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A matter of choice

The path to enlightenment begins close to home
Thursday, June 3, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:30 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

When you walk around small town Missouri and see all the buildings that have managed to survive floods, tornadoes, fires and every other cataclysm, it’s easy to get wrapped up in how old everything is.

Truth is, this is a fairly young country. Just ask the Chinese or the Egyptians. Or don’t. Just looking at the people we choose to remember will tell you how we view things.

Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Ronald Reagan: All were men much more interested in what lay ahead than what happened in the past. Name one famous historian … Time’s up! You get the point.

Maybe that’s why Abraham Maslow found the people he studied were more interested in what they could become as opposed to what they were. Heady stuff when you’re talking about the likes of Albert Einstein and Eleanor Roosevelt. At the point in their lives Maslow studied them, they were in a position to chuck it all, move to Mexico — the one with palm trees — and spend the rest of their days sipping froufrou drinks on the beach.

But they didn’t, and neither has Californian Morris Burger.

If the desire to get involved and make things better is a sign of self-actualization, you can just stop with Morris. But Morris doesn’t stop with California. His activities take him from the town’s school board to Jefferson City’s rape and abuse center to MU’s Development Council to the National Republican Convention in Detroit where he was a delegate for Ronald Reagan.

But today he’s sitting in his office. You see the bookshelves behind his desk filled with the readings of his past and present. Tidy stacks of papers sit on his giant desk, but right up front are photos of his grandchildren. Gazing around at the reminders of a lifetime, he says he gets involved for a lot of reasons, though he’s not totally able to explain it himself: “You do it because it’s something you have to do, almost as if you’re led by an invisible hand.”

That invisible hand led Morris to start Burger’s Smokehouse, which he calls the largest country ham curing business in the country. That may sound like one of those curious distinctions only statisticians can come up with, but a statistician never with, but a statistician never cooked a ham quite like Morris. In fact, he’s so good at smoking hams and selling them, he’s been able to travel the world.

And he’s been trying to change the world,too. A few years back he volunteered in Turkmenistan to helprebuild the economic infrastructure of the country. Quick: Can you even find that country on a map?

Now you could dismiss Morris; sure, he’s the country’s biggest smoked ham dealer, but a smoked ham dealer nonetheless. That’s like being the world’s tallest midget, right? Well, no. Morris won an award from Ohio State University as the national volunteer of the year, so he’s obviously the real deal.

But still you’re waffling. Sure, you’ve bought into safety and love and all that stuff. But this? Enlightenment? In a small town in mid-Missouri? You could more easily swallow a ham – without chewing.

Because you’ve read Sinclair Lewis’ “Main Street,” which says small town people are “incapable of real culture or even significant cultural aspirations,” there’s only so much you’re willing to swallow.

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Joe Corrado, the only surgeon in Mexico, has to stay current on hundreds of procedures. He says living in a small town has expanded his medical career, not hindered it.

Well, grab a knife; it’s time for a smoked ham sandwich and a ride back to Mexico. You’re going to see Dr. Joe Corrado, one of two on-call surgeons. And try not to get crumbs on his hospital floors. They were just mopped.

Joe is another one of these people who has “maximized his potential,” as people in love with syllables are wont to say. He is a surgeon who was trained in Boston. He followed his wife, a native of mid-Missouri, to Mexico. He belongs to a lot of organizations: the Lions Club, Knights of Columbus and the Cancer Society, just to name a few. He’s also been president of his occupation’s leadership group: The Missouri chapter of American College of Surgeons.

Stunned aren’t you? Chew slowly; Joe doesn’t need to be doing the Heimlich on his afternoon off.

Joe has never thought choosing to live his life in a small town meant limiting his medical career or horizons in any way. In fact, he sees them as having expanded it. Say what?

Well, one of his first cases in 1981 was when a woman caught her hand in a corn auger. He told a nurse he’d need both plastic and orthopedic surgery experts. She told him right back, “You’re plastics and orthopedics.” He became an expert pretty quickly.

Joe took care of the hand, and he’s taken care of hundreds of different things since then. He’s the only surgeon in Mexico, so he stays current on hundreds of different procedures.

Do you believe now? These people aren’t wilting on the vine; they’re not ending up socially or professionally held back because they live in a small town. Yes, it’s probably true, they can choose to leave whenever they get bored. And all admit they head to Columbia, Kansas City and St. Louis when they want to see a play or do something maybe a bit more cultural.

But you’re missing the point: They do these things because they choose to. Of course, Centralia has its own aesthetic experiences.

Look at Larry Vennard, if you can find him. He can sometimes be hard to spot behind the aesthetic experiences he’s created. He calls them dinosaurs. Really big ones.

Wielding his welding torch as an artistic tool, Larry has constructed more than a dozen giant creatures from scrap farm equipment in his front yard off Highway T. Just by way of introduction there’s a triceratops, an alligator, a dragonfly and Larry’s famous Highway T-Rex. You may have seen it; it’s on the cover of books and attracts up to 25 cars each Sunday. It is wonderful and — in the best sense of the word – not normal.

You think they would let you do this in a big city? Heck, you think they’d even let you do this in Columbia? Hah! In a world where purple houses are bad, there’s simply no room for a 15-foot-tall dinosaur. With Christmas lights. In April.

That’s why you’ll find that Larrylives outside Centralia. What someone in the city would call his scrap pile, Larry calls art supplies. And as he stares across the plains at the sun dropping over the fields, he sees a world where the only things restricting him are his own choices. And he doesn’t limit himself much.

In small towns, you can follow your heart and not just the checks. Sounds pretty enlightened.

Take Fulton High School graduate John Ferrugia. He picked up a lot of checks — pretty big ones, you’d suppose — while working as a reporter for CBS over the years. He probably could have gotten a lot more. But in 1989, coming off being a correspondent for the television news magazine “West 57th,” he quit and moved to Denver, finding a spot in local news. Some people would say he lost his mind. His family would say he’d found it. Putting them first, he was just trying to get back to the place you’ve been driving around. The world he grew up in.

Imagine it’s 20 years ago. John’s at the Wright Brothers Store 17 miles northeast of Fulton. He used to deliver produce and groceries there from his father’s business. Its vintage storefront and wide-board oak porch have been part of Calwood for decades. Sit in a rocking chair and watch the world go by.

In the spring and fall you can look across at the grain elevators gleaming in the sun. In the summer, you can take refuge from the heat, when the only thing that dares to move is the white dust in the parking lot.

It feels that way now. And there, walking out of the store is John. It’s 1984 and he’s reporting on Ronald Reagan. An old man rocking on the porch says to him, “You’re John Ferrugia’s boy. I see you on CBS, don’t I? You travel with the president.” John smiles and says yes. He’s starting to swell with a little pride, but he stays humble and says he was just lucky.

“Yeah, that’s what I was tellin’ the boys in the store,” says the old man on the porch. “Even a blind hog finds an acorn once in a while.” You have to love that, and so did John.

Today John lives in Denver, by no means a small town, and he and his family live in an older neighborhood where all the neighbors know one another’s names. Talk to them, you’ll find some of them are also from small towns in the Midwest. Talk to them some more, and you’ll find that along with sharing a neighborhood, they share values. The kind of values John says he learned delivering produce through the backdoors of supermarkets and grocery stores for his father decades ago.

He remembers going in and out of the backdoors of a lot of big grocery stores and seeing how some people acted differently in the back than they did in the front. But in places like Calwood, something else was going on: “It was the people who acted the same in the front as they did in the back that I remember.”

There are so many reasons to love small towns, and whether you’re sitting in a rocking chair on a porch in mid-Missouri or on the lakefront in Disney’s pseudo-small town of Celebration, Fla., there’s something elemental. A fresh breeze from the north that promises cooler air and brings goose bumps on your arm, the sun glinting and bouncing off windows and water, the gentle murmur of conversations as people go about their lives.

But take time out from your revelry to listen; they’re discussing the things that make up their lives. Giving voice to what’s important, showing the world what they value. In Celebration, they’re talking about Lexus vs. Cadillac. A local artist says what he likes best about Celebration is that it’s safe — and that the value of his house has gone up some $160,000 in the last six years.

You hear different conversations on the wind in mid-Missouri. Two men wondering whether the church meets ADA requirements and asking when a vacant building downtown might be filled. Two women asking the waiter if he’s heard how the woman who suffered a heart attack was doing.

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Betty Windsor Bowen’s house, which overlooks the Missouri River from High Street in Boonville, has had its doors open to many.

So people talk, and you listen. The person is Betty Windsor Bowen.

Betty’s spoken to every kind of person in most every kind of place, from the poorest people on earth to the most powerful men in the world. She learned how to talk to them all while growing up at 717 High St. in Boonville. For even in the 1920s, her parents were preparing her to go out and see the world.

She left a place her family had lived in for at least 146 years. She found herself married to an Army officer. She lived in Germany, Vietnam and the Philippines. She met visiting dignitaries, including presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy and Truman before he was president. In 1979, Betty returned to her childhood home on High Street. She had left wanting to see if the rest of the world was like Boonville, Missouri, and now she knew.

Today, Betty doesn’t look like a woman just about to turn 80 years old, a woman who met three different presidents.

And so you and Betty talk about all kinds of things: the Asian artwork in her living room, the Great Flood of ‘93 that washed away the buildings across the river. You even ask her if she’s ever heard of Abraham Maslow. She has.

Even with her days of academia more than half a century behind her, Betty knows about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. She knows why Eleanor Roosevelt was happy; they talked once. She knows about safety, love, esteem and self-actualization and says that life in Boonville prepared her to achieve them all.

She’ll tell you even the littlest things prepared her for what was to come, like knowing your neighbors and knowing that if there was trouble, all you had to do was knock; the door was always open. It’s a cliché. She knows that but thinks it’s important you really understand what that means. Because some three decades later and half a world away, someone came to her door.

It was a Vietnamese girl. It had taken a lot of courage for the child to cross the threshold. To pass inside the outer walls into Betty’s small yard was strange enough. To knock on the door was terrifying. Such things weren’t done in Vietnam. The cook answered the door and sent the girl on her way, but Betty asked why the child had come. She was told a cholera epidemic was tearing through the local population. They thought the American lady could help them.

She leans forward in her chair as she remembers. If others came, she instructed the cook, tell them not to despair. She would get the supplies they needed. If they asked again, she would help them.

They did, and so did she.

Betty left home wanting to see if the rest of the world was like small town mid-Missouri. She came back after showing the world that it was.


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