Meadville Tribune

January 1, 2014

Outside the Box: I tip my sparkly tiara after an excellent first year in Meadville

By Cheryl Hatch
Meadville Tribune

Writer’s note: I am a journalist in academia, a woman who has traveled among many cultures. I live outside the box and I like it — and I want to share my perspective with you every Thursday.

I conducted the first interview for my job at Allegheny College by cellphone from a hospital bed in Kuwait. Later, as I weighed the pluses and minuses of my job offers, I asked Sgt. Robert Taylor one question: Why Allegheny?

Taylor is a 2005 graduate in economics and a member of the 2003 championship football team. As a journalist, I had walked in his footsteps many times on patrol in the Horn of Panjawai’i in Afghanistan in the winter of 2011-12. I respect him. I trust him.

Excellence, Taylor said, smiling. Excellence.

I believe in excellence and in Taylor. I accepted the job and my new home sight unseen.

I am an Army brat, so I’m used to being the new kid. I am also a photojournalist who has lived in different countries and cultures. I am resourceful and resilient. I know how to adapt. And still, my first year at Allegheny was frosty and lonely.

I don’t make resolutions as I start a new year. I’m a journalist and a traveler; I make observations — then course corrections, if necessary.

As I write this column, I have been watching a dove nestled in the slender shelter of the roof of the birdfeeder in my backyard as the snow swirls around it. I know well the blessing of quarter in a storm, the true gift of warmth and hospitality offered to a lone traveler.

As we begin a new year, I want to thank those people who made me feel welcome.

It is fitting that I first thank an innkeeper, Sherry Mims Vardaro, who owns Mayor Lord’s House Bed and Breakfast. I stayed at the bed and breakfast for one summer week in July while I searched for a place to live. Each day I would start with a list of possibilities. I made calls and visited apartments and houses for rent. Prospects were limited and grim. I’d return to the comfort of the inn and grumble, well, whine, some nights.

I called my friend in California. “Can you resign before you start?” she asked.

I called my parents. “Ask if you can live in a room at the bed and breakfast,” my mom said.

Each morning at breakfast Sherry offered me hope with my oatmeal.

“You’ll find something,” she’d say.

On my last day in Meadville, a place found me. I thank my landlord, John. We didn’t meet before I left town. We spoke on the phone as the sun set. I outlined my requirements. He promised to make repairs. We agreed on the rent. A conversation, an understanding and an agreement, all wrapped in integrity and kindness.

I can walk to work from my home. I have a garden where I planted sunflowers and vegetables. I have a deck where I sit some nights and watch the stars. And I have a kitchen that’s divine — a perfect place for sharing conversations and pie.

My first semester, I woke up one morning blind in one eye. I was sad and scared. I could not get a ride from campus to the clinic in Erie. John called his friend, Ellena, who designed my divine kitchen and owns E Rose Design in town. She’d never met me, yet she rescheduled her business appointments and took me to the doctor’s office. She was waiting for me with a hug when I returned with the news that I would need surgery on my shooting eye.

On my early days in Meadville, I discovered the Market House and its town square. I believe we vote with our money. I spend my money locally and support Meadville businesses.

Viki at the Creative Crust was friendly from the moment I set foot in her family’s bakery. She offered me ideas and contacts when I was house hunting. And I’ve carried their challah bread to friends on both coasts. It makes a fabulous French toast.

Viki has extended the same hospitality to Allegheny students. When a young woman in our photojournalism class needed a subject for her photo story, Vicki, Paul and their daughters gave Haley total access to the place and made her feel welcome. She, in turn, made a successful class project.

When my parents came to visit, I took them to the Market Grille; I call it “the diner.” Dad ordered chili. We went back to the diner every day for chili and I’ve been going ever since.

Cindy, the owner, and her staff have also been kind to Allegheny students. We’ve hosted guests such as Sheryl Stolberg of The New York Times, Tom Flynn of CBS, and alumna Judge Susan Cox for lunches and A Taste of Meadville. Such gatherings give students a chance to break bread and learn from professionals in a friendly, informal setting.

As the adviser to the award-winning student newspaper, The Campus, I am grateful to Sherry, Viki and Cindy for offering the paper in their businesses each week. Sarah, at Confections of a Cake Lover, sets a stack of papers right next to the display case with all her festive, sumptuous cupcakes. Having local businesses support the students and their journalistic efforts helps build a bridge between the college and the community — something I care deeply about.

The journalists at The Meadville Tribune have been beyond generous with the journalism students. Pat Bywater, Mary Spicer, Dan Walk, Pete Chiodo, Richard Sayer, Lisa Byers and Konstantine Fekos have attended classes and participated in discussions. They have graciously allowed students to shadow them on their jobs. They’ve offered writing and photo tips in the newsroom and on the sidelines of Allegheny sports events.

They’ve shared their experience and time with students in news writing, photojournalism and beat reporting classes. They’ve shepherded quite a few to their first bylines in the local paper.

My neighbors make my house a neighborhood. We have shivered in the fall air as we waited for trick-or-treaters. They expressed their shock and sadness when strangers broke the flags I had planted along my yard to observe Veterans Day. Bob and John invited me to their August wedding and we sometimes share a bench in church. Tom and Jane keep an eye on the place. Maya always offers a shout and wave when she sees me as she plays across the street.

I was planning to spend my New Year’s Eve writing this column and grading finals. John sent me a text and invited me to join he and Ellena for dinner at the Venango Inn.

As we celebrate 2013 and herald 2014, I’ll tip my sparkly tiara to the people of Meadville.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.