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Goodwill Force : For years, 72-year-old Otto Geller has been an unofficial emissary to his homeland of Germany on behalf of Ventura.


"A world of friends is a world of peace," says Otto Geller, the German-born president of the German-American Freundshaftskreis (Friendship Circle) in Ventura.

He said it in a German newspaper article from the city of Thuringen.

He said it in another German newspaper article from the city of Ohrdruf.

He said it at least four times in a recent local interview.

And Geller said it again just before flying into a rage and slamming down the telephone receiver.

"I do not give you permission to talk to anybody," he says angrily just moments before he hangs up the phone.

Ach, Du Lieber.

Geller, in all fairness, probably should be forgiven his outburst. After all, it can't be easy being a one-man band of goodwill. Even before he founded the Freundshaftskreis three years ago, Geller, a 72-year-old former telephone company employee, had been an unofficial emissary to Germany on behalf of Ventura.

He has traveled to Thuringen, singing Ventura's praises to city officials and businessmen. He has helped erect a four-foot stone monument in the city of Herrenhof, where a brass plaque informs city residents of Ventura's gift of friendship. He has brought a German choir to Ventura in the hope of encouraging more cultural exchanges.

Each time, said Geller, who immigrated to the United States in 1951, his goal has been to further a relationship between his homeland and the land he now calls home.

"A dangerous world we got," he said, his thick accent peppered occasionally with German words and syntax. "We need to get more friendship and understand more mit each other."

Geller's efforts haven't gone unnoticed. In 1984, he received a "friendship award" from the ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany and a silver "friendship medal" in 1988 from a German mayor. Two former Ventura mayors also recognized his work with written resolutions.

"Otto has been doing this for as long as I've been here," said Russ Smith, who has been executive director of the Ventura Convention and Visitors Bureau for eight years. "He works hard at it."

Still, Geller said, there are plenty of things left to be done, adding that increasing tourism is top among them. Smith, who has seen the figures, agrees. Last year, he said, Germans accounted for only 1% of all tourists to Ventura. Any efforts to enlarge that number "are appreciated," he said.

Geller's latest effort is a trip he has planned to Ohrdruf, where a festival will take place from May 15-17. From the office of his modest Ventura home, Geller has outlined for a visitor the upcoming festivities: He said Ventura's mayor, Gregory Carson, will be going to boost Ventura's profile. So will Mel Sheeler, the president of the Ventura Chamber of Commerce, as will someone from the tourist bureau, businessmen and the executive director of the county's Red Cross.

But then Der Big Mess begins. Geller is angry when a reporter tries to find out who will be on the trip. Several invitees--including the mayor--say they are unsure whether they will go. Sheeler, who doesn't return numerous phone calls, said through his secretary that he has "nothing to say" about the trip because he's staying home. And Smith from the visitors bureau said Geller is in a huff because no one from his organization can make it.

But suddenly, much like sand falling to the bottom of a plastic dome that's been shaken, things settle down again. Geller stops by the reporter's office and graciously offers any assistance. Sheeler calls back to explain that the trip just wouldn't work out now. A representative from the Red Cross said he has committed to the trip.

And Carson, having reflected on what the visibility could do for Ventura, calls to say he has decided to go after all.

"Otto assures us there will be a lot of publicity," Carson said, "and that it would expose us to a part of Eastern Europe that hasn't been exposed to us before."

Ahhh. The miraculous power of friendship.

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