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Have we been duped by a hero?

April 18, 2011 - Diane Speer
In most instances, I try to think the best of people and give them the benefit of the doubt so I won't jump to any solid conclusions based on one investigative piece that aired Sunday on the CBS show, "60 minutes." But I will say I am immensely disappointed.

The subject of the investigation was Greg Mortenson, best-selling author of "Three Cups of Tea," who has gained international fame for his efforts to build schools for children in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mortenson appeared last fall in Alpena as part of the Authors in the Fall series hosted by Alpena County Library. I was fortunate enough to share dinner with him and several others just prior to his talk. He struck me as sincere, and very humble and unassuming about all that he has accomplished in those two war-torn countries. I truly viewed him as a modern-day hero.

So naturally, I am disappointed to learn that in 2009, the agency he formed to oversee his efforts, the Central Asia Institute, reported $14 million in income in 2009, but only one-half of that went to actually build schools. And, according to his agency's 2009 tax return, $1.7 million of that amount went to promote Mortenson's book in the form of advertising events, professional fees and expenses, signifying an intermingling of his personal interests with his philanthropic work.

Prior to Mortenson's visit to Alpena, many businesses and individuals in Northeast Michigan donated to his cause. A check for nearly $3,000 was presented to him at the library program held at Alpena High School. Now it begs the question of whether or not any of that money actually even went for the purpose everyone believed it was going to - building more schools.

During Mortenson's talk, everyone in the audience was moved by what he has been through, by his wisdom and insight, and by his accomplishments. Now, that also has come into question. Another best-selling author, Jon Krakauer ("Into Thin Air"), told "60 Minutes" that the stories portrayed in Mortenson's book are not all true. Krakauer, who personally withdrew his own financial support of the Central Asia Institute after concerns about financial mismanagement, was not the only one to claim that the fascinating tales in Mortenson's book are at least part fabrication.

I watched Sunday's television program pretty much with my mouth hanging open in amazement. I'm sure there will be more to come in the weeks and months ahead on this story based on what CBS has reported. I hope there is a good explanation from Mortenson and his Central Asia Institute for all the questions raised. Let's just hope it is not another instance of someone trusted having duped the public.


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