Old friends from Wilmington to Ukraine: It’s different when it’s family


Randy Riley - Contributing columnist



Friends are great. Old friends from long ago are the best.

Then, there are those few, special friends we have: friends we don’t even remember meeting; friends who have seemingly been part of our lives from our earliest memory.

Decades can pass, but when we see these special friends, we pick up right where we left off.

Then there is family.

Like friends, they hold a special place in our lives. Unlike some distant friends, we try not to let decades go by without seeing them. In healthy, loving families, we maintain routine contact.

They are always a part of our lives. They are there when we need help. We are there for them. Tragedy and triumph are shared with family.

Ten years ago, shortly after becoming Mayor of Wilmington, I received a call from an old friend, Bob Derge. Before he retired, Bob had been the Commissioner of Public Health for Clinton County. I had the privilege of working with Bob on many projects while I was a county commissioner.

Bob was an excellent health commissioner. I always enjoyed Bob and his wicked sense of humor.

During that call, Bob told me about a project his parents were actively involved with – The Cincinnati-Kharkiv Sister City Partnership.

Kharkiv is a city of 15.5 million people in eastern Ukraine, only 90 miles from the Russian border.

The Cincinnati-Kharkiv Sister City relationship started in 1989. During our conversation, Bob told me that a group of leaders would soon be visiting Cincinnati from Ukraine and on this trip, instead of spending their entire time in Cincinnati, they wanted to tour a smaller American city. Bob recommended Wilmington. I immediately agreed.

Months later, on a chilly March day, Wilmington hosted several leaders from the Kharkiv region of Ukraine to a full-day of touring our city, meeting with all of our supervisors and touring their departments. We later explored the economic development and business opportunities at the Wilmington Air Park.

They were kind and gracious. They were fascinated by the inner workings of the city, particularly the wastewater treatment plant and our landfill. In just a single day, we developed a warm working relationship.

Our visitors included; Galyna Minaeva, Mayor of Chuguiv; Veneamin Sitov, Mayor of Merepha; Vasyl Shabatko, Mayor of Solonytsivka; Viktor Nikulendo, Department Head of the Kharkiv District Council; and Validimir Bulba, Professor at the University of Public Administration in Kharkiv.

The General Denver Hotel hosted the delegation for a wonderful luncheon. Our new friends were delighted and loved the experience.

After a very busy trip to the United States, our new friends soon returned to Ukraine. They were so impressed with Wilmington that the Sister City Partnership invited me to visit Kharkiv the following year. Along with representatives from Cincinnati, Madeira and Indian Hill, we traveled over 5,000 to visit our new friends.

One of our major goals was to establish a new Sister City relation with three small cities surrounding Kharkiv.

What a joy that was. Everywhere we stopped, we were treated like royalty. Upon our arrival in Solonytsivka, we heard the sounds of a brass band. Someone jokingly asked if that was for us. Surprisingly… it was. The following day, we toured the historical city of Chuguiv. Mayor Galyna arranged an excellent luncheon for us at their city hall.

The following day we drove to Merepha. There we learned about their ancient Cassock history and we later dined outside on a traditional cassock meal while being entertained with traditional cassock music.

We became very close with our hosts. They became very special friends to us.

Before we left Ukraine for home, we signed three memoranda of understanding for Sister City Partnerships. Wilmington now is a Sister City to Solonytsivka, Chuguiv and Merepha.

These relationships don’t cost the city of Wilmington a dime. Funding for the Sister City program comes from the U.S. State Department, the Cincinnati-Kharkiv Sister City Partnership and our Ukrainian counterpart, the Kharkiv-Cincinnati Sister City Association.

At one of our last official dinners in Ukraine, we spoke with a leader of their educational system. She attended the dinner with her husband, an attorney, and their son, a university student in Kharkiv.

During our entire visit we felt the tension between people who wanted Ukraine to maintain complete independence and those who wanted to join the European Union and membership with NATO. There was another group who wanted to realign politically with Russia. Some of the discussion and some of the feelings were heated.

We soon discovered that our host, her husband and her son all disagreed on what might be best for the future of Ukraine. Even within one family, there were strong separations of opinion.

Now, the Russian military is camped out at the doorstep of Ukraine. They are threatening an invasion or some other action to become the ruling influence in the country.

I feel close to the people of Ukraine. Our relationship is not just a friendship it is a Sister City Partnership.

I hate the thought of someone messing with one of my sisters. I pray that this situation can be settled without violence.

Ten years ago, Wilmington became part of that that big family. We are now part of the Cincinnati-Kharkiv Sister City Partnership.

Randy Riley is a former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.

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Randy Riley

Contributing columnist