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Large Lessons From a Small City

I grew up in Peoria. Most of my major values were established while growing up in Peoria. That’s where I was when I was ten, when values begin to set. Reflecting back on the city, I relearn what it taught. To the readers of the Chicken Soup books and to others searching for simple life philosophies, I offer up these “large lessons from a small city.”

A smile and a friendly “Hello” go a long way.
One of the culture shocks that I experienced shortly after my move to Chicago twenty-two years ago was that people didn’t smile and say “Hi” at the grocery store, on the street, or at the cleaners. In fact, people seemed to go of their way to avoid each other. Peoria taught a different etiquette. If only Chicagoans and other urbanites could imagine going through a day when everyone you meet smiles and says “Hello.” That could amount to perhaps thirty people per day looking at you instead of avoiding you. That would have to affect your outlook.

There is no better social event than a Friday night high school football game.
If you want to be accepted in a community, go to a local high school football game. That’s where the pride is. I went to Woodruff High School and back in the late ‘60’s we lost forty-eight football games in a row. But it didn’t matter. The games were where EVERYONE was on Friday night. To those of you who are new in town, that’s where your network is.

Walking the paths of the Indians puts time in perspective.
As a Brownie Scout, I hiked the winding trails that echoed the existence of the Peoria Indian tribe of the Illini. It didn’t really matter if the trails were truly authentic. What mattered was my eight-year-old imagination creating the picture of an Indian family walking the river bluffs. Children remember real links to history.

•Everyone should be near a lot of trees. The oxygen is different.
Author Faith Popcorn, in her new book, Clicking, cites a recent trend where West Coasters are paying $20 at O-2 bars for a breath of fresh air. You can do this, or you can go to Peoria. Spiritualist and philosopher Wayne Teasdale’s research reveals that people’s spiritual awakenings occur most often in natural settings. Peoria’s parks and trees give oxygen, greenery, and a motivation to look up—in more ways than one.

A mall will never equal the charm of the old downtown.
I have a distinct memory of collecting $15.00 saved from grandparents’ gifts and going downtown with my girlfriends to Christmas shop. The Adams and Fulton street corner bustled with life and Salvation Army bell ringers, snowflakes and cheer. We giggled as we ran from Bergner’s to Carson’s to Penney’s to Schradzki’s. There was always a moment of solemnity and a small offering for the Vet with no legs who rolled on his board with his tin cup in hand. Everyone gave him money.

A river is a constant source of connection.
The river valley provided Peoria with beautiful hills. The river itself always connected us elsewhere—Chicago—St. Louis—Chillicothe. The river barges were quiet until they honked their great horns and you could wave at them when you were looking for turtles down by the bank. As a child, I knew the river was a good connection; to watch it change with the seasons provided a constant reason to look out the car window as we crossed the bridge.

Everyone should get their name in the paper—for something good!

Every member of my immediate family has had his or her photo in the Journal Star for something or other. The paper has always promoted school activities, Scouting, hobbies, amateur theater—all the good news in life. My mother’s porcelain artistry was highlighted one Sunday. My father was applauded for his longtime membership in the Peoria Motorcycle Club. My sister-in-law was recognized for shooting a prize-winning buck. My brother was proclaimed an Eagle Scout; my nephew recently followed suit. Good news affirms a good life.

It’s a small world.
While drafting this article on a plane from Boston, I felt the back of my seat jerk repeatedly. Turning around to see who was fiddling with it, I heard a pleasant male voice say, “I’m sorry. I’m trying to get the phone loose.” I turned back, but continued to eavesdrop as the voice continued to chat with a female voice in the next seat. Slowly, I realized that he was selling her on his hometown, Peoria! As I listened, I heard his words echoing the ones I had just written. “… Beautiful river valley, friendly people, opportunity to be involved, the popularity of football games.” He told her that he had been on the state champion football team 29 years ago.

I had to find out. After the plane landed in Detroit, and as we retrieved our bags from the overhead bins, I looked at him and said, “I couldn’t help overhearing, and I think we’re about the same age. I’m from Peoria, too…Woodruff High School—Class of ‘71.” He smiled and responded, “Richwoods—Class of ‘71.” He was Doug Birdsall, a one-time football star and Peoria native who now lives in Tokyo and works in ministry.

We talked a bit in the Detroit airport, about Peoria, our families, and our destinations. He was headed to California; I was going home to Chicago. We exchanged cards, admired family photos, and hurried on to our connecting flights. And we made a pact to stay in touch. We’re from Peoria. So we probably will.