The connection that began in 1962 was all about peace, said Mayumi Smith, director of the Nippon Business Institute at Everett Community College, who grew up in Hiroshima.
"To have peace, you have to get to know each other," Smith said. "It has been my personal mission and the mission of the college to promote peace through cultural exchange."
Tuesday and Wednesday, Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson and others plan to welcome a party of a dozen city officials from Iwakuni for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the sister-city partnership.
The group plans to visit the Port of Everett, Everett Rotary Club, Everett Community College and the Boeing Co. A highlight of the visit includes a tree planting ceremony at Everett Community College with Consul General of Japan Kiyokazu Ota in attendance. A dinner to celebrate the 50th anniversary is scheduled for Wednesday evening at Everett's downtown Holiday Inn.
Everett and Iwakuni were among the first 200 cities to join Sister Cities International. Located on the main Japanese island of Honshu, Iwakuni is about 30 miles south of Hiroshima. Like Everett, it is a port city with an American military base and paper mills are part of its history.
In 1962, Marine Corps Maj. E.R. "Bud" Agnew of Everett was stationed in Iwakuni. Midori Sagami was the English teacher at a school in the city. The two men got to know each other and became good friends.
It wasn't long before Agnew's wife, Louise, encouraged their sons, Rick and Bruce, later a Snohomish County councilman, and the other kids at Whittier Elementary School in Everett to write to the students at Sagami's school. That was the beginning of the sister-city link.
"My dad had fought the Japanese in World War II. When he got stationed in Iwakuni, he noticed that nerves were still raw. This was after former President (Dwight D.) Eisenhower had started his People-to-People program, and my dad was influenced by that," Bruce Agnew said. "He was homesick for Everett, but he fell in love with Iwakuni. He and Mr. Sagami talked about how a new generation could work together and embark on a positive relationship."
The student pen-pal program was recognized by Eisenhower and by a front-page story in the Everett Herald, Agnew remembers.
"And some of those pen pals kept it up through high school and into college," he said. "It all started with the kids, and that was the whole point from the beginning."
Through the years, Everett Community College took on a larger role in the sister-city relationship.
The college first sent its students to Iwakuni and then in 1996 began an annual exchange program for high school students from Iwakuni. The college's Nippon Business Institute maintains particularly strong links to Japan. Its students study language, economics, business and cultural arts.
The business institute's Japanese garden includes a bridge donated by the city of Iwakuni.
Delegations from the cities have crossed the Pacific Ocean many times to visit each other, said Dale Preboski, a former president of the Everett Sister Cities Association and former Herald writer.
In 1990, she, Bruce Agnew and his mother, Louise; and Everett city officials flew to Iwakuni. Louise Agnew and Sagami saw each other for the last time. Bud Agnew had already died at that time.
"Much has happened to Mr. Sagami and Mrs. Agnew -- indeed to Iwakuni and Everett -- since 1962," she wrote in the Herald in May 1990. "But what they and Bud Agnew worked so hard to accomplish in the beginning now has a life of its own."
Bruce Agnew plans to speak at the 50th anniversary sister-city celebration Wednesday.
"If my dad were still here to see the legacy of his friendships in Iwakuni, it would bring tears to his eyes," Agnew said.
Preboski hosted an exchange student from Iwakuni one summer at her home.
"I was a single mom with no money to show my kids the world. This was a perfect solution for all of us," Preboski said. "Toyomi (the student) had jet lag, everyone was a little nervous, and we all struggled with language. So my fourth-grade daughter sat down at the piano and played a little song. Toyomi, quietly joined her at the piano bench, and in perfect English asked, 'Do you know Chopin?' And she began to play."
Preboski said she won't forget that day, watching as the girls shared the language of music.
"Spending time with people from another culture and learning from one another forever alters your perspective," Preboski said. "We realize that we're all in this world together, and we learn to appreciate our differences and our similarities. I think that's more important now than ever."
For information about the sister city anniversary celebration, contact Kathleen Koss, 425-388-9195 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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