Even if you ignore the amorous kids at the drive-in on a Saturday night, love of one sort or another is everywhere in small-town mid-Missouri. Most everyone is part of something bigger, something like a school, a team, an improve-our-town drive, or a square-dancing club. And no matter where they go, someone recognizes them from somewhere else.
You see that guy over there? You should probably say, “Hi.” He’s the parent from school, and you know him from church, too. You saw him last week at the bank, or maybe it was the newspaper … No, wait …
You see everyone so often, you can’t remember where you saw them last.
Like Nancy Buie. She teaches fourth grade at Centralia’s Chance Elementary School. She’s a smart teacher; she’s got her desk in the corner so she can always see both the kids and the door. Of course, she’s rarely at her desk since she’s nearly always sitting in one of those tiny kids’ chairs and talking to students. Good thing she has short legs.
Today she’s doing the regular teaching thing, dealing with ABCs, math and the like. But look at what she does when all the other kids are working. Look at that little boy who seems so distracted; she’s whispering in that little boy’s ear. “I care,” she says to him.
What does that mean? Of course she cares, every teacher cares. What good is that supposed to …
That little boy is working again. What did she say? What magic words did she use? It had to be more than, “I care.” You stay close; maybe she’ll say something else. But the day passes and she never does.
The rest of the week passes, and she talks to the child a few more times, quietly asking if he’s OK, telling him she cares. And suddenly the week’s over, and you’re not any wiser.
It’s the weekend now, and Nancy and her husband are picking up supplies at the lumberyard. She’s talking again, this time to a firefighter from Columbia. His job has been keeping him busy and his wife is home with a broken leg. It’s been really hard on the kids, he says. He’s been worried about his oldest son — a fourth-grader in Nancy’s class.
That’s the boy … Is that what she talked to him about? But she never talked to him for more than a few seconds. How did she have time to say anything more than, “I care.” What can you say in just two words?
Everything, when you know what you care about.
Centralia’s a small town, and Nancy’s lived here her entire life. She knows his dad’s working a lot and his mom has a broken leg. She knows that’s not easy for the boy. Nancy knows all these things because in a small town, everyone does.
OK, OK, just say it: One woman’s approach to caring is another person’s definition of nosiness. As one wag once put it, “The nice part about living in a small town is that when you don’t know what you’re doing, someone else does.” But maybe for people like Nancy, that’s not a bad thing. It certainly wasn’t for a firefighter and his son.
Across town at Centralia High School, something big is going on. Everybody’s here: parents, business owners, civic leaders, and — of course — the football coach, Earle Bennett. The lights are bright and the seats packed. The students have been practicing for months, and tonight it’s all come down to this. Bennett smiles as one of his players takes his place in the center of those lights — in the spring play.
The spring play? This is Centralia, home of present and past football state champions! What’s the coach doing at the spring play? What are his players doing in the spring play? Maybe they’re singing the playbook. This is really weird.
But watch Coach Bennett closely the next day at school. That’s not a playbook he’s encouraging one of his players to read, it’s a classic. Coach Bennett wants his players to get ready for the next quiz bowl. And as you look around you see Coach Bennett’s players are everywhere. Future Farmers of America, livestock judging, art, theater.
What was it Moliere said? “Love is a great master, it teaches us to be what we never were.” Coach’s players — and every kid in this school — are learning to succeed because people like their football coach and other teachers believe they can. No one has to be just a jock or just a computer whiz. Here, they can be both. Do you remember that in your high school?
Head south now to Fulton. Like Nancy, Bruce Harris also lives in the small town where he grew up. He’s the president of the local bank and he’s also in love — with Fulton. As in a marriage or any deep relationship, he’s made a commitment.
He runs the Callaway Bank. In a day and age where more and more small banks are going out of business or being devoured by $3 billion asset monsters, he’s the kind of guy who wants to know you, personally. But then this is a personal town, isn’t it?
Drive down Court Street and feel the reassuring rumble of redbrick paving stones under the car. Look at Lyda’s Beauty Shop, Taylor’s Jewelry and Vaughan’s Insurance. These aren’t just stores; they’re friends. How can it get more personal than that? Unless it’s Mom’s Restaurant across the street from the bank. Everyone loves Mom, and they stop in here everyday to grab a cup of her coffee.
And sometimes, when the coffee cup is empty, they stop by to see Bruce. He knows these people, and even though he’s not going to sell the bank up the creek, watch him there: He’s looking not just at the numbers but at the man. Sure he’s not the perfect borrower, but Bruce knows him, and Bruce knew his father. And if that guy says he wants to rebuild an old structure downtown, Bruce listens.
Get back in the car and head west to Boonville. You’ll find the publisher of the Boonville Daily, Scott Jackson. He clearly sees the role he plays in his community. But will you look at that? His community can see him. His office is right up front in the newsroom where one wall is a giant floor-to-ceiling window. Another window faces right on High Street, one of the town’s main streets. Suppose anyone ever throws a newspaper back into his office?
Scott’s location aside, his newspaper is like most, covering the town’s people and events like the big news they are. News is news, and the Daily reports the bad stuff along with the good. When someone commits a crime, it’s in the paper. And when someone dies tragically, relatives have to be called for comment.
But look at that: After the paper goes to press, the staff may head to the house they’ve just called — with a casserole.
Do you see? The people of mid-Missouri tend to give back. Of course, as someone very wise once said, love comes in two flavors, “one that takes and one that gives.” This is really just a fancy way of describing love as a two-way street, and you wonder if the streets in these small towns are big enough.
You could ask minister Steve Gillespie. From his office in the First Baptist Church of California, he looks right out on Oak Street, an avenue lined with churches. On Sunday, the parking lots will be full of hundreds of Californians.
Steve is the music director here, but not so long ago his family lived in Seattle. Not to be flip, but they didn’t feel the love there. When his daughter was in the hospital, nobody ever came to visit, not even staff members from his own church. Can you imagine that? If they’d been here, there would be dinner on the table every night, and not one Gillespie would have spent a second in the kitchen.
Now go a few dozen miles north back to The First Presbyterian Church in Boonville. The church doesn’t have quite as many members as Steve’s church, but the building has been here since 1821. Sitting across the street from Thespian Hall, it may be the most historic 200 feet of street in mid-Missouri.
See Susan Miller there? When she first moved here to Boonville, she had no plans to stay; her husband had come home to help his mother. Now Susan’s the treasurer and a clerk at the church. She’s found a family there.
Every day they tell us the world is getting smaller as events from the other side of the world appear live on our televisions. And people on opposite sides of the country are just five hours apart by plane.
But think about the last time you heard bad family news: How quickly could you get on a plane? Did you even have the time to go home? Phone calls just aren’t enough. Sometimes the shoulder you want to cry on needs to be more than just a metaphor.
Mexico doctor Peter Ekern has heard his share of tears. He’s in that photo on his office wall, holding a small child. It must have been taken 25, maybe even 35 years ago. What’s that hanging next to it? It’s a picture of him holding the photo, and he’s definitely gotten older. But that smile …
It’s never changed because after 40 years as a physician, Dr. Ekernshares a special bond with his patients. As for those folks in his waiting room, he’s not only their doctor but their kids’ doctor as well. Heck, those folks in the waiting room may have been coming in since they were kids.
When you look at the wall plaques of appreciation denoting decades of service to every group imaginable, it’s pretty clear what the people of Mexico think of Dr. Ekern. That’s what happens when you work some four decades in the same small place.