I don't think I appreciated Hoopeston, Ill., as much as I should have when I was living there.

Don't get me wrong, Hoopeston is the first place I remember hearing the supposed adage - Small towns, small minds - and some of my experiences reinforced that when I was the editor of a small weekly paper there (circa 2003-2004).

An angry crowd gathered outside a city council meeting protesting Wiccans who wanted to open a "school" in town. A family wrote a letter to the editor complaining because their loved one didn't win a community award sponsored by the paper. One of the few African-American residents in town awoke one morning to find a burnt cross in his front yard.

It seemed like some people thought all (well, many of) my ideas were bad and would rather tell me about how things had always been than support a 22-year-old who was trying something new. I remember one woman commenting, "Gosh, you really don't know anything," (or something similar) when I asked for background on a building project. A seemingly friendly gentleman I met at the library suggested I read up on farming techniques so others didn't think I was some snotty college graduate who made a lot more money than they did.

(If you're wondering, I did pick up a few non-fiction, farming related books, but they did not influence any conversation I had with anyone the whole time I was there. Or ever, for that matter.)

In the defense of the townfolk, I did some bizarre things in the thrones of the culture shock that comes from moving from a college town to a small, relatively lower-middle-class farming community of 6,000. Like, I wore the cute, black boots I bought as souvenirs of a trip to Italy everywhere for the first two weeks until I got sick of the heels sinking into the grass. I started going to church but, when asked what I thought of the service, honestly answered that I found Christianity rather patriarchal. I also was taken aback by how many complete strangers tried to hug me at church.

But The Chronicle gave me the most freedom I've ever had on a job. For about a year, the weekly paper partially reflected my personality, from my love of using Impact font for headlines to scanning teenagers' art and publishing it in my version of a "lifestyle" section. I spent time talking with local high school journalism students and published some of the articles they wrote in class, which I believe my predecessor did as well. I helped another reporter write a two-part series on methamphetamine, which was a hot topic but a little more intense than what typically runs in a small weekly paper. I daydreamed about writing a book.

I tried to remember the "old me" as my parents and I ate corn at the Sweetcorn Festival yesterday. Within five seconds of parking, we witnessed a woman scream, perhaps on the edge of violence, at a boy who seemed about 11 or 12. But there were families fishing in the lagoon, National Sweetheart Pageant contestants signing autographs in the Civic Center, and people with aluminum pans standing in line for free corn.

When I lived in Hoopeston, I was SO clueless that I was clueless to the fact I was clueless. Er, almost.

But I also was passionate, hard-working, and rather ill-equipped to handle small-town journalism. I let typos slip into the paper, but I got to tour a factory for the first time, plant a few rows of beans while hanging out with a farmer for a morning, ride along with a police officer, and cover a fire that destroyed a whole block.

I just didn't really realize how much fun I was having while I was doing it.
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1 Response
  1. I like this post. It's good to be reminiscent.