August 29, 2014

The Kennons, El Dorado Springs, and The Wall Street Journal

We talk so often about the divide that is slowly happening in the United States as a result of socioeconomic forces.  I did a double take this afternoon when I came across the front page of The Wall Street Journal involving a story based on this reality.  It has a profile detailing how vastly different life experiences are causing two Americas, with nothing in common, to split from each other.  As a case study, it compares Kansas City to a small, little-known, middle-of-nowhere town called El Dorado Springs.

Without El Dorado Springs, I would not exist.  I mean that literally.  That town played a huge role in my father’s side of the family and was responsible for my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, meeting.

My Family’s History with El Dorado Springs

My grandmother grew up there, and her father owned half the land on the main stretch of highway around the time of the Great Depression, from which he operated a service station.  Whenever we go to grandma’s house, she has these voluminous tomes of photographs, some going back to the 1800′s, that we go through and she explains who is who, what they did, and how we are tied to them.  She helped her dad sell fruit and sundries, grew into an adult, joined the local basketball team, and, finally, met my grandpa Dennis.  They were married as teenagers, then left for Walnut Creek, California, where he started a demolition company.  For ten or fifteen years, they raised their family in the suburb of San Francisco.

Later, grandma got homesick and wanted to return to El Dorado Springs.  She moved the family back to Missouri, with her two eldest sons staying out in California as they were now adults.  My father was a freshman, so he returned with them, transferring to El Dorado Springs High, from which he graduated.  Later, he met my mom in Warrensburg, they were married almost immediately and had me a year later, when he was 23 years old.  Meanwhile, my grandma started a sporting goods business in El Dorado Springs to lure back one of her two eldest sons, going into partnership with him and setting up shop on the town square.

When I was 7 or 8 years old, my dad moved back to El Dorado Springs to be near his family.  My siblings and I attended a private Christian school, where reading the Bible was taught alongside social studies and math.  I once posted pictures of my first grade lunch, which were memorable to me because every single day, my mom would hide a note in my lunchbox telling me how much she loved me, was proud of me, and how I could be or do anything I wanted.  The picture of my brother as a kid, when I wrote about his wedding, was taken on the playground in El Dorado Springs.

Some of my most wonderful, cherished memories happened in that town.  Even though my parents were young, broke, and struggling, it was a magical time.  We lived in a little house on West Joe Davis street.  It was my siblings and I playing Nintendo, going over to our cousins’ house for movie night, playing t-ball (in fact, if you go to the local Pogo’s Pizza, you can still find my team photo on the wall along with generations of other El Dorado Springs kids), or learning to swim in the town pool, which my grandfather built.  We had no idea how hard it was for my mom and dad during this period, as they hid their struggles from us. We found out later that this was the Christmas when money was so tight they could only afford to give us a single gift, so my mom went into the kitchen and sobbed.  We were clueless.  (Appropriately enough, this was the Christmas I was given Scrooge McDuck’s Ducktales for NES, the symmetry of which I now find amusing).

Joshua Kennon El Dorado Springs

The house wasn’t this color when I was growing up …. being the late 1980′s, it was a dark brown, like so many things in that era.

This was a town where my life was nothing but Jesus meetings, Amy Grant and Carmen music, school musicals, family get-togethers, tagging along with my dad at the golf course, or going with my mom to Simone’s drive-in during the afternoon to enjoy some of the best waffle fries and cherry slushies ever made on Earth.  It was as idyllic as you can imagine.  It’s where dad would come into my room at night and sneak me out to the El Dorado Springs picnic, a traveling carnival that came through, staying up late, riding rides, and trying to win prizes.  It was a life that was so protected, and so insulated, now that I am older and realize how bad the world is for a lot of people, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude that I was brought up in such a bubble.  My parents were exceptional.

Simone's Drive In

I’ve eaten at some of the most expensive restaurants in the United States and I’d choose this place every time. Getting in the car with my mom, going down and ordering waffle fries and a cherry slushie … life could not have been better for a 7-8 year old because there would almost always be some sort of Church social or hanging out with cousins playing video games.  It and Pogo’s Pizza are magical to me.

The Wall Street Journal’s Breakdown of the El Dorado Springs Demographic

These broader socioeconomic forces have left El Dorado Springs a very different place than it was when I was growing up.  As The Wall Street Journal explains:

EL DORADO SPRINGS, Mo.—The owner of the nicest restaurant in town doesn’t serve alcohol, worried that his pastor would be disappointed if he did. Public schools try to avoid scheduling events on Wednesday evenings, when churches hold Bible study. And Democrats here are a rare and lonely breed.

Older, nearly 100% white and overwhelmingly Republican, El Dorado Springs is typical of what is now small-town America. Coffee costs 90 cents at the diner, with free refills. Two hours north and a world away in Kansas City, Starbucks charges twice that, and voters routinely elect Democrats.

There have always been differences between rural and urban America, but they have grown vast and deep, and now are an underappreciated factor in dividing the U.S. political system, say politicians and academicians.

It goes on to break down the households (median income of $31,677, retail sales per capita of $8,694, declining, aging population), and interviewing a local high school student who, like everyone before him, now wants to flee rather than staying in El Dorado Springs.

Ben Vickers, age 17, is a local high school star, participating in band, choir, quiz bowl, theater, speech and debate. Ben loves the farm where he grew up but longs for a city—a place, he said, where he will find more points of view and more people who support Mr. Obama, as he does.

“In El Dorado Springs, you’re either a teacher, you work at a gas station, you work at a restaurant, most likely McDonald’s or Sonic,” he said.

Still, Ben and other residents appreciate their community ties. High-school teacher Tracy Barger recalled how after her 16-year-old son died in a car accident in 2012, four pastors were at the hospital that night. Later, she said, “one of the banks in town brought us a lunch. We don’t even bank there.”

And that last paragraph?  That’s the thing.  That’s the magic.  That’s what I loved about that place.  Sure, the last time I was surrounded by people from El Dorado Springs a few months ago – people I love – I sat and listened to them have a serious conversation about the fact that the only reason President Obama hadn’t been assassinated was because he must be protected by some sort of demonic covenant with Satan that protects him (they were being serious; they actually believe he’s somehow communing with dark spirits in the White House and that his entire administration is a plot by Lucifer to bring about the end times, even though they can’t actually explain any of the policy differences they have with him and he’s slightly to the right of Bill Clinton, with whom they have far fewer objections).

I know they sound crazy, like a bunch of backwater, superstitious tribal people sitting around their hut spreading lambs’ blood for protection against unseen forces.  They feel like the entire world has changed, and they vastly underestimate how radical their ideas of “normal” now are in America.  They talk about how “the elite” look down on them – and they do.  They aren’t imagining it, and they are clueless as to the reason.  These are people who are terrified to let their children watch Harry Potter because it might tempt their kids into becoming witches.  Is it any wonder the smart kids don’t stick around to build the community but instead move to Kansas City or another metropolitan area?  You can’t take a young man or woman with a decently high IQ and get him or her to buy into that, no matter how much they are subjected to it.

But, still … if you live in a community like that, and you’re part of a community like that, there’s an extended family effect that protects you, comforts you, assists you, and is there for you.  People actually know what is going on in your life.  This can be problematic when you don’t fit the expected mold, but in a majority of cases, the benefits are hard to overstate.  It’s wonderful.

I was in El Dorado Springs was a few years ago for my grandfather’s funeral.  I still remember watching my dad stand over his father’s casket, in this town where generations of Kennons had been born, raised, and died, when it hit me that someday, I would be in that same position, looking down on him.  I walked outside the funeral home and fell apart.  But the next morning, after the service was held, everyone went to the local church and people I hadn’t seen in 20 years came up to me, knew exactly who I was, and were telling me stories about my family that I had never heard.  Aunts and uncles were introducing great aunts and great uncles, second cousins, and roundabout in-laws.

There was a consistency, a comfort, and a realness to it that doesn’t exist many other places, that seems to last forever.  When I called my dad and began reading the article, I’d mention a last name, and he’d know who I was talking about, “Oh, yeah, that was Jack’s boy or grandson.  He’d be in his 40′s now,” or “I bet that’s such-and-such’s cousin.  That would be about the right age.”

Sixty years ago, if I had been born in El Dorado Springs, I probably never would have left.  Today, I don’t see how it survives long-term looking at the data and trends that are causing the best and brightest to up and move the moment they have a high school diploma in their hands.  Yet, incentive systems matter and those young people are doing what is best for them, and their future families.  And it’s all due to economics.  Or, as the Journal puts it:

Rural economies have faltered as automated farming and corporate ventures subsumed many family farms. Cutbacks in manufacturing have cost jobs, and fewer jobs mean fewer opportunities for young people, driving away those with more skills and education.

Without new arrivals, these aging regions have grown more insulated from cultural change—whether the use of smartphones or the acceptance of same-sex marriage.

[snip]

With few jobs waiting for young people after college, adults in town assume most won’t return to start their own families after graduation. The exodus has left the town older and more conservative.

Some of my best traits, work habits, and beliefs were instilled in me in that tiny town.  It was there I learned that you don’t lie, you don’t cheat, family matters more than anything, and you have to make time for the rituals, like the baseball games or the town get-togethers, because those are the memories you’ll keep with you.  A huge part of what makes me me, and what lies behind my success, was forged in El Dorado Springs.  It’s hard to think that by the time I’m my dad’s age, it will be gone.

I think it’s a tragedy.  America will have lost something valuable when towns like it cease to exist as they once were, but on the other hand, it’s also gained something wonderful.  Who can argue that Silicon Valley in California and the medical sector in Boston aren’t doing more good for humanity?  Those $4 latte-sipping, cashmere-wearing liberals are the one healing people and improving the world.  Having straddled both, I think there are lessons each could learn from the other.  I feel fortunate that I got to experience it, myself.  I worry my own future children will be poorer for never knowing anything but affluence and communities where success is taken for granted.

Take a moment to read the article, which is called City vs. Country: How Where We Live Deepens the Nation’s Political Divide: Differences Between Rural and Urban America Are Underappreciated Factor in Political Split.

  • mikecrosby

    I grew up in not as simple, wonderful world such as that, but I did get to be a kid. Building treeforts, exploring, wondering, being mischievous–denied children today.

  • Joshua

    “I think it’s a tragedy. America will have lost something valuable when towns like it cease to exist as they once were, but on the other hand, it’s also gained something wonderful.”

    I think the tragedy is that towns like this have already ceased to exist as they once were.

  • EMBO

    We, as parents…our generation is largely to blame. We want to have our cake and eat it too. We remember all the good qualities about growing up in that type of environment, but we also remember our yearning to get out of there and put ourselves in a position to do more, learn more, and be more. We straddle a line…we wouldn’t give up our small town upbringing for anything, and yet, we know we wouldn’t go back, because our lives would be so vastly different.

    Now that we’re parents, we wish so badly that our kids could grow up in that environment. And we worry that they won’t have the same qualities and sense of community and family that we had instilled in us because we don’t raise them in a small town. But on the other side of the coin, we, the “selfish parents”, still want to live in our suburbs and cities, because that’s what we worked for. It’s what we wanted. We want the convenience that those places bring…that we worked our whole lives to be successful enough to afford. So who wins out? The parents or the kids?

    We can’t have it both ways. We can’t live in our Utopian small towns and still enjoy the excitement and opportunity of the cities and suburbs we worked hard to get to. Those places don’t afford the type of lifestyle that we ALSO want to provide for our kids, a lifestyle of participation in lots of activities and sports, being able to see lots of exciting things, and having lots of opportunities to grow. For all the good things a small town has, many of those special activities and opportunities don’t exist there.

    In the end, as it has been for generations, it is ultimately still up to the parents to raise their children to value hard work, honestly, integrity, and doing the right thing. I’ll admit freely that many days I don’t know what I’m doing as a parent. I don’t know if it’s the right thing or not. I just wing it and do my best. All of us do. And just like our parents before us, we will all get through it, and for the most part, even though they don’t do everything you want them to do, the kids will turn out fine. And in many years, they will be struggling with these same types of questions, in an entirely new context.

    And we’ll still shake our heads and remember how easy it was back when we were parents. :)

  • Anon

    I especially liked the parts about your forefathers/history and your life growing up. It was very interesting and very different from mine.

  • peterpatch79

    I have lived in everything from a small city to the biggest cities in the world (Osaka and Toronto). I grew up in a small city and even though it’s probably way bigger then El Dorado Springs the same thing is happening. You used to graduate high school ( or drop out) and go work at the GE plant, Quaker Oats plant or possibly some smaller enterprise. You would work there your whole life and then retire on a traditional DB pension. From the cradle to the grave you were part of that city. My Grandfather and many of my other relatives took this path. As soon as I graduated University I left that city and I will probably only go back to visit relatives. Due to factors like automation, urbanization and globalization those jobs are rare and the wages aren’t keeping up with inflation. The community grows older and amongst the younger population dumber each year.

  • Anonano

    Josh, the flip side of the community that’s there for you is that if you weren’t a part of it–gay, Jewish (like my family), or just different–then the community would just as easily reject you.

    I’m sure you’ve read the numerous studies that have been done showing how there is less trust with more diversity, less compassion with the rise of the so-called meritocratic class, etc.

    The question is, can community leaders find a way to bring people together despite their differences? I’ve often thought of the Constitution as such a unifier, since people could come from around the world and believe in ideals based on freedom rather than a particular religion or politics.

    (Also, on a separate note Josh, I sent you a long email a while ago with a lot of questions…wonder if you’d be getting around to it any time soon? :)

    • Dave

      Great post, Joshua.
      It actually saddened me a bit though. Every time (and it seems more and more often the more years go by), I think about my childhood town and how it, and America, and people have changed, I can’t believe what a downward slide we are on. Nothing seems wholesome or important to people, as once it was. Well at least some of us got to experience just what you are talking about.
      Hey, how do I go about sending you a direct qustion to maybe answer on this blog?
      “mailbag question” ? (sorry for my computer illiteracy about direct contact)
      Dave

  • Caleb Kennon

    Fact: Simone’s is the best burger joint in the history of America, and will be forever.
    Pogo’s is awesome too, they still have our old t-ball pictures on the wall.

  • Bob rice

    Joshua, everything you said is true but I can say almost the exact same thing about growing up in the city of Cleveland . Our small towns were the neighborhood you grew up in and the factories in it and the “good” jobs and pay that went with it. Most of that is gone now . But the most important part of your childhood was not the place it was family ! Without family you don’t have anything.

  • Joe

    Instead of being sad about it, why don’t you do something about it. Take some of your money and build something that will keep the young kids in the town -provide jobs. A factory, a store, a hotel, a mill, a metal fabrication company, etc. Or use part of your influence in the companies you own stock in to help bring jobs into that town.

    You could also create an endowment to create a small college that could grow into a university over time. The money from the endowment would provide jobs in the college and in time the college would be able to fund research teams and research projects similar to how a larger university would. That’s a way to keep the smart people there in town.

    Create an organization made up of some of these ‘smart people’ that still live or have lived in El Dorado Springs that want to ensure that it doesn’t die. Have the organization’s primary focus be to ensure that the town survives, by increasing the quality of life in the town -keeping the younger kids there so that way-of-life continues. This can be done a number of ways as mentioned above.

    The biggest hurdle would not be that the town could be reborn and start to thrive, it would be that it would grow and grow so fast that you would start to lose that small town feeling, that closeness that you so much enjoyed as a kid. But that’s the nature of life. You’re always moving in some direction. You’re either growing or you’re dying, you can’t do both.

    Just some ideas.