One of Buffalo’s oldest sister city relationships was celebrated this weekend with a visit by special guests. A delegation from the city of Dortmund, Germany toured the town in honor of their 40 years of friendship with the Queen City – a friendship that has deep roots.
In the early ‘70s, a young German named Herbert Morgenroth came to Western New York to study and teach at the University at Buffalo. He was sent with a mission to reach out to local high school students and grow their interest in visiting his country. But Morgenroth saw even greater potential in the similarities shared between Buffalo and his home city of Dortmund. Both were bastions of steel production and home to great architecture. They shared like geography and were known for their neighborly residents.
In 1974, with the help of a junior high school principal named John Ward and Buffalo’s honorary German Consul Brigitte “Brix” Barelle, Morgenroth went to Mayor Stanley Makowski with the idea for a sister city relationship. Makowski was supportive of growing the ties, and he wasn’t the only one.
“Amongst the German-American community in Western New York, there was a real interest in seeing a relationship with a German city take off,” said New York State Assemblyman Robin Schimminger. “So all the pieces were.”
During an interview in his Kenmore office, Schimminger thumbed through the crisp tan pages of an old binder. He’s fairly certain it was created by Morgenroth and, with newspaper articles, letters, and other memorabilia in both English and German, the collection is a veritable trip through time in the early years of the Buffalo Dortmund relationship.
“Ah, here it is. The schedule,” Schimminger proclaims as he turns to an agenda from 1976. “That’s the trip. All in German. Let’s see if we have an English translation of it.”
We don’t, but Schimminger knows exactly what it is – a record of the first visit by a contingent of Buffalonians to the City of Dortmund. Educators, businessmen, artists, and government officials joined a chief from the Tuscarora Native American Tribe, a black jazz ensemble, and even Buffalo disc jockey Shane “Brother Shane” Gibson” in the trip across the sea. For many, it was their first time visiting Germany. Schimminger, then serving as chair of the newly-formed Buffalo Dortmund Committee, helped lead them.
“Everyone on the trip certainly came to understand better what life was like there, and the attitudes and customs of that place,” recalled Schimminger.
And that was the point – to foster an exchange of culture, ideas, civic growth and friendship. For Buffalo, it was meant to broaden the city’s horizons and continue establishing its place in the world. For Dortmund, it was part of Germany’s ongoing mission to rebuild international relationships that had been tarnished by two world wars.
Within the next three years, Dortmund would send their own delegation to Buffalo, followed by a return visit from then-Mayor Jimmy Griffin to seal the sister city relationship in 1978.
At the time, students were crossing the ocean, too.
In their North Buffalo home, retired Canisius College Professor Jim McGoldrick and his wife Rita recalled organizing visits for German high school students to be hosted by Buffalo-area families, and the students of those families to be hosted in Dortmund.
“German mothers were shocked that none of [the children] had pajamas,” said Jim McGoldrick. As he was cracking up in laughter at the memory, his wife explained, “In Germany, they had pajamas on – men, women, and whomever. They had pajamas on.”
But surprises aside, McGoldrick made sure that the visits were filled with diverse cultural and educational experiences. For American students visiting Germany, there were daily language classes, visits to historic sites and cities, and exposure to the German lifestyle. For Germans visiting Buffalo, there were trips to New York City and Toronto, and local excursions to more than just the usual sightseeing stops. German students were taken to Native American reservations and Buffalo’s black communities. Rita McGoldrick explained that Germans wanted to see minority areas at a time only a decade after the civil rights riots of the 1960s.
“They said, ‘How could you treat them – they’re people like you? How could you treat them?’ You know, but they didn’t understand,” she said. “We wanted to make sure they meet them and talk to them. And that’s what they did.”
What came from the exchanges was a chance to experience parts of the world that might otherwise have never been accessible to students from Dortmund and Buffalo.
When Jim McGoldrick started approaching schools outside of the city, Greg Engle was one of the kids who heard his pitch. It was 1982 and Engle, a junior at East Aurora High School studying German, jumped at the chance.
“Well, for a high school student to participate in a foreign program, I think that was the biggest attraction for me – to get out of East Aurora, to go to a new place, and to put my language skills to work,” said Engle.
He found more than a chance to use those skills – he found a second home. 36 years later, he still keeps in touch and visits with his host family, whom he considers his second set of parents and siblings.
Fast forward through the years, and the Buffalo Dortmund sister city relationship saw hundreds, if not thousands, of Germans and Buffalonians cross back and forth across the ocean. Sister city offshoots developed between schools, theaters, and even the baseball teams in Buffalo and Dortmund. The committee celebrated milestone anniversaries and had a handful of official delegation visits, but grand activities mostly died down by the beginning of the millennium.
Five years ago after a visit to Europe with their daughters, Engle and his wife Lynn – who had also been a student in the exchange – decided to see if the relationship between Buffalo and Dortmund still existed.
“But it wasn’t the same as when we were in high school,” said Engle.
The only part of the relationship that had remained constant was the student exchange, which had narrowed to only one all-boys private school. When the school’s German exchange coordinator began preparing for retirement, the Engle’s were asked to take over.
“This was our chance, we felt, at that point, to bring it back to where it originally was – a co-ed, multicultural experience,” said Engle. “And to this day, it’s been a hit.”
The Buffalo Dortmund student exchange has expanded to include six Buffalo-area schools. Three-week exchanges now take place in alternating years, with 17 Buffalo students headed to Dortmund this summer, and their counterparts visiting Buffalo in 2019. Twelve Dortmund students are also coming to Buffalo this fall. They’ll stay with host families during a four-month study exchange, and the program is looking for additional families to host them.
36 years after Greg Engle answered Jim McGoldrick’s call for an overseas adventure, he’s now president of the Buffalo Dortmund committee. With twelve members, the group has branched outside of academia to work with the city once again in growing overseas ties.
This weekend, an official delegation from Dortmund including its Lord Mayor, Ullrich Sierau, came to Buffalo to celebrate the sister city relationship. The city honored the 40 year anniversary with the dedication of a small park at Niagara Street and Busti Avenue on the West Side. There’s no significant connection to the German community at the site, but Greg Engle sees the piece of land as something the committee can build upon and be proud of. Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown and Lord Mayor Sierau also signed an agreement for the future development of the Buffalo Dortmund sister city relationship.
With a revived presence, a growing student exchange, and hopes to reach past participants, the Engles and the Buffalo Dortmund committee already have their sights set on reaching a 50th anniversary and keeping the vision of Herbert Morgenroth alive.
Check out a photo gallery of selected articles from Herbert Morgenroth's Buffalo Dortmund scrapbook and more.
Follow WBFO's Avery Schneider on Twitter @SAvery131.