By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Niskayuna High School looks a little different to Alvaro Guerrero from the last time he saw it, 50 years ago.
Guerrero, a citizen of Colombia, was the only foreign exchange student in the Class of 1964. This past weekend, he returned for the first time since his graduation to attend his 50-year high school reunion.
His first order of business when he arrived in Niskayuna was to stop by the building itself, taking pictures and reminiscing.
“I missed the door!” he said with a laugh. “I told my brother, it was here, but it’s not here.” A new wing, with a pool, fitness center and other facilities, was completed in 2003 and changed the look of the Balltown Road entrance significantly.
But the building itself was a mere side note in Guerrero’s visit. What he wanted was to reconnect with old friends.
“I came for the people,” he said. “That’s all I want.”
And that’s what he got. Guerrero is no less popular now than he was as a senior in high school, when he was known for being charming, a bit of a prankster, and one of the only students old enough to buy beer, since the drinking age was 18 then.
He arrived at the Mohawk Golf Club early, before the weekend’s festivities began. Even the reunion’s busy organizers couldn’t resist the urge to embrace him, then page through the class yearbook together and reminisce. As they talked, Guerrero pulled South American candy and handmade gifts from a backpack and passed them around.
Now, he’s mellow, reflective and humble, a retired teacher of architecture and former architect. He worked in Venice as a young man before returning to Colombia to teach.
Guerrero, who turned 69 on Sept. 12, is described in his yearbook entry as “dimpled and devilish,” and it appears to be an accurate reading.
He said he and his friends would laugh through every day of class together, sometimes getting themselves and others into trouble. Once, during a chemistry lab, he teased a girl who was holding a pipette of sulfuric acid.
“I gave her a little kiss on her neck,” he said. She spilled the acid on both of them, and they had to use the emergency shower in the classroom to wash off.
As his well-received silliness implies, Guerrero said he felt welcome and accepted in Niskayuna the moment he arrived.
“I was one of them,” he said. “The only difference was I couldn’t speak any English.”
During his visit, Guerrero took the time to pay forward the perspective and knowledge he gained as a student in town. He stopped by in several classrooms and met the students, and even brought a book about Colombian history, written in Spanish, as a gift.
“It changed my life and changed the life of my family,” he said. “I think that it opened the window or the door for many people. I was the first to travel to the States.”
Guerrero’s brother attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shortly after he returned from his exchange studies.
The former teenage trailblazer from Colombia said his experience 50 years ago left an indelible mark on his personality. He was assigned Niskayuna High School through the AFS exchange program, which was known then as the American Field Service.
“It was my good luck,” he said. “I belong to Niskayuna.”