Up with People began 50 years ago on founder J. Blanton Belk’s lawn in Tucson.
It was 1965 — in “the year of discontent” — “when the baby boomers went ‘Boom!’” he said.
A Naval officer during World War II, Belk, now 90, remembered his father’s advice to make a difference in the world.
So he met with a handful of university student leaders at his Tucson home. They decided to have a conference for young people “to express what they wanted to build,” Belk said.
One thousand students came from around the country to the conference spot in Michigan.
The result was an educational organization designed to bridge cultural barriers through service and music. It was headquartered in Tucson until 1993, when it moved to Denver. Its archives are housed in Special Collections at the University of Arizona Libraries.
Today, Belk said, there are about 22,000 Up with People alumni from more than 100 countries.
The nonprofit will celebrate Up with People’s 50th anniversary and Belk’s 90th birthday with concerts Friday and Saturday at the Fox Tucson Theatre. The 50th anniversary tour kicked off last month in Denver.
The decades-themed show honors the organization’s history, as it has traveled around the world with young adults, singing and dancing for the world’s leaders and communities. This tour eventually heads to Mexico City and Brussels, Belgium.
Belk’s vision has always been about international peace.
“Peace is not just an idea,” he says. “It’s becoming friends with people.”
In 2014, an Up With People cast traveled to Cuba and Israel for the first time. The group has performed for popes and presidents and kings and queens. It has visited China and the Soviet Union and sung at the Olympics and four Super Bowls.
“It allowed me to become very comfortable in any country I travel to,” said Steve Rokowski, an alum who worked for Up with People for 18 years and is now the Tucson event producer. “By putting students in other cultures, you end up appreciating the culture. You learn to appreciate the culture instead of comparing it to your own.”
The cast that rolled into Tucson this week to rehearse and work in area high schools has 110 students between the ages of 17 and 29, from 20 countries. Sixty Tucson families have opened their homes to host, according to the organization.
Bob Kincaid has opened his home to host 144 students since 1976, not including those staying with him this time around. Those in the organization call him “Super Dad.”
“I just had to be part of it,” he said. “It captured my heart.”
Music, Belk said, is an international language.
“It kept me young,” he said. “I’m 90 and feeling 60. It’s been the love and passion of my life to see this develop.”