“The New Guy” gets dose of old-time friendliness

RBC — I had to laugh. Here I was — I had been in Colorado for all of one week — and I was taking photos at, of all things, the annual Old-Timers dinner Saturday at the Fairfield Center.
Boy, did I feel out of place.
The dinner and dance seemed like a really nice affair — the Fairfield was packed. And I think the Old-Timers event is a great tradition. If you have lived in Rio Blanco County for 30 years or more, or if you were born here 30 or more years ago, you are welcome to attend.
Needless to say, I was not eligible.
I had moved to Meeker exactly one week earlier. A spouse of one of the newspaper’s staff members even gave me a nickname: TNG. It stands for “The New Guy.”
It was appropriate.
Indeed I am The New Guy, and I probably will carry that label for quite awhile, I suppose. Everywhere I have lived, it’s been the same. People are proud of where they are from, as well they should be. And newcomers, well, we might be welcome, but we may not be immediately embraced. There are no shortcuts to becoming a local. It takes time.
That sense of being from a place is particularly prevalent in a small town, where, if you are The New Guy, you stand out, because everybody knows everybody. If you were to move to, say, my hometown of Lawrence, Kan., nobody would notice, or even care, that you weren’t a local.
But being a local is a big deal in a small town.
And that’s one reason I like small towns. They give you a sense of belonging.
But it can be tough being The New Guy. People look at you differently. People may be wary of you, just because they don’t know you. You are viewed, if not suspiciously, then cautiously. After all, you are an outsider. You are not one of their own.
It’s been that way in every small town I have lived in.
My friend and long-time colleague Mitch Bettis, owner/publisher of the Herald Times, and I worked together at a small daily newspaper in southwest Kansas. Even though we both had immersed ourselves into the community, some of the old guard still viewed us as upstarts, as outsiders.
The ongoing debate between locals and newcomers was a topic of conversation even among those of us on the newspaper staff. Most of us had come from other places, but the locals on the staff liked to hold it over us that we were outsiders. I remember at one of our weekly department head meetings, the news editor became exasperated when heckled by one of the locals on the staff.
Finally, he couldn’t take it anymore.
“How long do you have to live here before you can say you are from here?” the news editor asked. It was a good question.
I recall when I first arrived in that southwest Kansas community, my predecessor warned me that in a small town, longevity, more than anything, counted above all else.
That may be true, but I’ve always rather liked moving to a new place, even if it did mean I was The New Guy. I have made several moves over the years. But there’s always something exciting — and a little scary — about starting fresh somewhere. You have to ask for directions, as silly as that may seem. You don’t know anybody. Everything is new, literally, from where to get a haircut to how to get a library card.
Actually, folks here in Rio Blanco County have been very welcoming, even though they may wonder about The New Guy. My landlords, Si and Sue Woodruff, whom I met for the first time when I locked myself out of my house last week, have been particularly gracious.
So, while it may be quite some time before I can say I am “from” Meeker. And I definitely won’t be attending an Old-Timers dinner anytime soon, except to take photos, I can promise you this, I am already proud to call Meeker home.