By: Chris Frame
What Happened to “Community”?
A few years ago when I received my first issue of LocaLeben and started reading it, I immediately knew what they were trying to accomplish: Community.
I grew up as an only child on a farm in southwest Wisconsin. We had several hundred acres that bordered separate farms owned by my great-uncle and my cousin. All in all, it was essentially a 1000+ acre “single” farm as we all worked together, sharing equipment, hard work, and strategies to fill all of our barns with hay and our silos with corn every year so we could feed our cattle through the winter. Back then, a mere 40 years ago, everyone in our countryside community helped everyone. Everyone was interconnected. When something broke or went wrong, there were several neighbors and family members immediately ready to help with the strength of their backs, their tools, and/or their wallets. There was never any mention of compensation or debt for such offerings. It was just what everyone did, and honestly, even as a child, I marveled at its perfection in operation. Troubles were quickly solved, and when the dust settled, everyone, not just the party in need, was proud and completely satisfied that the issue was in the past. Be it a broken water pipe, blown tractor engine, collapsed barn roof…it didn’t matter the size or scale of the issue. The actions taken and feelings afterwards were always the same. We were a community.
My father was the only one in our country community that had a snow plow on his truck. In the tradition of “everyone helps everyone,” he took it upon himself to plow our neighbors’ driveways virtually every time it snowed. That is, after we got up at 5 a.m. and milked our 40+ head of cows, he would plow everyone out and then head 12 miles to town to run the small business he owned, employing over 20 individuals. I rode the bus to and from school, and when I got home, I walked our half-mile driveway (no, it wasn’t uphill both ways…it was uphill only one way) and I would start chores. On most days, by the time my father got home, I had already brought the cows into the barn and begun to milk the herd. At best, we would get into the house around 6-7p.m. for dinner and a well-deserved rest before it began all over again at 5 a.m.
My father’s work ethic and dedication to our family, community, and even complete strangers, still makes me swell with pride as I think about it today. I always marveled at his ability to help everyone around him; most he knew and some he did not. He never expected or asked for any type of compensation for this. He “had a snow plow,” so he used it to help everyone. As a child, I was consistently taken aback by the number of people who knew him or knew of him. These acquaintances always waved, wanted to shake his hand or gave a respective nod of the head wherever he was. I always felt like he was a community celebrity, a true staple of what a society and a community should be. He was something that seems to be absent in our community today.
On a larger scale, I was 12 years old back in June of 1984, when an F5 tornado ripped through our neighboring town of Barneveld, killing 9 people and leveling an entire town. Everyone, and I mean everyone, dropped everything and went to help. Whether it was hauling tankers of drinking water, digging through debris, providing hot meals and a place to sleep, it didn’t matter. My father’s small business involved dairy supply equipment, big milk tanks, milking equipment, etc. After the tornado passed through, he was immediately on the phone calling his trusted employees, telling them to load big bulk tanks onto trailers, fill them with drinking water and haul them to Barneveld ASAP. Everyone was doing whatever needed to be done to help the community. Everyone rallied. Nobody questioned or complained. It was truly a life-changing event for me, as I saw firsthand the way an entire community wrapped around each other after such a tragic event, eventually making everything well again. I also remember spending countless hours, for years afterwards, driving my four-wheeler around our fields picking up debris, personal belongings, clothing, mail, pieces of furniture, and even the twisted up metal Purina sign from the feed mill in Barneveld. The feed mill was at least eight miles away from our farm. Every minute while doing this, I was thanking God that our homes, families and farms were spared this merciless destruction.
About 15 years ago, I stopped to help a broken down minivan on the side of the road outside of Mayville. The vehicle was packed with a group of retired women from the Milwaukee area who golfed at the Mayville Golf Club once a year to keep in touch and catch up on their lives. Earlier in life, I was a technical service manager and mechanic at a car dealership, so I was able to quickly and easily change the tire for these ladies. They were elated and extremely grateful. I could not have stopped for a more deserving and appreciative group of people. I felt proud that I had the ability to help them during their time of need in our community. After I had them all fixed up, the tire was changed and they were ready to go, they gave me a towel to wipe off my hands, as it was a messy job on a very hot day. They then gave me a $10 bill for my trouble. Upon cleaning up, I folded the $10 bill, quietly placed it in the towel and handed it back to them, wishing them a safe trip home. As I was driving off, I heard one of them of them shout “that stinker” upon finding the returned $10 bill. What a great feeling that was. I was instantly transformed back to my childhood and thought about all the great things my father and others had done for each other without any money changing hands. It was just the right thing to do.
About 2 years ago, a similar incident presented itself in front of me outside of Beaver Dam. A woman with several children in her minivan was on the side of the road with a flat tire in the blazing heat. I stopped to offer help, and she accepted. As I was working on her car, she proceeded to call her friend on her cell phone and complain about her “deadbeat husband.” Then she called someone to schedule a nail appointment, took a moment to scream at her unruly children, and then she called someone else to talk about something else that was totally unrelated to her current roadside situation. As I was working diligently in the burning sun, it became apparent that there was absolutely zero appreciation for what I was doing for her. I didn’t want money or compensation; rather a simple and sincere “thank you,” a smirk of appreciation or even a gratuitous smile would have been more than ample. The idea of people helping people was completely absent in this individual and there was no appreciation for it. For her, it was a one way street. It was something that was expected, not appreciated, and most certainly would not be reciprocated.
Let’s fast forward to our community today. I am sad to say it, and perhaps I am being cynical, but every day, it is more apparent to me that everyone does not help everyone anymore. That’s right, I said it. The thought of doing the right thing for the community seems to be lost on many individuals. Sure, there are exceptions, but now it seems like much more of a rarity, certainly not an everyday ideal practiced by the vast majority.
So when did this happen? I am not sure if our current state of community can be blamed on any one thing. I think it is more of a compilation of many things. Blame it on the internet, social media, fear of terrorism, hate crimes, big corporations trying to deceive customers with false promises…you name it and you can place blame upon it. A recent example that is burning on my mind is, when exactly did we start hating and distrusting police officers? The media has taken unfortunate events from around the country and somehow twisted stories to make susceptible minds think that police officers are bad and cannot be trusted. This makes me sick. These people put their lives on the line every day and now, suddenly, we are supposed to be against them? It is lunacy. What is happening to us?
With all of that said, I do believe that all is not lost. Almost 20 years ago, I gained employment with a family-owned company that is a true community within itself. They understand that everything we do affects so many others in so many ways. A company that, while not perfect, strives to be so every day. In a world filled with boardroom meetings aimed at trying to find ways to make a cheaper product to boost profit levels at the expense of the customer, I found one that makes decisions aimed at giving the customer more than they paid for in the product they buy and the service they receive after the sale. I found myself immersed in a company culture that talks about how to make things better. A company that talks about things like “how do we buy more local, USA-made components?” A company that can say approximately 85% of everything that goes into our products comes from Wisconsin or a bordering state. Are there really still companies like this that care about community? To my delight, yes there are, and thank God I work for one right here in Dodge County, Wisconsin.
About 10 years ago, our customer service department received a letter from a father of three boys. He thanked us for making such a great product. He explained that he had purchased one of our products for his oldest son. The son used it to make money and pay for most of his college education. Upon graduation, he gave it to son #2…same story. And he gave it to son #3… same story. When son #3 was done with it, he gave it back to his dad, who is still using it today. Our product had put three people through college and changed many more lives. It is not just a “product.” It is a product that affects dozens, hundreds, and even thousands of lives; a quality product that is made to last, with no shortcuts taken.
Manufacturing at a local level means a lot. It means jobs for many workers in the “community.” Not only the people we employ benefit from this, but there are countless companies that supply the raw materials and components that go into our product. Many of these are also local and part of our community. For so many of them, it provides their employees with a meal on the table, health care, tuition, gas money, mortgage payment, etc. So many lives are touched. Could we buy lesser-quality parts from overseas suppliers in order to increase our profit margins at the expense of the customer? Yes. To be honest and completely realistic, we do buy a few parts from overseas, but that happens only when the current U.S. suppliers do not offer the best quality component. We will not damage our brand name and give our customers an inferior product just to benefit a poor-quality U.S.-based component manufacturer. Hopefully, if more U.S. businesses follow our “buy local” philosophy, demand will increase for higher-quality USA-made components so we can increase our percentage from 85% to 100%.
Please do not mistake my intentions here. This is not an advertorial for the company I work for. I have not included the name of the company or any details about the products made. My intention is only to compare our business model to the idea of community and how everything we do affects another person or group of people. These American and human ideas are still alive today! Our choices do affect our neighbors. They affect our community, and ultimately they affect the world we will leave to our children.
How do we change our current path? It’s easy. It’s as easy as helping a stranded motorist, fixing a neighbor’s leaky water pipe, by doing whatever you have the ability to do to help. Remember when talking about my father I said, he “had a snow plow,” and that he used it to help everyone? What’s your “snow plow?” I stopped to help the stranded motorists because I know how to fix cars. What can you do? Everyone can do something! Sometimes, it is as easy as giving a sincere, heartfelt smile to someone who is having a bad day. It all matters, and it all makes a difference.
Let’s get back to where we once were, remember what is truly important, and take care of one another. Despite my sometimes cynical outlook, I truly believe it’s not too late. I see it in your eyes and feel it in your heart as I walk past you in the grocery store or at the gas station. It’s still there. Don’t be afraid to let it out and make it happen. Do it for our sons and daughters, for it is their world which we build today. Every little gesture helps. It all adds up, to a community.