It's been more than two decades since Markus Wellmann has set foot in Neligh, but the former exchange student from Germany said it "feels like coming home."
Wellmann, who lived with Steve and Sharon Kryger while attending Neligh-Oakdale in 1990-91, returned to Neligh on Friday afternoon to attend his 25th class reunion and the alumni banquet. He made a 26-hour trip from Leipzig, Germany, and will be Neligh through Sunday. He'll then spend a couple of days in Omaha with the Krygers before returning overseas on Wednesday.
"It feels like yesterday driving through town. It's familiar; I know every corner," Wellmann said while sitting in the home of his exchange family's parents, George and Ruth Strassler.
He noted familiar haunts, like Pizza Hut and the Antelope Country Club. Most of the places he remembered are still there. Some with different owners, but most are still in existence.
First Time In Neligh
To Wellmann, sitting at the Strassler's home was like being in his grandparents' home. After all, Wellmann said the Krygers and Strasslers became family. There were rules and structure, but also plenty of fond memories.
Wellmann spoke some English when he arrived in Neligh, but he wasn't fluent. It was difficult at first. He knew no one and spoke "a little" English. He was from a similar-sized town, but it was still an entirely different world.
But Wellmann made friends quickly. Football had already started, so he didn't go out for the sport. Instead, he played basketball and was on the track team.
Sharon Kryger was just 31 when Wellmann stayed with them. Their children were young - Jessica, 6; and David 2. Neither child remembered the months Wellmann lived with them, but they reconnected last October in Omaha.
"It was a wonderful experience having him in Neligh 25 years ago, and it's even more special to have back now," Kryger said.
Wellmann, who has a wife, Argentina; and a three-year-old son, Luis; is a consultant for a foreign direct investing company and travels all over the world, though rarely to Nebraska. He was able to add a couple of extra days onto a U.S. trip in October and met up with the Krygers.
None of his trips have included his wife or child, whom the Krygers and Strasslers hope to meet in person one day.
Planning A Return To Neligh
It was during last October's trip when Wellmann discovered this would be his 25th class reunion, and he made plans to attend. Classmate Krista Blackburn Schindler reserved his alumni banquet ticket, and his plans were complete.
Two years after he graduated, Wellmann returned to Neligh for a brief visit. It was after his own German graduation, and he returned with a fellow exchange student who had attended school in Kansas.
That was 23 years ago, making it more than two decades since he's been in Antelope County. He doesn't really have plans for his time back in Neligh, other than Saturday's alumni banquet. All he wants to do, Wellmann said, is "reconnect with friends and family."
Wellmann lost track of his Nebraska connections until Facebook's emergence in the late 2000s. His first Neligh Facebook friend was Joel Wanek, who was a close friend while Wellmann attended Neligh-Oakdale. After all, Wellmann graduated with Joel's older brother, David.
More Neligh Facebook connections occurred over the years, making it easier to keep in touch. Kryger said they often message each other on Facebook because of the time difference.
"Facebook has made this more of a reconnecting opportunity," Wellmann said. "I lost connections for years because I didn't write letters and people didn't email much then. With Facebook, we can stay connected."
While sitting around the Strassler living room, George, Ruth and Sharon shared stories on Friday afternoon. They each listened intently, all with a smile and sparkle in their eyes as they reminisced. Some stories were new to each other, after all, Wellmann was a typical 18-year-old when he was in Neligh.
It's the people he met that made the difference to him.
"You get a totally different point of view for many, many different things. Getting in touch with a totally different mentality. It's meeting really, really great people. There are so many people I never would have met," he said.
While Wellmann's life was changing in Nebraska, life was changing back in Germany. Wellmann was there on Nov. 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, but he was Neligh during German's reunification on Oct. 3, 1990.
Still, he wouldn't change anything about his time in Neligh, and he couldn't imagine not attending his 25th class reunion. After all, Neligh, Nebraska, and Neligh-Oakdale High School helped shape who he has become.
"It was the best experience of my life," he said. "It was a life-changing experience. When asked if they should do it, I always recommend it."