The annual rite of running the Turkey Trot in my former hometown of Batavia is going by the wayside this year. For one thing, my knee is slightly swollen from the hit it took by a yellow lab at the dog park on Saturday. But for another thing, my longtime relationship with the town where the race is held needs some breathing room.
I’ve lived in the Fox Valley west of Chicago for most of my lifetime, including formative years in St. Charles, where I graduated from high school. I also lived in Geneva as a young bachelor and later for eleven years with my wife and kids in a little bungalow near the high school. Finally, we moved to Batavia when our children were in fifth and first grade.
A working relationship
By that time in the late 1990s, I had a long working relationship with Batavia. I liked the fact that it was a bit more integrated than the other two cities along the Fox River. The school system had a good reputation, and I’d already served as President of both the Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club.
Those two positions came about as a result of my employment with the newspaper that covered all three of the Tri-cities. Initially I was in advertising sales covering the cities of Batavia and Aurora. Back then the retail world was different. There was a Coast-to-Coast Hardware and a True Value Hardware within a block of each other. There were no businesses out on Randall Road, the county thruway that would fill with big box retailers by the late 1990s.
Service to community
In the late 1980s, I called on mom-and-pop businesses in downtown Batavia and helped some of them launch their first-ever advertising programs. One of those businesses, East China Inn, ultimately grew to four or five locations. The family that runs those businesses has employed their own children and many others, putting kids through college by providing the same high-quality food year after year.
After a couple years in ad sales, I moved into promotions for the newspaper and signed up to serve on the Chamber of Commerce board. When a spot opened up for President, I was nominated and was serving as President-Elect when the acting President had a stroke and had to take a medical leave. So I launched into service and quickly realized there was a problem with how the Chamber was being run. None of the events or activity committees had a budget. They just ran things and turned in the bills. The first thing I did was the require a budget for everything the Chamber did.
In some ways that was ironic, because my financial acumen was not that great at that time in life. But I understood one thing well enough: those minus signs at the end of the spreadsheet meant we were losing money.
The next thing I proposed was a reduction in the size of the Chamber Board. There were twenty members at the time I became President and meetings were a mess with people sitting so far apart in the City Council Chambers and too many voices at work to make good decisions. So we shrank the Board to nine members plus one representative from the schools, parks and city. We finished in the black for the first time in many years.
The night of the actual installment as President, the executive director met my wife in the ladies room and told her, “Well, you won’t be seeing much of your husband this year.” To which my wife replied, “Then you don’t know my husband.”
We ran the chamber with efficiency, keeping board meetings to one hour rather than the two-to-three hour marathons that had preceded my tenure. While that put pressure on the board and committees, it did free people to get back to their working lives. We still managed to put out all new marketing collateral for the Chamber that year, and installed a benefits guarantee for chamber members, that resulted in growth and retention year-to-year.
Despite that fiscal and management responsibility, there were rumors within town that I was just a “carpetbagger” looking out for the interests of the newspaper where I worked. I know who started those rumors, yet it was one of those learning experiences about community life that has to be learned time and again. There are always back channel discussions and small betrayals going on for selfish reasons at all times. The lip service people give to good intentions and their actions often stand in opposition.
I was no carpetbagger. That assessment was a prejudice of sorts, and also a fear of being held accountable that served as a wedge in case of actual confrontation. It is far easier for some people to snark their fears than address them. And that lie about me neglected the fact that we’d actually lived in the City of Batavia as newlyweds. We rented a small house on the less-wealthy east side of town.
I’ve always contended that being a runner or cyclist in a community gives you a unique insight on the rhythms of the place Getting out before dawn to run or ride through town, one finds out who rises early and who lays in bed. The barking dogs usher you down the block, and you wave at the garbage men or public works employees cleaning streets or taking care of some emergency around town.
It also gives you a bit of a critical eye about the place where you live. The potholes and cracks in the sidewalk all become well known. The places where people leave dog shit and don’t pick it up… The graffiti that took place overnight at the park. All these things are absorbed through community osmosis. That includes the arguments and hot engines of residents not getting along. The code violations and crazy displays of people obsessed with Christmas or Halloween, the NRA or some NIMBY topic. And there were many over the years.
Normally only the police encounter the ugly guts of the community, or the fire department. But I’ve stopped to help aged people to their feet after they’ve fallen in some public place. I once ran headlong home to get my car when I found a neighbor all sweaty and leaning on a lamp post in need of help. His heart was failing him and neither of us had a cell phone with us. He later credited me with saving his life.
For twenty years our family lived in a simple ranch home near Memorial Park, the open field with baseball diamonds that once served as a giant practice field for the brick-built high school six blocks away. The cinders from the former track prevented grass from growing in a stripe across center field on the main diamond. I’d walk our dog around that park every day, stopping to chat with wives of weekend warrior softball players and parents of little boys and girls learning the game of baseball. Over twenty years I picked up a lot of forgotten baseballs, some in good condition, others ragged with age. Moss and rust never sleep.
The same was true for so much else in that community. When called upon to serve on a committee to assess the needs of the school district, I wound up writing the Facilities Commission Report that led to passage of a $75M referendum to upgrade buildings in much need of expansion and repair. That included a new indoor track that I’d later help open up for early morning runners during the winter months.
Harsh words from an expert
The City of Batavia wasn’t always open to large-scale change such as that. Back in 1992, the Chamber hired a consultant named Bert Stitt to come into town and assess the community from all angles. His report was scathing in many respects, criticizing the overall lack of vision about the downtown and almost making fun of some aspects of town that showed utter confusion about its identity. The community was largely appalled by Stitt’s harsh truths, but many citizens did take action on one account: building a riverwalk on the isthmus that juts into the Fox River.
That was nice, but it was still a bit like putting lipstick on a pig. There was no new bridge to improve traffic flow through town. No plan to upgrade or enhance the ragged riverbanks or address the jumbled south entrance to town where random zoning left a hodgepodge of buildings that the consultant mocked. Many of these issues are still unresolved thirty years later.
The more admirable aspects of Batavia are its commitment to intellectual pursuits and culture. The Water Street Studios arts center was made from an abandoned factory building. The community committed to building a new library, but then refused to fund its operations. There are writer’s groups and a Pechakucha movement. The music and drama and athletic endeavors of its students are inspiring.
Such is life in almost every small and large town in America. I never thought myself better than the place where I lived and worked. If anything, I watched my own face and body age in the mirror and felt kinship with the little world where I lived, such as it was. During those years I lost a wife to cancer, a mother to cancer, a father to stroke. When they were all gone, I spent time alone in that house in Batavia figuring it all out.
Moving on and out
I moved out of that house in Batavia with the woman I married four years after the passing of my late wife. We live now in North Aurora with a house that backs up to a wetland where a path managed by the Batavia Park District passes by the soggy swampland. That path is flooded ten months out of the year but I love it that way. When I leave to go out on runs there are often several species of ducks, a band of sandhill cranes or crayfish sucking around in the mud near the water. I like that nature cannot be contained by man or anything else in this world. We now walk our dog Lucy on that path.
We’ve yet to see wild turkeys in our backyard, but we have seen pheasant and coyotes, plus plenty of rabbits and squirrels. On Thanksgiving morning I’ll likely get up early and go for a quiet Turkey Trot of my own or with Sue. I like to run out the path and over to Dick Young Forest Preserve where I’ve been birding and hiking for more than thirty years as well.
That means I’ll leave the hubbub of the Turkey Trot in Batavia to others. The course passes right in front of my old house, and every time I run past my mind is flooded with memories of all those years and how I even eventually came to work for the City of Batavia, but that didn’t work out either. I think I knew the place too well, with all its flaws and history, and mine as well, for that to have lasted for long.
So it will be a Thanksgiving morning with the clouds and cool air for company. And that’s good enough for me.