Guests and hosts in front of Staley House, Decatur, September 2019.
Development of Seevetal-Decatur Sister Cities 1970 – 2020
In 1956, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower initiated the People-to-People Program to enhance international understanding after WW2. Mutual, reciprocal exchanges between people from different countries should establish private friendships. His credo: Governments create friendship treaties, but people create friendships. Since then, People-to-People have been promoting Sister Cities right around the world.
The very first contacts
In 1970, four members of the then Meckelfeld-Stelle marching band went as guests of a partner band from Wolfenbüttel to their Sister City of Kenosha, Wisconsin in the US Midwest. The four: Hans-Jürgen Wilken, Ulf Alsguth, Gerhard Hermenau and Emil Ziegler had the idea of setting up such a Sister City partnership for the soon to be established Seevetal. This could well be a catalyst - something uniting the 19 old parishes being integrated into Greater Seevetal during the course of 1972.
Establishing the Sister City partnership
The first visit to the US states of Wisconsin and Illinois was planned for 1974, taking place from 23 July to 17 August with 85 participants. The first town twinning contemplated with Appleton near Green Bay in northern Wisconsin unravelled. On the other hand, the town of Decatur in the neighbouring state of Illinois showed interest in a deeper relationship and offered Seevetal a partnership. Our Council approved this on 25 September 1975. The first reciprocal visit took place in Seevetal from 2 to 5 October 1975, with 22 guests from Decatur. The partnership was officially sealed at a reception in Gasthaus Prange – Hittfeld Casino on 3 October 1975. Seevetal’s mayor Hermann Meyer and head of admin. Hans-Joachim Röhrs made welcoming speeches. The town of Decatur presented the hosts with a bronze railway bell weighing 102 Kg / 225 lb. The bell was manufactured in 1905 and installed on a western train owned by Norfolk & Western Railway Company, to make buffalo and gold-diggers aware that a train was approaching. The bell received a fitting home in the Town Hall.
The reciprocal sealing of the Sister Cities partnership followed in Decatur from 16 June – 13 July 1977 with the visit by 42 guests from Seevetal. Their gift for the host was a ship’s model of a Hanseatic Cog from the Middle Ages. Seevetal Mayor Hermann Meyer presented it during an official reception in Decatur’s Central Park in front of hundreds of onlookers. In the Eighties and Nineties, travel and visits took place alternately. From time to time, groups of visitors, students and choirs visited Seevetal from other US states.
School exchange achieves success of its own
At the suggestion of the then Decatur Sister Cities Committees’ Chairwoman Adriana Lovelace, the first deliberations were made for a school exchange between Seevetal’s grammar schools and Decatur’s High Schools. In 1980, for the first time, nine school students – five from Meckelfeld and four from Hittfeld were guests in Decatur. A reciprocal visit was made by nine students in the same year. After three joint years, Meckelfeld grammar school took on sole responsibility for the Seevetal-side of the exchange program. This was the beginning of an extremely successful story: In the following forty years, a total of 303 students from Seevetal got to know Decatur and the USA during 32 visits. In return, 154 American students visited Seevetal on 19 visits, making 51 visits in all.
The students stay with families, are fully integrated in classes at their host school, go on excursions, cultural visits and meet with young people of their own age. A Town Hall reception with the current mayor always features in the program. Since 1984, this school exchange program has been autonomously run for Seevetal by the dedicated Meckelfeld teachers Bernd Dieter Laser, Hartmut Klose and Marlene Waltke. They deserve really great recognition for facilitating so many young adults being able to gather important life experience with people from another country and culture.
More local residents’ involvement
After initial enthusiasm, the workload in the Seevetal Council administration proved to be too much to serve the partnership sustainably. In press reports ‘Council Tourism’ made the headlines since, up to that time, it was mainly official delegations made up of councillors and administrative staff, who had taken part in the visits. The mayor Horst Schneemann and head of admin. Rainer Timmermann developed plans for the creation of an association promoting town twinning following the example of Sister Cities International. On 14 February 1995, associations and residents were invited to an initial briefing in the Town Hall with the aim of opening up this friendship to a wider public. Subsequently a private group of sponsors emerged, leading to 24 people visiting Decatur in the autumn of 1996. In line with its statutes the Council provided support for Seevetal residents. The success of this first visit encouraged the participants to think about founding an association.
Founding the Seevetal-Decatur town-twinning association
The inaugural meeting of Seevetal-Decatur Städtepartnerschaft e.V. was on 9 January 1997 with 27 founding members in Hittfeld. Dagmar Bomke became Chairwoman, going on to keep this role for 20 years. After a year without a Chairperson, Ingrid-Ahlers Karlsson took over in 2018. In recognition of her long-standing service, Dagmar Bomke was elected as the Association’s first honorary member in 2019.
Seevetal demonstrates friendship
To present Sister Cities effectively to a wider public, Seevetal Council erected road signs at the entrances to the borough. During the visit of 26 Decatur residents, their mayor Terry Howley and Seevetal’s Rainer Timmermann unveiled one of the ten signboards on 21. September 1998. To celebrate the 30th Sister Cities anniversary, on 15 March 2005, Seevetal Council decided to name the bridge across Maschen rail-marshalling terminal as ‘Decatur-Brücke’ or ‘bridge’. Thereupon, a significant information board was erected. This was fittingly celebrated with our guests from Decatur in September 2005.
Sister Cities activities
Since founding the Association in 1997, regular visits between Decatur Sister Cities Committee and Seevetal-Decatur Städtepartnerschaft e.V. have been organized. Every two years, there are alternating travel groups with either a visit to the USA or a visitors’ group by our American friends in Seevetal. Accommodation is organized in families, with a variegated visitors program designed by the respective committee for the short week. At the German end, this always includes a Seevetal, a Lower Saxony and a Hamburg day each to show as much as possible of interest from our environment on business, culture and nature. The weekend is individually organized in the families. Both our Seevetal Association as well as our American guests combine this trip with private onward travel, meaning that through the years many regions in the respective country have been visited; a fine addition to the statutory association aims. The mutual hospitality demonstrates great cordiality: Through the years close friendships have developed. Getting to know the culture in the partner country, with its many highlights, has again and again been confirmed as a source of pleasure.
The visit by Seevetal firefighters to Decatur in 2003 was highly appreciated. In cooperation with the central library, our Association organized a really successful ‘American Week’, with the US Consulate-General in Hamburg holding many lectures about American education and culture. In addition to the aforementioned visits, our association annually offers many presentations, film evenings and excursions for its members. Our flyer provides detailed information about Sister Cities. Our attractive homepage reports regularly about our activities and plans, as well as giving background information on the history of our Sister Cities program.
Since the beginning of our friendship in the 1970s, a total of 13 group visits have been organized to Decatur. 16 visitor groups from Decatur have been welcomed in Seevetal. This adds up to a total of 29 exchanges.
Showing our appreciation
The Städtepartnerschaft Seevetal-Decatur e.V. always receives support and practical assistance from the current mayor, Council and administration. The voluntary work is carried out with great commitment by both its board and members.
Ingrid-Ahlers-Karlsson, Chairwoman of the Städtepartnerschaft Seevetal-Decatur e.V.
Translator’s note by Tim Sebbage, Ingrid’s successor as Chairman:
Given her excellent ability in English, Ingrid had intended to write the English version herself and have it checked by our native-speaking translator. However, sadly this was no longer to be.
This English version presented here is in honour of Ingrid’s memory, including her pink hats.