British reporter follows up on 'The Talk In Vandalia'

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By Dave Bell

Fifty years ago, writer Joseph Lyford came to Vandalia to see what the community could tell him about the mood and condition of rural America. His resulting book, “The Talk In Vandalia,” wasn’t exactly complimentary.

Nor was it overwhelmingly popular in Vandalia.
Now, half a century later, The Economist, a London-based weekly magazine, dispatched one of its writers to Vandalia to take the community’s temperature and see what has changed since Lyford wrote his book.
“It was a rare chance to come back after 50 years and take a look at the community,” said David Rennie, a Washington, D.C., correspondent for The Economist, who writes a weekly column under the name of Lexington. For that column, he travels around the nation and finds stories that would be of interest to his international audience.
He was in Vandalia on Dec. 12 and 13, and the article appeared in the Dec. 22 issue of The Economist. It was titled, “A half century on, a much-studied small city has lessons to teach.”
Rennie’s conversations with about a dozen Vandalia residents led him to conclude that “…rural spots like Vandalia are increasingly mysterious, drifting further and further away from large cities in their values, politics and economics.”
Among those he interviewed were Sheriff Aaron Lay, Mary Truitt, Ron Marshel (Farm Bureau manager), Dave Bell (Leader-Union publisher), Randy Protz (Vandalia Community High School principal), Rick Gottman (mayor), Greg Starnes (CEO of Fayette County Hospital), state Sen. Kyle McCarter (R-Lebanon) and several students at VCHS.
In Lyford’s book, published in 1962, Rennie noted that the journalist-turned-sociologist “found family farmers, squeezed between rising land values and falling crop prices, frightened for their futures. Youngsters who made it to college seldom returned. The town’s survival seemed in doubt.”
Lyford also pointed out that racial tensions existed and that much of the power resided in a few powerful residents, who conducted the town’s business in smoke-filled back rooms and extended local incentives to outside businesses looking to settle here.
Yet, Rennie said, the current situation is much more hopeful: “Fifty years on, its population has held steady, and farms are thriving. Locals describe a place that is more democratic, open and connected to the world.”
Though progress has been made in several areas during the past 50 years, the article noted that many residents are uncomfortable with the “dysfunctional finances and politics of Illinois.”
He concluded by saying: “Vandalia wishes to remain a living, risk-taking community, with a voice in big political fights of the day. Fifty years on, the fight is not for survival, but relevance.”
The issue of relevance, Rennie said, was raised recently by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa. Vilsack said that the political power of rural America is diminished, and the region is at risk of becoming irrelevant in the political power struggles of the day.
That search for a voice was pointed out in the November presidential election, as downstate Illinois voted predominantly Republican, but was overwhelmed by the Democratic vote in Chicago and the collar counties.
In a blog that followed The Economist column, Rennie said: “Locals talk of how their values and priorities place them out of line with Illinois, and differ dramatically from Mr. Obama’s vision for America. Almost everyone that I talked to grumbled that private employers were hard to attract to their city because of the dysfunctional politics and economics of their home state.”
The blog concluded: “The rural dilemma has changed….Vandalia is not about to vanish, thanks to crop insurance and other state safety nets. It does risk becoming a quaint dormitory; some locals already commute to jobs an hour or more away. But that is not what Vandalia wants.”
He then reiterates a point from his column – that what Vandalia does want is a voice in the political issues of the day and relevance in a world 50-years removed from the one Lyford described in 1962.