First published in The Emporia Gazette May 27, 2003


By Cheryl Unruh


It's the way the stoplights on Sixth Avenue glow at dusk, the luminous row of red and green that steals attention from the creamy blue sky.

That's Emporia. To me, anyway.

That is home.

A thousand things can turn a town into a hometown. Perhaps it's the five maples in front of Emporia Fitness, each one changing its autumn colors at a different pace. Or the great blue heron hiding behind cattails in the C of E pond. Maybe it's the weathered stone of the Peter Pan Park amphitheater.

Emporia means eating barbecue at Bobby D's, steak at Bruff's, and reading the daily "Good Evening" in The Gazette.

My husband and I once considered leaving Emporia. Had we moved, I would miss friends of course, but also other people that make a town feel like home: the chiropractor who knows where each of my bones belongs; the mechanic who performed a miracle on my starter; a friendly banker; a trustworthy lawyer.

Sometimes it's trial and error finding the right person for the job; usually it's word of mouth. But once you find them, you keep them. They become like extended family.

For as long as I've been the one responsible for my own tire care, I've taken my wheels to Mel Reed. After years of working for another dealer, last year he opened his own business, Mel's Tire.

Recently I visited Mel with my squealing brakes. While Doyle Kirby repaired the brakes, I watched Mel greet each customer by name.

Thirteen years ago, when my Toyota was new, I told Mel I wanted to buy a full-sized spare and a wheel to put it on. The donut tire made me nervous. I'd prefer a real tire, I said.

Mel asked, "On your Mazda, how many miles did you put on that spare?"

"About five."                                                                      

"Don't waste your money. You don't need a new tire," he said. "You'll be fine."

And Mel was right; my four tires (several sets of them) have held their air quite well.

That's only one reason I followed Mel to his new shop. Besides not selling you something you don't need, Mel is so likeable that you wish he were a relative, someone to sit down with at Thanksgiving dinner.

Good people live all over this town. I'm sure that the other tire dealers are pleasant and respectable, I just happened to find Mel first.

Emporia has been home for over twenty years now. I'll admit that for a long time I saw Emporia as just another flat city. Ordinary. Plain. OK, I'll say it: boring. But Emporia is a nice town.

It will never be as energetic and quaint as Lawrence and we're without the Country Club shopping of Kansas City. We don't have Wichita's Indian and Thai restaurants or the coveted Target that Topeka has. But we can zip to any of these cities in 90 minutes or less.

Upon returning from a long trip, Emporia feels fresh and unfamiliar. You've seen other parts of the country through vacation eyes and when you drive back into town, there it is: the S&S Cafe.

The slanted windows and the neon lines haven't changed, but now it looks striking, artsy, like a setting for a movie.

Surprisingly, this is home.

Barbara Kingsolver said, "I've spent hundreds of pages, even whole novels, trying to explain what home means to me. Sometimes I think it is the only thing I ever write about."

Maybe it's the only thing any of us write about.

By living here I've found that ordinary isn't such a bad thing, personal service still exists, and neighbors are so responsible they try to resuscitate your dying goldfish while you're on vacation.

What matters, when you get down to it, is not what brings you to this town, its what happens when you stay put.


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All Content Copyright 2004 by Cheryl Unruh
Text by Cheryl Unruh | Web Design: Dave Leiker
Photography by Cheryl Unruh & Dave Leiker