How west suburban towns are making connections and sharing cultures with counterparts in sibling communities around the world
Hosting five French cyclists in her home for nearly two weeks last summer gave Julie Nyquist a newfound appreciation of Glen Ellyn and Americans.
The cyclists took part in the Tour of Lake Ellyn, part of a regional racing series. Race officials invited them because they were from Le Bouscat, Sister City to Glen Ellyn. Nyquist, who lives on the racing route, took them for a stroll of Lake Ellyn soon after they arrived.
People walking their dogs stopped to meet them and chat. Joggers said hello. Nearby cyclists who had heard they had arrived rode over to introduce themselves. “Their mouths were hanging open. They could not believe how friendly people were. This never would have happened in France,” says Nyquist.
Teri Ash was on the receiving end of a warm welcome when she visited Wheaton Aston in England, one of Wheaton’s two sister cities. She enjoyed a pint and a game of dominoes in a pub, marveled at a bell ringing lesson in a 12th-century parish church and fielded questions from awed preschoolers as if she were an American celebrity. “The kids were just so charming. Overall, it was just a great experience,” says Ash, chairperson of Wheaton’s Sister City Commission.
A product of the Eisenhower era, Sister Cities may seem quaint today. With jet travel and social media, the world has shrunk into a global village. Other nations are not so exotic or remote any longer. But for the half dozen or so western suburbs with Sister Cities, the cultural exchanges continue to enrich lives and broaden horizons. The mindset of those involved goes well beyond a global village: they think in terms of a global family.
Ike Began It
West Chicago’s Sister City relationship came about because of two brothers. Bodo Gsedl of Germany came the United States in the 1980s as an exchange student, which led to his brother, Uwe, visiting, which led to a fateful kiss on a dance floor. The tour guide for an evening out on the town for Bodo and Uwe was Kristina Howard, a friend of a German teacher at West Chicago High School. “She took the initiative and kissed me on the neck,” says Uwe, who married Tina and moved from Germany to West Chicago in 1992.
If two people can bridge cultures, so can two towns, the brothers realized, and in 1999 West Chicago city officials signed a Sister City agreement with Taufkirchen, where Bodo lived.
The fact that West Chicago was a German stronghold since the 1860s, when so many immigrants settled near the Union Pacific railroad tracks that the area was known as “Old Heidelberg,” was duly noted in the original agreement.
Since then residents of the two cities, including youth groups, have regularly crossed the pond and learned the ways and wonders of another culture, fulfilling the original goal of the Sister City movement. In 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower, who knew a thing or two about the ravages of war, officially established Sister Cities International, not as part of the U.S. government but as an entity in which the current president serves as honorary chairperson. The idea was to create bonds between peoples, building peace and goodwill.
Eisenhower formalized a growing network of relationships that had sprung up on their own as Americans sought to ease the suffering after World War II. The first known Sister Cities were Dunkirk, New York, and Dunkirk, France, in 1946. Europe was the common target for American goodwill, but in 1955 St. Paul, Minnesota, paired with struggling Nagasaki, Japan, one of two cities devastated by a U.S. nuclear bomb a decade earlier.
Today Sister Cities International counts more than 2,000 partnerships between more than 500 U.S. cities and towns with partners in 145 nations. When Sister Cities partner, city officials often cite potential commercial advantages. Once in a blue moon a financial windfall does happen, such as when San Antonio, Texas opened a Toyota manufacturing plant thanks to its relationship with its Japanese Sister City of Kumamoto and when an engineering company in Lakeland, Florida, signed a $1.3 billion deal to design a theme park for its Sister City in China.
But business gains typically are modest, if they occur at all, as is the case with the western suburbs that are Sister Cities. It’s not as if any funds are lost or misspent. Other than some token sums, municipalities promote but generally don’t finance Sister City exchanges. Youth groups, choral groups and others who travel overseas fundraise to pay for travel. Gains are not measured in greenbacks. “It’s educational. It’s eye opening. It’s a beautiful thing,” says Naperville Councilwoman Patty Gustin of her city’s longstanding partnership with Nitra, Slovakia.
West Chicago/Taufkirchen, Germany
With yearly visits, the two cities have one of the most active Sister City relationships. Last year 21 high school students and chaperones from West Chicago visited Taufkirchen, a 45-minute drive from Munich. In 2013 the high school jazz band went there. Twenty-two high school students from Taufkirchen came here in 2016 and a group of adults visited in 2014.
Visiting Germans are escorted to expected sites such as Millennium Park and Michigan Avenue. But they also enjoy seeing ordinary places and comparing them to what’s back at home. “They see the police station, the fire station, our city museum,” says Becky Hall of West Chicago.
The same principle holds true for West Chicagoans visiting Taufkirchen, which, though it does have a castle with a moat, is not a tourist town full of cute homes with brown wooden shutters. All the better. West Chicagoans mingle with regular Germans in typical homes and settings.
“I’m fascinated by ordinary things,” says Hall, who has visited Taufkirchen five times and stayed in people’s homes. That’s what Sister City visitors get to see — though what’s ordinary here is a bit different there. The homes in Taufkirchen are cleverly designed with a central staircase that leads to living space on each floor. The star of the kitchen is a device that Hall calls “an Instant Pot on steroids” — a $2,000 machine with superstar cooking capabilities.
Also memorable is Germans’ commitment to the environment. “They’re extremely devoted to recycling. There’s thermal heat, a lot of composting. They have a recycling center to dream of. They have containers just the right size for plastic CD covers, glass, rags, corks, everything,” says Hall, a technical writer.
The Germans also eat “much better. They don’t use a lot of processed food,” she says.
The best part is staying with a local family. “They treat you like a relative — with lots of warmth and kindness,” says Hall. “I’ve traveled to Europe before. This is so superior to average tourist travel. I can’t tell you how different it is. I went to Vienna and saw the big tourist attractions. That’s great, but you don’t get a sense of the people.”
The trips abroad are especially meaningful for young people. “A lot of them have never been out of the country, except maybe for Mexico,” says Hall. “One girl who went on the jazz trip said, ‘Now I have a friend in Germany. My life will never be the same.’”
Sister City participants discover you travel thousands of miles only to realize surface differences mask common values. “We’re all doing the same thing — trying to make a nice life for ourselves with friends and family,” says Hall. “You realize that people somewhere else are not that much different than us. They are no different from us than our neighbors are.”
More than 6,000 years old, Nitra is the fourth-largest city in Slovakia with 80,000 people. Its majestic castle, cathedral and city hall exude Old World charm. But when Naperville residents visit, they feel at home. There is Naperville Street, Naperville Park, and, quite coincidentally, a riverwalk.
Just as Eisenhower envisioned partnerships to forge peace, 25 years ago Naperville became a Sister City with Nitra as it emerged from the grip of Soviet domination. (Naperville has also been a Sister City of Patzcuaro, Mexico, since 2010 — that relationship is less active.) Since the agreement, there has been a long history of mutual visits by city officials and student groups.
Slovakians were not accustomed to participating in government or banding together in not-for-profit groups and clubs, says Gustin. The Slovakians learn about the mechanisms of self-government by spending time in Naperville. Nitra also began to address social problems that until then had been largely ignored. A psychologist from Nitra spent four weeks in Naperville learning how to serve battered wives and abused children. The Naperville Exchange Club paid his airfare.
Nitra has reaped other tangible benefits. Its police station was tucked away in a dark basement, giving it the aura of being secretive and menacing. Nitra officials heeded Naperville officials’ advice to relocate the station to a more visible, more accessible venue, says former longtime mayor George Pradel. In 1999, members of Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Naperville raised funds for construction and then traveled to Nitra to help build a new Lutheran church.
Given that Nitra is considerably materially poorer than Naperville, the impulse has been for the latter to aid the former. The city even once tried to facilitate the opening of a wine business from Nitra in Naperville. “The tax laws made it prohibitive,” says Pradel. “As far as us (our businesses) going there, I’m not sure how that would really work.”
Last year, Naperville City Council denied funding for a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Sister City relationship. And the Sister City Commission often has unfilled seats. Both facts are indicative of the deep but not broad support of the Sister Cities concept. In Naperville, and often elsewhere, relatively few residents know much about their Sister City, and fewer participate. But those who take part attest to its rewards.
Often a great part of the appeal is that participants had international ties well before involvement with the Sister City. The bonds between cities that foster a global family began within families. Some people, thanks to their family circumstances, are predisposed to international kinship. Gustin’s family fled Lithuania and abandoned its peat moss business, a vital source of fuel, during World War II. Nevertheless, her grandfather managed to hide the family’s Jewish nanny from the Nazis, a feat acknowledged at the Holocaust Museum in Washington.
Gustin, 58, who grew up on Chicago’s South Side, has a brother who married an English woman, another brother who married an Argentinean, a third brother who married a woman who is Hispanic and black, and a sister who married a man from India. Her son married a German, and her grandchildren speak both English and German. “I come from an international family,” she says.
Wheaton/Karlskoga, Sweden and Wheaton Aston, England
On Valentine’s Day, Teri Ash was out and about encouraging those she encountered in Wheaton to say “kyss mig!” That’s Swedish for “kiss me.” Those who complied were rewarded with a chocolate kiss. At the Taste of Wheaton in the summer, she’s the one waving a Swedish flag and wearing a traditional Swedish hat.
A former German teacher and translator, Ash, 64, is Wheaton’s #1 cheerleader for its long and productive relationship with Karlskoga — they became Sister Cities in 1973. The most recent exchange was last April when 16 young hockey players, hosted by Wheaton West Hockey Club skated over. They played mini-golf at Rotary Park, toured downtown with commentary from the DuPage Historical Society and devoured ice cream at Kimmer’s —“very good ice cream,” recalls team coach Stefan Fridén.
They also played a little hockey. There was no miracle on ice — the fast-skating Swedes won all three games. “Our boys put up a good fight,” says Ash. “It’s tough to play against boys who have played together for years.”
Adds Fridén, “The thing that got to me the most was the people in Wheaton were extremely welcoming. We were really impressed by our host families. I think it’s very important for young people to see and live in another culture. It’s very enriching. I got an idea that my daughter’s football (soccer) team will go to Wheaton, but we will see about that.”
Also on the trip was Ylva Elofsson, 54, communications manager for Karlskoga. “Wheaton is a beautiful, genuine, Midwestern small town that really made us feel welcome,” she says. “Sister Cities are a great way to learn from each other and to understand, despite many differences, we are quite similar in many respects.”
In 2004, Ash used her own funds to visit Karlskoga, an attractive lakeside city of 30,500. Officials loaned her a bike, and she gamely pedaled the city and outskirts.
Wheaton partnered with its namesake in England in 1990 after Ken Harris of England reached out to the Illinois town upon noticing his Bible was published there. Legendary Wheaton librarian Sarah Meisels dipped into her own funds and paid for Harris and his wife to visit.
The quiet English hamlet has less than 2,500 people. “Our two cities could not be more different,” says Ray Cowley of England.
The two Wheatons exchange calendars every year. Wheaton Aston displays, as Cowley calls them, “Yankee doodles” (American banners with messages) at its summer festival, and Wheaton, USA, residents are encouraged to “speak and eat British-style” on Commonwealth Day in March. A few years ago Mayor Mike Gresk traveled to England on his own dime and visited churches, the village pub and Wheaton Aston’s historic school, in addition to a side trip to Leicester Cathedral for the reburial of King Richard III.
Yet sometimes the relationship between the two Wheatons — and the one with Karlskoga — sputters. Cowley’s Wheaton Connections Facebook group “has yet to take off. I had hoped that social media might get more people talking.”
“There is an ebb and flow to the relationships,” acknowledges Ash. “It can be frustrating because when we get people here to interact it can be tough to get people there interested and vice versa.”
Exchanges that do happen can be memorable. On her trip to England, locals escorted Ash to the church in Little Malvern, where her parents, both in the U.S. Army, were married after World War II. “It was neat to be where my family started. The coincidence — Little Malvern is just 60 miles from Wheaton Aston — floored me.”
Glen Ellyn/Le Bouscat, France
In 2016, two years after the two towns became Sister Cities, the Glen Ellyn-Wheaton Chorale sang at a lovely, old church in Le Bouscat, a suburb of Bordeaux. It was the chorale’s last stop on a France-Spain tour.
Music bridged cultures, and various cultures merged together. The Chorale performed in English with some Latin. A community choir from Le Bouscat then sang in Latin with some French. The two choirs combined for the final two songs, sent to the French choir in advance. They combined on “Ave Verum Corpus” and “Soon Ah Will be Done,” an African-American spiritual.
The singing didn’t stop after the on-stage performance. In an impromptu sing-off, each group took turns singing snatches of traditional songs. The literal harmony among nations ended with both groups performing the French and American national anthems.
Enjoying its cuisine is a minor but memorable benefit of partnering with a French city. A post-concert reception included fois gras, canapés and petites fours, washed down with Bordeaux wine.
Yet the pleasure was all theirs, says Bob Nieland, a choir member from Naperville. “The people of Le Bouscat were full of joy,” he says. “They seemed genuinely happy we had traveled all that way from their Sister City.”
While Sister Cities are not about competition, Nieland does not hesitate when asked the inevitable question. “Oh, we were better,” he says of the two choirs.
The two towns paired up after a Le Bouscat resident visited the Chicago area and was struck by how similar Glen Ellyn was to her town — small, prosperous and with people proud of and actively engaged in their community. Representatives of Le Bouscat have toured village entities, businesses, the College of DuPage and Glenbard West High School. The annual Glen Ellyn Market Francais features French delicacies, mimes and even French bulldogs. Last year a Sister City mural, handpainted by Glen Ellyn residents, was unveiled at the fair.
In 2015, using personal funds, then-Village President Alex Demos traveled to Le Bouscat with his wife. Current President Diane McGinley hosted a welcoming party for five French cyclists last summer and made sure they sampled local favorites like Giordano’s pizza and Portillos. The portions astounded them, as did nearly everything else about the suburbs. “They were just amazed at how big everything was — the cars, the houses, the grocery stores,” says Nyquist.
In turn, the French made an impression on Nyquist’s 8-year-old son. “He asked me if the French guys can come back again this summer,” she says.
Last summer, Bolingbrook partnered with Sialkot, a thriving city of half a million. The bond makes sense. Pakistanis are the second fastest-growing Asian immigrant group (behind Bangladeshis) in the United States, and Sialkot exported $2 billion worth of goods in 2015.
Bolingbrook also has a sizeable Pakistani population. The Association of Pakistani Americans of Bolingbrook has been hosting Pakistan Independence Day events for a quarter century — the community is reportedly the only U.S. town that holds an annual ceremony of hoisting the Pakistani flag.
The relationship will allow Bolingbrook to foster educational, health, agricultural and information technology opportunities for Sialkot residents. Sialkot will support educational, healthcare, business and civic groups of Bolingbrook. It’s too early to tell how the relationship will evolve.
Sometimes Sister City connections thrive for a while but peter out. Western Springs was a Sister City with Rugeley, England, in the 1950s. British flags once hung prominently on light poles downtown. But after a series of events commemorating the 40th anniversary in 1997 the relationship faded.
Sometimes Sister Cities are the stuff of rumor and legend. Oak Park is believed to be a Sister City of Pamplona, Spain, the site of the famous Running of the Bulls that native son Hemingway wrote about. “That comes up from time to time. But as far as I know it’s never been the case,” says Dave Powers, a spokesperson for Oak Park.
Despite challenges such as occasional lukewarm interest; lack of funding; and now the ubiquity of digital technology, which thrusts the world at one’s fingertips; Sister Cities continue to unite people in different nations and dissolve differences in ways that smartphones and laptops can’t. “Meeting real people in real time provides a truer sense of another culture,” says Ash. Adds Hall, “You don’t make memories through social media. But you do over dinner, on a trip to see a castle or on a walking tour through a town.”Edit Module