Last Word

Cornellian can't shake Iowa influence

By Melissa Wood '82

When I went away to college, the four-hour drive might as well have been a trip to the moon in a rocket ship. Cross the great Mississippi, pass the countless cornfields and silos of eastern Iowa, wind down Highway 30 to see, out of nowhere, almost like the Emerald City itself in its incongruousness, the high, tree-shrouded hilltop of Mount Vernon.

Lovely! Cornell College drew me in based on three factors: It was a small liberal arts college within the 200-mile radius orbit from home required by my parents. It had a compact campus which made me certain I'd never get lost going to class (I'm not making this up). And its red brick buildings dating back to 1853 gave the illusion that I was in New England.

After the hassle and fuss of lugging my things up the three flights of stairs, settling into my dorm room, saying goodbye to my parents, my happy college life began.

Wow, was this a friendly place! Later that day, my roommate and I ambled across campus and then down the main street in town. Now, this is Iowa, which I learned, is more of a verb than a noun, and the weirdest stuff kept happening. Every single person who passed us by looked right into our eyes, smiled, and said, "Hello!"  Everyone. Old ladies, old farmers, little children, shopkeepers, townies, office workers.

I kept thinking: What's wrong with these people? Or: Are they mistaking us for someone else? And: Now that they've said hi, what am I supposed to do? It really threw me.

It was new, it was strange, but I can tell you: It was wonderful.

Within two days, I was had. I officially became one of these smiley, ridiculously friendly people. I'm waving to pickup trucks driving by, winking at tots, chatting about the weather with ladies loading groceries into their Buicks, sitting for a spell on park benches with some cute old guys. It felt wonderful, important, and real.

Here's the thing: When you're standing in an elevator, and a stranger walks in, what do you do? I think most of us stare at the buttons, stare at our cell phones, stare at our feet or the ceiling—anything to avoid saying "hello." Ridiculous! I get my "Iowa" on and say hi. It takes so much more energy for two people in close proximity to pretend that they don't know that there's anyone there, doesn't it?  

My kids have struggled for years with my inability to keep my mouth shut. On a crazy trip to California and back, the kids finally just accepted this oddity in me, and began to count our "new friends." I'm sure they were making fun of me, but, and this is cool, at some point, I know that as the tally grew, their enthusiasm grew too. It became a challenge to see how many friends we could make each day. Overall, we met some super friendly people who all became part of our story.