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Special Connection Between Ft. Wright and German City Celebrated

Forty-eight people frm Gehlenberg, Germany visited Northern Kentucky recently and were hosted by Ft. Wright city councilman Dave Abeln.

The German group are part of a Schutzenverein - or shooting club - back home.

Abeln accompanied the group to Ft. Wright's own Oktoberfest celebration, hosted annually by St. Agnes Church.

Ft. Wright Mayor Dave Hatter offered a welcoming resolution, and Abeln was presented with a hand-sewn wool banner, a medal, and a resolution brought by the Germans.

But this was more than a weekend with out-of-town guests.

In 1994, when Abeln's father, Earl, retired, the pair began to research their heritage, finding that their ancestors came from the Gehlenberg area of Germany.

Abeln sent letters to people in the Lorup, Neuvrees, and Gehlenberg area.

One relative responded. Hermann Preut and his wife, Maria, live in Gehlenberg, and struck up a correspondence with Earl Abeln, one that would last for many years, despite the language barrier.

In 2005, Dave Abeln attended the wedding of his neighbors, Tim and Melissa Janszen, held at St. Agnes, and met guests, Stephan and Anneliese Immken, who, as fortune would have it, traveled from Gehlenberg for the wedding. Abeln requested that if he ever made it there, that the Immkens would introduce him to his relatives.

They agreed.

Later that year while on a business trip to Europe, Abeln made a side-stop to Gehlenberg, connected with the Immkens, who introduced him to the Preuts, who had been corresponding with Abeln's father.

The first observation Abeln made was the Gehlenberg was not a large city, but rather a small village.

"I could jog around it in about 20 minutes," Abeln said.

Hermann Preut showed Dave Abeln the letters from his own father, sent from the U.S. to Germany.

Earl Abeln discovered that his grandparents, John Henry Abeln and Gesina Hannekin were born in Gehlenberg and Lorup, Germany, respectively. They moved to Covington when they were 25, and married on February 21, 1894.

John Henry Abeln's sister remained in Germany, and it turned out that Hermann Preut is her grandson.

That makes Hermann and the Abelns distant cousins.

Since their initial meeting, Abeln has made more than fifteen trips to Gehlenberg, celebrating Schutzenfest, birthdays, and Hermann and Maria's 50th wedding anniversary. He and his wife, Lynn, and three daughters have also visited together at different times.

One daughter, a student at Notre Dame Academy, was at school when she video-called her father, who was in Gehlenberg, as part of a class assignment. The students were very interested.

"Her segment was supposed to be ten minutes, and it lasted forty minutes," said Abeln. "So, it did make an impression on her class."

 The group from the shooting club included Hermann's son-in-law, Rainer Schroeder, a lawyer. 

"Family is the most important part of life," Schroeder said. "Reconnecting relationships from more than one hundred years ago has brought our families great joy. Extending these ties on this trip to our friends and distant relatives has amplified that joyful feeling. During the past two days we have made many toasts to our family members who are no longer here with us, but have made days like this possible.  It is exciting to think about what the future holds for our families."

Abeln said the group left Sunday morning to go to Cleveland to see the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. From there, they will visit Niagara Falls, then Philadelphia, then New York City to see the Statue of Liberty. Their American tour will finish up in Washington, D.C.  

"I wasn't really interested in history when I was young," Abeln mused. "I was interested in math and science. But now I am at a point where I can appreciate the learning opportunity for the kids, and the sheer amazement that we are related to people on the other side of the world. My dad was so excited each time we went, so we were able to share the experience until he died early this year."

Abeln said his mom not only had a headstone made for Earl, but she knew that Earl always planned to put a marker on his grandparents' graves, so she made that happen, knowing Earl would be pleased. They are all buried at Mother of God Cemetery.

Abeln and Schroeder visited the graves together.

"We all had a lot of fun this weekend," Abeln said. "It is mind-expanding and humbling at the same time to take it all in. But it was very enjoyable."

Written by Patricia A. Scheyer, RCN contributor