There's No Place Like Roberdel

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.

We'd Better Speak Up For Libraries

Some friends in a community not too far from mine told me the story of a candidate for local political office a couple of years ago who said, at a candidate forum, “I think people who use the library ought to pay for it.  I never go in there.”  This candidate got elected, along with some others of like mind, and sure enough, when it came time to pass a budget, library money was drastically slashed.

The impact was immediate and drastic.  The library had to lay off workers and cut operating hours.  When folks who needed the library’s resources showed up, they often found the doors closed, or no staff member available to help and answer questions.

Looking for a job to support your family?  Good luck being able to use a library computer to look up online job listings.  A student working on a term paper that requires current reference material?  Good luck getting access in the evening or on a weekend.  Looking for that new book by your favorite author?  Sorry, the library doesn’t have money to buy it.   

The impression I got from my friends is that the frustration level is high, and that a grassroots effort is underway to get library funds restored.  I hope they’re successful.  Like me, they share the view that a library is an essential community service, just like police and fire protection, the health department, road maintenance, garbage pickup, etc.  I think of a library as a vital part of the school system, which in its broadest term includes adults as well as young folks.

I would not be a writer if it were not for the influence of the library in my hometown as I was growing up.  It was a modest operation, a single room tucked between the fire station and the city clerk’s office, staffed by a dear woman named Miss Glennie.  She was not a trained librarian in the modern sense, but she knew every book in the place, and she was an ardent advocate of reading.  She challenged me by pushing good literature on me, had me reading Faulkner and Hemingway when I was in junior high.  Those books not only entertained me, they taught me what good writing looked like.  Those books, and Miss Glennie, helped shape the writer I would become.

Libraries have changed a lot since my youth, when they were mostly places where you put books on shelves and patrons came in and checked them out.  They’re now firmly in the grasp of the digital age, and much of what they hold is accessed through a keyboard, a collection of knowledge -- much of it sight and sound -- that has to be updated at lightning speed.  But in the broadest sense, the role of the library hasn’t changed.  It’s a repository of the community’s wisdom, there for every soul in the community to use.

No community service exists unless the people in the community insist on it, work for it, and support decision-makers who share their views.  I don’t think we’re inclined to let crime run unchecked, houses burn down, garbage pile up at the curb, or ceilings fall in at the schoolhouse.  The question is, do we also think knowledge and wisdom are important?  If we do, we’ll back our libraries to the hilt.