and made their own plans. "Then I understood I could go anywhere on my own," he said. Although he's been to many "touristy" spots, Leadbetter said, "I really focus more on areas where tourists don't go." Among the more exotic locales he's visited are Myanmar (formerly Burma), Yugoslavia, Nepal, Tibet, Moldova, Belarus, Vietnam, Cambodia, Romania, and Uzbekistan.

"Part of it is the challenge," he said, adding that he likes to go to places people think they can't go because of political unrest or other obstacles. He tends to make his plans as he goes, leaving home without hotel reservations or in-country transportation plans. He relies on the generosity of strangers and his own gut instincts.

"Some people would say I'm crazy," he said. "People also say it's crazy to jump out of an airplane. But if you plan for it and get your parachute on, it's not crazy."

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