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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Ya gotta be an Optimist at 7 a.m.!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

One evening in late 1973, maybe it was my first day teaching classes at Cottey, while I sat listening to 33-rpm records (remember them?) on our living room floor, utterly thrilled at how well my students had reacted to their new, 33-year-old New York hippie-teacher, Jack Tyler paid me a visit. Ginny, our 1-year-old daughter Jessica, and I had already met Jack and his wife Paula, and their grey cat Barney, just, I think it was, the day before.

They lived in a house just around the corner. Jack managed the local cable-TV company, and was a good-natured fellow, a bit younger, I thought, than I. He'd spent his childhood, it soon turned out, incredibly, in Portsmouth, Ohio, the small, southern Ohio river town where my cousin Sam Crawford was growing up, and where I'd spent some of my own younger summers. Jack was easy to like.

"Chuck," he began, after a moment or two of preliminary wise-cracks ("How do you get used to this horrible-smelling water?" "Oh, myself, I've given up drinking it; I prefer crankcase oil."), "I'd like to invite you to be my guest at the Wednesday morning breakfast meeting of the Nevada Optimist Club, down at Vieth's Cafe."

As an easterner, I'd never heard of the Optimist clubs, a largely midwestern organization, but as Jack described them -- their goal wasn't to pal around with one another, as other clubs' were, I thought, but rather to help give kids a sense of counting in their communities -- they sounded pretty worthwhile. I agreed.

"And since Ginny's got your car Wednesday, I'll drive you downtown and back." "Thanks, Jack," I replied. "What time do you want me to wait outside here for you?" "Oh," he thought a second, "I guess you'd better make it 6:40. Meeting starts at 7." "Seven a.m.?" I asked. Just to make sure.

Wednesday morning, when Jack drove into the Nevada Square, it looked, as I might've expected, utterly deserted. "Swell," I thought, "he's got the wrong hour -- nobody holds a meeting this early, and I've got to teach a class at 9." But the front door to Vieth's Cafe was unlocked, and when we opened it, a chorus of friendly, laughing, discordant male voices washed over us. I relaxed.

Jack Tyler, as he'd neglected to tell me, was the 1973 Nevada Optimist Club president, so I needn't have worried the meeting would begin before we got there. We all sat at joined-together, oblong tables, and at straight-up 7, Jack called us to order (Did he ring a bell or gong? My memory's faded in the past 36 years.). He asked a member to say grace, then presided while we all (perhaps 25 members, if I recall correctly) chowed down. Rustled up by Bob Moore in the kitchen, it was a tasty meal: fried eggs, bacon, fresh biscuits, and plenty of coffee.

All for $1.50!? (Yes, it strikes me now as a wonderful bargain, but, then, I was earning a scanty $10,000 a year from the College, until the next president would arrive with the charge to balance the budget . . . on the faculty's back, it would turn out.) I learned that at each morning meeting there would be a program given by a Nevadan who was connected in some way to an activity of interest to all local Optimist members. I also learned that, in 3 out of every 4 cases, the speaker's opening words would always be: "Good morning. I can understand now why you're called optimists. Why, you've got to be an optimist to get up this early in the morning!" or a variant thereof (followed by soft, nearly inaudible, but generous and appreciative laughter). I admit I never quite understood what that remark meant, I just learned to expect it.

When I attended my first faculty meeting, on the college campus (Rosemary Auditorium), followed by the first English Department meeting (Academic Building, room 141), I gathered there was an indefinable rift between the College and the Nevada community. I later learned this was endemic to colleges big and small in towns and cities alike -- the so-called "town-gown" friction. Before I'd even witnessed it in Nevada, I decided I'd try to prevent it from short-circuiting what might be a rich way of life for me down here in Missouri.

In my first year in Nevada, some of Cottey's honor-students asked me to become the faculty sponsor of their Epsilon chapter of Phi Theta Kappa, the national scholastic honorary society for two-year colleges. Then, under the guidance of Ms. Betty Watson, the College's Public relations chief (and a famously crusty woman, who'd worked for The Kansas City Star in the Age of Capone), I agreed to sponsor Cottey's yearbook, peculiarly named Sonance. This last turned out to be no lark, especially when, the day before graduation, our chief editor dropped off the whole, incomplete yearbook, in bits and pieces, in a large cardboard box, at my front door, before high-tailing it back home for the summer.

I didn't want to live in a vacuum, however, and Jessica's young life would need some context, too. So I undertook to immerse myself, as much as I could, in the Nevada Optimist Club.

Through my casual conversations with the Nevada Optimists, I learned of Nevada as a friendly, easy-going town, nothing like places where I'd lived before. I got acquainted with Pete Peterson, who, after one morning meeting, when, as I recall, we both chatted idly about our model railroads, asked me to follow him home in the car I had that morning. When he opened the door of his basement to me, I stepped into what I might best describe as a Lionel Wonderland-landscape. I got to know Vincil Atterbury, too. Peter, naturally shy, a man of few words, he seemed to me quietly but genuinely dedicated to the Club. One morning, if I remember correctly, he appeared at our front door at some ungodly hour, and rang the bell. As usual, it was Ginny who grudgingly got up, tossed a robe over herself, and opened the door. Vince, caught off guard, explained that the two of us had agreed to meet at such-and-such an hour on Saturday morning, then drive to a basketball competition at the Nevada High School gym. Boy, did I get a broadside of grief when I remembered I'd forgotten to tell the old lady! Somewhere in this house we've inhabited for more than three decades lies, in a pile of dust, a file folder of papers from that year and the couple following, listing the names of all that year's Nevada Optimists. Unfortunately, I have no idea where to look for it, so I have to trust to my ever-worsening memory.

Members who come to mind, however, are Joe Sullivan, who'd recently assumed the editorship of this newspaper you hold in your hands; Carl Simpson, and his close friend, whose name escapes me, but who taught science at the high school, and who once showed me the, was it a 1930s Chevy coupe that he'd restored beautifully; and Warren Schooley.

Warren was, without doubt, the Optimists' spark plug. He kept all the records; organized the basketball competition, during which I met the fabled Coach Testman; set up the equipment needed for the bicycle safety program in town; and all the other events the Optimists offered to the town's kids. He was the club's main man, at lest that year.

The Nevada Optimists' main money-maker, the event capable of producing enough money to carry the Club through the rest of the year, was the fireworks sale, for the Fourth of July. One Nevada Optimist in particular devoted about three days to this event . . . and, for the life of me, although I remember his first name was Herb, I can't recall his last name. He stood behind the counter for endless hours, selling cherry bombs and bottle rockets, all the while keeping the excited kids from knocking the fireworks onto the ground; and when night fell . . . well, he slept out at the fairgrounds until the sun came up again.

Warren Schooley's house, and its attached garage, was the Optimists' unofficial but de facto clubhouse. That was the place where we gathered and chatted, while making the ground chuck paddies that we would grill, the following day, as hamburgers for Bushwhacker Days. Warren's wife Lutie had immeasurable patience, not only to play hostess to a bunch of guys who must have dragged half a ton of dirt across her carpets, but to risk her (and her mother's) life in storing a truckload of fireworks in their garage, waiting for the Fourth of July! I remember working to fix up some battered bicycles that had been donated to the Club, for the purpose of having some Christmas gifts to give kids who would probably not otherwise have a gift to unwrap on Christmas morning.

The Nevada Optimist Club was a pain in the neck to get out of bed for on Wednesday morning. But its mission was a noble one, and the fellowship worth a mint. It was one of the ways I felt I could occasionally break through the academic walls and get a glimpse of the people who lived outside, in the small town of Nevada.

Its disappearance was a loss for the town.