Friday, September 5, 2014

What does "Hoosier" really mean?

Late in the '80s, after moving to Indiana, I worked in the newsroom of a small rural newspaper. How small was it? Well, several times each summer barefoot boys in overalls would walk in holding a gigantic squash or cucumber. "My Daddy told me if I showed you this, you'd put my picture in the paper," they'd say, and we always did. But sometimes we served a higher purpose.

"Are you the man who writes human interest stories," a lady asked me on the phone one winter morning. "That depends how human they are," I replied. "I can't talk about it without crying," she confessed. "That's human enough. I'll be at your house in an hour."

Her name was Carol. She was a single Mom living in a drafty old rented farmhouse on a county road outside of town. She had four active children in school, and a baby named Tommy, who was on life-support. Over coffee at her kitchen table, she said Tommy had a damaged heart. He had to stay on a heated mattress, and wear a heart monitor. It was attached to a device on her belt which signaled when he needed care. She could only get out of the house to grocery shop a few hours a week, when a social worker came to monitor the baby. And she was about to be evicted.

"I called all the apartments in town," she said, "but they won't accept anyone with five kids. I can't afford to own a house, and if I could, I might not qualify for a social worker, and I can't survive without her. Your newspaper is my last hope.  Can you help?"

I stood on a chair and took a photo looking down on the baby. The next morning, her story and the photo were front page, under the headline "Tommy Needs a Home." After the paper hit the streets at 3 p.m., I began to learn what the word Hoosier really means.

Next morning, my phone rang again. It was our town's only self-made millionaire. He was notoriously arrogant and critical, but he asked me for a vow of secrecy. "I want to help that woman," he said, "but if you put this in the paper, the deal is off." After I agreed to keep him out of the news, he assigned his legal staff to research Carol's rights and see if she could own a home without losing her social worker. She could. Then he contacted her, again under a vow of secrecy, and asked her to find a home that would really meet her needs. He said his corporation would donate a big enough downpayment that her mortgage would be the same as her current rent. She began house hunting immediately; found a perfect home, and within a month she had moved.

A few weeks later, my phone rang again. It was a sister from the Catholic convent a few miles from town. Was there any way the sisters could help? I mentioned Carol needed a washer and dryer, and they purchased both for her.

After three months, I visited Carol again, in the kitchen of her new home. She told me something strange was happening. Every few days, she'd open her front door and find a bag on the step, overflowing with groceries. She had no idea where the bags came from, but was thankful.

I asked her if she felt lucky. "With a baby on life support, I can't say I feel lucky," she said, "but I feel very blest."

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