Hagerstown Mayor David S. Gysberts has apologized for remarks he made Tuesday to visiting students from Wesel, Germany, where he stated that he wished his city had a war to “clear out” old buildings.
Gysberts issued a statement Wednesday night through city spokeswoman Erin Wolfe:
“... I allowed some comments concerning my frustration with urban renewal to come across in a way that some people may have found offensive. I first want to express my regret and apologies to anyone who was offended by my comment. I certainly understand the devastation of war on all sides that we as a world faced during that tumultuous time in our history,” Gysberts said, referring to World War II.
The German high school students have been visiting the area since March 21 as part of a Sister City affiliation with Wesel that has lasted more than 60 years.
When reached by phone Thursday, Gann Breichner, co-president of the Sister City Affiliation, said she accepted the mayor’s apology.
“I just have very great confidence that he did not mean that as a serious comment,” Breichner said, describing the mayor’s tone as “tongue-in-cheek.”
In Wednesday’s Herald-Mail, Gysberts was quoted as telling the group of 13 students: “Sometimes, I wish we would have had a war here,” as he referred to some of the town’s landmarks.
“Some of them looked like they have been bombed out,” he said.
A video posted at www.herald-mail.com shows the students reacted with what some news outlets have termed “startled” laughter.
The mayor’s comments to students came during a discussion comparing Hagerstown and Wesel, where Gysberts said he imagined relatively newer buildings due to post-war construction in the country.
“... War is never the solution to solving the major problems that face us, especially when we are equipped with so many better means to accomplish our goals,” the mayor’s statement reads.
Hagerstown veteran Arthur Staymates served in the 1st Infantry Division of the U.S. Army during World War II.
“Eleven months of terrible, horrible stuff,” said Staymates, one of three survivors of the 42 men in his platoon who landed on D-Day.
“I saw Germany in the time he was talking about, and he doesn’t know what he’s saying,” Staymates, 88, said Thursday when asked about Gysberts’ comments.
“I don’t know the mayor, and I’m sure he’s a good guy, but that was a bad thing to say,” said Staymates who met his late wife, Maria, in Germany. “What he doesn’t realize is when you bomb buildings ... you’re not fighting soldier against soldier, you’re killing women and children.”
Gysberts, a high school guidance counselor, was elected to his first term as Hagerstown’s mayor in November.
“I proudly appreciate my Hagerstown heritage and I am fascinated by the accomplishments of our Sister City, Wesel, in rebuilding a vibrant and elegant city in the wake of World War II,” Gysberts’ statement read. “It leaves me to wonder about the ‘what if’s’ of our own past and also for our future here in Hagerstown.
“While that was something I was trying to convey, I didn’t accomplish that goal. For that, I am sorry. I express my regrets to our Sister City group here in Hagerstown and the dedicated citizens who work with the organization. I also express my apologies to the officials in Wesel and the people of their community.
Most importantly, I want to convey to the young people I spoke with (Tuesday) that I did not intend to make light of the loss that their parents and grandparents may have experienced first-hand.”
The mayor and Hagerstown City Council earlier this month signed a nonbinding agreement allowing a real estate investment group to act on the city’s behalf in developing a vision for downtown.
In addition to a multiuse stadium project that has been on the table since the last administration but has since faced various obstacles, the city has made efforts in recent weeks to convince the Washington County Board of Education to move downtown.
Gysberts did not return phone calls Thursday.