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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.