I was born in Lincoln, Illinois, in 1939 but grew up in Atlanta, Illinois, a farming community of 1,300 residents ten miles north of Lincoln on Route 66. My mother and father were blue collar workers—she a waitress and he a lineman who worked for the Central Illinois Electric Utility company. So you might ask: was growing up in a farming community with parents that are not farmers fun? Boring? Out of touch with a future that was not to be? Namely, becoming a farmer!
Oh, I thought I was going to be a farmer. I was an active member of the Future Farmers of America, worked in the corn fields in the summers removing the tassels from corn or some summers, loading straw or alfalfa hay bales as they popped out of a bailing machine. I even studied how to plow and, as a teenager, was given the opportunity by my farmer brother-in-law Don to plow and drive a big ole John Deere tractor to rake hay for bailing.
On the home front in Atlanta, my sister Juanita and her hubby Ed lived on the edge of town with a barn and pig lot on their property. So, as you might imagine at this point in this story, I was destined to own and milk a cow and raise Hampshire pigs. I even showed one big male at the Logan County Fair—but no ribbons to take home. Alas, a farmer I was not to be, but the illusion lasted a long while.
So, was this experience a positive or negative one? Oh, it was definitely positive. I learned a lot about hard work and responsibility, a work ethic that never left me over the years. Even today at age 82, I fill my days with as much work as I can.
Now, back to the question of growing up in a farming community—the summers as a child were extremely boring. Youngsters aged 6 to 13 were pretty much on their own to deal with the boredom, heat, humidity and occasional tornado. There was no little league or other recreational facilities. The nearest swimming spot was in Lincoln Lakes, ten miles away. My sister Juanita was an avid swimmer however, and she would take me to Lincoln Lakes from time to time. She would also take me to a nearby gravel pit where the water was very clean and cool but life guards, none to be seen!
Nonetheless, when all was said and done, at the end of the day my aspirations for a life that was not to be, turned into a powerful desire to escape small town America and rarely return, a feat I mostly accomplished as an adult.
Don Menzel is a past president of the American Society for Public Administration, author and international speaker on ethics reform. Before his recent move to Colorado, Don organized OLLI-USF’s China Special Interest Group. He also served as an OLLI-USF faculty member for over 10 years.