By Erin Kenney
When my dad got off the plane in Dallas, Texas, he didn’t know anyone. He had just graduated college, and at 22, had moved far south to start his new job. Not knowing what else to do in the city he found himself in, he went to a baseball game. It was August, and even at 7 p.m. the temperature on the scoreboard read 100 degrees. He got up to visit the concession stand and met a man with gray hair and cowboy boots. My dad, who tends towards being the quiet, listening type, struggled to make out the man’s heavy Southern drawl.
My dad was born in Owatonna, Minnesota, about 60 miles south of Minneapolis and St. Paul, in March 1964. The average high that month for the Twin Cities was 37. He was my grandparents’ firstborn, and he spent his childhood in that small Midwestern town. He and his siblings spent summer days at Lake Kohlmier, or, as they called it, “The Pit.” They shoveled snow, walked to school and got into trouble around town. They went to their Czech grandma’s house and listened to her speak in Bohemian, while the aunts and uncles played cards and cribbage.
When my dad was old enough, he worked for my grandpa as a part of his roofing and heating business, spending scorching summers on the tops of industrial buildings, spreading tar on roofs. In high school, my dad was a cross-country captain and a good student. He was the first in his family to go to college. He attended a Catholic college, Saint John’s University, studying accounting for four years. Then, after a lifetime of cornfields, silos and snowdrifts, he moved south.
Moving south wasn’t a part of his plan. Really, he had no plan. He just wanted a job. So when a company offered him a job he took it — it didn’t matter to him where he ended up. He stayed in Texas for two years, and outside of the weather, it didn’t take much getting used to. He says now that there are a lot of similarities between the South and the Midwest, that both have good, hard-working people. He didn’t move to the South with any expectations of what it should be, or what the people would be like. He just came to work.
After Texas came Georgia. My mom and dad met at work in Atlanta. My sister and I like to hear stories about their office romance, their work friends and my dad’s Smyrna apartment, which had a scorpion problem. But their romance wasn’t entirely conventional. My mom already had three kids when she met my dad, and they weren’t always supportive of their new relationship. My sister, Wendy, once stood in the yard with a sign that said “Go Home Steve!” when my dad was coming over. Now, she says she’s glad he stayed.
My dad didn’t just have to earn the approval of my mom’s kids, though. He also had to earn the trust of the rest of her family, a close-knit group who’d lived in the same part of Georgia for decades. My dad was, in more ways than one, an outsider. He was from the Midwest and he was Catholic, which might as well have made him an alien. Whenever he was at my mom’s house, he felt like her brother and dad, who lived practically next door, were watching him. He jokes now about watching for little red dots around the room, as if my uncle was aiming at him from down the street. My mom’s great uncle, an unreserved World War II vet who always had an unlit cigar in his mouth, once said about my dad, “He’s a pretty good guy, even if he is a damn Yankee and a Catholic.”
But my dad learned to love the South. He learned to cheer for the Georgia Bulldogs and to pull over whenever my mom spotted a Krispy Kreme. He embraced the differences and the similarities that he found between his home state and his new home. He tried biscuits and gravy and okra. (He says that when he first saw okra on the menu at a restaurant, he was clueless as to what it could be, and thought it might be some kind of fish.) As he learned to love the South, my mom’s family learned to love him. Although he would say none of this about himself, people in my family almost put him on a pedestal. He exemplifies goodness, minus his dozens of speeding tickets.
Part of the reason my dad had a somewhat easy transition to Southern living was his mindset — he didn’t come here with any expectations of what the South would be. He didn’t judge people. He kept an open mind, whether he was trying a new food or trying to find acceptance. Through this mindset, he ended up finding more similarities than differences between the Midwest and the South. The similarities of the regions, both made up of spreads of agricultural land and dotted with vibrant, multicultural cities and communities, are often overlooked. It’s not uncommon for them to be left out of the news cycle, or reduced to stereotypes found in movies like “Fargo” or “My Cousin Vinny” — which is my dad’s favorite. He realized both regions were full of good, hard-working people. And he stayed.
My dad has lived in the South now longer than he lived in Minnesota. Sure, he lacks the accent and doesn’t like sweet tea (I don’t either, to be honest), but in my mind, he’s a sort of “honorary Southerner.” He is selfless — he doesn’t hesitate to help where help is needed, whether that’s helping me with math homework or helping me hang up shelves in my room. He is quiet in a good way — he is an attentive listener and is never obnoxious. He’s funny, caring and tough. He doesn’t worry about how others might judge him, because he isn’t one to judge others. It’s these characteristics that make me associate my dad with other Southerners I know and admire. It’s these characteristics that make my dad who he is, and make me grateful to have him as my father.