Karl VanNewkirk : DESIGNER OF THE ARLINGTON SISTER CITY MODEL
WHEN: 25 January 2014
WHERE: Washington, DC
INTERVIEWER: Carl Lankowski
Q: Tell us where and when you were born and about your early experiences.
KvN: I was born in 1942 and have lived in Arlington since 1974, in the same house since 1978. I have been interested in the community and have been reasonably active in community life, including in ASCA.
Q: Let’s go back further. Tell us about your family.
KvN: My father grew up in Baltimore. He background was not opulent, a broken home and not much money. So I had a lot of admiration for his ability to go to college during the Depression coming from a situation of near poverty. My mother grew up in Philadelphia. She was the daughter of a minister and that influenced her life. She lived in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. My parents met at graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania.
Q: What did your father do?
KvN: He ended up as a professor of Psychology at what is now called Frostburg State University. At that time it was Frostburg State Teacher’s College, in Frostburg, Maryland. He went through several jobs while I was young; I was seven years old when we moved to Frostburg where he took the job that he had for the rest of his life.
Q: You grew up in Frostburg, then. What was that like?
KvN: I thought it was pretty normal, what most kids think of their childhood. Frostburg is a small town, a pretty nice place to grow up, a friendly town, about 6,000 population, lots of people know almost everybody. We were somewhat the newcomer family in town. Many Frostburgers’ grandparents had lived there, too. We fit in. My mother is still there and my brother moved back to town. The VanNewkirks are something of an institution in the town.
Q: How far back to the VanNewkirks go in America?
KvN: I have done some research into my family and the part I know least about is the VanNewkirks. I do have a Mayflower passenger in my ancestry on my mother’s side. He was an interesting character, because he was not a pilgrim, a fellow-traveler, sent by the “Merchant Adventurers,” a London company, and was seeking profits in the New World. These individuals were sometimes called “Strangers” or “Sinners.” He was a contentious individual. Governor Bradford didn’t like him and he ended up killing a fellow settler with a blunderbuss and is believed to be the first Englishman hanged in America. One of his sons came close to disaster when he fired off a musket in the ship’s powder magazine. Through a stroke of luck, he avoided blowing up the ship. I’m descended from that son, Francis Billington.
Q: When did you leave Frostburg?
KvN: I graduated from high school in the class of 1959. From there, I attended Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pennsylvania in the class of ’63. I majored in Math and Physics. At the time, I was an ROTC student. There was a set of courses associated with ROTC. Consequently, I was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army upon graduation, and received orders to Vietnam. I went on active duty a month after graduation. After about six months of training, I was sent to Vietnam for a year starting in January, 1964.
Q: Were you an infantryman?
KvN: No, I was in military intelligence. In 1964 the war was not yet fully underway. It was an advisory type effort. There were only 20,000-25,000 U.S. soldiers in the country then. In fact, when I went there, rumors had it that we would all be home by Christmas. It didn’t turn out that way. Shortly after I returned to the U.S., in January 1965, there was an attack on a helicopter base and that was the impetus for President Johnson to move combat troops to Vietnam.
Q: Were you in Saigon?
KvN: Yes. I was stationed at Ton son Nhut Airbase outside Saigon—Saigon’s airport, the airstrip shared by the military and civilians. The airbase was on one side of the airstrip, the airline terminals on the other.
Q: What happened next?
KvN: My Army career, originally expected to be short, was extended. I liked it and ended up with almost 15 years of active duty. There was a second tour to Vietnam in 1969. Then there were four years in Germany from 1970-1974. That was very enjoyable.
Q: Where were you in Germany?
KvN: Three different places. I started at Herzo Base, near Herzogenauroch, outside a small town near Erlangen not far from Nürnberg. Later, I was transferred to Augsburg, also in the West German south-eastern state of Bavaria. We lived there for six months, at which point we moved to a small detachment right on West Germany’s border with East Germany, in the north-central state of Niedersachsen, just outside the village, really a Dorf, of Gross Gusborn, which was actually smaller than Klein Gusborn, the next village over. We lived for a while in a place called Restorf, which only had about 200 inhabitants. The youngest there was 8 years old, except for our daughter, who was 3, creating an awkward situation, as she had nobody to play with. We enrolled her in the German Kindergarten. That experience got me really interested in Germany. Though I had studied German in college, I hadn’t particularly liked the language, hadn’t done real well with it, but then living on the economy in Germany for several years, shopping for groceries, paying the rent, and so on, in German, really strengthened my capacity in the language.
Q: Somewhere along the way you got married…
KvN: Luella and I were married in 1966. Our child was born in 1969, while I was in Vietnam for my second tour.
Q: That must have been tense.
KvN: Tense isn’t the right word. I was in military intelligence, not in battle. It was somewhat worrisome with a pregnant wife back home. I remember getting notification from the Red Cross—“yes, you have a baby daughter, five pounds, 25 ounces.” “Wait a minute, something’s wrong here…”
Q: Did she come early?
KvN: She did indeed come a month early. Fortunately, we had agreed on a girl’s name by that time, but we had not yet reached agreement on a boy’s name. She turned out to be a girl, so the naming problem was solved.
Q: How did you meet Luella?
KvN: Her father was a colleague of my father’s at Frostburg State College. Her parents and my parents were good friends. I first met her at a Christmas party hosted by my parents when I was home from college. She was attending Beall High School in Frostburg. Her family moved to town about the same time I graduated from high school, so I did not know her in high school, although she and I graduated from the same school.
Q: Bring us to Arlington.
KvN: I stayed on with the U.S. Army until 1977. As a consequence of the post-Vietnam drawdown, I was released from active duty. I continued serving in the U.S. Army Reserve, so I ended up with a retirement pension when I turned 60. From 1977 until 2000 I was working for civilian companies—three different defense contractors.
Q: As a consultant?
KvN: All those companies had contracts with the U.S. military. Two of them provided technical-type engineering consulting services. The other was a manufacturer that sold equipment to the government. In my last assignment, the company was providing services to the government and I worked from a government building—a government employee in everything but name.
Q: Let’s turn to your “extra-curricular activities,” outside of work. You had been living in Arlington since 1974 and had started finding other things to do.
KvN: I was first active in the Parent-Teachers-Association (PTA). That seemed like the right thing to do.
Q: Which schools did your daughter attend?
KvN: She went to McKinley Elementary School, Swanson Middle School, and then Yorktown High School. My wife was also a teacher in Arlington County schools until she retired.
Q: At the elementary level?
KvN: She taught at Thomas Jefferson Middle School until our daughter graduated from high school. After our daughter graduated, she moved to high school; she didn’t want to be a teacher where her daughter was in school. Our daughter, Carolyn, graduated from Yorktown High in 1987 and the following fall, Luella transferred to Yorktown and taught Biology.
Q: What that her major?
KvN: I think so. It was at least her professional interest.
Q: So, PTA was your first involvement.
KvN: There was also a civic association, but I don’t remember much about it, so maybe I wasn’t so active. I was a soccer coach for my daughter’s team for one year. And then, somewhat as an outgrowth of that, I myself joined a team. The Northern Virginia Coaches’ League had been formed about then. Coaches for youth soccer teams decided they needed to learn more about the game by playing it themselves. I joined one. Unbeknownst to me at the time, that move was also my route to ASCA.
Q: When did you join?
KvN: It must have been sometime in the late 1980s.
Q: Was there soccer in your background?
KvN: I played one year on my high school team, so no, there was not much soccer in my background. I joined the Arlington Green soccer team in the Coaches’ League.
Q: What was the ASCA connection?
KvN: In the spring of 1994, a letter came to Arlington from Herr Doktor Schulte-Lippern in Aachen. In it, he stated that he was the captain of a senior men’s soccer team and that he was inviting a team from Arlington to come and play. As I recall, the letter was addressed to the Arlington Chamber of Commerce. Of course, they didn’t know what to do with it. It was forwarded around to various people and ended up on the third hop with a man named Doug Dowling. An Arlington resident, he was playing with a pick-up team, seized the initiative and agreed to put together a team in response to Aachen’s invitation. Doug recruited a couple of people from the team on which he had been playing in Bethesda and then came to one of the games of the Arlington Green soccer team and recruited several of us. We succeeded in putting together a partial team, and in correspondence with us, the Germans agreed to lend us players to fill out what we couldn’t manage. We flew to Europe for the match. I brought this remembrance for your perusal: Kleine Chronik des Besuches der Arlington Old Boys in Aachen vom 14.08.-21.08.1994—The Arlington Old Boys Sokker Team in Aachen, 1994, August 14th-21st.
Q: Thank you! I will make some images of it. The Old Boys?
KvN: Yes, we titled ourselves the Arlington Old Boys. We went to Aachen in August, 1994. The Germans arranged full hospitality—home-stays for everybody, several of us went with our wives, as I did, activities, visits. They treated us royally. That was the time when the Arlington Sister City Association and their formal relationship with Aachen was just getting started. I was not aware of a relationship between ASCA and the soccer team, though it seems there was one. I remember attending a fancy dinner in Aachen in which part of the clientele included members of an official delegation of Arlingtonians. They were seated at a table on one side of the room. Luella and I were there with our host family on the other side of the room. Other soccer players and their host families were scattered around the room, too. It was the farewell dinner for the official delegation from Arlington, political big-wigs of one kind or another. The venue was one of the old medieval towers in Aachen, the Marschiertor, a room upstairs prepared for dining. And the menu was printed in Die Kleine Chronik.
After we returned to Arlington, I found out about a meeting of ASCA. At the meeting I was invited to say a few words about my recent visit. I went so far as to say that I had had such a good time that I wanted to somehow pay it back. I did that by joining ASCA and have been reasonably active in it ever since.
Q: 1994 was the first year of operations of ASCA.
KvN: At the time, I was vaguely aware that a relationship was in the works. But I was not aware that it had been formalized and I was not aware we were part of it. It seemed like we were related to it but somewhat separate.
Q: Before we continue with ASCA, tell us about your other, parallel affiliations dating from the 1980s.
KvN: At some point I joined the Arlington Committee of 100. I had joined the Arlington Historical Society back then, too, serving on their board of directors and as president for two periods. I have also been editor of the Arlington Historical Magazine for a number of years starting in the 1990s. Somewhere along the way the Arlington Black Heritage Museum started up. I served for a number of years on its board of directors.
Q: Your professional and associational life appear to coexist as yin-and-yang—you were trained in Math and Physics, but embraced history later on.
KvN: Improbable, too, since the course I liked least in college was the one on American History. I think it was the professor, who was absolutely terrible. I was required to take a course, so I took a course—with a “never again” reaction. In the 1980s, I was drawn to the subject and I have done a fair amount of reading in American history, the Civil War, WWII, local history, and so on. I have attracted the reputation of “local historian,” although I have no academic training as a historian and have not written or published anything. But I have been teaching a course on Arlington history for what was originally called the Arlington Learning in Retirement Institute since about 2004. That organization is now called Encore Learning.
Q: Did that launch in the 1990s?
KvN: I think it started around 2002.
Q: Was John McCracken involved in that?
KvN: He might have been. Richard Barton was the one who recruited me to the project. John Sprott has been leading that initiative for a long while. Art Gosling is also an officer in the organization, a retired superintendent of schools of Arlington County. From 20014, I have been teaching there, at first two sessions a year and more recently, one.
Q: Who are the students?
KvN: It’s a membership organization—membership is $45 per year. The students are typically retirees, or people who can do things during the days. Classes are taught by volunteers, typically retirees who have some sort of expertise. There are up to about 30 classes each semester, covering a variety of topics—health, science, politics, current events, religion, literature, theater, some music. The organization has expanded. They now have clubs—a bridge club, an ethnic eating club, a current events discussion club, a travel club.
Q: How would you characterize the organization demographically?
KvN: Most people are over 55. Some of the instructors have been graduate students at, for instance, George Mason University. Mostly white—not much racial or ethnic minority participation. I’m not quite sure why. It is certainly open to all.
Q: Maybe there is a link to socio-economic status…
KvN: Could be. It’s not expensive. The program appeals to those interested in remaining intellectually active.
Q: Other activities?
KvN: I started playing golf with the Arlington Senior Golf Club, sponsored by Arlington Parks and Recreation, Office of Senior Activities. I started playing once a week with them in 2001. But when I retired I decided I did not want to play golf every day. I wanted to do a variety of things, so I explored options. I hooked up with the Archaeology department at Gunston Hall, which is George Mason’s home down on Mason Neck in Fairfax County. George Mason is the forgotten founding father, a contemporary and neighbor of George Washington. I have been volunteering with them since 2001. I go down there once a week. I am also active in REEP—Refugee Employment and Education Program—a program to teach English to speakers of other languages. I have been a volunteer teacher with them since 2000. For a while I did two classes a week, but recently cut back, since they had more volunteer teachers than classes.
Q: Was REEP founded to serve the immigration stream?
KvN: The program started back in the 1970s with some federal money. Nowadays it is a division of Arlington public schools. The employment function is no longer prominent. The focus is teaching English and teaching citizenship in preparation for the citizenship exam. They have classes for which the students pay and the teachers are paid and they meet formally four or five times a week. Then there are “outreach classes,” for which there is open enrollment and the teachers are volunteers. That’s the part that I am in. They also have some special programs for mothers of school-age children. It is a real effort to promote integration into the broader community.
Q: Do you work mostly with Hispanic people?
KvN: Almost everybody thinks that’s the case, but it’s not. People come from all over. I used to think that the concentration is from the greater Middle East—Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea—but I’m not sure that that’s even the case now. We have people from all over Central and South America, the greater Middle East, a few people from Eastern Europe, Asia, Bangladesh Pakistan, Philippines, Vietnam—a very diverse group.
Q: Have you had students from across that spectrum?
KvN: Oh, sure. Because it’s a drop in class, there is no regularity and I have been doing it for long enough now that there have been many changes. They come from all over and for as long as they feel they are getting something out of it. Many of them drop out of the class when they succeed in finding a job and are no longer available during the day to come to class. I have been working with daytime classes. Evening classes are also scheduled. The daytime classes are mostly women; the evening classes are mostly men.
Q: So, why have you given so much of your retirement to this program?
KvN: There is a great feeling of satisfaction from the things I am doing. I am feeling like I am contributing to the world a lot more in retirement than I did when I was working for the military-industrial complex, typically on R&D projects that didn’t come to fruition. Looking back, I was on the edges of R&D for most of my time since transitioning from active duty. I can’t recall any project on which I worked that actually got fielded. I worked on a lot that were killed somewhere along the way. This did have the virtue of saving the tax-payer’s money. I do have the feeling that I have contributed to the store of knowledge or contributed to people’s lives a lot more in retirement than I did when I was working.
Q: Listening to you, it is fascinating to hear about being at the intersection of so many networks in Arlington County. Not many can say that.
KvN: That’s probably true. Probably true. I have not been interested in getting involved in politics, but I have met all of the members of the County Board, some of them in close circumstances. For example, Jay Fisette and I participated in a bicycle tour sponsored by ASCA back in 2004, so we spent a week traveling together, drinking together, eating together. And County Board member Chris Zimmerman and his family went to Ivano-Frankivsk on the same trip that I did. The circumstances permitted an unusual degree of interaction.
Q: Every community needs a stratum of people who simply know others in the community. Aside from anything else, you are of value to the community in that way. Precisely against that background you became involved in ASCA.
Rehearse for us what your various roles have been in ASCA.
KvN: Right. In the fall of 1994 I declared my willingness to become active in ASCA. Not long thereafter I was elected to the board of directors. So, I was on the board for a number of years in the days when we had a sister city in Aachen and fairly soon thereafter another in Coyoacan, Mexico. I did go on one of the first delegations to Coyoacan; it may have been already in 1995.
That relationship was a funny one, because soon after we established it, it fell apart.
So I was a member of the board and attended board meetings, though other people did most of the work. At length, I was asked to serve as an ASCA officer—first Secretary, then later Treasurer.
Q: You were still Treasurer when I came onto the board in 2008.
KvN: Yes. And I had been serving in that capacity for several years by then.
Q: Do you remember how you were brought onto the board?
KvN: As far as I remember it was the same at it is now. At the annual meeting every May, there is an election for members of the board. One third of the board is elected every year. Somebody does the nominating. It’s who fails to take a step backwards that is elected. The voting is typically by acclamation. There is not a whole lot of competition for this. It was that kind of process: “are you willing to serve?” “OK, I guess so.” Once you got on the board, then the board selects officers, like Secretary and Treasurer. So, it is who shows up for the board meeting. “Will you take the notes? Well, wouldn’t you like to be Secretary?”
I don’t remember right now when I became an officer for the first time, but my board membership goes back to 1995 or 1996. I probably became an officer about 2000 or so.
Q: And then Treasurer around 2004?
KvN: That sounds about right. That started because the organization was much less organized in those days. We went for a number of years with only one and a half sister cities. The one was Aachen. And then we had a formal piece of paper saying we had a relationship with Coyoacan.
What happened to Coyoacan was that there was an election in Mexico in 1997 and the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) was voted out of office at the national level. That had never happened before. PRI had been in office for something like 75 years. It’s hard for Americans to comprehend, but not in living memory had there been anyone running government except for PRI. Consequently, in Mexico there had been zero experience in changing government. How do you hand over government to a successor? Apparently, what had happened in Coyoacan was that the government, which was appointed from the national level, took all the files with them. So, the new government had no background whatsoever. They didn’t even know that the relationship existed. Therefore, there were a number of years during which we had the president of a Coyoacan committee who would report: “Well, I made a phone call and it wasn’t answered or wasn’t returned, or I wrote him a letter and haven’t received a reply.” This person was even of Mexican nationality and worked for Arlington County government, and he went down there from time to time. He reported that he couldn’t get in to see Coyoacan officials. It was very frustrating.
Q: Do you remember who that was?
KvN: His name was Roberto Moranchel, a park planner for Arlington and has passed away since. He was instrumental in establishing a park in Coyoacan named in honor of our relationship—the Coyoacan-Arlington Friendship Park or some such. It has since deteriorated. I have a picture somewhere of the sign, looking very weather-beaten. The relationship wasn’t revived until a couple of years ago.
Q: It would be fun to have a before-and-after picture.
KvN: I actually have one.
Q: So, until the early 2000s, ASCA was basically Aachen.
KvN: That’s exactly right. The organization we have now with a separate and independent committee didn’t really exist. ASCA and the Aachen Committee were essentially the same thing. The Aachen exchanges were functioning, but everyone who was involved in ASCA was pretty much interested in Aachen—except for this one guy who was Coyoacan with nothing to do.
And then there was a group of Francophones who liked to get together and speak French. They were interested in having a sister city in France. Harry Amos was the leader of that group. Simultaneously, Hubert Gronen in Aachen was pushing the idea of an Aachen-Arlington-Reims triangle and the two movements sort of came together, except for the fact that Reims resisted the idea of affiliating with Arlington for a number of years.
I don’t know the whole story, but I believe that the mayor of Reims was opposed to the idea. I am not sure it was because he thought that Reims already had too many sister cities, or whether he had an antipathy towards Harry Amos. But Mayor Falala was replaced in the course of time by Mayor Schnitter and the association agreement was signed. Harry had been pushing Reims for at least four or five years by the signing in 2004.
The relationship with San Miguel came shortly thereafter, partly pushed by Walter Tejada.
Q: How did that happen?
KvN: As you know, that relationship is different from the others. For starters, there is a large Salvadoran population in Arlington. A consensus emerged that a relationship would be a good thing. There had been the thought very early on that we should have a Spanish-speaking sister city. That, after all, was the impetus for Coyoacan. But that had not really worked. Walter Tejada was Salvadoran and interested in promoting it by encouraging the Salvadoran business community in Arlington. They got together and decided they wanted to do something. Their emphasis was not so much on student exchanges, as it was with Aachen and with Reims, but rather aimed at bringing about civic improvements in San Miguel. So, they were interested in raising money and in using that money to buy equipment for schools and orphanages and old folks homes in San Miguel.
Q: At that point, you were already ASCA Treasurer.
KvN: I became Treasurer when the board was forced to acknowledge a problem. Ben Chatfield was Treasure early in ASCA’s history and held that position for a number of years. When he stepped down, there was a fellow by the name of Rob Swennes, who agreed to be Treasurer and was duly elected, but never actually took over the job. The chairman at the time was Jim Rowland. Jim tried to be Chairman and Treasurer at the same time, even though Rob Swennes was officially the Treasurer. As a result, the Treasurer’s books got messed up. There was an initiative to get somebody to look at the Treasurer’s books to certify that they were in good shape. The ASCA board asked Bill Bozman and me to do that.
Q: Was Bill Bozman on the ASCA board?
KvN: Bill Bozman was an outsider, just a good civic guy.
Q: One hears the Bozman name in Arlington.
KvN: His wife, Ellen Bozman, was a long-time member of the Arlington County Board. Bill and I started by looking at three years’ worth of Treasurer’s stuff. What we inherited was a cardboard box full of miscellaneous papers. They were not organized in any way, shape, or form. Moreover, there had been a change in fiscal year in that interim. After looking at the materials, we concluded that we could not certify the records as such. The most we could do is take the most recent year as a base-line, getting it in order to provide the next Treasurer with something that he could actually deal with. Bill and I did that. Then the question arose: who would be the next Treasurer. Well, at that point, I was the only one who understood the books. In that way, I became the obvious candidate. So, that is how I got to be Treasurer at that point. I had created the previous year’s records.
Q: When I came onto the board in 2008, the board met every other month and the Executive Committee met every other month, so there was a meeting every month, but not the same people.
KvN: That structure was set up in the 1990s when I was first on the board. The practice morphed over the course of time. More things needed to come before the board. It made less sense to have an Executive Committee meeting to meet between the board meetings.
Q: In the six years I have been associated with ASCA I have never seen you not present at a board meeting.
KvN: The principle under which I was operating was that, if I agreed to be on the board, then I ought to go to the board meetings. I try to make the meetings of the board that I am a member of. If I can’t make the meetings, then I will resign from the board.
Q: That is truly exemplary and I wish all board members possessed that sense of duty.
KvN: What is it: 90% of life is just showing up?
Q: That’s right: the Woodie Allen principle. As Treasurer, you were central to ASCA, as you had to know what was going on in all of the committees.
KvN: Or at least process their requests for reimbursement and that kind of thing. Beyond that, ASCA went through a leadership crisis in the mid-2000s. In 2004, Jim Rowland was forced to resign. Sandy MacDonald, who had been ASCA Secretary, took over as Chairman. She really brought a lot of order into the organization. It was also the period when the organization was expanding. There were the new relationships with Reims and San Miguel, and Chrystia Sonevytsky was pushing Ivano-Frankivsk. There was the turmoil in the Treasurer’s office. As a result, Sandy MacDonald had a lot of management challenges to deal with. She greatly improved things, from the informal operation of one man trying to do everything. When Sandy decided that she had served long enough, board members looked around asking, “well, who is next?” Some people whispered in my ear: “Wouldn’t you like that?” I hadn’t really sought the job, but agreed that I was probably qualified to do it. So I took it on.
Q: Just for the record, what year was that?
KvN: I served three terms [three years] as Chairman.
Q: That must have been from 2010 until 2012. When you replaced Sandy, you needed to find a replacement to handle the books.
KvN: Somewhere along the way, John Kun agreed to take over the books. I recall making that a condition of accepting the Chairman role: “I will be Chairman, but not Treasurer at the same time.” I believe John has training and experience in book-keeping for organizations of this sort. He is the Number Two person at the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation and I believe he keeps their books as well. He knew what he was doing and had access to a computer program to help him. But he soon discovered that this was more work than he had time for. During the last year of his tenure in that position I can remember his cris de coer: “I want to get out of this!” That’s when I agreed to take over the job when I left the Chairmanship.
Q: So, ASCA has become something of a tar baby for you…
KvN: In some ways it has been. But I have had some very enjoyable experiences, met a lot of nice people. I have visited each of our sister cities at least once. I guess San Miguel is the only one that I have been to only once. We still maintain some contact with the people with whom we stayed in 1994. I have met and partied with all of the members of the Arlington County Board. It has been very personally rewarding.
Q: Let’s talk about your tenure as ASCA chairman. Dissect it for us: how did you find the organization when you took up that responsibility? What was on your mind? Where did you hope to accomplish?
KvN: One of the things I wanted to do is continue and strengthen the regularization of the whole operation. Before Sandy had been chair, the organization had pretty much been run out of Jim Rowland’s hip pocket. We needed to get more structure, more organization. I felt that one urgent matter was to regularize the succession. That hadn’t happened in two previous successions. When Sandy took over, it was spur of the moment. It was pretty much the same thing when I took over. I wanted to have a Vice-Chair who it was understood would be nominated for chair at some point. I also thought that a three-year tenure was probably about the right length of time. That’s what Sandy had served. It is probably a good stretch of time. The first year you are learning the job; if you quit after one year, you have just figured out what you are doing and then you are out. So, I hoped for a smoother transition after serving three years. And I think we did achieve that. I talked to Malcolm [Phillips] about that at the start of his period as Vice-Chair. “If this is not in accordance with your wishes, say so now and we will look for somebody else.” Of course, nothing is guaranteed. This was subject to elections and people changing their minds and so forth. The expectation had been articulated.
As a second matter, during Sandy’s last year as chairman, she had been pushing to get some sort of executive director. That was the term she used. As a member of the board I resisted that. I thought the proposal was not defined well enough; too little thought had been given to the tasks to be assigned to an executive director. To me, you can’t be sensible about hiring someone until you know what she/he will be asked to do. Furthermore, we didn’t have any money at that time to hire anyone. We were operating on a shoestring. There was the suggestion that we could raise the money. Well, how should we raise the money? The response was we should ask the executive director to raise the money. But this would mean that a person is being hired to raise that person’s own salary. That didn’t strike me as a sensible solution. But during the first year of my chairmanship, the County came to us with a proposal. Prior to that, the County supported ASCA by assigning nominally half the time of a County staff member.
Q: That person was Chris Williams?
KvN: That’s right—it was Chris Williams, who worked in the Cultural Affairs Division of the County government. Part of Sandy’s problem was that she and Chris got crossways with each other. She saw the executive director as a replacement for Chris, who wasn’t doing what she wanted. In fact, one of my key priorities in taking on the chairmanship consisted in repairing the relationship between Chris Williams/Arlington County government and ASCA. I instituted a series of once-a-week meetings with Chris just so we could keep each other informed about what was going on. We met in his office. Another benefit flowed from that: I was able to meet Chris’s boss, director of Cultural Affairs, Norma Kaplan. Over the course of about six months, I think that relationship was indeed repaired.
Then, the County came to us with a suggestion. They wanted to take away the half-time person and to replace that with a straight monetary grant. An ASCA subcommittee was formed to think about this and come up with ideas. The subcommittee thought it probably would be a good idea, but we wanted to attach some conditions to it. In the subsequent conversation with the County, the County said we couldn’t have as much money as we thought we needed. But in the end, after the new system was put into effect, it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened. The grant of money gave us the freedom to operate and do things the way we wanted to. We didn’t have to procure things through the County procurement office. So, for example, the publication of a newsletter involved having the work done through the County publications office, which would in turn attach mailing labels from lists we provided and send them out. All of this took time. When we hired an editor, that step involved a County contract and therefore the County contracting bureaucracy. ASCA had no role there: that was Chris Williams’s responsibility. In contrast, once we had our own money, we simply hired Emily Morrison straight away. It was instant. That arrangement was much more satisfactory.
The other great thing that happened that really helped may have been suggested by me and the County more or less simultaneously: the County Board be empowered to appoint one member of ASCA’s board of directors to help supervise the grant. My idea was, since the County was funding the organization, they ought to have some share in running the organization. That step also had the benefit of giving us entrée into the County Board office. Chris Williams was in the Department of Cultural Affairs, way down in the bureaucracy. Our new ex officio ASCA board member, Hunter Moore, was sitting next to the County Manager and was down the hall from the County Board. The County Board also appointed a County Board liaison, one member of the County Board who would be responsible for sister city matters. Consequently, we enjoyed a lot more visibility at a much higher level in the County government. So, we had more freedom, more ability to do things, more support from the County. It worked out marvelously. Despite the fact that we looked at it with trepidation at the beginning when it was first proposed—we weren’t sure it was really a good idea—it did work out much to our advantage.
Q: That is already a significant roster of achievements in the space of three years, but there was a lot more, too. The association expanded.
KvN: Well, the signing of the documents creating a sister city relationship with Ivano-Frankivsk was done in Arlington less than a month after I became chairman. There was then a similar ceremony in Ivano-Frankivsk a month or two later. I visited Ivano-Frankivsk for that, an enjoyable experience. Then there were proposals for additional sister cities—from Mongolia, Bolivia, Guatemala. I can remember meeting with people representing these places resident in Arlington. One result of this interest was the drafting of a set of guidelines for becoming a sister city. These guidelines stated that in order to establish a relationship we needed support from the governments of both cities and from a citizen’s committee in each city. It was the responsibility of promoters of a relationship to form of group of interested people who will be a citizen’s committee in Arlington and a group of people who would form a counterpart committee in the other city. If promoters did that part, then it would be easier to bring the governments on board. Meanwhile, ASCA would lend some assistance if promoters started this work. But ASCA would not establish that relationship until the promoters did that preliminary work. This posture was partly borne out of our experience with Coyoacan, where a citizen’s committee had not existed on the other side, and it was partly the result of a task force that had been put together by the County manager a year or so before I became chairman whose report made a recommendation that ran in the same direction. What we, ASCA, did was to define the expectations and procedures. The Cochabamba (Bolivia) group seemed like they were on the way, but recently it appears that their citizen’s committee has gone defunct. The promoters of other sister city relationships listened to us and then went away, never to be heard of again. In stating a policy and formalizing the process, this was a valuable thing: it kept us from going down wrong paths. The message I tried to give all these people was: “we are open to new sister cities; we are not turning you down, but you need to do the work first.” We will help you—in fact, for the Cochabamba committee we put their representatives on ASCA’s board of directors; we even gave them a budget—we cooperated fully.
Q: Beyond articulating an openness to new sister city relationships, there was yet another major development during your tenure as chairman: the project with Sister Cities International (SCI).
KvN: That was an unusual situation. We were always a member of SCI. Back in the 1990s, this was taken as a requirement for our own charter, though we had never had much to do with SCI. But SCI does have an annual conference.
Q: Do we pay SCI dues?
KvN: Oh, yes! We have been paying dues to SCI since ASCA’s incorporation in the 1990s. In 2010 SCI came to us with a request. They informed us that SCI’s annual convention would be held in Arlington in the spring of 2012. They explained that one traditional element of the SCI involves the host city organizing a party. According to SCI, it falls to the host city to figure out activities for representatives coming from all over the United States and round the world. They told us what they thought we were responsible for. Arlington County’s response—by which I mean the County government—was that the County has no budget for entertainment. San Antonio, Texas might, but Arlington County does not: “We ain’t gonna do it!” My feeling was that, although we did not have a budget for it either, we couldn’t let Arlington County fall down in the eyes of the world by doing nothing. So, yes, we did come up with some fund-raising as well as a novel approach to the entertainment—not nearly as expensive as what had been done in other cities on some other occasions. I think it actually turned out reasonably well: the program was spatially defined by booths representing our sister cities that emphasized our relationships. Ethnic finger food was made available at serving tables and music was provided. That’s what we did: one event, though SCI had tried to get us to commit to two events. Overall, it helped us, providing an opportunity to showcase ASCA.
The SCI project also encouraged some of us to evaluate ASCA against its peers in other American cities, in Virginia or around the country. I think we have one of the better ones. We have less budget, but we are more involved with our sister cities. We are engaged with them on a broader spectrum. I attribute this success to the work of ASCA’s city committees. They are groups of people who want to do things. We haven’t tried to prescribe from on high what the committees should do. The message is: do what you think you want to do. In my opinion, this has resulted in greater interest in the committees to follow their own stars. Following from this, each city program is different. In each case, it is the result of the interest, energy, and imagination of the people involved. So it has worked out better. I hear about other programs in other cities and they consist of a cocktail party with ethnic food once a year, or maybe an official delegation—the mayor goes there and the mayor comes here. We have tried to do other stuff. We have a more vibrant program than most. This was showcased at the SCI convention, where I heard comments such as “this is what sister cities is supposed to be all about.”
It was as a consequence of exposure to that, that recently there was a meeting with a group from Baltimore that were trying to build their sister city program and came to us wanting to take advantage of our knowledge and experience.
Q: That brings us to yet another aspect of your duties as chair. I remember you visited groups in the community with the ASCA PowerPoint presentation we had developed.
KvN: I was fortunate that, as a retiree, I was available during the day. So that was another thing I did and I thank you for putting together the slideshow for that presentation. I made modifications tailored to the specific groups to whom I spoke. Speaking to civic associations would be a good thing to continue to enhance ASCA’s exposure in the community. Indeed, as chairman, I wanted to increase our exposure to the community. I saw our new electronic newsletter as part of that effort. Beyond that, we tried harder to get notices of our activities published in the local media.
Q: With all of that, it is not hard to view the three years of your tenure as chairman as a sweet spot for ASCA’s organizational development.
KvN: I think that is justified. I thought we made some significant strides—not just due to me—I was building on the efforts of a lot of other people.
Q: Certainly, it is fair to say that ASCA has become a lot more than it had been, in terms of its coherence, its organizational resilience, the differentiation of functions at the board level.
KvN: I do think so.
Q: Now you have once again taken on the role of ASCA Treasurer. How has the progress we have been discussing affected your re-assumption of duties as Treasurer?
KvN: I am trying hard not to usurp the position of the current chairman. I hope I am not stepping on his toes or impinging on his freedom to act. People still call me, thinking I am still in the chairman’s position. For example, I was contacted by the people in Baltimore seeking the benefit of our experience. I told them I would come, but that they really needed to be in contact with our current chairman. As it turned out, Malcolm couldn’t make it anyway, so it was just me.
I also discovered that the job of Treasurer is bigger and more complicated than I appreciated. And it is bigger than it was during my previous period as Treasurer. The organization is bigger; our finances are much bigger. It means, among other things, that we have to report to the IRS. We haven’t got the position fully straightened out yet. During the first year of my new term as Treasurer I tried to divide the duties between Chris Evert and myself and it didn’t really work out very well. QuickBooks is an accounting software package. I thought we should adopt it and Chris tried to set it up. It was quite challenging—she went back and forth with help-desks and ended up declaring the effort to be unsuccessful.
Q: Say something about Chris Evert’s position with ASCA.
KvN: Chris Evert is a contract employee of ASCA. The core idea was administrative assistance—to relieve the officers of some of the load they had been carrying.
Q: So, this would be the second contract employee of the ASCA board.
KvN: Yes. The position is not very well defined, so we are still trying to figure out what we need and how the position or positions in the future should work. When I resumed the work of Treasurer, I made a judgment about dividing tasks, which hasn’t worked out. I also signed up for a class on QuickBooks conducted by Arlington County Adult Education. When I went through that I realized why Chris was having so much difficulty with QuickBooks: it is a complicated subject. We are now using QuickBooks, but the transition into it has been neither smooth nor easy. I think I am on top of it now, but the transition has required seven or eight months. In addition to learning enough about the program to make it work, the program is set up using conventions familiar to accountants, but do not necessarily make a lot of sense to people who are not accountants. Another thorny problem has been establishing a starting point…
Q: Let’s move into the final phase of our conversation. It is not easy running a volunteer organization. It is a complex task. A variety of skill sets are required. It is not always easy to recruit people who possess them. Reflect on that for us, looking back on the whole 20 years you have been associated with ASCA, give us a sense on how we score on getting the expertise we need and what kind of an issue that is.
KvN: It is a problem. Volunteers don’t necessarily do what you want them to do. They have ideas of their own. You cannot order volunteers around. You sometimes have to deal with colleagues who don’t have the full skill set desired, but they were willing to take the job. You have to be forgiving of their shortcomings, because, after all, they are volunteers. Furthermore, they all have lives and many have paid jobs they have to deal with. They have multiple demands on their time. This is an area that Sandy MacDonald was wrestling with and didn’t feel she had enough time and wanted some professional help. I had less of a problem with that, because I was retired and had my daytimes free. I think Malcolm is dealing with it, because he has a job.
Q: In discussing your various activities as chair, it is plain to see how demanding the job is. How much time do you reckon you spent, say, per week on ASCA business?
KvN: I don’t know. When I came back to the position of Treasurer I made a promise to myself that I would devote at least one hour a day to it. If you don’t do that, you will fall behind. For the chairmanship, it tended to go in spurts.
Q: As an observer sitting on the ASCA board, marveling at the scope and intensity of the demands on the chairman over the past five years, it is almost incredible to me that you could get by with hours worked only in the single digits. (laughter)
KvN: I was trying not to count them. Yeah—in some weeks and months it was probably more than just a few hours. It could well have been four or five hours a day for short periods. When you visit, say, Ivano-Frankivsk, suddenly you are dealing with a 24/7 situation for a week.
Q: And then having to think laterally about everything that is going on in the association…
KvN: That is where I tried hard not to micromanage the relationships city by city. As chairman, I was not the head of the Aachen Committee or the Reims Committee or the Ivano-Frankivsk Committee. They were going to manage their relationships. I depended on the reports they circulated and the newsletters to find out what was going on. I attended the welcome breakfasts when groups from our partner cities were visiting.
Q: But you took a real interest in those committees—you already mentioned that you visited all these places.
KvN: Yes. I was happy to go and show the flag and be a representative. Sometimes I felt that was all I was doing. I would get invited to the welcome breakfast for the Aachen elementary school students, for example. I didn’t really have any other function there other than to say “welcome to Arlington!” And because I was retired, I had the time to attend these and similar functions. I conceived of the public relations aspect as part of the job.
Q: What do you think it says about a community when it has the resources to do things like that? Not all communities have the resources to make something like that happen.
KvN: Programs are different. Within the first month or so after I became chairman, I had to engage the issue of paid professional assistance—Sandy MacDonald’s efforts to institute an executive director. Though I had formerly resisted the idea, now in the chairman’s role, I felt I had the responsibility to think about it more thoroughly. With that in mind, I made arrangements to visit Kate Helwig, the executive director of the Newport News, Virginia sister city organization. I spent the better part of a day with her trying to learn from her experience. She talked extensively about what she did, what her organization was like, and how she ran it. I wrote a report and distributed it to the ASCA board. In it I said that Newport News had a model for organizing a sister city program, but that it was not the right model for Arlington. Newport News was directed by a paid executive director. Their board was populated by local political notables, a spin-off from the city. Hellwig basically told the board what to do. Although this was operating successfully for them, there was a single-point-failure mode. If Kate Hellwig were to be “hit by a truck,” the organization would fall apart. She was also the driving force behind all the ideas about what the organization was going to do. I thought it was much better to have a more diffuse organization of volunteers who wanted to do their own thing and who would be able to carry on in case I were “hit by a truck.”
Q: What do you think all that says about Arlington as a community?
KvN: Arlington is a wonderful and unusual community in that the level of education and civic involvement is probably higher than it is in most communities. That’s good, but that said, we are certainly not tapping the whole community of educated and civically inclined citizens. We still represent a very small subset. Most communities would probably have the capability to do the kind of thing we are doing, though they might not have the energy to get it started. Part of it is getting it off the ground. People who have jobs and families tend not to have enough time to devote to this sort of thing.
Q: We are not aging as quickly as other societies, such as those in Europe, but we are indeed ageing. We have a baby boom population available for participation. One question concerns the relationship between that population and the continuing appropriateness and value of the sister city idea in this day and age of globalization and instant communication.
KvN: Do you see a conflict there?
Q: Not at all. But the sister city idea was pushed in the United States starting in the 1950s, when people were not as mobile as they are today. Globalization has increased our contact. Immigration streams have increased again. People have a greater opportunity to interact at some level with people in other countries, at least virtually. Is sister cities an obsolete idea?
KvN: No. While it may be true that globalization is supplanting the sister city idea, but to me the original idea was all about greater knowledge on the part of the citizenry of the rest of the world. It was conceived of as a preventative for another world war. I think we can see in the immigration debates in this country that we still have a great need for this sort of understanding. Those most opposed to immigration don’t have this knowledge and understanding that immigrants are just people like you and me that desire a better life for themselves and their children. They are not something to be feared. They are not something to be hated. But we apparently still have a lot of people that do have those feelings. So, yes, we still need this idea.
Q: That connects with the specificity of Arlington. What is it about Arlington that makes it more sensitive to these concerns than other, adjacent communities?
KvN: Part of it is probably familiarity. I have recently come to the realization that living in Arlington with a very diverse population, I no longer think it is unusual to hear a non-native English-speaking accent. It is normal to meet people who were not born in this country. That’s not true in all parts of the United States. Our store clerks come from all over. This is normal. This greater acceptance of the world is something that we have in Arlington, and also because a lot of people who live in Arlington are retired Foreign Service, retired military. They like to travel. They have personal familiarity with other parts of the world. I think the population of Arlington is more open to internationalism, to globalization, than other communities in the United States. The Washington metropolitan area is like that in general. Washington DC is getting more diverse…
Q: DC is a city made up of minorities only—no ethnic group is in the majority.
KvN: And if you look at the figures for Fairfax County and Loudon County and Prince William County, they are getting more and more this way as well. They used to be the outlying white areas, but they aren’t anymore. The Vietnamese population that settled in Arlington in the 1970s has now moved in great numbers to Fairfax County.
Q: DC is diverse in its own way, but I was dismayed by the discovery that DC’s sister cities, of which there are about 13, generally paired up with other international capital cities, are non-existent: they are on paper only.
KvN: My impression is that this happens all too frequently. It is a political thing between two mayors. They send each other a letter promising to sign an agreement…and that’s all there is to it. In my opinion, that is not the kind of thing we wanted here. We have set up the guidelines and precedents to demonstrate that we in Arlington would do it differently. We are going to have a real organization before we sign any papers.
Q: ASCA is a contrast case in this respect. ASCA is a bottom-up organization.
KvN: Agreed. It is partly the result of the way we grew, and partly the result of who we are. The experience with Coyoacan, where it fell apart, because it did not come from the bottom, created a strong feeling among many of us on the board—never again! We’re not going to do it that way. That resulted in the guidelines we discussed earlier to make it explicit that we wanted a people-to-people program first, and then we would formalize it.
Q: As a way of summing up, where do you think this is all going, in Arlington specifically, but also more generally with respect to the sister city idea?
KvN: I think that it should continue. I think that it should grow, but grow organically, by which I mean according to the wishes and needs of the people. I am happy to see that ASCA now has a business development committee. Lots of these relationships are started with the idea of generating international trade. That usually founders, because it is rare to advance trade by fiat. Now we have something because people were actually interested in it, not because they were told they were supposed to do it. The INOVACT trade organization seems to be the rallying point. It looks like people want to set up some business-type interchanges involving the U.S., France, and Ukraine. This is a new idea that two years ago I would have written off as impossible in advance. Now it appears to be moving. You don’t really know what is going to happen until it actually happens. I thought the relationship with Cochabamba in Bolivia was going to happen, but it hasn’t. Maybe it will revive. Maybe another city proposal will be articulated. There is a reasonably large Mongolian population in Arlington, for example. I would be surprised if we didn’t have more sister cities going forward. It has got to come from the people. The ASCA chairman cannot do it; she or he has not the time.
Q: So we have entrenched an Arlington model—looking at ASCA’s organizational peculiarities—over the course of time.
KvN: I guess so. But we could, for example, expand into the arts. We have already done some of that. It doesn’t need to be restricted to high school students. What’s going to happen in Ukraine? That country is in turmoil at the moment. ASCA could find itself involved in setting up a new country! In the last few weeks there have been demonstrations in Ivano-Frankivsk. The regional leader stepped down. The action is not restricted to Kyiv. Lviv is broiling as well.
Q: For a sister city relationship to succeed, it appears that not only is a lively interest required in Arlington. It must be reciprocated in the other country.
KvN: In fact, some of the people we have hosted may turn up as leaders when the dust begins to settle. The sister city idea and the Open World idea intersect and overlap to a considerable extent.
Q: We are actually talking about the transnationality of certain problems that link geographically separated communities. The issue of gangs linked to immigrant groups is one such. Problems like this are probably only resolvable through transnational cooperation at the grass roots level. Organizations like ASCA can be part of the solution.
KvN: Right. Attacking the problem from a strictly law enforcement or military side has not yet worked successfully. Resolution is a long and multifaceted process and ties outside that realm would help.
Q: Any concluding remarks about where sister cities are going?
KvN: I offer no grand ideas about where it is going. My recommendation and my philosophy is gradual evolution. Let the process take us where it will. There is no grand scheme. Let it evolve!