Nikki Niswonger stands next to the Marie Harel statue in Van Wert. (Photo submitted.)
Nikki Niswonger stands next to the Marie Harel statue in Van Wert. (Photo submitted.)
Information submitted

GREENEVILLE, Tenn. - Nikki L. Niswonger, wife of businessman and philanthropist Scott M. Niswonger who is President and Founder of the Niswonger Foundation, recently accompanied the Niswonger Scholars on two summer travel experiences that led to the discovery of an historical connection between Van Wert, Ohio and Vimoutiers, France.
Scott and Nikki Niswonger, both natives of Van Wert, returned to their hometown during May, traveling with their Niswonger Scholars. The visit involves meeting community leaders, touring the town, performing community service at several of the town's organizations, and learning the history of Van Wert.

While in Van Wert, the group visited a statue of Marie Harel, a French girl credited with popularizing the cheese named after her hometown by serving Camembert cheese to Napoleon Bonaparte. The statue in Van Wert is a plaster cast of the bronze copy located in Vimoutiers, France.

"Saying it is a small world may be cliché, but there is something special about making a pilgrimage to a little town in France to see our hometown of Van Wert proudly recognized in the village's main square," said Niswonger.

The French statue was initially erected in France sometime after the community became famous for its cheese. Unfortunately, the statue was decapitated by Allied forces bombing in 1944. Employees of the Borden Cheese Company, then located in Van Wert, collected funds to assist in repairing the damage and to replace the statue. In response, the people of Vimoutiers added a plaque to their bronze statue thanking the citizens of Van Wert for their generosity and sent the statue's cast to Van Wert where it has sense resided. Both cities held dedication ceremonies for the statues on Oct. 4, 1956.

"I was reminded of how often we take the contributions of our own community for granted," added Niswonger. "Replacing one statue in war-torn France may seem like a small act, but it represents important human acts of caring and concern."

After returning to Greeneville from the service trip, Niswonger traveled to France, with the senior class of Niswonger scholars. During the trip, seniors explore French Normandy and visit many sites that acted as important turning points during the Second World War to see examples of human sacrifice for a greater good. While traveling through Normandy, Niswonger and the Scholars made their way to Vimoutiers and saw the Marie Harel statue, making the cross-continental historical connection.

"As I stood in front of the statue in France, my thoughts were of how special it is to have visited both of these statues in a three-week period. When people of Van Wert sent the funds to France in the 1950s there probably wasn't one single contributor who could have ever dreamed of making this journey. Yet, there was no hesitation to contribute what they could. This was an important lesson to share with our Scholars who will be returning to contribute their talents to their community," Niswonger concluded.

Nikki Niswonger is the wife of philanthropist and businessman Scott M. Niswonger, President and Founder of the Niswonger Foundation. She serves as Secretary for the Foundation's Board of Directors. Established in 2001, the Niswonger Foundation's mission is: "To create opportunities for individual and community growth through education and other sustainable projects." Information regarding the work of the Niswonger Foundation may be found at www.niswongerfoundation.org.