Dr. Irving Williams, far right, and his wife, not pictured, received the Windsor Freedom Award at a reception at the Juniper Hill Inn in late May. Dignitaries in attendance included Ombeni Y. Sefue, center, ambassador to the Republic of Tanzania. At far left is Sefue’s wife Anita. Standing next to her is Dorothy Douglas, Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas’ wife.
Windsor Welcomes the World
Windsor Welcomes the World
Lately, the Birthplace of Vermont Has Seemed Like a Global Hub
By John Woodrow Cox
Valley News Staff Writer
Windsor — In a country 6,030 miles from the Upper Valley, with a population just more than half that of New York City — where a now-dead former Soviet bureaucrat headed an authoritarian regime that shut the world out for 15 years — a handful of government officials in Turkmenistan crowded around a table Tuesday evening and chatted about Windsor.
Well, not just Windsor, but Vermont’s birthplace was at least part of the conversation.
In fact, the town of about 3,500 has turned into an international hub, of sorts, in the last two months. In separate visits and for unrelated reasons, groups from Turkmenistan, the Philippines, Tanzania and China have all visited Windsor.
The Turkmen delegation toured the town as part of a weeklong look at local government operations in the United States. In Vermont, they also visited Hartford and Montpelier.
Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan’s eccentric longtime leader who was named “President for Life” in 1999, died three years ago, clearing the way for the country to pursue more openness.
“Turkmenistan is a country that until about five years ago was about as closed or more so than North Korea,” said Marilynne Davis of the Urban Institute, one of the organizations that helped arrange the trip. “The people who are now running the country are looking to modernize it.”
Rather than take the Turkmen officials to typical destinations like New York, Las Vegas or Los Angeles, organizers wanted to show them smaller towns that would offer the visitors more realistic insight into how municipal governments function in the United States.
“We wanted them to see a small community that was struggling with funding but still providing its own services,” Davis said. “They are always surprised by all the functions the local governments carry out and how independent they are.”
As a town that grapples annually with paying for its aging infrastructure, yet still carries on, Windsor fit the bill. Davis said she’d previously worked with Ted Siegler, of Windsor-based DSM Environmental Services, through some of the Urban Institute’s projects. Knowing that Davis wanted the Turkmen group to see small-town government first-hand, he recommended Windsor.
As a way to welcome his guests, Town Manager Steve Cottrell wore a traditional mushroom-shaped Turkmen hat when they arrived. Selectman John Tansey, who had spent time in East Asia with the Peace Corps, loaned Cottrell the headwear, made of sheep’s wool, but it was a bit small for Cottrell’s head.
“They got a chuckle out of that,” Cottrell said. “They were really yukking it up out there in the parking lot when they saw me.”
Cottrell guided them through most of Windsor’s departments and explained how residents register to vote, how the town runs elections and how officials collect taxes.
The Turkmen were most surprised that almost everyone in town pays taxes, and the government doesn’t need physical force to collect. In the Soviet system, Davis said, people did whatever they could to avoid taxation because the government didn’t have the resources to monitor who paid and who didn’t.
“They could not get over,” Davis said, “that we just do it.”
At the roundtable discussion, Shirin Ahmedova, the group’s spokeswoman and director of Turkmenistan’s Institute of Democracy and Human Rights, said Vermont and Windsor’s openness, more than anything else, resonated with them during the visit.
“We were very impressed with the seriousness of governments about transparency of information, especially on grants and budget information,” she said, according to Davis’ notes from the meeting. “We saw this at the local governments and at the state government in Vermont when we visited the legislative committees.”
Almost a month to the day after the Turkmen officials admired Windsor’s tax system and posed for pictures in the back of its ambulances, Ombeni Sefue and his wife, Anita Sefue, sat at a table awaiting breakfast in the Juniper Hill Inn as an early-morning rain tapped at the nearby window.
Ombeni Sefue, the Tanzanian ambassador to the United States, said Windsor reminded him Lushoto, a city in the mountains of his homeland that sits 6,000 feet above sea level.
“What really struck me is the beautiful scenery,” Sefue said, just before he spooned steaming oatmeal from his bowl. “It’s a very nice change from New York and Washington. … I like small towns.”
In their first visit to Vermont, he and his wife were honoring Irving and Elvira Williams, founders of the Maryland-based Adventures in Health, Education and Agricultural Development, a nonprofit that works to promote healthy living and eliminate disease in Tanzania and other African countries.
The Williamses were recipients of the inaugural Windsor Freedom Award, created and presented for the first time through the Juniper Hill Inn to people who, co-owner Robert Dean said, have greatly improved the lives of others.
As part of the award ceremony, which doubled as a fundraiser for the nonprofit, Seldon Technologies pledged to donate three water purification systems to Tanzania, where tainted water causes a high rate of infant mortality and other health problems.
“We have a big problem with access to safe water,” Sefue said. “Equipment that helps us purify water are just the kind of things we need.”
Just before the late-May award presentation, the Juniper Hill Inn also hosted a group of Chinese travel officials as part of a nationwide tour sponsored by the U.S. Commercial Service.
“They dined with us,” Dean said, “and we showed them international hospitality.”
The visiting Chinese executives said although Vermont is beautiful, it’s not well known to people in China and may take time to market.
“Vermont is truly a place for holiday and vacation (especially) for Chinese tourists from relatively developed areas like Shanghai and (Yangtze) River delta for they could fully enjoy the peacefulness and tranquility of Vermont,” Cai Jian Nong, Vice President of Suzhou China Travel International, wrote in an e-mail. “New England will probably be placed behind (other U.S. destinations), however, with … time and the door open wider, Vermont will definitely become a hot spot for Chinese tourists.”
Through a Rotary Foundation exchange program, another group from Asia visited the Upper Valley and Windsor at about the same time.
A doctor, school superintendent, marketing professional, entrepreneur and artist from the Philippines hopped from town to town throughout the Upper Valley during their nearly month-long stay, but the highlight of the trip, they said, may have been in Windsor.
Tansey’s wife, Nida Tansey, is Filipino and comes from the same province, Cebu, and speaks the same language, Cebuano, as the group members. One afternoon, they visited her house, and she cooked dried fish and rice, the first non-American meal they’d eaten in weeks.
“We hugged each other, and I was really surprised they were from my native country,” Nida Tansey said. “It was really fun.”
Sitting on a couch at the Hotel Coolidge in White River Junction after a canoeing trip down the Connecticut River, the group discussed their visits to museums, schools and hospitals and the host of houses in which they’d stayed and slept during the whirlwind trip, but the home-style meal, they said, was special.
“Our eyes lit up when we were eating dried fish,” said 25-year-old Golda King. “It felt like home.”
The recent barrage of international attention, Dean said, is just a sign of the new Windsor, and he believes it will continue.
“The fact is, Windsor three years ago was a totally different place than it is today, and I think it will be totally different in three more years,” Dean said. “It’s what happens in a community when it gets some momentum.”
John Woodrow Cox can be reached at 603-727-3305 or firstname.lastname@example.org.