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Stefan Kleinhenz ’21 pro­duced his doc­u­mentary, “Royal Refuge,” in 10 weeks. He is pic­tured in the Her­itage Room sifting through his notes. Andrew Dixon | Collegian

On Nov. 2, 1930, a young man snapped the last color photo of an Ethiopian prince being crowned emperor. Excitement rushed up his spine as he watched the cer­e­monies, he described in his memoir. He didn’t know Emperor Haile Selassie I would be killed years later by a com­munist coup, ending the 3,000-year monarchy.

The photo was later pub­lished by National Geo­graphic in 1931, with a small sub­script under­neath: “pho­tog­rapher: W. Robert Moore.” 

Moore grad­uated from Hillsdale in 1921 — and in a letter to the Hillsdale Alumni mag­azine in 1932, he wrote, “when Hillsdale gave me my diploma in 1921 and told me that the whole world was before me, I took it quite literally.” 

Coro­nation of the last Emperor and Empress of Ethiopia, pho­tographed by Robert Moore. This photo was pub­lished in the June 1931 issue of National Geographic.

This simple camera snap began Hillsdale’s nearly 100-year rela­tionship with Ethiopia. It was a deep rela­tionship marked by the ded­i­cation of a selfless ambas­sador, Hillsdale alumnus Ross Adair, ’28, (nearly a third of the Ethopian senate escaped to Fort Wayne, Indiana, because of Adair). It was a story of the uncon­ven­tional hos­pi­tality of Hillsdale College pro­fessor and nationally renowned intel­lectual, Russell Kirk. 

This story was mostly for­gotten — until now, thanks to the work of a student filmmaker.

On Jan. 18, six stu­dents showed up to “Video Sto­ry­telling,” a new class taught by doc­u­mentary film­maker and jour­nalism instructor Buddy Moore­house. The goal of the course was simple: “You are here to tell stories about Hillsdale.” Hillsdale alumni. Hillsdale stu­dents. Hillsdale history.

Most of these projects are capped at five minutes, and the final project for the class is a 30 minute doc­u­mentary on the 1955 Hillsdale College football team and the Tan­gerine Bowl. But senior Stefan Kleinhenz will finish the course with an hour-long film, “Royal Refuge,” which details the story of how Hillsdale College and its alumni and faculty became a safe haven for Ethiopian refugees during the fall of the Ethiopian monarchy. 

“The monas­teries in the Middle Ages were kept alive with the man­u­scripts and, in some sense, that’s what col­leges should be doing. They should be keeping alive the past through their man­u­scripts and dis­cus­sions and talks — and now, new tech­niques of filming,” said Annette Kirk, wife of the late Russell Kirk. “Stefan is con­tinuing that work of keeping culture alive.”

The doc­u­mentary will pre­miere on April 27 in Plaster Audi­torium at 6 p.m. Refresh­ments will be pro­vided. This is the first film pro­duced by “Ste­Films,” Kleinhenz’s small doc­u­mentary company which he started after taking this class. 

The hour-long film started out as Moorehouse’s second assignment to make a five-minute doc­u­mentary on any event in Hillsdale College history.

Kleinhenz said his project needed to be some­thing uncon­ven­tional and unique. Ronald Reagan’s Hillsdale visit or Central Hall burning down wouldn’t suffice. Good sto­ry­tellers tell stories never told before, he added, a serious look in his eyes.

One con­ver­sation with his adviser, pro­fessor and chair of rhetoric and public address Kristen Kiledal, sparked his project.

 “I was walking her to her car because she had to go but I kept wanting more ideas, and she turned down the stairwell, and said, ‘Wait, there were African nobility here in the ’70s,’” Kleinhenz said. “That’s all she remem­bered. And I said, ‘That’s it. That’s the story.”

For four full days, Kleinhenz raided the internet, books, and library archives. Ini­tially, he found nothing. In a final attempt to find some­thing on ‘Ethiopian Royalty,’ Kleinhenz emailed Robert Black­stock, who served the college as both the provost and a pro­fessor for more than 40 years. Maybe he would remember the African nobility who studied at Hillsdale, Stefan thought.

Black­stock gave him a name: Mis­tella Mekonnen.

“It was the most beau­tiful email I’d ever gotten because it sent us on a way,” Kleinhenz said, referring to Kiledal, who had become his research assistant. “With that name, every­thing came through because it had some­thing I could search.”

The name unlocked more details. Not only had Mis­tella Mekonnen, who herself was Ethiopian royalty, come to Hillsdale as a student in 1974, but came on the rec­om­men­dation of Ross Adair — a Hillsdale alumnus and the United States ambas­sador to Ethiopia at the time. 

Adair and his wife Marian ’30 became a friend to the Ethiopians, said Kleinhenz, so much so that the royal family trusted his advice and sent Mis­tella to Hillsdale.

Mis­tella Mekonnen ’77 while student at Hillsdale during an inter­na­tional fair on campus. Courtesy | Stefan Kleinhenz

“We’re one of the first ones in the country that admitted everybody no matter what their gender or their nation­ality or their race — everybody was welcome to Hillsdale College,”  Moore­house said. “That was true in the 1800s and that’s true in the ’70s when Mis­tella came here.”

Kleinhenz uncovered the whole story. While Mis­tella studied at Hillsdale, com­mu­nists imprisoned Emperor Salassie as a part of their coup. He was killed one year later. People began to protest against the oppressive regime, and Mistella’s sister was killed in one such protest.  Shortly after, Russell Kirk, one of Mistella’s pro­fessors, wel­comed the rest of the Mekonnen sib­lings to his home in Hillsdale as refugees.

“When he called me up from Hillsdale and said that a young student in his class had approached him and asked him if we would con­sider taking her sister and brother for a while because they needed to leave there due to the war that was raging at the time, my imme­diate reaction to that was, ‘Where is Ethiopia?’ said Kirk.

The pieces all started to come together for Kleinhenz, and as he found more and more infor­mation, the five-minute film turned into 10 minutes. Ten minutes became 30 minutes, and soon the assignment became Kleinhenz’s senior thesis project. He worked nearly 40 hours a week on the film for more than 10 weeks.

He dug through old archives, inter­views, and photos, both online and in libraries. Within weeks, he had to become an expert on iMovie, the video software. He also handled nine dif­ferent inter­viewees on nine dif­ferent schedules. He found Mis­tella. He zoomed with Steven Adair, Ross’s son. He inter­viewed Dan Quayle, Vice Pres­ident of the United States under George H. W. Bush, and a col­league of Ross Adair during his time in office.

Pres­ident Nixon sent Ross Adair to Ethiopia as the official United States ambas­sador. Adair was appointed in 1971. Courtesy | Stefan Kleinhenz

 Finding them was the hardest part, Kleinhenz said.

“When I call Steven Adair, Ross’ son, on a Sat­urday afternoon, I’m hoping he’s not bothered by the fact that I have his phone number,” Kleinhenz said. “I’m cold calling him hoping that I can give him a good enough pitch that he’s not con­cerned about who the heck I am.”

“It’s not as easy as ‘Stefan, here’s a list of 10 people with their phone numbers and addresses,’’ added Moore­house. “No, he had to track down all of these people, and I don’t think there’s a single person who turned him down for an interview.”

Slowly, these inter­viewees became friends, Kleinhenz said. His heart con­nected to theirs, and their stories became his. Some inter­views unearthed special con­nec­tions. Stefan is Greek Orthodox, and Mis­tella is Ethiopian Orthodox. 

“As a film­maker, to make a con­nection like that with someone who you’re doing a story on, it makes it that much deeper and that much more per­sonal. We can trust each other,” he said.

A good doc­u­mentary is one which tells a story in both a com­pelling and cohesive way, explained Moore­house. The B‑roll — or the sup­ple­mental shots throughout the film — needs to engage the audience, as must the nar­ration. Moore­house taught Kleinhenz how to narrow his infor­mation to tell a suc­cinct story.

While Moore­house worked with Kleinhenz on the tech­nical video work, Kiledal molded his story. The two worked together to collect clues and form the story. Kiledal remem­bered the front of a LIFE Mag­azine cover with Ethiopian Royalty on it. Though they still haven’t found that mag­azine, the two found another LIFE issue, which revealed that Adair brought several members of the Ethiopian senate to Indiana for refuge. 

“His joy moti­vated me,” Kiledal said. “He had great training already in jour­nalism from Mr. Miller and Mrs. Servold. He had broad­casting expe­rience from One America News, and Stefan had the doc­u­mentary teacher. He just needed a research mentor and someone who would care about the project with him.”

A Norman Rockwell por­trait of Ross Adair. Courtesy | Stefan Kleinhenz

Steve Adair, Ross’ son, said his parents would be very thankful for Kleinhenz’s project. 

“I hope he gets an A‑plus.” 

This doc­u­mentary was more than a one-time project, said Kleinhenz. It’s the beginning of his new career. He’s dipped his feet in all sorts of jour­nalism, from news­paper writing, to radio, to even tele­vision. He’s worked as a TV reporter in Wash­ington, D.C. He’s won several radio awards throughout the state of Michigan and some national ones, including first place in a News Interview from the Inter­col­le­giate Broadcast System. 

But doc­u­men­taries are now his calling, he says, smiling with confidence. 

“This is what I was preparing for and I didn’t even know it,” Kleinhenz said. “Doc­u­men­taries are real. They’re about humanity, and if you tell the right stories and you tell them well, it’s going to matter for a very long time.”