In a nasty nation, there’s an oasis of nice in one Michigan city

by | Oct 11, 2020 | Detroit Free Press, Comment | 5 comments

To the outside world, it looks like Michigan had a bad week. When 13 of our fellow Americans  are arrested for plotting to kidnap our governor, well, that’s not an image we want exported to the rest of the world. The fact that some of those men were allegedly part of a militia-backed group doesn’t help, nor does the President speaking out from his COVID-19 battle to personally lambast Gretchen Whitmer.

But headlines are just that. Headlines. They don’t tell the whole story. So here’s another thing that happened last week in Michigan. On the same day those alleged kidnappers were rounded up, the small town of Buchanan, tucked along the southwest border of our state, was named by Reader’s Digest as “the nicest place in America.”

Now, this was not one of those “most picturesque,” “best schools” or “healthiest lifestyle” kinds of contests. This was a nationwide search that spanned almost 1,200 entries — the most Reader’s Digest has ever received — for the “nicest” place in this country. Entrants wrote of how their cities, towns, villages or even local businesses had come together in this incredibly challenging year to help, care, show empathy or support.

Of all those places, Buchanan, a place of rosebud trees and fewer than 4,500 people, won the title, thanks to a teacher named John D. Van Dyke, who decided to pen a letter to Reader’s Digest nominating his hometown. He wrote of a tradition that was threatened by COVID-19.

“We’re not big enough for a movie theater or a bookstore or fireworks or anything like that,” Van Dyke, 49, told me. “But we really take a lot of pride in our parades. 

“Buchanan has had more than its share of veterans — we have a big veterans cemetery that started in the Civil War — and we really look forward to the Memorial Day parade. Everybody comes out for it. 

“But this year it was canceled because of the pandemic.”

The easy thing would have been to shrug and stay home. It’s dangerous out there. What are you going to do?

That wasn’t how Buchanan handled it.

An extraordinary honor

Instead, as Van Dyke explained, “the American Legion asked for photos of all our veterans to put them on lampposts throughout the city.”

The photos, enlarged into banners, were so plentiful they ran out of lampposts. Had to hang two at a time. No matter. When they finished, there were 103 banners, huge images of Buchanan’s men and women who had served their nation, past and present. Residents walked or drove beneath the images, paying homage, paying respects.

Now, OK. Maybe to coastal elites, that’s not eye-opening. Many of them already believe that small, Midwestern towns are the most likely places to make a big deal out of Memorial Day, national service and the military. That, in some of their minds, is what makes such towns narrow-minded. Maybe even a place where a hateful militia might take root?

Which is why what happened next is so important. On Memorial Day, as Buchanan residents honored their service people, a resident of another state, a man named George Floyd, died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. It made international news.

It would have been easy for Buchanan to shrug and say “doesn’t concern us.” Instead, as Van Dyke recalled, “One of our neighbors (a Black woman named Deejra Lee, also a Buchanan native) organized a peace march with our chief of police. And the entire town got together and marched in the spirit of peace.”

Hundreds came out. Under the still-hanging banners of those who had served to protect their rights, the folks of Buchanan used those rights to show solidarity over another man’s wrongful death. They marched from the high school to the police station. And there they all knelt, together, everyone, for eight minutes and 46 seconds, to memorialize the time Floyd had a knee on his neck before dying.

Van Dyke, in his letter to Reader’s Digest, summed it up this way: ”It doesn’t matter to us one bit where you came from or what you believe. You are welcome here.”

You are welcome here.

Is there a “nicer” sentence than that?

The ‘Great’ Lakes State

I had been asked to serve on a panel for the Reader’s Digest contest. As such, I got to learn of many small towns in many states that go all but unnoticed in the national media. They shared tales of kindness and togetherness. Little things. Small gatherings. It was, I found, an incredible escape from the daily barrage of horrible news.

Let’s face it. We are currently approaching the most divisive election in modern memory, and it feels as if the nation comes down to two people.

But it doesn’t. America isn’t the winner of the presidency. No one politician, nor any collective body of politicians, outnumber or outweigh the hundreds of millions of citizens within our borders. Those citizens don’t live in the CNN or Fox News studios. They don’t live in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal meeting rooms. They go on every day, in small towns like Buchanan, exercising the one quality that seems to elude so many who would lead us or influence us.

Humanity.

Van Dyke’s family has lived in the area since World War II. A white man who teaches mostly Black students across the Indiana border at Dickinson Fine Arts Academy in South Bend, he explained that “my wife’s a teacher. My parents were teachers. My grandmother, who lived to be 106, she was a teacher. So was my great-grandfather.” He laughed. “We’re all smart. And we’re all broke.”

Actually, he’s quite rich. Rich in something that is disappearing in America: pride in his community. Enough pride to sit down and write a letter about it.

I know the alleged kidnap-the-governor scheme is horrifying. But I hope the critics who barked about those Michigan men will remember the sentence “You are welcome here” was also written by a Michigan man. The truth is, there are good and bad people everywhere, but mostly good. And often nice. According to Reader’s Digest, here in our backyard, live the nicest.

“I just came from the last farmer’s market of the season,” Van Dyke said, “and the whole town is buzzing about it. Stuff like this just doesn’t happen around here.”

Might call for another makeshift parade, Buchanan.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.

5 Comments

  1. loret

    You start with, “In a nasty nation, there’s an oasis of nice in one Michigan city.” Then in your first paragraph, “the President speaking out from his COVID-19 battle to personally lambast Gretchen Whitmer.” But no mention of Governor Whitmer first publicly blaming (LABASTING?) Trump’s rhetoric for the plot to kidnap her, with absolute no evidence. I enjoyed the rest of the article but your political bias once again seeped through to ruin the message of goodness and kindness.

    Reply
  2. Theresa Ramus

    Such a nice story about that small town Buchanan. Yes there are good and bad people everywhere but nice to know that the extra nice exist. We all could use that after hearing about the plot to kidnap the Governor. They would of killed her and tortured her no doubt .Thank heavens that didn’t happen. That just sickens me. Guns shouldn’t be allowed in the Capital either. So glad that the FBI and the police caught wind of everything before it happened. You are always my favorite writer and Dave Barry is my favorite humorist although you can write some pretty funny stuff too Mitch.

    Reply
  3. Linda S

    (I’m b-a–c-k!) Congratulations Buchanan, Michigan, and thank you, Mr. Van Dyke!!
    We absolutely need to hear a lot more of the good news. This year has been very trying for many of us. No matter which governing party one identifies with, the two main parties are guilty of impeding cooperation, compromise and peace. Their refusal to work together is dividing our Nation. One of the parties is a bit more calm and respectful. The other party is rude, disrespectful, and condescending. Let’s go back to kindergarten if we must, and take better care of our people (especially the poor), our environment and the entire Nation. We need to give a much better example to the coming generations like Mr. Van Dyke does. Thank you Mitch!

    Reply
  4. Jeanne Bullerman

    Great blog, Mitch. Going to make the phrase ‘you are welcome here’ apply to my home community, too. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  5. tammy_healy21@yahoo.com

    Hi Mitch!

    Thanks for sharing a very important perspective in this article. Good to know that there are some good things happening in the world still!

    Since our schools are still closed and my kids (4) did not do well with virtual learning, we decided to pull them and homeschool. Not an easy task, but one I feel was the right decision. Everyday we start with a reading from the Bible followed with discussion and then a follow up book that is relevant to faith, morals, values and the meaning of life. I read “Tuesday’s with Morrie” when I was in college back in the early 2000’s and I thought it was a good one to read together aloud with my children. Of course they are a little bit young to understand some of it, but old enough to get the gist. We also have watched the Ted Kopal interviews on YouTube with Morrie and that has been awesome! Ive read your other books as well and enjoy your work tremendously!

    In regards to the article, although I am very much in agreement with accepting of everyone and would like to believe that by accepting immigrants into our country we are saving them from oppression in their native countries. However, what I believe people are failing to see and understand currently, is that we have opened our doors to people whom want to destroy our country and the ability to live free. These “paid and strategically placed” immigrants have been paid by global elites to run for office, and when they get into office they change our constitution, and therefore change this country from a free country to one that will eventually become oppressed too. We are seeing it play out right in front of our very own eyes! Good vs’ evil! From the quote of Malcolm X, “The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.” When one starts to research all that has happened and influences in our culture over the last 4-6 decades you have to see all the corruption that has taken place and where it has lead us. It is even more imperative now that we look towards our faith and love for humanity, giving of ourselves to each other. Because it is in that space where we come back to our innate values, morals, and principals. We remember who we are and why we are here.

    Thanks for the opportunity to make a comment!

    In peace and love,
    Tammy

    Reply

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