Several years ago, Modesto's Terry and Karen Swehla joined Friends of Mount Athos, a society that helps support a monastic community in Greece that began more than 1,000 years ago.
Among Mount Athos' "Friends" is Charles, Prince of Wales, heir to the British throne. In April, Prince Charles — aka HRH (his royal highness) — announced he would host a reception July 29 for other Friends of Mount Athos patrons at his Highgrove farm. The Swehlas saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so they sent in what amounted to an application.
Near the end of May, they received a letter telling them they would soon be receiving a formal invitation.
Wow. That was easy ... .
They flew to London on July 27, arriving in plenty of time to rest up for the event. They drove two hours west to Highgrove, an 800-acre farm Prince Charles bought in 1980 and began turning into a self-sustaining organic farm and gardens.
"We had a tour of the gardens," said Terry Swehla, owner of Waypoint Financial in Modesto. They saw the treehouse where princes William and Harry once played as children.
"It's not a treehouse as you and I would think of," Swehla said. "It's a little more ornate."
They saw plants from all around the world.
"All the profits go to the prince's charities," Swehla said. "He raises over $180 million (U.S.) a year, and contributes roughly $4 million to $5 million of his own money to the organizations he supports."
As they walked the grounds near the home, they heard a helicopter landing.
"The prince arrived at the reception unannounced," Swehla said. "Certainly, we knew he was coming. My wife and I both knew he'd be there. But it was one of those things where we looked up and there he was."
No trumpeters trumpeting, no grand introduction. Call it a pretty low-key entrance for a guy who lives in a formal world of pomp and circumstance.
Yet what impressed and surprised Swehla was how friendly and at ease the prince seemed. He displayed none of the stiffness so often portrayed in the media.
"He went from group to group, and everyone obviously knew who he was," Swehla said. "If you've ever been to a political fund-raiser, you know how it is. They go from glad hand to glad hand, and move on to the next person. It wasn't that way at all with Prince Charles. We all felt that he engaged you and made eye contact. There were good spirits and laughter. It was a genuinely warm greeting."
Maybe that defines the difference between a reception and a fund-raiser. At a reception you just shake hands. At a fund-raiser, money sticks to somebody's palm. This one simply was Prince Charles' way of saying thank you and meeting 100 or so Mount Athos supporters.
"It was really low key," Swehla said. "He was at the reception for about 90 minutes. Then he pretty much exited — no speeches, no fanfare."
So, did the Swehlas have preconceived notions about the prince, and if so, how did he change them?
"Neither my wife nor I ever followed his marriage to Diana, or his marriage to Camilla," Swehla said. "But even from just that, you develop a caricature of this person. Then, all of a sudden, you're talking to him and thinking, 'He's a nice guy.' In those few minutes with him you come away thinking he's a genuine person."
A prince of a guy, indeed, and one who counts the Swehlas of Modesto among his Friends of Mount Athos.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or firstname.lastname@example.org.