October 2008 Column Winner

A small town in Iowa
By John M. Wylie II, Oologah Lake Leader

When James and Alison say "I do" on Sunday afternoon, it will be the happy ending to a saga that began in 1971, long before either was born.

Despite being a lifelong urbanite and a National Merit Scholar, I decided to forgo the big name universities in big cities, choosing instead highly regarded but relatively tiny Grinnell College in the rural Iowa town of Grinnell.

I quickly discovered the joys of small town life, the academic quality possible when the student-faculty ratio is low, and a love of journalism.

The three combined for my first journalism award in 1974, an editorial about the benefits of small town living. It was called, "A small town in Iowa."

It made perfect sense to return to Kansas City, marry Faith, and join the staff of my hometown newspaper, The Kansas City Star.

I prospered there and by the early 1980s was in charge of a weekly newspaper, the Southland Star, and daily news coverage of parts of three counties that were partly rural and partly suburban.

But in the back of my mind I had always held the dream of publishing my own community newspaper. When we discovered James was coming, Faith and I began to talk more seriously about it because of the declining quality of public education in Kansas City.

We started looking at newspapers for sale in Missouri, Kansas and Iowa. Somehow Oklahoma was not even on the radar although I had fallen in love with Green Country during various assignments for the Star.

We visited many towns. In one, Faith refused to get out of the car because of the clearly dilapidated school. In another, we were bothered by the stench of the local meat packing plant and completely turned off when we found that the owner was concealing massive debts.

Fortunately, our broker told us about an opportunity in Oklahoma. "The town is called Oologah," he explained, "and it only meets a few of your criteria but it is what you want."

By now James had been born and quality public education was our No. 1 concern. The broker assured us that Oologah had perhaps the best public school system in the state.

When we arrived, we came into town on Boundary Street and found East Campus.

Huh? This was the best public school system in Oklahoma? Faith was ready to refuse to get out of the car or to meet J.R. Haney, the founder of the Leader, but I assured her there must be a good explanation.

(For newcomers, East Campus served as the school administration office in 1984 and had a sign identifying it as the headquarters of Oologah-Talala Public Schools.)

J.R. laughed at how directionally challenged we were, took us by the real school and we quickly realized that we were home.

We moved in April 1984 and James grew up as Oologah thrived. He followed his Mom and Dad as a National Merit Scholar, chose the University of Tulsa and met Alison there. The rest is delightful history and a bright future.

But none of it would have happened without that 1971 decision to go to Grinnell.

J.B. Grinnell, founder of both the town and college, was the recipient of Horace Greeley's advice, "Go west, young man."

Following that advice was the best decision I ever made, and going further west this weekend will be the best conclusion imaginable.