Mid-American values on display after tragedy

04/29/2014 12:00 AM

04/29/2014 5:54 PM

I grew up in the Midwest — Woodstock, Ill. — save for two boyhood years in India. But when I finished college in 1967 I moved to Rochester, N.Y., which goes (or went then) by the nickname of Smugtown USA.

The name came from Rochester’s culture of being insular and cold, quite different from the openness and warmth that drew me back to the Midwest in 1970, when I took a job as a reporter (later columnist) for The Kansas City Star.

In the intervening four decades-plus, I’ve thought a lot about what kept me here in Area Code 816 — despite the chance once to go to the newspaper’s Washington bureau. And what I’ve concluded is that I am at heart a Middle American, which I do my best to define in my new book,

“Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans.”

Here’s part of what I say there about who Middle Americans are:

Middle America stretches geographically beyond the Midwest. It was and is, finally, a state of mind, a middle-class way of living that has more to do with industriousness than with wealth, more to do with an eagerness to learn than with advanced college degrees, more with an openness to possibilities than with the benefits of inheritance, with an ability to know we need to adapt and change than with a resolute determination to remain fixed in place.

It has to do with a capacity for outrage when, finally, we have seen enough. It also has to do with being pragmatic, practical, optimistic, ethical, problem-solving, patriotic in a broad sense and not cynical. We were and are more open-hearted than open-minded, but at our best we are both.

You could be, in other words, a Middle American while living in Eugene, Ore., or Sarasota, Fla., or Rochester, N.Y. But in Woodstock, Ill., it was hard not to be a Middle American in the middle of the 20th century. Which is to say that it was hard not to be rooted in the importance of trustworthiness, of family strength even when families were disintegrating, of gratitude for the chance to live in a fabulous country that was, of course, sometimes deeply flawed.

I see many of these characteristics in the people of Greater Kansas City. And, as I say, that’s a big reason I’ve stayed here, reared children here and now am blessed with seven grandchildren here. Middle Americans all.

I saw some of these traits lived out here most recently when three people were murdered at Jewish establishments in mid-April. Within an hour of the shooting, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, my friend and the co-author of my previous book,

“They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust”

and our mutual friend, Episcopal priest Gar Demo, were in touch to create a prayer vigil that evening at Gar’s church, St. Thomas the Apostle Episcopal Church, not far from the day’s horrendous violence.

I spoke at the service that night to a standing-room-only crowd of Christians, Jews, Muslims and others, all gathered to express our outrage, our grief and our love for the families whose members had been gunned down.

When Middle Americans are attacked in violent ways, we come together in support, expressing our love and compassion and seeking responses that do not require additional violence.

Somehow Mindy Corporon, whose son and father were murdered that day, knew that the vigil would be a safe place to come to give her thanks to those assembled. To me, that was a profoundly representative Middle American moment.

I’m heading to my hometown for some speaking engagements and book-signing events in late June. And among the things I intend to tell them is that if they ever forget how to be true Middle Americans, they can come to Kansas City and get some lessons.

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