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Evansville
Saturday, February 4, 2023

Sister Act

When an F3 tornado ruptured Evansville on Nov. 6, 2005, taking more than 20 lives and demolishing hundreds of homes, the Tri-State response was immediate: ambulances, donated labor and funds, vigils, and round-the-clock news coverage. Yet one reaction was a surprise, and that was the support from residents in Tochigi City, Japan.

Evansville’s second Sister City was halfway around the world when the tornado swept through the southeast side of the city, flattening Eastbrook Mobile Home Park. But the distance didn’t matter. Within about a week, the residents of Tochigi City collected donations to send to Evansville’s Habitat for Humanity to help rebuild homes destroyed by the twister. Eventually, thanks to their donations, which went towards the construction of one of the homes, and gifts from others, Habitat for Humanity built New Haven Subdivision, a $4.5 million development with 55 homes and a park on the Southeast Side of Evansville.

The new development became a new home to many of those who had lost loved ones and property in the Nov. 6 tornado. It was also a second chance for men like David Camp. He was living in his mother’s mobile home in Eastbrook when the tornado barreled through, breaking his shoulder.

Now, New Haven Subdivision is an entirely new community. And that’s partly due to the generosity of the men and women of Tochigi City, Camp told a delegation of Japanese Sister City visitors who visited the subdivision on Sept. 20, 2009, according to a statement on the subdivision’s website.

“Allow me to personally thank the wonderful people of Tochigi for reaching across the world to help us in our time of need,” Camp said as president of the New Haven Home Owners Association board of directors. “The 2005 tornado brought much destruction to our lives, but in its wake we have received countless blessings, including the wonderful homes in which we now live.”

Sister City Program

The Sister Cities program was launched as a national concept in 1956 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower called for massive exchanges between Americans and people of other nations.

“The Sister Cities Program is an important resource to the negotiations of governments in letting the people themselves give expression of their common desire for friendship, goodwill, and cooperation for a better world for all,” Eisenhower said.

“It also was a part of the outreach efforts that many in Europe felt were important on the heels of World War II,” says former Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel. “Many believe that the more we know and understand people in other parts of the world, the better the opportunity to collaborate and minimize misunderstanding.”

Yet in Evansville, the Sister City concept didn’t get off the ground until 1984. That’s when it began to develop a Sister City relationship with Osnabrück, Germany. The official Sister City agreement, however, wasn’t signed until 1991.

“It started when Ray Arensman (who passed away on June 28, 2013) founded the Osnabrück Society, which was pretty active for several years with monthly meetings both in Evansville and Osnabrück,” Evansville resident Larry Miller says. “We had student exchanges, private group exchanges with homestays, bands, and musical groups that we exchanged that performed in each other’s cities.”

Miller was a part of the Evansville/Osnabrück Society in 1984 that first met with then-Mayor Mike Vandeveer about establishing a relationship with the northern German city. Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel believes that relationship began because of Evansville’s long German heritage. Other cities in Indiana, such as Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, and Jasper, have established long-term relationships with German Sister Cities, as well.

After Vandeveer visited Osnabrück in May 1985, several student exchange programs followed throughout the remainder of the decade. These student exchanges started between Catholic Carolinum in Osnabrück and Reitz Memorial and Mater Dei high schools in 1986. They then led to university student exchanges between Osnabrück University and the University of Evansville and the University of Southern Indiana.

Following that success, the Sister City relationship became a formal agreement on May 11, 1991, when Mayor Frank McDonald II traveled to Osnabrück to sign the “Charter of Confirmation of Friendly Relations.” The official document expressed the wishes of Osnabrück and Evansville to intensify cultural, economic, and academic exchanges.

The relationship continues and has made a difference.

“Over the decades, a strong bond has formed between the University of Southern Indiana and the University of Osnabrück,” current Mayor Lloyd Winnecke says. “It’s very common for students and faculty to be exchanged between the two institutions, so we are gaining a lot of awareness about our different cultures and educational systems.”

Evansville didn’t stop there, however. On July 19, 1999, McDonald and Tochigi City Mayor Otoichiro Suzuki signed an agreement to promote mutual understanding, develop trust, and improve community life and welfare for the citizens of both cities.

Evansville now had its second Sister City, due in large part to Ken Robinson, the former head of Vision 2000. He was instrumental in convincing Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Indiana, to locate nearby in Gibson County.

And while the Sister City concept may not have intended to create a system of support during an environmental disaster like the Nov. 6, 2005, tornado, it was clear that that Sister City relationship was important to both Evansville and Tochigi City.

“It helps provide an outward look for our community, allowing us to look beyond the borders of our city, state, and nation, and establish ties globally,” Weinzapfel says.

He adds that there’s no formal process to choose a Sister City. “It’s based on personal relationships between individuals in both communities,” he says.

Yet the Sister City concept can assist in economic development.

A University of Evansville blog documented the Tri-State Trade Mission delegation visit to Malaysia and Japan in May 2007.

The blog stated that U.S. Embassy Minister-Counselor for Commercial Affairs, John Peters, told the delegation that visited Tochigi City that Indiana and the Midwest are well known in Japan.

Peters told the group that programs like the Sister Cities are important for expanding business opportunities because they develop relationships. Also, in addition to being suppliers to Japanese firms, the region has significant potential for growth in tourism and educational opportunities. Peters said the Japanese are interested in the West Side Nut Club Fall Festival, the importance of Abraham Lincoln’s historical connections to Indiana and Kentucky, and sporting events like the Indianapolis 500 and horse racing at Churchhill Downs in Louisville and Ellis Park in Henderson, Ky.

Meanwhile, Evansville’s third Sister City relationship became official on May 19, 2011, while Weinzapfel was mayor. At the time, local residents were working to help Tizimin, Yucatan, Mexico, obtain medical equipment to reactivate a small hospital in Colonia, Yucatan.

“Our local Rotary Club established a humanitarian relationship with the folks of Tizimin, providing donations of medical equipment, an ambulance, a bus, and other supplies,” Weinzapfel says. “The Sister City relationship helped formalize the bonds that were formed between our two communities.”

Currently, the Rotary Club of Evansville is in the process of sending another ambulance and school bus that will assist in transporting workers as well as children. The local Rotary Club recently received a grant from Rotary International to teach individuals in Tizimin basic business skills. The local Rotary Club also seeks to help Yucatan villagers create businesses tied to building hammocks and/or farming, according to Jeffrey Berger, president of Evansville’s Rotary Club.

Current Mayor Winnecke visited Sister City Osnabrück this past May along with his wife and several other travelers and delegations for the annual May Festival. Over the past 30 years, Osnabrück has invited people from Evansville to come join the festivities.

“I believe it is extremely important for Evansville to maintain relationships with our sister cities in Germany, Mexico, and Japan,” Winnecke says. “What I find most exciting is the multifaceted nature of these relationships, especially with Osnabrück.”

“The more we can learn about others, the better we can serve our fellow man, and I think that’s important,” says Winnecke.

For more information about Evansville’s Sister Cities, visit evansville.in.gov.

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