John Mellencamp had a hit single in 1985 titled “Small Town.” Here is the opening stanza: “Well, I was born in a small town, and I live in a small town, probably die in a small town, oh, those small communities.”
A small town means different things to different people. Mellencamp was born in Seymour, Indiana, a town that at the 2010 census had over 17,000 people. Still, when you’re a famous rock star, you probably don’t play many venues in towns that size; in fact, he likely had at least that many people at any given concert.
So what is a small town? I grew up in New Ulm, a town of around 13,000 people. I always thought of it as a small town. Then I went to Winona for college, roughly double the size of my hometown. Holy cow, it was a metropolis!
And now I live in Ellendale, a town of about 700. I never would have dreamed in my youth that I would call a community this small my home. But I can’t imagine living anywhere much larger than this.
I was really thinking about this recently when our pastor, Fr. Mike Cronin, gave a sermon about small town living, linking it to giving thanks to God for our blessings. Fr. Mike is the priest for the Catholic churches in New Richland, Janesville, and Waldorf. These are all small towns, and as he was talking about the many benefits of living where we do, Mellencamp’s song started reverberating through my mind.
“Educated in a small town,” continues Mellencamp’s song. And that was something Fr. Mike talked about in his sermon. We have such a close knit school system, a real blessing in our communities. Anything you read recently from our graduates, you likely found them saying something about the closeness of their class and knowing everybody in the school.
As a freshman, my daughter said that she thought she knew most people in the grades above and below her in addition to many more in the other grades. That really helps create friendships that reach across grade lines. There are certainly people in towns like Owatonna and Albert Lea who will tell you they don’t even know half the people in their own grade because of large classes. And up in the Twin Cities area? Wow.
At NRHEG, you have a chance to be noticed. You don’t have to be the ultimate brain or the greatest jock to have a name here. Kids of many talents are celebrated and recognized. Students have plenty of opportunities to be part of activities that they might not in a larger school. I’m forever thankful to my parents for sending me to New Ulm Cathedral, a school where a below-average athlete still had a chance to be part of the team, a school where I could also be a part of the student council and act in plays if I wanted. Locally, we have those options too.
You also see a great connection between our staff and students. I enjoy going to graduation parties and having the graduates bring up memories of junior high English or a high school game I announced. And you know what? I usually remember all of those! I think all of our staff members could share similar stories; we all are able to resonate with different kids in different ways, but it’s easier to get to know the kids because you also see them while out and around town.
“Taught the fear of Jesus in a small town,” is the next part of that lyric, the great religious options we have, though that is getting more difficult. Churches close because of lower numbers, but our area towns all have some vibrant churches and congregations, all working hard to spread the word of God and keep those places of worship going strong for our children to embrace. Just look at how many church dinners you can go to through the year – those take a lot of work, and we can be thankful we have them!
“Got nothing against a big town.” It’s still a thrill to drive into Minneapolis and see just how huge it is. And of course, Minnesota’s largest city is one of the smaller major metropolitan areas in the nation! But just look the next time you’re at Target Field or Williams Arena or a concert venue. Imagine if we took everyone out of our school district and placed them in one of those locations (which we seemed to do during state basketball tournaments). There would still be plenty of empty seats! It would take Owatonna twice over to fill Target Field and three times to fill US Bank Stadium!
People in Owatonna and Albert Lea likely think of themselves as smaller towns. I know New Ulm does. And that’s okay. But I know that I can walk down to get the mail or head over to the ballfield and likely recognize most people that drive by me on my walk. I can walk into our local businesses, such vital components to our small towns, and I’ll always be greeted with a smile, unlike some bigger town retail places, where it seems sometimes like I’m disturbing some important venture to ask where to find an item.
“I can breathe in a small town.” Just step outside and take a deep breath. Even living in town, I feel like I get a fresh breath every time. It’s refreshing, and I am thankful that I found my way here. I hope you are happy to be here too!
Word of the Week: This week’s word is discalceate, which means barefooted, as in, “The children did not fear being discalceate in their small town neighborhood.” Impress your friends and confuse your enemies!