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Alumni Spotlight: James Baumgaertner

James Baumgaertner, M.D., '76, took a children's lantern project around the world in hopes of creating peace though a shared humanity. The project eventually brought together more than 230 cities in 26 countries.

Bridging a great divide

James Baumgaertner, M.D., knows the power of one.

Twenty years ago he began driving a simple children’s art project aimed at soothing Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. Along the way, the project became the foundation for a rich, long-lasting relationship between his hometown of La Crosse, Wisconsin, and the Russian city of Dubna.

All it took was time, money, and an undying devotion to peace.

By the mid-1980s, the threat of a nuclear arms face-off inspired Baumgaertner, Class of 1976, to get involved with several antinuclear groups, including the La Crosse chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

The group organized a lantern float on the Mississippi River in remembrance of the 40th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan. (A lantern-floating ceremony is a Japanese rite to honor and comfort the souls of the dead.) Children at La Crosse-area schools and churches decorated peace lanterns with pictures and drawings of themselves for the event.

“I wanted the lanterns to represent something,” says Baumgaertner, who had three young children at the time. “I wanted them to say, ‘This is me. This is the person who is going to be victimized if this doesn’t get under control.’”

More than 1,000 lanterns lit up the river that night in August 1985, with about 5,000 people looking on. “We wanted to make a statement,” Baumgaertner says. “It was a big deal for a little river town.”

But he wasn’t done yet. Baumgaertner wanted to take his project around the world to spread peace and friendship. His wife, Peggy, put her career on hold to travel to schools throughout the region and ask young art students to decorate peace lanterns in class.

Then, in the summer of 1986, Baumgaertner flew to the Soviet Union to plant the seeds for his effort, which he called the International Peace Lantern Exchange Project. He distributed lanterns along with assembly instructions and the meaning behind the project and tried to get some Soviet lanterns made to bring back to La Crosse. Because Baumgaertner spoke no Russian, this was an especially difficult task. “I came home not knowing whether I had made a difference or not,” he says.

Fast-forward to a year later. Baumgaertner got a phone call from David Bell, an American-born English teacher in Dubna, a small city on the Volga River. One of Baumgaertner’s letters had passed through several hands before it reached Bell. That connection really got the project moving, Baumgaertner says.

Bell and Baumgaertner arranged for lantern and pen-pal exchanges between children in Dubna and La Crosse. Soon the cities were also exchanging students, teachers, pictures, presents, and doctors.

Dubna held its first lantern float in 1988. They called it a great success, with Soviet and American lanterns floating peacefully side by side.

The partnership between La Crosse and Dubna became official in 1990 when delegates from both towns signed the papers to make them sister cities.

Baumgaertner says that’s when the medical exchange took off. Hundreds of physicians, nurses, and other medical staff from La Crosse’s two hospitals used their vacation time to teach Russian doctors about streamlining procedures and to help Dubna update its medical facilities. Among other things, the medical delegation from La Crosse helped establish a modern birthing center and one of the country’s first Alcoholics Anonymous programs in Dubna.

Today Dubna is an example for other Russian cities eager to improve their health programs. The medical exchange today isn’t as strong as it once was because of lost federal grants and because Dubna doesn’t need as much help, says Baumgaertner, who spends his days as a dermatologist at the Gundersen Clinic in La Crosse. But the Dubna-La Crosse sister city relationship is still going strong. A delegation from La Crosse will travel to Dubna this summer to celebrate the city’s 50th anniversary.

And it all started with a little lantern project for peace. Over a 10-year period, the project expanded beyond Dubna to involve more than 230 cities in 26 countries.

“This was about a creating a shared humanity,” Baumgaertner says. “It goes to show you how a little movement can have major ramifications.”

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