When Manhattan’s City Commision decided to develop a cultural relationship with a city outside of America, the Partner City Committee was unsure where to begin their search. That was when a former K-State professor with ties to the Czech Republic offered to help.
In April 2006, the city of Manhattan agreed to become the formal partner city of Dobrichovice, Czech Republic. The agreement was created by the Partner City Committee of Manhattan, a five-person committee that is appointed by the mayor of Manhattan.
Ed Klimek, chairman for the Partner City Committee, said the idea behind it is to nurture international relationships.
“Our task is to partner with cities across the world and grow relationships,” Klimek said.
The influence of the relationship between Manhattan and Dobrichovice, pronounced Doh-brih-oh-vich-eh, can be found in various academic institutions around Manhattan. Klimek said that some of the local elementary schools have done “Czech Night,” an evening in which kids eat Czech food and speak in Czech. He also said there is a Czech exchange student at Manhattan High School, and that K-State has a very active exchange program.
“We have a rather large exchange program with two universities in the Czech Republic,” Klimek said. “Usually there are anywhere from 15 to 25 Czech students that come over to K-State, and then we send the same over to their university to study for either a semester or a year.”
Klimek said the Partner City Committee had a tough task ahead of them.
“When we decided to have a partner city, we didn’t know who we were going to partner with,” Klimek said. “How do you choose a city? I mean, you have the whole world out there, so how do you pick one?”
That was when, Klimek said, the committee got fortunate.
“There was a professor at K-State, and his name was Joseph Barton-Dobenin. He was a native of the old Czechoslovakia, and we really didn’t know about him, but he stepped up when he found out we were looking for a partner city,” Klimek said.
But Barton-Dobenin was not only a former K-State professor. According to Klimek, Barton-Dobenin had a major role in the Czech Republic.
“His story is kind of unique,” Klimek said. “His family owned a great deal of land and a lot of buildings in the old Czechoslovakia, including one of the royal castles in Prague. They owned all this, but the communists, when they came in after World War II, took all the possessions and property away from his family. So, Dr. Dobenin moved to American and got himself educated and did a number of things and ended up being a professor at K-State.”
But in 1989, the nonviolent “Velvet Revolution” ended communist control of what was then Czechoslovakia. In 1993, Czechoslovakia split into two different countries; the Czech Republic and Slovakia, according to the CIA World Factbook.
“During the time he was here, the communists left,” Klimek said. “They fell out of power, and all the land and all the buildings, including the castle, reverted back to his family. So, all this happened and he was a huge figure.”
It was that connection, Klimek said, that led Barton-Dobenin to suggest that Manhattan choose a partner city in the Czech Republic. When the committee told him that they would consider it, Barton-Dobenin stepped in even further.
“He said ‘I’ll go find you one,'” Klimek said. “He went back and scouted around and got it all set up for us, and there we had a partner city.”
Ron Fehr, city manager for Manhattan, said typically one city will send a delegation to the other every two or three years, then the other city will send one.
“We’ve had at least two delegations that have gone over there,” Fehr said.
According to Klimek, the exchange program is thorough. When delegations from the Czech Republic come, the committee finds them places to stay and takes them out into Manhattan for a general tour of the city and a chance to learn about the culture. The same happens when Manhattan sends delegations to Dobrichovice. They meet the current and former mayor of Dobrichovice and get a tour of the city, as well as the nearby Czech capital, Prague.
But while the Partner City Committee itself is directly appointed by the mayor of Manhattan, Klimek said that there is another group in which anyone is free to get involved.
“We also have a group called the Friends of Partner City,” Klimek said. “And we have maybe 20 to 25 friends of the committee.”
Klimek said the committee and the Friends of Partner City meet every first Wednesday of the month at 4 p.m. at City Hall. These meetings are open to the public.
“We welcome more friends to be involved because we do projects and we like to have as many people as we can helping out,” Klimek said.
Projects the committee and its friends have done include the Partner City Flag Plaza on the southwest corner of City Park. In September 2009, the concept of the current flag plaza was proposed to the Manhattan Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, and on September 21, 2010, the design was approved.
Wynn Butler, Manhattan city commissioner, said the flag plaza at City Park did not cost the city anything, and that it was largely a result of the work Klimek did.
“It was all privately funded, and they dedicated that and brought the mayor in from the other town, but none of that was tax dollar supported,” Butler said.
Klimek said the flag plaza was created as a permanent sign of the partnership with Dobrichovice, a relationship that Klimek said he does not see ending anytime soon.
“That’s supposed to be something that recognizes our current partner city and there’s the flags of both countries and cities there,” Klimek said. “We actually have signed an agreement with them so there is no timetable as far as this thing ending. It’s until both cities decide that they don’t want to do it anymore. So far, it’s been very productive, so I don’t see any end to that.”