Author: Grace Shackman
Fifty years of low-budget goodwill
When President Obama announced in December that he would normalize relations with Cuba,
photographer Jack Kenny and retired attorney Kurt Berggren got to thinking about an official visit
with Ann Arbor's newest sister city. In 2003, they'd persuaded city council to adopt Remedios, a
town of 46,000 in central Cuba. Though both men have since visited, U.S. travel restrictions have
prevented the cities from exchanging official delegations.
Most Ann Arborites don't know we have a Cuban sister city, because council didn't want to spend
$1,000 to add Remedios to the signs that list Ann Arbor's six other sister cities. Though exchanges
over the years have led to close personal and business relationships, the city no longer provides
staff support or funding, so it's strictly been volunteer efforts of late.
Contact with Juigalpa, Nicaragua died out in the 1990s. The connection to Dakar, Senegal, began
and ended with a single visit in 1997. There hasn't been an official visit with Belize City since
their mayor checked out our recycling program in 1999, and the last youth sports exchange with
Peterborough, Ontario, was in 2003.
But two relationships, with Tübingen, Germany, and Hikone, Japan, remain strong. It's no
coincidence that both countries were America's enemies in WWII.
Sister cities originated in the People to People program, an outgrowth of a 1956 White House
conference that promoted friendship between former enemies. Ann Arbor's involvement started in 1965.
Georg Melchers, a Tübingen city councilmember, visited that December and was serenaded by Ann Arbor
High School students singing Christmas carols in German.
Many Ann Arborites trace their heritage to southern Germany, and from the start, local Germans
were active in the relationship, hosting events and visitors. City councilmembers were also drafted
into the effort. Mary Hathaway, the widow of attorney and councilmember John Hathaway, was dealing
with a colicky baby when her husband announced they would be hosting Hugo and Bertl Raiser. The
couple didn't speak English, so "I had to reach down deep for the little bit of German I had inside
me," she recalls, but the families have been friends ever since.
In 1969 Carolyn Murphy, a young teacher of German at Pioneer High, visited Tübingen as part of a
delegation. Georg Melchers took her under his wing and introduced her to his son, Christoph. They
fell in love, married, and still live in Tübingen, where Carolyn remains very active in the sister
city program. In
1980 Tübingen invited Ann Arbor to take part in its music festival. Mayor Lou Belcher recalls
that city manager Sylvester Murray was given palatial quarters on the top floor of a hotel, with
balconies on all four sides and a fully stocked bar, while Belcher had a cubbyhole on a lower floor
with just a bed and a desk. It turned out that the Germans, who have several levels of mayors
starting with the Oberburgermeister or lord mayor, had assumed that the city manager was more
important than the plain mayor. When they discovered their mistake they were very apologetic, but
Belcher told them to leave things as they were since Murray was getting such a kick out of the
On the relationship's fortieth anniversary in 2005, Tübingen's delegation was led by the city's
first female lord mayor, Brigitte Russ-Scherer. Mayor John Hieftje led the return visit with his
wife, pianist Kathryn Goodson, who gave a concert at a nearby monastery. As they have every year
since 1982, Tübingen high school students also came to Ann Arbor during their spring break, and Ann
Arbor students returned the visit after school got out for the summer.
Most of the participants in the 2011 and 2012 exchanges were architects or people involved in
city planning. In Ann Arbor, activities included walking tours, visits to landmark buildings, and
explanations of our green initiatives. In Tübingen, Carolyn Melchers enlisted a group of architects
including her husband- to organize a tour of their architectural treasures, from the Middle Ages to
Tübingen will send two groups this year. This month, twelve adults with developmental
disabilities, plus eight helpers, are coming to Ann Arbor and staying in North Quad. They will be
hosted by the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living. An Ann Arbor delegation will return the visit
this fall. And on June 1, the Ann Arbor City Council plans to reenact the proclamation they passed
fifty years earlier. In the audience will be the latest official delegation from Tübingen.
Councilmembers Steve Kunselman and Graydon Krapohl will lead a return visit in July, and members of
the public are welcome.
In 1968, Michigan adopted the Prefecture of Shiga as its sister state. The following year, Ann
Arbor partnered with Hikone, a city in Shiga on the eastern shore of Lake Biwa.
The first visit was a big one: a contingent of high school teachers and students and 100 members
of the Musical Youth International Band and Choir. But it wasn't until 1982 that an official
delegation made the trip. Mayor Belcher led a nine-member group including Hitoshi Uchida, owner of
the Karnakura Japanese restaurant, who served as translator.
The highlight of the trip for Belcher was a visit to Toyota headquarters to encourage officials
to expand the company's small Ann Arbor emissions lab. He expected to take the train and to talk to
one of the company's economic development people. "I was surprised when a limo showed up at my hotel
and drove me the 120 miles to Toyota's headquarters," Belcher recalls. "When we arrived 1 was
escorted to [chairman Eiji] Toyoda's office. He dismissed the staff and closed the door and then
said, 'So tell me, how are my Wolverines?' " It turned out he was a U-M alum, and he barraged
Belcher with questions about U-M sports and various bars. When Belcher brought up the local lab,
Toyota answered, "Well, I think we can do sometgubg about that." Toyota subsequently built a major
facility in Ann Arbor Township and then an even bigger one in York Township.
Yearly junior high/middle school exchanges began in 1985, organized by Clague teacher Rusty
Schumacher. Ann Arbor students visit Japan every other year, and Hikone students come in the
Larry Dishman, who organizes the exchanges through the Rec & Ed department, says that Hikone
has a city employee in charge of sister cities. Though visitors stay with families, the city gives
them rail passes and money for travel and lodging when they travel to Hiroshima and other cities.
"On our end, we have the JGds pay $2,000," Dishman says, "and then raise more money patchwork
Like Hikone, Tübingen has a staffer who keeps track of their partnerships. The German city also
provides funding for cultural events and a travel budget that will pay the way for their mayor and
two councilmembers to this year's fiftieth anniversary celebration.
In contrast, Ann Arbor eliminated all regular funding during budget cuts ten years ago. This
year, its only financial contribution to the Germans' visit will be some bag lunches, and everyone
making the return trip will pay their own way.
Relying entirely on the volunteers means that relationships ebb and flow depending on people's
changing interests and commitments-especially if the sister city also has limited resources.
That's what happened with Belize City. The relationship was approved in 1967 at the urging of the
local People to People chapter. Former mayor Louis Belcher recalls that the late councilperson Jerry
Bell, a fan of Belize steel bands, also championed the connection.
A group of Boy Scouts from Belize City subsequently stopped by while in the United States for an
international scout jamboree. But a suggested return visit to Belize by a young people's choir and
orchestra was politely discouraged in a letter explaining that the city lacked the resources to host
such a large group.
In 1968 five Ann Arborites, including then-state senator Gilbert Bursley, visited. Return visits
included their national director of libraries in 1969 and a steel band in 1973. In 1975, the
relationship was memorialized with the creation of Belize Park at the corner of Fountain and Summit.
But there appear to have been no visits since 1999. As former mayor Ingrid Sheldon explains, "It's
really people to people-it takes people to keep things going."
The 1983 partnership with Peterborough was inspired by Doug Walker, then head of the Ann Arbor
Recreation Department, who suggested the cities set up a Junior Olympics-type exchange. At its
height, the Arborough Games brought six or seven busloads of middle school students to Ontario to
compete in soccer, baseball, track, volleyball, and basketball, followed by a return delegation from
Peterborough the following year. Participants stayed in the homes of the opposing team and enjoyed a
big party after the games.
"It was the gem of the recreation department," remembers Larry Dishman. "When it first started,
so many kids wanted to participate that we had to have tryouts." But as more opportunities to play
sports opened up in Ann Arbor, interest waned. Toward the end "we were so frustrated we would
practically hustle kids off the streets of Ann Arbor and tell them they didn't have to pay, just
come," Dishman recalls.
The partnership with Dakar, Senegal, was suggested by Richard Ross, who got the idea while
visiting a niece who worked for an ambassador in the west African country. City council approved it
That October an official delegation visited Ann Arbor including Dakar's mayor, Mamadou Diop. Mary
Hall-Thiam, a member of the hospitality committee and the wife of a Senegalese, recalls that the
local Senegalese community sponsored a reception in the group's honor. While in Ann Arbor, the
delegation observed Ann Arbor's educational systems, economic development, and environmental
An attempt to organize a return visit foundered when Ross couldn't raise enough money. But the
connection is not totally dead. Hall-Thiam says the local Senegalese community is planning to
organize a twenty-year reunion in 2017.
The partnership with Juigalpa started with a ballot proposal. Activists concerned about American
foreign policy in Central America, collected signatures for a proposal to create a sister city in
Central America. In April 1987 it won by a two-to-one margin, and council appointed a task force to
select a sister city. Several members had been to Nicaragua and had contacts there, so they
consulted with the Sandinista government, which suggested Juigalpa.
In November Ann Arbor sent a seventeen-member delegation, including mayor Ed Pierce and state rep
Perry Bullard. The group brought twenty-five boxes of gifts, mostly medical or educational supplies.
When asked what else the city would like, the mayor suggested a small garbage truck.
After much research, the committee found a company that made the right kind of truck in Alberta.
Initiative organizer Gregory Fox picked it up there and drove it to Ann Arbor, where three other
members of the original delegation, Kurt Berggren, Tom Rieke, and Kip Eckroad, took over for the
two-week trip to Nicaragua. The volunteers took turns with two in the cab, driving and navigating,
and one holed up in the back, able to communicate using a walkie-talkie that Eckroad borrowed from
There were a few later delegations to Juigalpa, but interest died out. "In the '90s, Juigalpa's
citizens voted to replace the Sandinista group in city hall," Rieke recalls by email. "People in Ann
Arbor did not know the new leaders, who probably thought that we were just Sandinista puppets."
However, the garbage truck "was used for about ten years around the clock," says Berggren. "This was
in spite of the fact that parts were hard or impossible to get, so they had to somehow figure out
ways to make repairs. Finally it ended up as a flatbed truck used for other things."
Berggren got involved in Remedios after seeing Jack Kenny's work on Cuba. Kenny fell in love with
the island after visiting with friends in 1996 and returned frequently to photograph its vintage
automobiles, crumbling architecture, and people. The book he published in 2005, Cuba: Photographs by
Jack Kenny, shows Cubans, although clearly not rich, enjoying life-playing chess, getting their hair
cut, riding bikes, or just hanging out.
"Remedios is an untouched, well preserved colonial city," explains Kenny. It's in the middle of
the island, about a six- or seven-hour drive from Havana. When Berggren visited, he played chess
with their mayor- Remedios has the main chess school on the island.
Since the thaw in diplomatic relations, Kenny and Berggren have been working to confirm that
officials in Remedios support the partnership to clear the way for an official visit.
"If we put a group together we could do it," says Kenny, "but first we have to make sure we are
recognized in Cuba. This is the time to see Cuba, before it gets overrun."
Photo caption 1: (Left) in 1987 Ann Arborites voted to adopt a sister city in Central America,
and raised funds to donate a garbage truck to Juigalpa, Nicaragua. But interest faded in the 1990s.
(Right) Ann Arbor mayor Ingrid Sheldon and Dakar mayor Mamadou Di?P in 1997.
Photo caption 2: Ann Arbor visitors enjoy a trip on the River Neckar in 2012. Thanks to strong
institutional and volunteer support, relationship with Tubingen, Germany, and Hikone, Japan,
continue to thrive.