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Published: Sunday, 1/2/2005

An Ohio city looks to calmer times

SPRINGFIELD, Ohio My old hometown has been having interesting times lately. The Chinese were right. That s a curse.

Some years ago, Newsweek magazine decided to celebrate its 50th anniversary by devoting an entire issue to a city that the editors felt most represented the changes in the United States during those five decades. They chose Springfield, with about 88,000 people, to typify the struggle from an agricultural to an industrial-retail economy, submerged racial tensions, and a citizenry full of optimism, independent spirit, and entrepreneurial ambition. That issue of the magazine did not sell spectacularly well, but it made its mark as Springfield goes, so goes the nation.

At least, that s what proud Springfielders have thought ever since.

This last election, White House political guru Karl Rove decided to put unprecedented grass-roots efforts into places such as Clark County, Ohio, for which Springfield is the county seat. That made the Democrats sit up and get to work. And soon President Bush and Sen. John Kerry began making what seemed to the folks of Clark County to be almost daily visits.

The New York Times quickly figured out that Springfield was the place to watch, and that brought the city to the attention of all of Europe, which did not want Mr. Bush re-elected because of opposition to the war in Iraq. A liberal British newspaper, The Guardian of London, suggested that its readers write to Springfield voters to suggest politely that they vote for Mr. Kerry. Many readers did, via e-mail and regular mail.

Some Springfielders did not take the advice well. Some of them responded vigorously. One columnist wrote that the general message of Springfielders was: Keep your $% limey hands off our election. Not great public relations for the city.

Some Kerry supporters were horrified, saying The Guardian s tactic was helping Mr. Bush with a backlash effect. And when all the recounting was done, Clark County went narrowly for Mr. Bush; Ohio went narrowly for Mr. Bush; the nation went narrowly for Mr. Bush. You must draw your own conclusion.

Then came the Survivor incident.

To the dumbfounded surprise of many, a Clark County highway worker, Chris Daugherty, who could not even cross a balance beam, bested an all-female alliance to win the Survivor TV show in December. Mr. Daugherty decided not to use suave sophistication, urbanity, or civility to win. Of his opponents, he said, They were the creators of their own demise. When it got down to me and six women, I stepped back and watched them tear themselves apart.

Shortly after that came a monstrous snowfall, which buried much of the Midwest and which hit Clark County with 15 inches. One photo that ran in newspapers across the nation was taken of motorists, frantic to get home for the holidays, stranded along two major national arteries closed at Springfield. The Washington Post ran a shot of truckers milling about helplessly. To Springfielders, the picture was very exciting there was the turnoff for Dayton and, under a mountain of snow, was the apparent road to Urbana and just yonder was what seemed to be the entrance to the Masonic Home.

Now comes the revelation that a Springfield businessman, Robert Q. Baker, an enthusiastic booster of Ohio State University, allegedly gave star quarterback Troy Smith an unspecified sum of cash and a job offer. Mr. Smith, who is 19, was suspended before the Alamo Bowl, and Ohio State s athletic director was forced to admit that the Ohio State football program has some problems.

The sports radio talk shows have been chewing this over nonstop. The gist of it seems to be that this was a good kid who should have known better, but it was the bad businessman from Springfield who caused the roof to fall in on Ohio State, even though there were earlier problems when, ahem, another player talked about illegal gifts.

Many states have towns named Springfield, but it s the one in Ohio that seems to have caused fingers to wag so often in recent weeks. There are even those who think the Springfield of TV s The Simpsons is the one in Ohio. Of course, the Springfielders who do not dispute this like to point out not that the Simpsons are dysfunctional but that the show is the longest-running show on TV featuring an intact family unit.

A new year, we who love Springfield must hope, will bring far less interesting times. And as Springfield goes, so goes the nation.



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