Sisters Cities Pioneer

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Thelma Press, Southern California Sister Cities Co-Founder

Born to British parents in Darjeeling, India, Thelma Press attended Loreto College where one of her teachers was Mother Teresa. With this kind of influence, it’s not surprising that Thelma would go on to seek ways to promote peace. She has done just that as a Sister Cities International veteran since 1959, beginning with the establishment of the relationship between San Bernardino, California and Tachikawa, Japan. She has served on boards and in key positions for Sister Cities International, the San Diego-Yokohama Sister City Society, the Japanese Friendship Garden in San Diego’s Balboa Park, the Asian Arts Council of the San Diego Museum of Art, and the first Sino-U.S. Sister Cities Conference in Beijing. Thelma Press has received over 60 awards for her work in international relations and in 2012 was approved as a Global Envoy, the highest honor of Sister Cities International. Tokyo Journal Executive Editor Anthony Al-Jamie visited with Thelma Press in San Diego, California.

TJ: Can you tell us how Sister Cities International began?
PRESS: In 1956 President Dwight D. Eisenhower decided to have a city-to-city twinning. The twinning really started in The Hague in 1936. It was called a town affiliation and it came over to the United States. President Eisenhower liked the idea of cities twinning themselves with cities and people involving themselves with people. Families would become families with their twinned counterparts overseas and hopefully peace would develop in the world because you’re certainly not going to war with your family. Since 1956, we have grown and we have twinned 2,000 cities in 140 countries on six continents with American cities. When Sister Cities first began, we were adopted by the League of Cities, an organization to which all of the cities in the United States belong. This lasted until 1970 when we established our own headquarters in Washington, D.C. The first of Sister Cities’ annual events was held in 1967 in Los Angeles.

TJ: How did you first get involved?
PRESS: I lived in San Bernardino and was contacted by the mayor because the mayor of Tachikawa in Japan wanted to establish a sister city relationship due to the fact that both cities had Air Force bases. Then in 1972 I was asked to be a state representative interacting with the cities of California. Between 1974 and 1976 I met with Betty Wilson, the mayor of Santa Fe Springs who sat with President Eisenhower as one of the people who signed the agreement to form Sister Cities, and we, established by-laws for a chapter of Sister Cities International. Being such a large state we decided we would have Sister Cities Northern and Southern California chapters. These chapters spread to the other states. We had 50 at one point but now there are about 30. We became the mother of all the Sister Cities organizations, meeting with them either in person or by telephone to give them advice on their exchange programs and we encouraged them to attend the annual conferences.

TJ: I understand you recently met Yokohama Mayor Fumiko Hayashi?
PRESS: Yes, we had her here for the 55th anniversary of the sister city relationship between San Diego and Yokohama. She’s a very nice woman and a dynamic leader.

TJ: How did the relationship between Yokohama and San Diego come about?
PRESS: In 1955, San Diego Mayor Charles Dail attended the Japan-American Pacific Area Conference of Mayors, where he met the mayor of Yokohama and they agreed to have their cities join. The relationship began officially in 1958 through the Yokohama- San Diego Friendship Committee, which later became the San Diego-Yokohama Sister City Society.

TJ: How many homestay students have you had over the years?
PRESS: I think I’ve had 28 from Japan, Peru, and Malaysia – all over the Asian region – and, of course, Europe.

TJ: Is there anyone in your life that’s had a major influence on you?
PRESS: Yes, I think so. You know, I’ve met Gandhi and a lot of people who became famous, but I would say who’s impressed me the most are many of the nuns who were my teachers. As far as anyone else is concerned, you meet them and they go away, but the nuns were very influential on my life. They were very dedicated and good tutors, they would play basketball or badminton with me, and they were very creative and very considerate of their students. The nuns were so non-judgmental, respected all religious beliefs and accepted you as you are, and I’d say that really influenced me a lot, so I raised my kids without prejudice. My kids said they never knew who was going to be eating dinner at the table with us and they’ve never had a bit of prejudice about anything.

TJ: What are your hopes for the future of Sister Cities International?
PRESS: Because of our international programs today, we’ve become a global community. I hope that we will be successful by continuing to bring together one generation and another generation until the end of time so that the concept and philosophy of Sister Cities will always be alive. I hope we continue to be a world of one people. tj

The complete article can be found in Issue #275 of the Tokyo Journal. Click here to order from Amazon.


Written By:

Anthony Al-Jamie

Anthony Al-Jamie lived and worked in Japan for over 20 years. His in-depth understanding of Japanese language and culture has allowed him to carry out interviews with many of the most renowned individuals in Japan. He first began writing for the Tokyo Journal in the 1990s as Education Editor, later he was promoted to Senior Editor, and eventually International Editor and Executive Editor. He currently serves the Tokyo Journal as Editor-in-Chief.


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