Lifelong Worthington


HomeHome / News / Lifelong Worthington

Jun 15, 2024

Lifelong Worthington

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in the June 30 edition of the Waseca County Pioneer. It is printed with permission from the newspaper and its author. WASECA — In 1972, impulsive

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in the June 30 edition of the Waseca County Pioneer. It is printed with permission from the newspaper and its author.

WASECA — In 1972, impulsive high school students in Crailsheim, Germany, and Worthington, Minnesota, raised their hands. Yes! They would love to have a pen pal from another country.

Not just “another country,” either — from their respective “sister cities,” a connection of friendship and sharing between the two communities which began in 1948.

The suggestion of finding a pen pal came from an American teacher, one who was taking part in a sort of short-term exchange. He went to Crailsheim from Worthington and would be teaching English to students at the school.

Because English is a sort of universal diplomatic language, German school children begin studying it in elementary school.


Among the students who thought he could not only improve his English but also make the acquaintance of someone from the other side of the world was 10th grader Gert Schoeniger. He indicated his interest and was lucky enough to be given the name and address of a pen pal.

“Some people didn’t get one,” Gert remembers. “I believe the teacher was very surprised at how many people raised their hands.”

Back in America, young Dawn (Eshleman) Nelemans had made an equally impulsive decision. “We were high-schoolers,” she jokes. “We all thought we wanted to try it just for fun.”

Gert thinks back to some of the early letter exchanges, laughing about the many elements that modern students will never have heard of.

“We used that special, thin ‘air mail’ paper,” he remembers. “It was light blue and it had a rather smooth finish, all so that it would be especially lightweight and cost less to mail. There were specific air mail stamps, too, with pictures of airplanes on them.”

Gert remembers agonizing over what to say, and choosing subjects whose vocabulary he had learned in school.

He not only remembers feeling a connection to Dawn, but also to her community — the sister city which had helped the previous generation recover from the destruction and shortages left behind after World War II.

Dawn remembers writing about simple, everyday things — games, activities and other common events likely to be memorable to a 10th grade girl.


She also remembers feeling a connection — being glad to share ideas and impressions with someone who spoke a different language and lived in a different part of the world.

The two met in person the first time only two years later, in 1974, when Dawn joined a group of 12 Worthington students and two teachers who were backpacking together through Germany, using railway passes and staying in inexpensive hostels. Their trip took them through Crailsheim and Dawn was able to introduce herself.

The two had such a connection that Dawn ended up getting special permission from her family to stay behind in Crailsheim with Gert’s family, then catch up with her backpacking group three days later.

Gert’s family treated her to a number of local historic sites. He also remembers Dawn’s energetic, outgoing personality — coupled with her bell-bottom pants and “flower power” mode of dressing — made quite an impression among his circle of friends when he took her along to a teen get-together at the local high school.

There, after he taught her the steps, Dawn danced with energetic abandon to the 1973 hit “Dancing on a Saturday Night.”

“That’s what makes the world go around,” jokes Dawn. “Different personalities, different ways of doing things.”

“Germans, they are a bit more concerned with the impressions they make on other people,” admits Gert. “The bell-bottoms, the dancing, people wondered a little bit about this crazy American.”

Gert apparently chose not to be embarrassed. He gave Dawn a vinyl record of the song to take with her. Dawn says she still has it.


Of her sudden decision to break away from her traveling group, she says, “It was an easier time to live, then. The world was a better — a safer — place.”

Gert repaid Dawn’s visit in 1978. He and a friend came to the United States and stopped by the Waseca home where she and husband Paul had been living for only a few months.

“Here come these two German fellows,” laughs Dawn, “all excited to be visiting and to find someone they knew in this big, strange country.”

The Nelemans took the two to visit various local sites and take part in seasonal activities. As they remember, it was fall. Among other things, they visited a pumpkin patch and found their way to a late-season baseball game.

Over the 50 years that have passed since 1972, each has visited the other in his or her home country about three times. They have continued to exchange communication, typically a few times each year.

A great deal has happened on their respective home fronts.

Gert became a school administrator, specializing in facilities for the disabled. He recently retired from a 20-year position which supports students with visual difficulties. He married Christiane, a doctor, in the 1990s.

Dawn and her husband Paul have been married 45 years and raised two children: daughter Brittinii and son Cassidy, now both in their 30s. Paul has also worked very hard on his construction and development business.


“Every time we visit her, she is in a bigger house,” jokes Gert. He mentions an email in which Dawn described having 12 Christmas trees on display in her home.

“In Germany, we have one Christmas tree,” he says.

Gert goes on to highlight that as a major difference between German and American cultures — space. For numerous reasons ranging from the fact that the centers of many German cities were laid out when nearly everyone traveled on foot or on horseback, the streets tend to be very narrow — there is simply no space for the many cars, parking spots and other features Americans take for granted in the centers of large towns.

Land is very expensive there too, so homes are kept narrow and tall; at least by comparison, yards are small.

“It all makes sense for us and for the way things are in our country,” he observes. “But it is very, very different from the way things are done here.”

Thinking of a trip he, Christiane, Dawn and Paul took together to the Mall of America, he comments, “Our communities tend to resist malls like that one. Their buildings, their businesses, have been as they are for a very long time, and they would see it as an intrusion if a company tried to change that.”

Gert and Christiane had many conversations with curious passersby during their time at Mall of America.

“I am not sure Germans would approach strangers quite so openly as Americans were approaching us,” Gert says.


On the other hand, “There were signs saying ‘No Guns’ everywhere,” remembers Christiane. “We would not have those in Germany, either.”

Gert and Christiane ended their visit with the Nelemans in late June, catching a plane to visit Gerts’ aunt, who married an American serviceman and moved to the U.S. in the 1970s.

“Germany is not as big as the United States,” he comments. “You could drive to almost any other city in our country in only a few hours — no need to take an airplane.”

Gert and Christiane also admired the wide variety of foods and products available in America. “You would probably not find all those options in Germany,” Gert said. “But here it’s always the same beer…”

That specialty, he said, can be found in immeasurable variety in every region of Germany, rather than the relatively limited number of options available across wide areas in the U.S.

Still, Dawn and Gert agree that such differences are no impediment to making a connection.

“People are people,” says Dawn. “Small things about our lives might be different, but inside, we’re all the same.

“We shouldn’t let those surface differences keep us from making genuine friendships.”