An Attic Discovery Brings Four Generations of Texas Exes Together

While traveling in West Berlin in 1974, Elka Haubold Hortoland was in a department store when her purse was stolen—containing, most crucially, her United States passport. The next day, she went to the American Consulate to try to acquire a temporary passport so that she could get back to Sweden, her home at the time. With her German-sounding accent and no proof of her American citizenship, however, it didn’t seem like the consular officer could help. After a tense back-and-forth, the officer asked to see something on her finger: her University of Texas graduation ring with a ruby in the middle, the UT seal, a Longhorn, “BA 1962,” and E.H.—her initials then. With that as identification enough, the officer granted her a temporary passport to get to Sweden, where she could apply for a new permanent passport. Back home, she eventually received a package addressed from West Berlin containing her purse with only the cash missing.  

Unbeknownst to Elka, this wouldn’t be the last time that a Longhorn memento from the past would open a new door to her future.  

Ryan and Elka look through her notes from college.

Forty-five years later, in 2019, Ryan McCulloch crept into the attic of the house he had just bought in Houston. Flashlight in hand, he came across some rickety shelves scattered with piles of books, letters, and photographs. A typewriter, two sewing machines, and a pair of skis and ski boots lay around him in the small space. He found himself surrounded by the memories of someone’s life stored away in the humid attic of the Houston home.   

Ryan, BArch ’14, Life Member, collected the ephemera from the attic and started to organize it into boxes. As he sorted through the photographs, resume copies, and UT student athletics tickets, he began to piece together the life of a stranger, tenuously connected to his own.   

“It kind of felt like I was in a movie, or I was in a story uncovering these things,” Ryan says. As he looked through photos and letters, he imagined himself in a film with flashbacks to the moments the photos were taken, or the letters written. “I felt like I was part of something bigger.”  

He did a quick search online for the name he could make out on the resume and student IDs: Elka Haubold. No solid information came up, and amid renovations and other responsibilities, he didn’t have the time to dive deeper into the search. Unwilling to completely abandon the items of a fellow Longhorn, he stored them safely back in the attic.   

In October 2023, Ryan sold the newly renovated house to move back to Austin. Still feeling some connection to Elka’s items, he couldn’t make himself get rid of them just yet—so he put all the boxes in a storage unit, where they sat until his aunt asked about them in January.   

Ryan displaying the newly renovated house, 2021.
Elka posing in front of her parents’ house, date unknown.

Kathy Cummings, MEd ’87, Life Member and Ryan’s aunt, vowed to find the owner of the items. “Every baby photo deserves a home,” she says.  

Kathy began a deep dive on the internet and came up short. Elka’s name and alma mater were the only clues she had. 

The mysterious woman had no social media, inconsistent old addresses, and disconnected phone numbers. Kathy joked, “Maybe she’s in the witness protection program.”  

Little by little, she found more information. She came across one of Elka’s brother’s obituaries which led her to Elka’s married name, Hortoland, opening up the scope of Kathy’s search. She found her name in State Department magazine articles and eventually discovered that Elka had been a secretary to U.S. foreign ambassadors, which explained the many different addresses associated with her name.   

Worried she was searching for someone who had already passed away, Kathy cross-referenced the two most recent addresses (both in New Braunfels) under Elka’s name with tax records and found that Elka had filed her property taxes this year. She’s alive, Kathy rejoiced. But still, she had no way to contact this woman.  

On a whim—and as a bit of a last resort—Kathy called the Texas Exes. Andrea Troncoso, ’05, the association’s Membership & Alumni Records Coordinator, picked up the phone.   

Kathy explained the situation and asked if there was any way the association could give her Elka’s phone number. Andrea explained that wasn’t something she could do for privacy reasons, but she would be happy to help with the search. She then tried the phone number listed in the Texas Exes system, but it was also disconnected. She found records for Elka’s siblings and decided to try calling her sister Jutta Haubold Sharpe, BA ’74.   

Jutta picked up. She told Andrea that she would pass along the story and let Elka decide what to do next. Soon after that conversation, Andrea fielded a call from Elka herself, who took down Kathy’s information.  

The next day, Kathy received a call from an unknown number. On the other end, a woman with a thick German accent replied, “I understand you’ve been looking for me.”  

Elka Haubold Hortoland, BA ’62, had no idea her things had been left behind in her family home. After graduation, she began a whirlwind diplomatic career as secretary to several U.S. ambassadors. She always requested the most exotic posts she could think of because she loved to travel. She lived in 13 different countries just with the foreign service.   

Elka guesses that her father had collected all her old photographs and letters and stored them in the attic when she joined the foreign service in 1975, where they sat for likely 45 years. Knowing that Elka had lived all over the world, Ryan and Kathy were excited to find out she was living just an hour away from Austin. Elka was “amazed, flabbergasted, and surprised” that someone would take the time to find her.  

Elka and her husband Charlie invited Kathy and Ryan and their families to their home in New Braunfels for a meal, so Elka could reunite with her belongings. Kathy’s husband, Brent, BS ’82, Life Member, and Ryan’s wife, Amy Ma, BA ’17, joined for the meal, as did Elka’s best friend in the neighborhood, Bonnie Ward. Including this writer, six of the eight people at the table were Longhorns, across four generations.   

As Elka carefully examined the contents of the box, Ryan and Kathy were more familiar with the items than she was. Ryan brought out notes from Japanese classes at UT, and the 84-year-old woman translated the text with ease. Each item brought back memories Elka didn’t know she had forgotten. She says she is most excited about rediscovering her youth while exploring the relics.  

And as Elka recalled memories of her family and throughout her extraordinary life, new memories started to write themselves. The initial shared love of UT and Texas grew into a deeper connection. Ryan views his new friends as additions to the family.   

“My grandmother and my great-aunt have both passed away, but they would be or were similar ages to Elka, so I see them a lot in her, and I imagine her as a kind of grandmother now,” Ryan says. “I think that I would have loved to have her in my family, and I hope to be able to continue that relationship.”  

From left, Karina Kumar, Kathy Cummins, Elka Haubold Hortoland, Brent Cummings, Amy Ma, Ryan McCulloch, and Charlie Hortoland at the Hortoland home in New Braunfels.

That day in New Braunfels, phone numbers were exchanged, and photos taken. One can’t help but wonder if a similar search might occur someday for the subject of these photos, preserved in the pages of this magazine—the day that the life of one Longhorn brought eight new friends together.  

CREDITS: Ryan McCulloch, Karina Kumar, courtesy of Ryan McCulloch, courtesy of Elka Haubold Hortoland, Bonnie Ward



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