The Pope didn't choose to visit my hometown on his recent visit to the United States nor was it a prospective site for the 2018 Olympic games. It's not a place to find high-end shopping malls and you won't find many popular chain stores either. What you will find in Macomb, Illinois is a community of people, teachers, farmers, business owners, and public servants who foster core values in living and tirelessly dedicate themselves to improving the quality of life.
Macomb is like an oasis; a modern Mayberry with an air of sophistication. As the home of Western Illinois University boasting a population of over 20,000, Macomb is large enough to offer all you need to live well, but in a familiar and friendly spirit that makes it feel like home.
The courthouse, city building, shops and businesses are the hub of the town square. Shops are run by successful business owners whose families have been invested in the community for generations. When you buy something from a local business, proprietors take an interest in you personally. The man who sold me my first formal jacket for a piano recital saw me weeks later and asked me how it went. When mom goes to the local coffee shop, they have her coffee poured even before she orders. You can’t visit the town square without a smile from a familiar face. A purchase from a business is more of an exchange between friends rather than an impersonal transaction. My town square is a rare commodity in this growing impersonal digital world.
The Macomb School District and Western Illinois University are strong partners in community education and also serve as important cultural centers and performing venues. The University draws internationally known artists with the help of the Performing Arts Society and the Bureau of Cultural Affairs. University faculty offers free exhibitions, concerts and recitals. School district choir and band concerts are celebrated family and social affairs where you often can’t find a seat unless you arrive early. Performers feel as though they are on a stage in Carnegie Hall. These sophisticated presentations provide the children of Macomb an opportunity to be raised as enlightened people with a strong understanding and appreciation for the arts.
Small town values combined with intellectual pursuits in a very safe and loving environment defines Macomb, Illinois as the “Best of All Worlds.” At any given function you can discuss the condition of the crops with a farmer and debate the merits of Tolstoy with a scholar. I should mention that the farmer and scholar may be the same person!
Dr. John Hallwas is a retired professor and author from our community who is famous for writing about the history of Macomb and other western Illinois towns. I contacted Dr. Hallwas for his thoughts as to what makes Macomb special. He writes, "By thoughtful awareness of other individuals, we come to know ourselves more deeply, and we can fulfill our potential as complex human beings who are distinctive from countless others--yet connected by important emotional and cultural realities. Here in Macomb, we are fortunate that our hometown both fosters meaningful personal contact and promotes--through a fine school system, a community college, and a university--interaction with many others, of the present and past, who can help us realize our potential for inner growth."
Civil rights leader, Dr. C.T. Vivian spent most of his childhood in Macomb and echoes Dr. Hallwas' sentiments. Reverend Vivian recently addressed the student body at the high school. He spoke of how his family never experienced racism in Macomb, though he was raised in the pre-Civil Rights Era. Reverend Vivian praised the community and the schools for shaping him into a man who worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King. As I listened to his speech with pride, I realized I was having the same upbringing as a famous civil rights leader. I hope that like Reverend Vivian, I can make the most of the opportunities that Macomb has afforded me.
I am very fortunate to walk the town square and attend an event with little thought of violence or fear of violence. Pope Francis may have missed a trip to our part of the United States, but when I hear him refer to a world engaged in kindness, tolerance, and especially the Golden Rule, he is referring to my hometown, Macomb, Illinois.
Evan Stegall is a 7th grader at Macomb Junior High School. His essay won the Illinois Municipal League’s statewide “Hometown Proud” essay contest. It will be published in an upcoming edition of IML Magazine.
The opinions expressed by our commentators are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University. Diverse viewpoints are welcome.