One of my favorite parts of The Wizard of Oz comes near the end. Dorothy, the plucky girl with the vivid imagination, has lived through mind-boggling adventures in a fantastical land filled with munchkins and witches, lions and tin men and scarecrows. But now she wants to go home, to Kansas. She repeats, over and over, “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.” And poof, there she is, back in the place she loves, surrounded by people who love her.
I thought about Dorothy the other day when I visited Roberdel. The reason I went was because I’m doing some writing about Wingate University in North Carolina and its President, Dr. Jerry McGee, who’s retiring after leading the school for 23 years of growth and transformation. When I imagine characters for a novel, I need to know their backstory: how they got to be the people they are. It’s the same for a piece of nonfiction. I can’t understand Wingate University without knowing Jerry McGee. And I can’t know him without knowing Roberdel.
It’s a small place on the outskirts of Rockingham, North Carolina, a former textile mill village. The mill is long gone, along with most of the textile industry that once drove the local economy. But for the better part of the 20th century, it was a vibrant place – the mill surrounded by modest homes, most of them occupied by millworkers including McGee’s extended family. It was a close-knit community of hard-working families where adults looked out for the kids, where people never locked their doors because there was no crime, where neighbors cared about neighbors. Life revolved around the mill, the churches, and the school.
Young folks who grew up in Roberdel absorbed a set of values that seem to have served them well. McGee, in a book he wrote about his youth, described the culture of the Roberdel school: “They taught us to be responsible, to respect the feelings and opinions of others and to be productive members of our community. They made sure we understood that everyone was equal in the eyes of God, no matter where they lived, who their parents were, or what color their skin was, and that we could do anything we wished to do with our talents and our lives, if we were willing to work fairly and diligently.” That’s pretty basic stuff, a pretty good recipe for a fruitful life, the kind Jerry McGee has lived.
I agree with him that we are marked indelibly – for good or ill -- by the places of our lives, especially at our beginnings. Young folks who are fortunate enough to grow up in the Roberdels of the world have the advantage of villages that care, that nurture, that teach by example. They may not always do the right thing, but it won’t be because they didn’t know what the right thing was. And chances are, they’ll do a lot of things that are right, because they grew up among folks who expected just that.
I share Jerry McGee’s good fortune of having grown up in a good village. Mine was a small Alabama town populated by the same kind of folks who lived in Roberdel in Jerry McGee’s youth. We kids knew that people in our village cared for us and thought we were special and showed us by their example how to live good lives. They let us know in no uncertain terms that they expected good things of us. That makes a difference.
Roberdel lies along the banks of Hitchcock Creek, and when you leave Roberdel, you cross a bridge that is named for Jerry McGee. The community is proud of him, and he’s proud of being one of Roberdel’s sons. He says he’s crossed that bridge many times leaving Roberdel, but his heart is still there. Good places are like that -- places you never really leave, even when you’re far away. Dorothy was right.