I return to my hometown of Fond du Lac, Wis. as seldom as possible. When I first arrived at Marquette, this was a calculated decision. I didn’t want to become homesick, so I served myself a dose of tough love and only left school for academic breaks and occasional weekends.
Now my desire to stay at Marquette results from a belief that Milwaukee is a lot cooler than home. In a city with more than 600,000 people, multiple professional sports teams and an eventful downtown and lakefront, it is tough to feel bored.
Fond du Lac, population 42,203, is a little different. It is a town strikingly similar to thousands of others, the kind of place where opening day at the swimming pool makes the front page of the newspaper. Its residents are remarkably creative in their ability to turn relatively mundane events into breaking news stories for lack of actual breaking news. It caused quite the stir, for example, when Dustin Diamond — aka Screech from Saved By The Bell — was discovered to own property in a nearby town.
Unfortunately, some of my Marquette friends have begun to grow curious about why I have never invited them to Fond du Lac considering it is only an hour north of Milwaukee and a fairly easy trip to make.
Perhaps they take me seriously when I refer to it as “The Greatest City on Earth” and are worried they are missing out. Whatever the case, I now have two dilemmas on my hands. Dilemma One: I am running out of excuses for putting off a trip home with my friends. Dilemma Two: I have no idea what we’ll do once we make that trip.
“Hey guys, want to climb the 150 steps to the top of the Lakeside Park Lighthouse? No? How about some kickball at Danbury Park? No good? OK, let’s just sit on the couch and watch my mom knit!”
I decided Thanksgiving break would be an ideal opportunity to do some research on my hometown’s perks.
At first, the prognosis looked dire. The drive-in restaurant where I used to work already closed for the winter, the indoor water park recently installed at the YMCA is clearly geared toward eight-year-olds and one of the first things I witnessed when I stopped by a college-aged bar was two high school teachers I had no intention of seeing again.
I was ready to give up and spend my Saturday night experiencing the joys of TiVo when my prom date called to see if I wanted to catch up. Anyone willing to suffer through my excuse for dancing is golden in my book, so we grabbed a drink at a bar called Irish’s.
Even though I had been there before, I forgot how much personality it has. With stained glass, authentic Irish memorabilia and a photograph of its bartender in what appears to be an Irish policeman’s uniform, the bar attracts a mature crowd that is a welcome change from the bland atmosphere and crappy music at the bars I usually find myself in.
I began to realize my small hometown has more than I give it credit for. Sure, it can be boring, but places like Irish’s, a breakfast restaurant called The Bagelmeister and even Walleye Weekend, our town’s borderline redneck summer festival, give Fond du Lac the distinctive character every small town has. As quirky as it can be, Fond du Lac is also the place I discovered many of the interests that led me to Marquette. It’s where I wrote my first newspaper article, learned my first guitar chord and completed my first community service activity.
I’ve already written a column about trying to experience all a big city has to offer, which is advice I stand by. But it is also important to resist the urge to look upon the small towns many of us come from as dull blips on a map and instead appreciate them for their singular qualities.