Yesterday was Father’s Day. I lost my father when I was 10. He was an immigrant, and the United States allowed him to do well, earn an Army-Navy Production Award for the production of gun triggers during World War II and provide well for his family. He was a model of charity and giving and was passionate about his newly adopted country and state, Ohio. His passion was passed on to us, his children.
We would ride to his office through small towns and on weekends take rides throughout small-town Ohio. It was postwar, and Ohio was the heart of manufacturing and postwar industry. There were homemade candy shops, mom-and-pop restaurants, gift shops, small department stores and everything you needed to have a great family life in each town. My father would stop, and we would talk to the shop owners. They were always nice. They were always proud.
On Saturday, I attended a wedding in Newark, Ohio, which is similar to the town I visited with my father in the 1950s. Newark is near Columbus and has become a bedroom location for people working in Columbus. It is doing a lot better than most small Ohio towns, but it is still a depressing place to visit. I went to the local beauty shop to get my hair done. The wash and blow-dry was $15, nothing by New York or D.C. standards. While I was walking though the town, an older gentleman stopped me and asked me what I was doing walking in town on a Saturday afternoon. We talked about what Newark was postwar and what a vibrant community it once was. He told me there were four hotels at one point, several clothing stores and a department store. Now as I walked around I saw no clothing stores, empty restaurants and a sign in front of one store saying “40 percent off: We need the cash flow.” This is one of the most successful small towns. Others don’t even have this level of commerce.
In the summer of 2008, I wrote an article titled “Is America, Cleveland?” describing my walk through my hometown and predicting what might happen. This was two months before the September market free-fall. I talked about the need for developing more infrastructures, especially broadband. There is still a need for that, but I wondered how to revive an economy and a town that remains beautiful but empty.
Lee Fisher, who I have known since childhood, is the lieutenant governor. He is now running for Senate. Lee has been a one-man business recruiter for Ohio, and he has done a great job. Lee is all about bringing new jobs for Ohio, and he is passionate about that. We grew up under Sputnik, when the school turned on a dime and we all learned the new math. Science was suddenly taught with gusto in the lower elementary grades. It worked, and America was able to remain competitive in the ’60s and ’70s. Now it is a different story. We need to do something different that includes new jobs but also a way to make the youngest children more competitive.
As I looked at Newark’s town square, I thought of our greatest competition: China. The Chinese know how to use their public spaces. Early in the morning there are hundreds of people doing exercise, together in a group. Looking at the town square, I also thought of the major form of entertainment in the days before radio, television and the record player. Back then, lectures were held in the town square and people attended them to learn about the world and be entertained. Why, I thought on my walk around on Saturday, don’t we do the same thing in Ohio? Why not do what my fifth-grade teacher did when we were terrified of the Russians and their scientific advantage? Why not hold competitions and incentives to get our youngsters moving?
What if we took some of that stimulus money along with some corporate partnerships and have math, science and computer competitions during the summer evening and weekends in the town centers?
What if we taught advanced basics and gave out prizes and gift cards to the students who excelled and smaller incentives to the students who showed up? What if the grade-school students learned the basics of programming? What if the big tent on the town green would attract students and families to learn and have fun, too?
Would it bring jobs in the great state of Ohio? No, not right now. But it would take kids away from television and hours playing computer games and move them to be the kind of whizzes we are going to need to compete. It will do what America did during Sputnik. The future Lee Fishers wouldn’t have to be working day and night to try and find jobs for their fellow citizens, and Ohio would again be the center of knowledge and innovation and the future. So would America.