By Clay Coleman
VANDALIA—There are two sides to everything. How many times have you heard that before? We have two sides to a story — two sides of a coin. Vandalia has two sides, as well. You can eat at two diners. Go to two different auto parts stores. We even have two different mechanics. I can feel those two sides when I’m out among the people, this city’s lifeblood. This town has two sides to it: those who have given up and those who are still holding on.
At one of the town’s diners, they serve fried food for a reasonable price, and a lot of it. The other restaurant down the street is a bit upscale. It’s a fried versus broasted kind of thing. But the owner looks as though he should be leading a pack of Outlaws on his Harley, so I usually hang out at that one.
I spot Rennie Davis filling up his plate at the salad bar when I walk in. Rennie is a lifelong farmer. His face is red from years of working outside. He doesn’t get out into the fields as much as he used to, yet he takes time to get involved with a bit of everything. It keeps him busy. I met him the day before at the ambulance station.
“The Rotary Club district governor out of St. Louis is giving a speech tomorrow. Maybe It’ll make a good story,” he tells me. Anything that happens in Vandalia could be a story.
The Rotary Club has been around since 1905. Back then, businessmen in Chicago got together once a week and discussed ways to give back to the community. They would meet for lunch, invite a guest speaker who was usually a prominent business leader, and address ways to better community involvement — all this, wrapped in the symbolism and patriotism that was so prevalent back then. The idea took off, and today there are more than 1.2 million Rotary Club members worldwide. I did my homework. I looked forward to seeing how this translates into a small town like Vandalia.
Rennie gestures to me after filling his plate, and we walk back to the conference room. That must be on a list somewhere because every small town has a conference room. Supposedly there’s a list of 77 professions that the Rotary Club looks for in its members. I don’t know if I believe that, but you have to be asked to become one. I’m Generation X, which means I know a little about a lot. I wasn’t planning on becoming a business leader when I was growing up. My name won’t be on a Rotary Club memo.
We walked to a long table that stretched across half the room. At the end of the table was a small lectern with the Rotary symbol mounted on its front. Next to the lectern lays a brass bell. About nine people stand behind chairs talking to each other. Two members wore overalls while the rest were attired in business casual. Most were middle-aged or better, but one was a young woman. She seemed as though she wanted to be there. She seemed more motivated than the others.
One of the men in overalls walks up to the podium and rings the bell. They all stand up and say a prayer, then say the Pledge of Allegiance. The club goes over the minutes from the last meeting. They talk about funds for the group — upcoming projects. The woman is the sergeant for the group, which means she enforces the rules. She’s quick when it’s her time to talk, yet she has to pay the penalty for not doing something for the group. She gets up and places something in a pouch. The pouch looks like it came from a Crown Royal bottle. She runs her own insurance company. She reminds me of someone who’s good at remembering what others forget, even if she had to pay up this time.
The guest speaker drove up from a town outside of St. Louis called Washington. It’s the corncob pipe capital of the world. He walks up to the lectern, wearing a blue sports jacket, club pins running down his lapel. The man reminds me of a real estate agent. He starts to speak, his comments focus on change. Sure, he talked about things like service before self and recruitment goals and about everything an organization needs to do to survive, but he always came back to that one theme. It was like he was pleading for the group to change.
The man finishes and sits down. I can sense the meeting is ready to wrap up, so I ask a question when the man in overalls returns to the lectern. Does the club recognize noteworthy people in the community, I ask him? The man in overalls eyes widen. We don’t do that, he tells me. Shortly after, the meeting is adjourned, and I watch as the members start gathering up their things and head towards the door. I hang back and watch as they drive away.
Every town has two sides to its story. It’s people have two sides. You have those who stay in their homes and watch as everything crumbles around them. Those are the ones who have given up. Then you have people who are holding on — waiting for better times. They stick to their ways, hoping for someone or something to come and save them. Find me the town where its citizens pick themselves up off the ground and get on with it. That’s the change I’m looking for.