‘Being from somewhere matters a lot’

In August, 2005, I was inducted into the Ashtabula/Harbor/Lakeside High School Hall of Fame, whose other illustrious members include the likes of Pulitzer Prize winner Connie Schultz. any number of doctors, scientists, and inventors, and even a fellow member of the Ashtabula High School trombone section in the early 1970s. Part of my responsibility was to deliver brief remarks to that year’s Lakeside High School senior class at an assembly in the same auditorium where I often was summoned by a ball; here are those remarks.

Thank you, and good morning.

It has been a while since I have been in Ashtabula – physically, at least.  I did make a brief stop in several thousand homes back in April, but only in newsprint form, when the Star-Beacon sports editor asked me join other alumni of the paper in reminiscing about the old days. My brother, AHS class of ’73, did the same thing a few weeks later.

So it has been a big year of making alumni appearances, between that newspaper article,  receiving an honorary doctorate from my college alma mater, and now this.  Coming up in a month is my 30th college reunion, another mandatory appearance.

So you’re probably wondering, whether you’re a student or a faculty member, what any of that has to do with you. What is this guy going to say in the next three minutes that would matter to me? Other than “thank you,” so we can move on to the next one, that is?

For one thing, there’s this whole thing about being an alumnus.  You may think right now that what matters is just becoming an alumnus – that is, getting out of here. Well, not entirely. It also matters because the word is a way of saying that you are from somewhere . . . that you are part of the shared history of a place, or a company, or an institution. And through some sort of transitive property, though not exactly the one you learned in algebra, that means that you are part of the place itself.

And being from somewhere matters a lot. Listen to the stories of the people who grew up in New Orleans as they talk about Hurricane Katrina. The ones who moved away long ago didn’t lose their lives or their livelihoods or their homes. But, as alumni of N’awlins, they lost part of themselves. The ones who still lived there, who survived the storm and now have to find a way  to go on — with our help, of course – suffered both tangible and intangible losses. It is because they retain a sense of place that many of them will feel compelled to return against all odds, and because we understand that, we feel compelled to help them.

I am very familiar with another thing that has value because it comes from a place:  a newspaper.  Even when the Chicago Tribune, or the Ashtabula Star-Beacon, appears on the Internet, its hometown gives it both a reason to be read and a reason to be linked to.  The motto of my wife Linda’s hometown paper in California used to be “The only paper that gives a damn about Hilmar.”  Last week, a lot of newspapers gave a damn about New Orleans and Gulfport and Biloxi, but on the Web you could see that only the ones that came from there could tell the whole story. That happens when you and a place become part of each other.

So I am honored to be back in this place today, Ashtabula.  You will find out it is a good place to be from – and, since the place you are from is something you cannot change, you might as well just concentrate on going out and changing the world.  Which is lots more interesting anyway.  Thanks for your attention, and good luck to all of you.

About Owen Youngman

Professor Emeritus of Journalism and formerly Knight Chair in Digital Media Strategy, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University. Formerly senior vice president/strategy and development and director of interactive media, Chicago Tribune.