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Mayors of Utah Valley: Rekindling Provo’s sister-city relationship

By Isaac Paxman - Special to the Daily Herald | Dec 24, 2022

Courtesy Isaac Paxman

Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi, left, presenting gifts to Meissen Lord Mayor Olaf Raschke. At this meeting, the mayors shared city updates with each other.

“Are you really going to be the mayor who let this sister-city relationship, which obviously was very important to leaders and others in the past, die on your watch?”

That, in essence, was the question I put to Mayor Kaufusi, when, after more than four years of her being in office, I once again mentioned the repeated invitations from Meissen’s mayor for her to visit the German city. My name is Isaac Paxman, and I’m serving as deputy mayor under Mayor Kaufusi. Mayor Kaufusi asked me to write this installment of her series of mayor’s articles for the Daily Herald.

Allow me to back up and provide some of the history of sister cities and of Provo’s sister-city relationship with Meissen.

Sister-city relationships have apparently existed since at least the year 826, when Paderborn, Germany, and Le Mans, France, “twinned” or, in other words, became sister cities to each other. The reasons for sister-city relationships are varied. For example, Coventry, UK, and Stalingrad/Volograd, Russia, twinned because they both were nearly destroyed by bombings in World War II. Others have twinned because of a shared name, such as Toledo, Ohio, and Toledo, Spain, which formalized their sister-city relationship in 1931. More commonly, a tie in geography, population size, or industry leads to the bond. Comically, a town in Scotland named Dull is twinned with Boring, Oregon.

Provo has two sister-city relationships — one with Meissen, Germany, and the other with Nanning, China. By comparison, Midway, Utah, has just one sister-city relationship with a Swiss city, tying into Midway’s Swiss Days festival. Sandy and West Valley City each have two sister-city relationships, and Salt Lake City has six active ones with cities in Italy, Japan, Peru, Russia, Taiwan and Ukraine.

Courtesy Isaac Paxman

Mayor Kaufusi posing with Franziskaneum principal Heike Zimmer in front of the school. Franziskaneum is the high school that has done annual student exchanges with Timpview High School students.

Both of Provo’s sister-city relationships were forged in the early 2000s under Mayor Lewis Billings. The main interest in building a relationship with Meissen was the connection Provo has to that city through Karl G. Maeser, founding principal of Brigham Young Academy, now Brigham Young University. Maeser was born and raised in a small town that is now considered part of Meissen. He studied in nearby Dresden, became an educator, and at age 27, joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, shortly after which he left Germany.

Later, Maeser taught music lessons in the Eastern United States, including to daughters of former U.S. President John Tyler, and became an assistant organist for what is now the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square. But Maeser is best known as a founder of Brigham Young University, an institution that has probably defined Provo more than any other. Although firm and orderly, Maeser was also known for fostering loving relationships between teachers and students, encouraging women to advance in their studies, and educating the whole student, rather than merely imparting knowledge or skills.

In the late 1990s, descendants of Maeser, together with the Provo mayor’s office and others, initiated discussions with civic leaders in Meissen about forming a sister-city relationship and providing a statue of Maeser to Meissen. On July 14, 2001, the mayors of Meissen and Provo met in Meissen and, after signing a sister-city agreement, headed to a stake center to unveil the statue. President Thomas S. Monson of the Church of Jesus Christ and President Merrill Bateman of BYU spoke at the ceremony, as did the mayor of Meissen at the time, Thomas Pohlack.

Since then, multiple groups of civic leaders have travelled from Meissen to Provo or vice versa, because of, and to strengthen, the sister-city relationship (the current Mayor of Meissen has been here multiple times and plans to come again in 2023).

But perhaps more impressively, hundreds of high school students from Provo or Meissen have participated in multi-week exchanges, living in the homes and with the families, of their sister-city counterparts. These exchanges have been celebrated by Provo mayors and city council members, including at the city council meetings that the German exchange students have attended here each fall until the onset of the pandemic.

Courtesy Isaac Paxman

Photo display in the halls of Franziskaneum high school in Meissen Germany, highlighting Timpview High School, Stewart Falls and other Utah features.

I have been eyewitness to the impact of these student exchanges. Years ago, my son was deeply impacted by the weeks he spent in Meissen with a host family arranged by Timpview High School. Three young men from Meissen have even  lived in our home, because of the program. Long after, one of them came back to visit us for a few days, and the parents of another also subsequently stayed in our home. To say that our relationships with these individuals is close is an understatement. Dr. Van Orden, the Timpview German teacher who founded and leads the exchange program, accurately describes how these live-in experiences provide a window into language and culture that no other travel experience or learning experience can duplicate. In many instances, exchange students and their hosts come to consider each other as family.

Back to the introduction to this article: early this year when I suggested to Mayor Kaufusi that she probably did not want to forever decline the invitations of a sister city, she began to soften toward towards the idea, despite her initial misgivings.

Later, she met with Dr. Van Orden who explained how vital he thought her visit to Meissen would be. The exchange program had faltered through the pandemic, and the mayor’s visit could help spur the program back to life.

It turned out he was right. When the Mayor and I arrived in Meissen in time for their annual city festival this year at the end of September, Dr. Van Orden’s counterpart at the relevant high school in Meissen explained to Mayor Kaufusi that the city of Meissen was the parent organization for her school, playing the same role that a school district plays in the United States. She said that the mayor’s visit and encouragement could be just the thing to help secure support for the re-institution of the exchange program. Well, Mayor Kaufusi went to work in her friendly and diplomatic way, and by the time we left, the same teacher reported that the mission had been accomplished: the program was now on track to resume in 2023.

Other highlights of the trip include: forging bonds with gracious and personable Lord Mayor Olaf Raschke, who toured us around their city hall, told us stories of his prior meetings with officials in Provo and shared with us an engaging update on Meissen (Mayor Kaufusi likewise presented a dynamic audio-visual update about Provo); becoming friends with other warm and charming city leaders, who generously gave of their time and means to guide us around town and beyond; and learning the importance of sister-city relationships to Meissen. The Meissen mayor’s office has an individual responsible to manage Meissen’s seven sister-city relationships; delegates from some of them visit Meissen on an annual basis, at least. A final highlight was when a student who accompanied Mayor Kaufusi on a tour announced at the end of the experience that because of his time with her, he was now planning to save up to come to Provo on the exchange program — despite an earlier decision not to do so.

In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower spoke at a conference in which a formal effort to support and foster “citizen diplomacy,” largely through sister cities, was unveiled. He couched the purpose of the meeting as “the most worthwhile propose that exists in the world today: … to help build a road to an enduring peace (throughout the world),” adding that there is “no more important work.”

After my recent experience being befriended by Meissen residents, I have come to see how a broad fabric of sister-city relationships across the globe could, one day, prove to be one of the most valuable things cities do. There is something touching about the many relationships that have been forged between residents of Provo and Meissen, including through the student exchanges. And what other level of government could accomplish this person-to-person, community-to-community connection the way cities can?

I am glad Provo is not on the sidelines of that unfolding global story of individual human connections, facilitated by sister-city relationships.

Allow me to end with a final personal note. When my son unexpectedly died last year, the response from his “German family” was heartfelt and touching. In Meissen this fall, his “German parents” arranged to meet us at the opening of the Wine Festival. But what brought tears to my eyes was a surprise gift. Two of his “German brothers,” who we had learned were off to college in other cities, made it a point to also be there to greet us in person. There we stood that brisk night, in a cobblestone plaza on the other side of the world, with two young men we knew and loved — and who knew and loved our son. It was a moment that sunk deep into my soul.

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