The right direction

Photo by Justin Rogers Ed McNeil Field, at Dodger Stadium, before the first night game in 2015.

When I graduated from the University of Northern Iowa in the spring of 2000, I returned to Fort Dodge and accepted a position at The Messenger — my home away from home for nearly six years prior.

I had enjoyed working in the sports department on a part-time basis while attending both Fort Dodge Senior High and Iowa Central Community College. I didn’t know how long I was going to stay; my long-term plans didn’t necessarily include this town, this office, or even this profession. In fact, I was assuming my summer work here was nothing more than a temporary stop before moving on to ”bigger” and ”better” things.

I remember having lunch with the father of a close friend that July. This is a man I have always deeply respected and admired; in fact, I would still turn to him for advice, even today.

While discussing the future, in an off-the-cuff moment, he turned to me and grumbled, ”just make sure you don’t stay here too long. This town’s headed in the wrong direction.”

I’m not sure if my reaction would be best described as anger, confusion or disappointment. Maybe a combination of the three. But as a proud Fort Dodger, I remember taking immediate offense. Those words have followed me ever since, almost becoming a rally cry for my entire personal and professional life.

Seventeen years after that conversation, I still see three main issues hindering our community:

1) Fort Dodge is often viewed and discussed in retrospect. We hear or talk about ”the good old days.” How things used to be. This was a town strong enough for our parents or grandparents in a foregone era, but supposedly not for us, or our kids, or our grandkids — despite the fact that our core morals and beliefs remain both grounded and steadfast.

2) We can be our own worst enemy. For some reason — and again, it’s been this way for as long as I can remember — we have too many residents who are quick to disparage own community. While I vivdly recall the aforementioned comment about this town’s supposed decline, it wasn’t the first — or last — time a Fort Dodger was caught not defending his or her own turf.

3) We are sometimes sheepish about being here. None of us should apologize for living in Fort Dodge. It’s not embarrassing. It’s not a dead end. Most of us honor our roots, but feel more comfortable if it’s spoken about in a past tense. Interestingly enough, this seems to be a tripping point for adults rather than kids. I don’t see Fort Dodge or St. Edmond students shying away from their school colors. Parents, on the other hand, often paint a bleak picture. This subconsciously creates a grow-here/go-away mentality.

I understand that Fort Dodge is like most home towns: the vast majority of our sons and daughters will someday move away. The same could be said for Gowrie, or Humboldt, or Des Moines, or Chicago, or New York City.

I’m not trying to keep everyone home. But for those who have decided to stay, or everyone considering coming back, it’s imperative that we remind ourselves to view this city’s glass as half-full. There are good things happening here every day, and devoted leaders are making sure the future is filled with more hope and promise than uncertainty and decline.

Fort Dodge has some spectacular resources and amenities in its own right, but at the end of the day, it’s still about the people and their values. The neighbor always willing to lend a helping hand. The teacher or police officer or fire fighter or health-care worker tirelessly serving the community. Deep family roots that span generations and make this town a better place for all of us.

There is tradition here — still strong, still recognized — filled with a unique blend of heart and soul. Those who left remember it fondly. The rest of us tend to take it for granted. We shouldn’t.

I think about this every spring, when the school year ends and graduation time arrives. We send our young men and women into the real world, prepared with lessons in life, loyalty and love. The stories and experiences from 1937, or ’57, or ’77, or ’97 still have tangible value in 2017.

Appreciate being here, and the balance it brings to your life. You may be staying for a while, or even coming back someday. Contrary to the critics and cynics, that’s something to be damn proud of — even in this day and age.

I believe Fort Dodge is on the right track. I’m in that fight, for better or worse, and I know I’m not alone. We just need others to stand tall and say it, for the sake of our own future as a potentially vibrant and relevant community in Iowa.

We owe that to our kids, our businesses and each other. Most importantly, though, we owe it to our town.

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, or by e-mail at