I’ve achieved something quite ordinary, which doesn’t happen to most kids who grow up like me…The statistics tell you that kids like me face a grim picture–that if they’re lucky, they’ll manage to avoid welfare; and if they’re unlucky, they’ll die of a heroin overdose, as happened to dozens in my small hometown just last year.”
–JD Vance, Hillbilly Elegy*
New Straitsville Moonshine Festival Returns! shouts the headline in the Times-Recorder. I scan the article to see who’ll perform; there are the Gospel Harmony Boys; there is a Van Halen tribute band; and there will be a country duo. Someone will be crowned Miss Moonshine. There will be a parade and a cruise-in and wrestling matches.
And of course, there’ll will be moonshine–drunk from cups, baked into pastries, flavoring savory broths.
We tried to go to the Moonshine Festival last year–or, maybe, it was the year before,– meandered our way out country roads until we found and navigated the little village of New Straitsville. But parking was premium, and people were packed, body to body, in the enclosure of the festival grounds. It was a giant pulsing mass of moonshine enthusiasts; my adult son, who is on the autism spectrum, turned pale at the thought of maneuvering through that crowd. We wound up eating pizza in Lancaster, Ohio, that night, but I was glad I’d had a glimpse of the Moonshine Festival and that I’d seen its broad appeal.
I was glad because this is where we live, in a land of moonshine and Mamaws and Papaws, of roads with names like Dog Creek Hollow, and of people who proudly claim the title ‘hillbilly.’ There is poverty here, for sure, and the opioid epidemic runs rampant. JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy shone a great light on those things, and the attention the book received brought much-needed awareness of serious regional problems.
But no light can catch everything in its beam, and what Vance’s beam missed is this: there are people who do, indeed, grow up in tough circumstances and determine they will spin that dross into gold. They will stay and work to make change. They will be role models, and they will push their children even further than they’ve gone.
I’ve met lots of those people in my work at a local two year college. I’ve met people, for instance, like Tracey, Missy, Ron, and Larisa. They are people who, despite challenges, have gone on to great success, staying in the region where they grew up.
They, and so many like them, are everyday heroes. I’d like you to meet them, too.
Tracey: That could have been my story
“There were several times, while reading the book,” says Tracey, an associate dean at a branch campus of a small Appalachian Ohio two year college, “that I could have replaced ‘JD Vance’ with ‘Tracey Smith’ and it would have been the same story.” Both of her mamaws, Tracey notes, died young, so she missed the solidifying influence that Vance enjoyed. But she remembers her maternal grandmother.
“I once saw her take the barrel of my dad’s shotgun and push it into her chest and tell him to pull the trigger while she held a knife to his belly,” says Tracey. “He was chasing my mom with the shotgun and my grandmother stepped in. She used very colorful words just like Vance’s mamaw, and she wasn’t afraid of anything. She was very loving to me (her first grandchild) and always took time for me.”
Unfortunately, Tracey’s Mamaw died at 47. Up until that time, Tracey’s mother had been what she calls a functional drug addict. After Mamaw’s death, all function fled. The need for drugs consumed Tracey’s mother, who wound up in jail three times, and who, with a series of boyfriends, had three more babies. Tracey became the surrogate mother to her little siblings, and then, in her senior year of high school, her mother decided to take the babies and move to Florida. Left behind, Tracey couch-surfed, living wherever she could in order to finish school.
Tracey’s dad was (and is) a functioning alcoholic who felt the best gift he could give his daughter was to stay out of her way unless she asked for help.
But both of Tracy’s parents believed in and encouraged her. “My mother loved me very much and she never physically abused me or talked negatively to me,” Tracey says. “She always said I could do and be whatever I wanted. She just could not see beyond her addiction to help achieve any of my goals/dreams.”
“My parents,” Tracey adds, “gave me words of encouragement, but were never able to put words into action.”
But Tracey has lived her life very differently. After working at a nursing home and a pizza parlor (the pizza parlor, she says, was a formative place; friends she made there remain an important part of her life today), she decided to go to college. A friend who was going to school in Columbus, Ohio, took Tracey along on a campus tour, and it all clicked into place: Tracey knew college was what she needed. She earned an AAS in child development, a bachelor’s degree in leadership, and a master’s degree in education.
It wasn’t an easy road. Not understanding the financial aid forms, Tracey filled the FAFSA out incorrectly. She received very little aid, so her mother, who dearly wanted her daughter to get an education, took out a parent loan to cover essential costs. She is still, says Tracey, paying that loan off today. And in the last year of her associate’s degree, Tracey became pregnant. A wise instructor-mentor talked her out of leaving school, and Tracey’s mother stepped in to care for her granddaughter so Tracey could graduate.
Tracey knew that, degree in hand, she would return home to southeastern Ohio. It was, she says, mainly because of her daughter. She needed the support system of family to give the child a solid grounding. And Tracey had a deep, unwavering desire to give back, to make a difference. Before entering the post-secondary realm, she worked for a community action agency. She was an active community member, presiding over the Junior Women’s League and running a local Christmas program for underprivileged kids. She volunteered with youth programs. And her work at the college is all about helping people–many who never thought they’d ever be in college–make their dreams come true.
“I was, and am,” says Tracey, “determined to pay it forward. From all the people that let me sleep on their couches to the people who saw potential in me and encouraged me…I was, and still do feel, indebted to them.”
Now a happily married grandmother and a successful leader, Tracey lives close to her children and grandchildren. She wants her children to stay in the area and make their community better. She wants to lift other women up so they can be drug-free, fully realized people–great mothers, great leaders, great WHATEVER their passion leads them to be. She wants her mother to live out the remainder of her days drug-free. She wants southeastern Ohio to be a leader in education, and in business and industry.
She wants to live to be 100 so she can see her grandchildren make their dreams come true.
Tracey still works to assimilate the pain of her childhood–reading Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy brought several aching memories to the surface. But she’s trying, she says, to turn that pain into the energy she needs to fuel the next step in her life.
Missy: Maybe it’s because I am a hillbilly
Missy, the course materials coordinator for a college bookstore, credits the bad times for building her strength…and her stubbornness. She grew up, in 1970’s and 1980’s southeastern Ohio, with a father who had to have the latest, the greatest, and the best. So they had waterbeds, for example, and they had mobile phones–which came in suitcases back in those days. And they had financial challenges, which resulted in her father’s bankruptcy, and his plunge into alcoholism.
After that, “I could not remember a positive comment he ever made to me,” Missy says. As far as her father was concerned, there was nothing good about life–or about her.
After high school, in 1987, Missy didn’t see the need for college. She went right to work, snagging a full-time position in computer data entry for an accounts receivable office. The next year, she became pregnant. Her mom helped her navigate the challenges of single motherhood; then, in the mid-1990’s, Missy and Cody, her six-year-old son, moved to Alabama. There, she learned a lot. She was the business owner of a productive automotive garage. She was also entangled in a mentally and physically abusive relationship with a man she terms “my so-called fiancé.”
There were compelling reasons to stay–a thriving business, a new home, three acres of land, the five vehicles they owned. And Missy’s hobby was working on cars; she enjoyed the chance to rebuild transmissions and engines. But she wanted better–she wanted safer— for herself and her son, and seven years after the move, they returned to southeastern Ohio.
“I was back,” she says, “to my comfort zone.”
Missy’s second son was born when she was 37, and if she thought she had gained in strength and wisdom in the preceding years, she was to find there was a whole lot more learning in store. The baby arrived two months prematurely; at 1-1/2 years, he was diagnosed with Chiari Malformation, a condition in which the lower skull grows incorrectly. The first brain surgery occurred before the boy was two. Missy realized her minimum wage job wasn’t going to provide the benefits and the cash reserves she’d have to have to meet his medical needs. She decided then that higher education would be her answer.
In 2011, Missy enrolled in a Quickstart program at a local community college. Quickstart was a risk-free way to try out higher education; there was no cost for the college-readiness program, which would provide credits toward a degree if she was successful and decided to go on. It had been a long time since Missy graduated from high school with a 3.95 GPA, but she reclaimed her scholarship skills quickly. She earned her associates degree and went on to earn a double bachelor’s degree in business areas. Missy is now working on her MBA.
She is glad she decided to return to southeastern Ohio.
“Maybe,” she says, “it is because I am a hillbilly and I need family to feel safe and comfortable…I feel comfortable and at ease here. Knowing I have support, I know I can do anything I put my mind to.”
Ron: The woods were my playground
Ron grew up about eight miles out of the small town of Caldwell. His grandparents lived down over the hill, and the woods were a safe and comfortable playground.
“I used to leave in the morning,” he says, “and go into the woods and come back for lunch and then go back out.” He notes that he played in the ‘crick,’ and that his mother ‘worshed’ the family clothes. A lot of what JD Vance depicts in Hillbilly Elegy is very familiar to Ron.
Ron’s father was a union pipe-fitter, a hard worker who put in long hours…and then had long dry spells when there was no work for him. During those long dry spells, Ron’s family might have to go on food stamps. He and his uncle would hunt and fish.
But unlike Vance, Ron’s parents were always there for him. He never lived with his grandparents, he says, “but I was down at their house a lot.”
Ron attended a technical high school, studying electronics, and joined the Air Force. He returned to Ohio when his enlistment was over, and he enrolled at a two year college. When Ron graduated, he was the first in his family to have earned a college degree. A devoted family man with a passion for political science and history, Ron currently works in IT at a college; he’s been there eight years. He volunteers many hours for his kids’ activities–scouting and sports–but he carves out time to continue his education. Ron has attended the local university steadily and recently completed all the courses necessary to earn his bachelor’s degree.
“I love this part of Ohio,” he says. “I love how beautiful this area is in the fall, and I like being close to family.”
What does he dream of? “I want my kids to do better than me,” says Ron. “I want them to get good jobs and have happy families.”
Larisa: I knew education was important
“There’s no town that I live in,” says Dr. Larisa Harper, CCP director with the Ohio Department of Higher Education, “just the rural part of the county with a city mailing address. I remember when I was growing up that our address was RR7–or Rural Route 7. I still don’t know what the 7 reflected, but I remember asking what ‘rural’ meant!”
Larisa remembers, too, a joke her father, a beloved coach, would tell at speaking events. His wife, her father would reveal, had a little bit of a hearing problem. At night, he’d ask her, “So…..would you like to sleep…or what?”
“What?” his sleepy wife would always respond.
The result, the Coach would say, was nine children.
Larisa is the youngest of that brood. She loved school. “[It] was a safe place where people cared about me,” she says, “and I knew education was important.” She played school at home, and she wanted, at an early age, to become a teacher like the ones she adored.
Drugs were nonexistent in Larisa’s experience; she didn’t try them, and she doesn’t remember any of her siblings experimenting. There was alcohol in the house, but it was never overdone, and the kids weren’t tempted to try it until they reached an appropriate age. As siblings moved out, the family would reunite for ‘porch parties’ at her parents; everyone would come back, share some beer on the porch, and visit.
But money, with a family of 11, was always a concern. Her dad worked in sales, and her mother was a full-time homemaker. There was a time, Larisa’s siblings tell her, that food stamps helped feed the family. “We didn’t go to the doctor unless our lives depended on it,” Larisa says. “No dental visits unless you were writhing in pain.”
She remembers longing for ‘things’–the latest clothing or toys; her Christmas list was always long and wistful. “I don’t remember feeling like Santa had forgotten me,” she says. “He just didn’t bring what I wished for most of the time.”
The taut financial situation impressed her deeply. “To this day,” Larisa says, “thinking about how I will pay the bills, even with a very good job, gives me anxiety–makes me feel physically ill. From what I understand,” she adds, “some of my siblings feel the same way.”
Larisa went to the local branch of Ohio University after high school, transferring to the main campus in Athens, where her boyfriend, her high school sweetheart, was already enrolled. Having him there made it easier to figure things out. She changed her major several times, nurturing a dawning awareness that working in higher ed was what she wanted to do. She earned her bachelors in English and psychology, and she worked as a writer for a couple of years.
At 24, Larisa married that high school sweetheart (they have been married for 24 years), and she returned to school to earn a master’s degree. Two major events interrupted Larisa’s progress: the birth of her son and the death of her father. It would be ten years before she returned to complete her graduate work, transferring her credits to a college where she could complete the work online–an option that worked best for a working mom with three young children.
With her masters, Larisa realized her dream of working in higher ed, and she began to develop a clearer picture of where she’d like to go and what she’d like to achieve. Her graduate school mentor encouraged her to keep going; she enrolled in a doctoral cohort in 2010 and completed her doctorate in 2015. It was a tough 5-1/2 year struggle, she acknowledges, but very, very worth it–it was a struggle that led her to the position she now holds with the Ohio Department of Higher Education. The job entails a hefty commute and a good deal of state-wide travel, but it allows Larisa, too, to stay in this part of Ohio.
Why is that important? “That’s an easy answer,” says Larisa. “Family. My kids always ask if we can move to Florida, but my answer is always that I will not leave my mother. And into the future, I most likely will not move. Most of my siblings live in this county.
“We built a home on our family’s property, and my mother’s home is entrusted to me since she lives at a nursing home. So, we have about seven acres and two homes to care for. I’m hopeful to restore our family’s home into a bed and breakfast.”
Working in higher education, and working closely with partners in the K-12 realm, Larisa has seen the devastation that poverty brings to families. She encourages her own children to dream big, but to have a back-up plan.
“I know their dreams will likely take them to other states for jobs,” says Larisa. “That’s okay. That will give me an opportunity to visit new places for vacations. I’m excited to see all three of my children earn college degrees (and to take advantage of college courses while in high school).”
“I hope,” she says, “that they’ll be happy and secure with their careers and finances, so they don’t have to worry about money like I have.”
Mostly, though, Larisa wants her kids to be happy. “I want them to have healthy relationships,” she says, “and if they do marry, I hope they’ll marry someone they consider their best friend.”
Last week, I attended a community meeting centered on the heroin/fentanyl issue in this area. The room was filled with professionals from law enforcement, medicine, social work, government, the non-profit world, and education. Well-educated, articulate, impassioned, the group members hit issues head on; they shared progress and good news, failures, and goals.
Like Tracey, Missy, Ron, and Larisa, the folks at the meeting grew up, mostly, here in Appalachian Ohio. Some were poor; some had families with damaging dysfunction. Some were actively discouraged from pursuing an education.
And yet. there they were: gathered in a church basement, outstanding community leaders committed to making their communities better and safer,–committed to making their communities places their grandchildren will want to come back home to.
I think of the passion and energy people like Tracey, Missy, Ron, and Larisa expended to pursue education, find creative, meaningful work, and provide strong, solid support for the children they love. I think of the passion and energy of those professionals gathered to move things forward, to make a real and lasting positive difference. These are all folks who’d openly wear the ‘hillbilly’ mantle.
An elegy, the dictionary tells me, is a solemn poem–usually a lament for the dead. I think of the people I’ve met since I moved here. I think of the work ethic, intelligence, decency, and creativity they display. And I honor Vance’s book, and the attention it has turned to an area of the country that is often discounted.
But the people I’ve met in this beautiful, hilly country, are mostly surmounters. They’re dreamers who achieve. They should be known, not for their lamentable lots, but for their love of family, their connection to place, and for the energy they invest in making things better.