Finding hope in “America’s County”

Mike and I had the opportunity to attend a local chamber of commerce dinner last night — for Somerset County, where Mike’s from. His boss treated us, wanting to attend and even sponsor the event because the firm often does work in the county (largely because of Mike’s connections there).

Somerset calls itself “America’s County®,” a moniker that I think gained momentum after 9/11 (due to Flight 93 crashing in Shanksville) and the Quecreek mine rescue — two huge national (even global) events that shook this small-town/rural area in the Laurel Highlands. I’ve always chuckled at this lofty claim. And I still might. But as the evening wore on, it started to make a little more sense. 

The venue, at Hidden Valley ski resort, was jam-packed with 270 people — more than originally planned and still some had to be turned away. This demand for a $50 a person dinner was pretty great in itself — the whole county only has ±80,000 people. Business was brisk for the 50-50 raffle, Chinese auction, and silent auction, which had to have generated thousands more in revenue for the Chamber.
Bing! People enthusiastically supporting their town in the name of commerce and despite the current economic troubles.

To set the mood, we were treated to a (loud but neat) performance by a local fife and drum corps before dinner. Very revolutionary and — as I contemplated the Founding Fathers and their intentions in light of the recent election and my own dismay about the future — very timely.
Bing! Remembering how and why this country started.

Just as we were settling down to dinner, someone told us to please stand for the National Anthem (what?). The speaker went on to explain that in earlier days, many events, not just ballgames, started by singing the Star-Spangled Banner, and not just the first verse we’re familiar with, but all four (one of the four, he said, was pretty derogatory of the British and not always sung). He then proceeded to say he wouldn’t ask us to do that, but he’d do it himself, so he did. Three verses: 1, 2, and 4. I didn’t even know there were other verses. It was enlightening. (You can read the other verses here.)
Bing! Singing the National Anthem with pride.

Dinner itself was delicious and featured all locally grown or produced products. A really nice touch.
Bing! Supporting the local economy and businesses. Honoring the good things the County produces.

The keynote speaker was Somerset County’s own contribution to the U.S. Olympic team in Beijing, Sam Sacksen, a young man (only 22) who competed in the curious sport of Pentathlon, an odd mix of shooting, fencing, swimming, horseback riding, and running. As he told of the events that led him to take up the sport, be chosen for the team, and ultimately end up in Beijing, I couldn’t help but think that this was what the Olympics were supposed to be about — not professional athletes adding medals to their megamillion-dollar salaries, but hard-working amateurs giving everything they have to fulfill their dream. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one feeling proud and a little misty at his story.
Bing! Hometown boy makes good. His message: Not lamenting that it can’t be done, but figuring out how to do it.

His talk was followed by the presentation of Chamber awards recognizing people who had done much to promote the County in 2008. One award went to the group of politicians responsible for finally securing state funding to complete a crucial section of highway, Rt. 219, a project that has languished for many years. The effort was heralded for the herculean 11th-hour “bipartisan” push that made it possible — more timely talk, given all the rhetoric about reaching across the aisle and such.
Bing! Elected officials actually doing what they were elected to do.

Another award went to Pittsburgh-based development company Buncher Group, the relatively new owners of Hidden Valley, who just in their short year of ownership have already made many welcome improvements. Their representative seemed really humbled by the honor and promised their continued commitment to the effort and to the area — a great example of how “big business” isn’t necessarily evil and can really turn things around for an entire community (and make a healthy profit too).
Bing! Business as an essential contributor to society, not the enemy of it.

As I pictured this same event playing out in town after town across the U.S., I had hope that our country will endure…despite the economy, despite the current political leanings, despite the world’s evils. It was the first time I’ve felt hopeful in a while, and it was nice.

So what did that make…seven “bings”? Seven reasons why maybe it’s not so silly that Somerset calls itself “America’s County.” Maybe it’s not meant to mean the only county or even the best county. Maybe it’s more like “everycounty” — a larger version of the common everyman. Not perfect, not without its struggles, not even with the same struggles as its rural or suburban or urban counterparts. But still full of good people who care, who are working hard to succeed, who are proud of their country and support their community.

It’s a nice thought, no?


One is a member of a country, a profession,
a civilization, a religion. One is not just a man. 
                              ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

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