Some years ago, when my daughter was a teenager and in full-blown teen rebellion, we had a huge argument. That wasn’t rare at the time. But she ended it with these words: “Why should I listen to you, Dad, you’re just a Catholic from Ohio.”
She left the room with a flourish, and I remember sitting there thinking, “Yeah, I am. And that doesn’t sound bad to me.” Those are the influences that formed me, along with my parents and teachers.
I should explain that, at the time, my family and I lived in Connecticut and I suppose Connecticut helped form my children. And that’s not a bad thing. Connecticut is a state of great natural beauty and a state that deeply respects history and intellect.
Now, after 25 years in Connecticut, I have returned to the state of my boyhood — the land of the Indians and the Browns, and it feels like home. I wonder why.
I was talking to the great Tom Walton about a strange phenomenon — neighbors who never invite you to their home, or never speak. Or work colleagues of many years standing with whom you never break bread. He experienced these things in California, another beautiful state that is nonetheless not Ohio.
But here is something that happened to me in a Toledo YMCA parking lot recently and I shared it with Mr. Walton: A lady parked her car quite close to mine and apologized, saying: “I’m sorry, I didn’t do a very good job there did I?”
No way that happens in the Northeast, where automotive ruthlessness in all variations is a point of pride. People are nice here. And when they aren’t naturally nice, they fake it until they make it. Being kind, and neighborly, is valued. That lady and I had a pleasant little chat. She brightened my day, and I hope I brightened hers.
A week or so ago, my wife and I were invited, as new folks in town, to a party in the Old West End at which a great little band played blues and bluegrass and folk songs. The party-goers were invited to sing along, and even provided with pages of lyrics. There was wine, and cheese, and beer too. Driving home we agreed: No way that happens in the Northeast. Why? No one would go to that much trouble. No time. No percentage in it.
What do people say in Ohio?: “It’s no trouble.” Even when it is.
And just a few nights ago, I attended a lecture on Lincoln by historian Richard Norton Smith at the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library. I don’t think I have ever seen such a beautiful local library. And there must have been 300 people there on a rainy weekday night. To hear about and think about Abe Lincoln of Illinois — all these years and all those Lincoln books later.
“Let me get this straight,” said someone to me the other day, “You chose to live in Toledo?” Yes, we did. To me, it is a great, livable city in a great state. Having lived in many places and seen many more, I chose Toledo. The library and the Lincoln crowd speak well for the town, I think. They show civic pride and spirit, just as Fifth Third Field and the Toledo Zoo and the Toledo Museum of Art do.
I wonder whether there is a city this size in the nation with such handsome public institutions, spaces, and buildings. (You would have to put the Toledo Club, The Blade building, Holy Rosary Cathedral, and the University of Toledo on that list as well.)
The words that keep resounding with me are: kindness and community. Not bad things to be known for.
Lack of pretension, and not taking yourself too seriously, are good Ohio qualities too. Those are not qualities highly valued in the East. Maybe you have to be from Ohio, or Michigan, Wisconsin, or Minnesota to value them.
Once I interviewed an opera star whom I knew had grown up in Ohio (not far from here). I mentioned this connection. And she brightened. I also mentioned to her that I knew of another opera star from another part of the state who didn’t like to be reminded of her humble roots. “Not me,” said Opera Star No 1. “I shout it from the rafters.”
Me too. I am proud to be an Ohio boy. Happy to return to Toledo. As for the Catholic part, I am deeply grateful for that lineage. I am a Dorothy Day/Thomas Merton Catholic who loves the Latin Mass. But that’s another column,
The first opera singer’s name is Sylvia McNair. In addition to being a great musician, she is an Ohioan — a nice person. “What do you like about Ohio,” I asked her. “The people,” she said.
That sums it up.
Keith C. Burris is associate editor of The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6266.