Tuesday morning was the Spring Bowman Breakfast hosted by Kent State University and featuring local news editor, story-teller extradonaire Roger DiPaolo. The Bowman Breakfast is a twice a year event that brings 300 to 400 town and gown folks to break bread, catch up on local happenings, and be entertained with a speaker of local interest. Judging by the standing ovation following Roger’s closing remarks, I’d say that the audience liked what he had to say. It was hard not to.
With a microphone at hand Roger took the chance to show off his extensive historical knowledge of the Kent community, offering his unique insights that tied together Kent’s roots and the latest off-shoots found at the top of the Kent tree. His message was clear — be proud, be bold and reach for the stars.
If you think that sounds a bit dreamy you have to read Roger’s speech and let him show you how throughout Kent’s history people with big dreams took chances and made Kent what it is today. His challenge to all of us is to be brave enough to be as audacious as our fore-fathers to ensure that the Kent of tomorrow is even better than today. Great stuff.
A PLEA FOR AUDACITY: 100 YEARS LATER
Bowman Breakfast, April 6, 2010
Kent State University
By Roger DiPaolo
I’m not a historian — at least not in terms of formal training. I just get to play at being one every Sunday in the pages of the newspaper where, come June 14, I will have spent one-third of a century. Along the way, too, I’ve attended more than a few Bowman Breakfasts, sometimes as a reporter, more often as a spectator. I hope, if nothing else, that I at least keep you awake. I know that it’s early.
Being on the job at the Record-Courier since 1977 also means that I’ve witnessed one-third of the history of Kent State University. That gives me at least a nodding acquaintance with the more recent history of Kent State and I hope that my research — as a historian by happenstance — has grounded me in the other two thirds.
For the moment, though, let’s forget about the past — we’ll return to it soon enough, I promise — and do a bit of time traveling. We won’t go far: It’s the 50th anniversary of the Bowman Breakfast, a special celebration for both Kent State and Kent. The year is 2013.
We’re gathering on a spring morning at a place that has already become familiar to many of us. It’s the Kent State University Hotel and Conference Center in downtown Kent at Erie and DePeyster streets, on the site where the Record-Courier office used to be located. We’re having the breakfast in the Lefton Room.
Across the street is the new Haymaker Block, where those of us who enjoy shopping have found some new places to spend money. Nearby are a block of offices and the townhomes of some of the new urban pioneers who have become homesteaders of sorts in the downtown area. The new Portage County Courthouse is just around the corner.
Some of us have walked to town from the Kent State campus. It’s a beautiful morning. The Esplanade is lined with trees that are budding and the spring flowers are in bloom. It’s still a novelty to be able to cross the S.R. 59 bypass without taking your life in your hands, but we’re getting used to that. Those of us who drove are parked across the street from the conference center at the transit facility that PARTA uses along with the bus lines that enable us to get to Akron and Cleveland without having to battle traffic.
DePeyster Street has been repaved. You wouldn’t recognize Erie Street.
The old Kent Hotel is still around the corner. Well, you can’t have everything …
Does it sound like I’m dreaming? Maybe — OK, it’s the Lefton Ballroom — but, at this point in the history of our community, the vision I have outlined is one that I believe will come to pass within a few short years. And you ought to believe that, too.
And it is no less far-fetched than the vision of Kent that came to pass 100 years ago because of other community leaders who believed in their hometown, had dreams of making it a better place to be and pulled together to make those dreams happen. And they started with a lot less than what we have to work with now.
Picture Kent at the turn of the 20th century. Except for a small stretch in the downtown area, there wasn’t a paved road in town. The streets were a year-round mess; mudholes in the spring when the snow thawed, even worse in the summer when it rained. The downtown business district was a modest one — Ravenna, the county seat, put Kent to shame in this area, much to its embarrassment. The biggest industry in town, the Erie Railroad, provided decent jobs but it was dirty and noisy. The electric service was wretched. There was no natural gas, or a sewage system for that matter. Many homes still had outhouses.
As 1910 dawned, Kent was still reeling from the loss of its second-largest employer, Seneca Chain Co., which had burned to the ground two weeks before Christmas, and it had taken a court ruling to resolve a dispute between two rival City Councils, each claiming to be the legitimate, elected government of the village. You can bet Ravenna had a good laugh at that, too.
In short, hardly a promising prospect for development. Despite that, when there was news from Columbus that indicated the state was planning to charter two normal schools — teachers’ training institutions — there were people in Kent who thought this village with two bickering city governments, a network of muddy roads and no sewage system might be an ideal site for one of those schools.
Imagine the nerve … the brashness … the chutzpah — the sheer audacity — of those civic dreamers 100 years ago.
Thank goodness for their audacity. Because, without it, we wouldn’t be here. Sometimes the only way to achieve is to dare to dare, even when the odds seem to be against you, even when others scoff or are quick to say “it can’t be done.”
Charles Dickens wrote, “Nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter at the outset.” I’m sure that there were some in 1910 who laughed at the organizers of the Kent Board of Trade who, not content with finding a way to save Seneca Chain Co. — which they did — turned their sights on getting a college to come to Kent.
In fact, the first documented newspaper reference to the proposed normal school is a negative one, predictably published in the Ravenna Republican, which sniped — in December 1909 — “Kent seems to be in the race for securing one of the normal schools which are not yet provided for by the legislature.”
Imagine the audacity of those dreamers in Kent. I’ll bet if the Republican had had a Sound Off column, it would have been filled with similar comments. “Why bother going after something you don’t stand a prayer of getting?” “Don’t people in Kent have better ways to spend their time?” “How does Kent expect to bring a college to town when it can’t even fix the roads?”
Let’s hear it for audacity. Modest dreams may make it easier to sleep but it’s the restless among us who make things happen. Discontent can be a powerful motivator.
This is a plea for audacity.
We owe our existence — as the Kent State University community, as the city of Kent, as the members of the Kent Area Chamber of Commerce, as those of us who are proud to be “rooted” in Kent — to some people who “dared to dare” 100 years ago, who believed in Kent and believed that it would be a great location for a college. Who believed — most importantly — that Kent was “good enough,” something that many of us seem to lose sight of when we are quick to apologize for our community’s perceived shortcomings.
We can thank audacious people such as David Ladd Rockwell, who a few short years earlier was the youngest mayor in the nation; Martin L. Davey, another young man who was struggling to make a business out of the tree service agency his father had founded; and W.W. Reed, another dynamic young civic leader, who had literally risked his life to save the records of Seneca Chain as it burned; we can thank them for spearheading the formation of the Kent Board of Trade, initially to keep Seneca Chain in town, and later to serve as a strong voice for the future of Kent. They — and the other businessmen who joined them — are the founders of the Kent Area Chamber of Commerce.
I’m sure they were well aware of what Kent lacked. More importantly, though, they focused their attention — and the community’s — on what Kent had to offer.
The Board of Trade was only a few weeks old when John Paxton, one of my predecessor editors at the Kent Courier, wrote, “If Kent wants a state normal school, there’s no use being bashful about it. Let’s go after it.”
And that’s exactly what the Kent Board of Trade, the Kent Courier and a lot of other folks who had faith in the future of their community did at a time when it might have been easier to focus on “making do” with what Kent already had.
More cautious types might have worried about the odds — and thought twice about rolling the dice for a shot at the normal school. Instead, the Board of Trade worried about winning the game.
This is a plea for audacity. For being able to say “Yes, we can” in 2010 as the people of Kent did in 1910. For seeing beyond the challenge a situation presents and focusing on the promise of what could be.
When the state of Ohio said it needed a suitable location for the normal school, William Stewart Kent came forward with an offer of his farm. When the Board of Trade needed to raise $13,000 to purchase land to augment his gift, the people of Kent responded to the Board of Trade’s call for pledges to cover the cost. When the state said it needed a guarantee that prospective teachers would have adequate training sites, local school districts were enlisted to see that would happen. When the state demanded that the main road in front of the new school be paved, the town said it would pave East Main Street. (OK, that didn’t happen until two years AFTER the school opened, but their heart was in the right place.)
It took an audacious leader to take over a college that only existed on paper and literally build it from the ground up, and John McGilvrey — another young man, he was 34 when he became Kent’s first president — was perfect for the job. He managed to operate a college without a single building … sending instructors to teach classes at sites throughout Northeastern Ohio … and welcomed the first students to classes in Kent in 1913 when the plaster on the walls of the classrooms literally wasn’t even dry. John McGilvrey was able to envision a state university when others might have dwelled on the limitations of what was largely a teachers’ school for young women.
The people of Kent were proud of the role they played in bringing a college to town, proud of doing their part when President McGilvrey sounded a call for rooms for students because there wasn’t nearly enough space to house them on campus. The campus and the community grew up together — a fact that those who today seem more interested in fostering division between the two seem to ignore.
When Kent set its sights on gaining a liberal arts college in the late 1920s, a very important first step toward attaining status as a university, W.W. Reed and the Kent Chamber of Commerce rallied support for it. When there was talk — serious talk — of closing Kent State and turning it into an insane asylum during the Depression, the same community leaders led the effort to fight it. And they took pride, along with Martin L. Davey, by then governor, in seeing Kent attain university status in 1935.
They all had the audacity to believe in Kent, to believe in Kent State — to dare to dare — when it might have been easier to “face reality” and opt for a more modest course.
We can take pride in the legacy of audacious leaders such as George Bowman, who turned a teachers’ college into a state university by welcoming a flood of World War II veterans to Kent when more timid educators might have been overwhelmed by them or bemoaned the lack of facilities to accommodate them. We can take pride, too, in the Kent families who opened their homes and provided “A Bed for a Vet” when the university was unable to house them.
We can take pride in the audacity of Glenn Olds, who took the helm after Kent State’s darkest hour in 1970 and worked as a healer … or his successor, Brage Golding, who confronted similar challenges seven years later and brought order to a campus in need of it. It took the audacity of a Shannon Rodgers to dream of making Kent a world-class center for the world of fashion, of transforming a treasure trove of artifacts into a museum, even if that meant literally talking Brage Golding out of his office at Rockwell Hall to do it.
Let’s hear it for audacity: for the audacity of a president such as Lester Lefton who moves forward on a School of Public Health, plans for a major transformation of this campus and reaches out boldly to the city of Kent — facing the future with confidence rather than trepidation; for the audacity of a civic leader such as Ron Burbick, who laid his own money on the line and made “something happen” in downtown Kent after years of listening to others talk about making something happen; let’s hear for the audacity of small businesses such as McKay Bricker Gallery and the merchants of Acorn Alley who dared to open their doors during the worst recession in recent history — and worked hard to succeed.
After years of having to respond to people asking, “ ‘What happened to Kent?’ isn’t it wonderful to hear them saying, ‘What’s happening in Kent?’”
Let’s hear it for the audacity of those who refuse to be held hostage to the negativity of the chorus of naysayers whose predictable potshots at this campus and this community haven’t been able to stop progress in its tracks. What’s happening at Kent State and in Kent today — this incredible transformation that we are starting to witness and will be able to see unfold in the years to come — is proof of what happens when petty differences are set aside, when people realize they can accomplish much more by cooperating than by complaining — and, yes, it’s also proof of the power of positive thinking.
You can tread water for quite awhile. You’ll keep your head above water, but you won’t move an inch that way. And eventually your legs will give out. Thank God we’ve stopped being content with treading water.
This is, indeed, a plea for audacity 100 years after the audacity of men such as W.W. Reed and John McGilvrey.
For the audacity to stop apologizing for our shortcomings … for the audacity to dare to focus less on what we can’t do and to focus more on how we can to make things happen. For the audacity to recover our pride in Kent and this university.
For the audacity to welcome the students on this campus as our neighbors and — if we are lucky — our future fellow townspeople. For the audacity to be able to make young people who come to Kent for an education realize that they have found a home. We might be able to help stop the brain drain in Ohio if we learned to smile a bit more and be a bit more tolerant, or at least remember that we all were 18- and 19-year-olds once and probably weren’t perfectly behaved, either.
For the audacity to be proud of Kent. It’s a great place to be.
This is a plea for the audacity to realize that Kent and Kent State are a lot more than “the place where ‘they’ shot the students.” That it’s a place where young people from all over the world come to receive a top-notch education in everything from aeronautics and fashion and business to journalism and nursing. It’s a place that realizes that diversity is a blessing, not a curse, and that the vibrant spirit of youth enriches a community.
As the 40th anniversary of the events of May 4, 1970 approaches, this is a plea for the audacity to accept the fact that history occurred on this campus and in this community, just as it did more recently in Columbine and Oklahoma City, at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And, while no sane person would invite tragedy to occur, we need to realize that we do not celebrate tragedy when we respectfully acknowledge it. The poet Wallace Stevens wrote, “The wound kills that does not bleed.” We have bled enough for the past 40 years; it is time to heal.
One hundred years ago, this location was farmland. It might well have stayed that way if it wasn’t for the dreamers of 1910 who had a vision of a greater Kent and received support from the people of the community who embraced their dreams. What it has become, though, undoubtedly is beyond the comprehension of even the most visionary men of that time.
I believe that the challenges and the promise of 2010 are no less exciting than those that W.W. Reed, the Kent Board of Trade and John McGilvrey embraced 100 years ago.
One hundred years from now, I’m sure Kent will be much different than any of us can imagine. None of us will be around to see that, of course, but I’m betting Kent State University will be.
Instead, I’ll be looking forward to joining many of you three years from now as we listen to another speaker celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Bowman Breakfast — in the Lefton Room at the new hotel and conference center. We’ll plan on a walk on The Esplanade, too.