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Bestseller chronicles man's educational quest

A poignant tale of a Minnesota man's rash promise to educate a group of Central Asian children has become a nationwide best seller and a continuing quest for the book's main character.

Greg Mortenson's story is called "Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace One School at a Time."

Written by journalist David Relin, it chronicles Mortenson's humanitarian campaign to educate Pakistani and Afghani girls. It's a quest fraught with difficulty, danger, terrorists, feuding warlords and fatwahs.

Despite those obstacles, Mortenson has built 72 schools with 10 more nearly completed. They're all located in volatile regions of both countries, educating an estimated 25,000 kids, mostly girls. He stipulates the education of girls as a condition of building because females are so deprived in Muslim countries.

His compelling story is retold through his aunt, Barbara Doerring, who spends summers near Nevis at the family cabin and her winters in Chaska. Mortenson now lives in Bozeman, MT, with his wife and two children.

Doerring speaks to church groups, civic gatherings and interested people who have read the book and were captivated by its message of hope.

She will speak to a group at Trinity Episcopal Presbyterian Church in Park Rapids today at 1 p.m. A reception following her talk will feature desserts, coffee and a spot of tea.

She will also speak to a group at the First English Lutheran Church in Menahga Sept. 20 at noon. Mortenson has more relatives in that city.

Mortenson was born in Minnesota in 1957, and moved with his family to Tanzania where his father founded a medical center near Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Greg Mortenson, a mountaineering enthusiast, failed in his attempt to climb K2 in 1993. K2 is the second highest mountain peak in the world located in the Himalayas.

Mortenson over-exerted himself helping rescue a fellow climber. He needed medical care following his grueling descent, and was treated in a remote village in Pakistan.

The recuperating Mortenson encountered a group of Pakistani children scribbling in the dirt. They had no pencils or paper but seemed eager to learn. Grateful for the care he received in Pakistan, Mortenson impulsively promised to build the children a school.

From that promise grew his campaign to educate children in the two war- torn countries. He's been jailed, threatened, held captive and even investigated by the CIA. Through it all, Mortenson persevered.

He established a charitable entity to raise funds to build more schools, called the Central Asia Initiative. Another nonprofit organization he founded, Pennies for Peace, educates American children about the world and how they can institute change in underprivileged countries, one penny at a time.

Mortenson maintains that a penny buys a pencil and opens the door to literacy.

He returned to the US after his mountaineering experience and eventually studied neurophysiology at the University of South Dakota.

The book's title comes from a Tibetan proverb about the remote Balti people, which states:

"The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time, you are an honored guest. The third time you become family."

Mortenson owes his life to two Balti porters who evacuated him from K2 after he became too exhausted to descend the mountain on his own.

Doerring's 30-minute talk is about the region, the politics, the Taliban and the children. "There are 500 areas in the waiting pool that have requested schools," she said. She delivers her remarks wearing traditional Pakistani dress, then answers questions afterward.

She explains that her nephew doesn't mix religion with his educational efforts because that would be counterproductive and would invite more hostilities since Christians and Muslims find very little common ground.

The event at Trinity Church is free and open to the public. Interested persons can contact Rosemary Moody at 732-3023.

Barbara Doerring can be reached at 652-2502 if any group is interested in hosting her talk. She opens with a 10-minute DVD produced by Mortenson's daughter for Pennies for Peace, explaining the projects.

Doerring always closes her remarks with a story about how Mortenson's Pakistani friend lost his wife and invited his American friend to see her grave. The Pakistani explains to Mortenson that the wind he hears at the gravesite is the sound coming from all the schoolchildren.

And Doerring quotes her nephew's words in saying, "When it is dark you can see the stars and when your heart speaks take good notes."

She adds, "I always choke up when I end with that."