Technically, Kent State University has called Kent home for 100 years so we’ve actually got a century of town/gown experience, but last week we celebrated the 50th year of the Town/Gown Bowman Breakfast so I’m going with 50 years to match up with the title of the speech given by resident historian and editor of the Record Courier, Mr. Roger J. Di Paolo.
Roger offered a great personal view of the evolution of town/gown over the last 50 years with abundant local trivia that only Roger can provide.
Roger’s monologue did such a great job of capturing the state of town/gown relations that I asked his permission to reprint it here in the blog. Ever gracious, he was happy to share it.
Roger’s Speech from April 16, 2013
Three years ago, when the Kent Area Chamber of Commerce was celebrating its centennial, it was my privilege to address the Bowman Breakfast. This morning, as we celebrate another anniversary — the 50th anniversary of the Bowman Breakfast series, I’m back.
Sorry about that. But it’s my own fault. When we gathered here three years ago, I indulged in a bit of time traveling about what Kent would be like in 2013, and Lori Wemhoff told me I needed to come back to see how accurate my predictions are. So this is an accountability session. Plus Lori knows that I’ll work for food.
I’m pleased to be back, actually humbled. It’s an honor to be part of this celebration — and nurturing town-gown ties on a regular basis for 50 years is something to celebrate. And I’m happy to report that our bit of time traveling, for the most part, was right on target. Actually, I think we exceeded someof our most optimistic expectations. And I’m not to proud to admit that I was wrong about a couple of things … later about that. But I really don’t feel badly about those, either.
Three years ago, I spoke in praise of audacity — of daring to dare, taking a risk, going forward with bold dreams in the faces of the naysayers and forces of negativity. Some people seem to enjoy failure, or watching others fail, but there’s a case to be made that you can’t succeed without it.
Well, we’ve succeeded big time. We’re in 21st Century Kent and the view is incredible. Audacity has paid off.
Three years ago, when we gathered here in April 2010, Kent was just beginning to realize some of the dreams that so many had talked about for so long — the revitalization that true believers knew could happen, given the right set of circumstances and the right set of players. Acorn Alley had just opened and Ron Burbick was making plans for its successor. The plans were on the drawing board for what some were calling the Haymaker Block; the KSU hotel and conference center was in the works and so was PARTA’s transit facility. Except for Acorn Alley, though, the downtown redevelopment plans existed only in our minds — hard to picture for some of us, even when we tried (as I did when I spoke three years ago.)
Three years ago, Erie Street still looked like a tank trap with cars parked in the middle of it; the old Record-Courier office was standing empty; so was Kent Hardware — the old sign for the A&P that somehow managed to remain in its parking lot for 35 years after it closed was still there, too. The bar across from the Courier that had more names than anyone could remember, was still standing. Remember all that? It’s almost difficult to believe now — and let’s be honest, it’s difficult to believe just how bad that part of our downtown looked. I haven’t heard anyone say they miss any of it … except for Jerry’s Diner, and that closed in 1987.
What a difference three years makes. What a difference a bit of time, a lot of money, a huge dose of confidence and — as Dave Ruller and Dan Smith might attest — a few prayers makes. Today, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Bowman Breakfast, a community event that has endured for a half-century that has seen this plenty of ups and downs for this community — we also can celebrate the birth of 21st Century Kent. And, rest assured, it would not exist without the cooperation of the city of Kent, KentStateUniversity and a strong business community led by the Chamber of Commerce. All of us – everyone in this room – are stakeholders in Kent. Nor would it exist without the belief that things CAN change for the better, as audacious as that may be.
We are the poster child for economic revitalization in the face of the worst recession in memory. We are the comeback community, the CinderellaCity. We did it. We did it together. We are proud of what we did. And we need to celebrate it.
Fifty years ago, in 1963, the Bowman Breakfast came into being after a speaker at the Kent Chamber’s annual meeting called for greater interaction between the city, the Chamber and KentState. George Bowman was retiring after nearly 20 years as KentState president, and if ever there was a leader who exemplified audacity, he was it. (That’s not to say some of his successors don’t share the same trait.) President Bowman transformed what essentially was a teacher training college in 1944 when he became president into a major state university, and he did it with a sense of vision that translated into near-continous construction of new classroom facilities and dormitories, a growing enrollment year after year and a commitment to academic excellence that encouraged some of the finest educators and public-spirited citizens to make Kent their home. President Bowman made a conscious effort to interact with the Kent community and encouraged the campus community to follow his example. Sustaining this series named in his honor — for a half-century, gathering nearly 300 strong — is an apt tribute to him.
I remember my hometown fifty years ago. I was in second grade at St.PatrickSchool. Downtown Kent was a thriving retail center with parking problems — sound familiar? I have fond memories of a downtown with three drugstores on the square –Jim Myers was behind the counter at Thompson’s, where he filed so many prescriptions of that green antihistamine Dr. Lang prescribed for my allergies that my parents should have owned stock in it. John Carson was across the street at Donaghy’s; he was a councilman and later would become an outstanding, although unappreciated mayor. Portage National Bank was on another corner; City Bank was down the street. Purcell’s, Standard Drug and other businesses were in the block on the fourth corner. I remember going to Lou Friedland’s for Jumping Jack Shoes, down the street on South Water was Kline’s Market, where Francis Kline would sometimes pause at the doorway in his white apron. Hahn’s Restaurant. I remember McCrory’s 5 and Dime, which sold just about everything and had a warped wooden floor with a wave in it; next door was W.T. Grant, which was a cut above McCrory’s. On the corner was Schine’s KentTheatre, where I saw Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady — I remember what it was like to leave there after dark and walk out in a blaze of blinding, pulsating light when the marquee was turned on. The Hotel Kent Ellis was across the street, and it still had paying guests.
I also remember the feeling of neighborliness, community, small town comfort that you experienced when you shopped in downtown Kent. Our merchants were our neighbors, they had gone to school with our parents, their kids went to school with us. We saw them in church; we knew them as individuals. They took pride in their businesses and they enjoyed helping one another. They realized that no business community can thrive in isolation; cooperation is key. When I read stories about the Kent Chamber in the 1950s and 1960s, I am struck by the “can do” attitude that seems so evident. These were men and women who believed in Kent — who loved it, in fact — and who worked hard to make it succeed.
Fifty years later, as we celebrate 21st Century Kent, we can be proud that that spirit has returned. You can sense it and you can see it. It’s present in gatherins such as this one. It’s present whenever the Chamber has a luncheon — OK, that’s also because Lori also throws a great party — and it’s wonderful to behold. Especially because, for some many years, that spirit seemed to be absent. I remember what Kent was like 30 years ago, when there were vacant storefronts on Main Street and I could cross it at the noon hour without ever worrying about traffic. And nobody complained about parking then, either. A dormant, defeated town is a sad thing — and it can be deadly, too, if that spirit persists. We were asleep for a very long time until we finally realized we needed to wake up or perish.
I love my hometown. I am an unapologetic civic cheerleader. I love going downtown, even when I have “no reason” to be there. I love how 21st Century Kent looks … the flags atop the Ametek building that teach us a lesson in geography every time we look at them, Davey Tree’s headquarters that reminds us that our Tree City is headquarters for a company that has been taking care of the environment, while based in Kent, Ohio, for over 100 years. The new businesses lining Erie Street: Laziza, Georgio’s, whose $5 pizzas are a lazy single dad’s salvation, and my personal favorite, Tree City Coffee, where I’m trying to get my boss to let me open a satellite office. There are so many others: Popped, Off the Wagon, Last Exit Books. I love seeing families with small children — kids in wagons and strollers walking around on Saturday and Sunday, taking in the sights. I love seeing students — the lifeblood of this community, which we sometimes forget — enjoying themselves downtown and realizing that there’s plenty to do there even when it isn’t dark.
As we celebrate our 21st Century revival, we need to celebrate — and thank — those who took the leap of faith and invested their time and treasure there. We also need to remember those who stuck with downtown Kent for so many years when there wasn’t a great deal to celebrate; who stayed in business when times were tough. And we need to ignore those who seem to revel in failure, who gleefully point to temporary setbacks and vacant storefronts and thrill to an “I told you so” mentality. We listened to them for too long and they paralyzed us — for nearly 40 years. We’re not going back to sleep again. More than bricks and mortar, restaurants and retailers, we celebrate a new sense of community – or perhaps a rediscovered sense of pride in Kent.
We can look forward to many more reasons to celebrate. I can’t wait to spend a night in the new hotel on the site where I worked for nearly 14 years. I’m excited at the design for the new architecture building — I want to see what it’s like from that lawn three or four stories above downtown Kent. The new courthouse on East Main will be a vast improvement over what used to be there, and with a bit of luck, may stimulate other improvements there. The Esplanade will finally put an end to the Haymaker bypass being Kent’s DMZ — and the poet and preservationist in me is thrilled to see the May Prentice house being used for the WickPoetryCenter. It says something, too, that Kent will have a PoetryPark helping to bridge the campus and the community.
Oh, almost forgot. It turns out I was wrong about a couple of my predictions three years ago. I said we’d be gathering in the Lefton Balroom in the new KSU Hotel. Well, that was a bit premature. I also said we’d enjoy a beautiful spring day and walk along the Esplanade — I was off a couple of months on that.
And there was also that crack about the old hotel — “still around the corner. Well, you can’t have everything.” I was REALLY wrong about that one, and I’m so happy that I was. I tell people that I used to pray to St. Jude when it came to impossible causes, but now I offer a plea to Ron Burbick and Doug Fuller. More than anything else in downtown Kent, the rebirth of the old hotel as Acorn Corner is the most incredible element of our CinderellaCity. Three years ago, had I said we’d be enjoying dinner there — and waiting in line to eat, as a matter of fact — you could have caled me certifiable. That’s the true Kent Miracle.
One hundred years ago, in April 1913, the people of Kent were anxiously awaiting the opening of KentStateNormal School. Their audacious dream had come true, and they looked forward to welcoming students and visitors with a mixture of pride and, frankly, a bit of anxiety. There undoubtedly were some who wondered how Kent was going to pull off being a college town, and I’m sure there were some — Kent being Kent — who were just waiting for it to fail.
One hundred years ago, Kent rose to the challenge of being a college town. I’m proud to be a KentState alumnus, as so many of us are. And this campus is beyond the wildest dreams of even the most visionary, optimistic civic cheerleader of 1913.
One hundred years later, as we celebrate a half-century of fellowship between the city, KentState and the Chamber, we not only rise to the challenges of the future — we embrace them and we exceed them. We have both feet planted firmly in the 21st Century and it’s an exciting place to be. Be proud. Celebrate. We pulled it off.