Colleges have figured out how to extract resources from grateful alumni who long ago left campus. Small towns should adopt a similar strategy for harvesting investments from young people who have moved on but remain connected and appreciative.
All across farm country this fall fresh-faced young men and maidens make their way to the 50-yard line to await with bated breath the results of their classmates’ vote for homecoming king and queen. Hours later, after the last of the pigskins and fleecy blankets have been put to rest, they wait in anticipation for the moment when their newly elected king and queen will lead them out onto the gymnasium floor for the night’s first dance. For once in our lives, time slows to an agreeable standstill.
Homecoming is a concept an agrarian like me can get behind, whole-hog and wholesale. It’s not yet tarnished by the sexual excesses and psycho-dramas of prom, with its perennial assault on the virginal and its too-steep psycho-social toll on the unpopular and undesirable. Homecoming shares not just a season but a spirit with Thanksgiving, that most irreproachable of agricultural of holidays for which we still somehow quaintly insist on trading blessings and casseroles in lieu of Chinese-made baubles.
At root, of course, homecoming is a collegiate conceit, and, as such, it cannot help but celebrate, de facto, the inequities of privilege, class and upward social mobility of the kind that have long troubled rural America. The earliest of U.S. homecomings, hosted at such venerable institutions as the University of Missouri, were thoroughly steeped in the notion of symbolic pedigree if not genealogy, cultivating a tradition whereby the alma mater, Latin for nourishing mother, would welcome her most successful graduates back to hearth and home.
The return of the native sons and daughters, these captains of industry, these movers and shakers of State Street and Wall Street, to the proverbial teat functioned as a ritual reminder of wholesome parentage and all due filial loyalty. In one carefully planned weekend, homecoming spirits would be lifted, purse strings would be loosened, and pocketbooks would be opened wide in honor of the ivy walls and ivy towers that had birthed lucrative careers and lush lives. And still today the University of Missouri model is alive and well; homecoming, for proud alumnae who “done good” in life, is an event not to be missed, occupying a privileged spot in the professional’s autumnal calendar alongside such seasonal save-the-dates as trick-or-treating, college bowl games and Thanksgiving.
Still, one cannot help but entertain the countless ways woebegone agricultural communities like mine might be transformed if and when the cognoscenti who left for greener professional pastures regarded their hometowns with the depth of loyalty and material support they yearly bestow on their football-endowed alma maters. What if each and every autumn, generations of the good and caring people fostered in our homespun hometowns and home places returned to their childhood haunts by the tens of thousands from the trendier places where they’ve made their handsome livings as adults. More important for our struggling hinterland villages, many of which are a single failed bond issue or sewer upgrade away from total disincorporation, what if these nouveau riche homers and homecomers brought not just their good cheer, good looks, and good health, but likewise their good credit and checkbooks?
Scoff if you must at the idea of high-flyers having deep enough pocketbooks to make a material difference in the fates of the hometowns from which they long ago achieved escape velocity, but the numbers suggest otherwise. In 2013 the Lily School of Philanthropy at Indiana University relayed the annual numbers calculated by the USA Giving Foundation. Charitable giving to education, they reported, had increased a whopping 7% from 2011 to 2012, despite deep recession, to an annual total of $41.3 billion. Of this, approximately $31 billion had gone to four-year colleges and universities.
Still more numbers need crunching, though, before the skeptics are willing to cotton to the real truth: that the outmigrators and brain drainers have the wherewithal, and then some, to positively alter their hometowns’ destiny forever. According to the League of Cities and the U.S. Census, the number of municipalities in America totals roughly 20,000. Let’s assume, then, that the $31 billion in charity given to college and universities alone in the calendar year 2011-2012 was instead given to the struggling municipalities who nurtured these same big donors for the first 18 years of their lives. The result would be approximately $1.5 million per annum, per municipality, in charitable giving to the sorts of small towns and out-of-the-way places where a near-majority of Southern and Midwestern Boomers and Gen Xers cut their teeth. That’s $1.5 million per town for sewer upgrades, libraries, firehouses, playgrounds and playhouses, small-town parks and community centers.
It would be Christmas…in October or November.
Of course, it’s a two-way street, isn’t it? Most homecomers to small towns aren’t feted with hall-of-fame inductions, honorary degrees, ribbon-cuttings and building dedications as they are at the colleges and universities where they blissfully matriculated and where they willingly return each and every fall. Perhaps part of the blame lies with the towns that have yet to roll out the red carpet for their AWOL son and daughters—yet to swallow their pride and unambiguously celebrate their cash crop of human resources, even if that crop long ago uprooted and took itself to market elsewhere. For some of our depopulating farm towns, how to host a can’t-miss “homecoming” might just be a $31 billion dollar loss.
In the end, America’s fortunate sons and daughters have money enough to lay laurel wreaths and silver dollars at the feet of both their alma maters—hometown and home university, and yet the latter of these nourishing mothers receives almost all their financial support, while the former receives, at best, lukewarm moral support. Surely the highest-flying of highest achievers feel, or ought to feel, a fierce appreciation for the life-sustaining succor of both campus and home community. Granted, one comes with the allure of winning football teams and a backdrop of youthful coeds, Grecian columns and white-hot stadium lights, while the other is the kind of single-stoplight, dimly-lit, one-horse town they find hard to cheerlead in theory let alone in practice. Still, both have a legitimate claim as the birthplace of the urban cognoscenti’s cosmopolitan charms, its charismatic conviviality, and, of course, its corporate cash.
So, fortunate sons and daughters of America, rural expatriates grown for export and groomed for mobility, why not return to your hometown this homecoming season and dance with the one that brung ya? This year, why not make yours an especially practical whirl across the dance floor—a dollar dance in lieu of the customarily nostalgic waltz? If the rural-born professionals of America are not yet in a position to vote with their heart, or their feet, for the homely home places that fed and clothed them since they were in diapers, they might at least, and belatedly, consider voting for them with their dollars.
Zachary Michael Jack is the seventh generation in his family to make his home on an eastern Iowa farm. He is the author, most recently, of The Midwest Farmer's Daughter: In Search of an American Icon. He teaches courses in place studies and writing at North Central College.