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Behind every Nobel nominee is a proud mom

Jerene Mortensen, mother of Nobel Peace Prize nominee Greg Mortensen, was at Trinity Lutheran Church in Hammond on Thursday to talk about her son's work. She wore traditional Pakistani dress to the event. Photo by Laura Kruse

Greg Mortenson has been honored with Pakistan's highest civilian award, is nominated for the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize and has a current New York Times bestseller.

He and his organization are responsible for 80 schools being built and the education of thousands of girls. He's survived fatwas against him and a kidnapping.

His mom couldn't be more proud.

Jerene Mortenson, Greg's mother, was at Trinity Lutheran Church in Hammond on Thursday to discuss her son and his work.

"No one minds speaking about their children," Mortenson told the audience, as many smiled in agreement. "It's an honor and a privilege."

Greg's story is recounted in "Three Cups of Tea." The paperback has been on the bestseller list for 111 consecutive weeks. It dropped down from first place for a few months, Jerene said.

"No. 1 and two were by some man named Obama," she explained with a smile. "Three Cups of Tea" is back at No. 1 this week.

Through an hour and a half long talk, Jerene Mortenson told approximately 75 people the tale of her son's life and about Pakistani culture.

Greg Mortenson's mission to build schools in Pakistan began somewhat accidentally in 1993. He had traveled to the country to climb the world's second highest mountain, K2, in honor of his deceased sister.

His love of mountains came at a young age, Mortenson said. The family was living along the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, where both Mortenson and her husband, Dempsey, were missionaries. Jerene founded the International School Moshi while Dempsey started the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center.

For his 12th birthday, all Greg wanted was to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, Jerene said.

"I didn't think it was a good idea," she said, but Greg went anyway. "And Greg was hooked on mountain climbing since."

While on the journey up K2, one of the climbers with Greg failed to melt enough snow, causing him to become dehydrated and his feet to freeze. Greg and another climber decided to carry him back down the mountain, Jerene said. After bringing the ill climber to safety, Greg and the other climber got separated.

Greg eventually ran into a porter, Jerene said. The porter took Greg's supplies to carry down the slope, and promised to start a camp and cook hot food for him. Greg was to follow him. Again, Greg got separated, Jerene said.

When she visited Pakistan, Jerene said she met the porter who tried to save her son's life.

"He hugged me and I don't think I breathed again for two weeks," Jerene laughed. "He's really strong."

By that point in Greg's journey, he was ill, Jerene said. Luckily, he came across a remote village.

The villagers saved his life. Porters massaged Greg's sore muscles, and villagers killed chickens for him and fed him eggs.

"They (eggs and chickens) are really precious," Jerene said.

After 10 days, Jerene said Greg was feeling better and ventured out into the village. He came across girls writing with sticks in the dirt to do their school work. They couldn't afford supplies. During the harsh winters, they went to school in a cold, dark building.

"So Greg promised he'd build them a school," Jerene casually told her audience.

When Greg returned to America, he went to work writing letters - 580 to be exact.

Only one garnered a response. Tom Brokaw sent a check for $100.

"You'd be amazed at how many checks he gets for $101. Down at the bottom it says 'More than Tom Brokaw,'" Jerene said with a smile.

West Elementary in River Falls, where Jerene was principal, also gave to Greg's fund after he talked to them. They organized a penny drive, earning $623.40 for the Pakistani school. It was the largest single check he had gotten at that point, Jerene said.

Pennies for Peace has now become an official organization. More information can be found at

"Pennies for Peace is going bananas," Jerene said. More than $1 million has been raised through the penny collections.

"Thousands of children have been inspired," Jerene said. "And it all started in River Falls."

After a bridge was constructed, and lumber was hauled 18 miles up hill by men, the school was built.

In 1996, Greg co-founded the Central Asia Institute, a nonprofit organization whose mission is "to promote and support community-based education, especially for girls, in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan."

Programs to support their mission include building schools, awarding scholarships at all levels of education, training local teachers, improving public health and establishing women's centers, according to CAI's Web site,

Girls are a catalyst for change in the region, the site states. Educating the women in a society leads to smaller families, lower infant mortality and increased income.

Mortenson said sons are expected to ask their mothers' permission before going on jihads, or crusades, which aren't necessarily terroristic.

"It's very disgraceful (to go) if he doesn't have his mother's permission," she said. Women who are educated are less likely to support terroristic ventures.

"The 9/11 terrorists were educated but their mothers weren't," Mortenson told the audience.

After wrapping up her talk, Mortensen autographed copies of "Three Cups of Tea" for the audience. Donations for the Central Asia Institute were also gathered.

Mortenson's visit was planned by the Hammond Community Library's morning book group.

This isn't the first author visit the book club has arranged. Mike Perry, author of "Population 485" and Mary Relindes Ellis, author of "The Turtle Warrior," are just two of the past speakers.

Hammond Community Library director Michelle Johnson said she was pleased with the event.

"I'm amazed that so many people had read the book or are passionate about the cause," she said.

The Hammond Community Library has two book clubs. The morning group meets on the fourth Thursday of the month at 11:30 a.m. Locations vary. The evening group meets on the second Thursday of the month at 7:30 p.m. in the library, 850 Davis Street.