The desperate search for a feeling of ‘community’

Downtown Montevideo. MPR Photo: Bob Collins

Jerry Tilden, of Montevideo, Minn., died last Friday and I didn’t know him.

His obituary, which appeared this week in the West Central Tribune, wasn’t anything particularly remarkable. But a tribute from John G. White, who writes occasionally at Listening Stone Farms, is.

White, who laments that he could’ve known Tilden better, nonetheless perfectly captures what’s missing for a lot of us who search — desperately sometimes — for that secret of what makes a community a community in something other than name.

Because the real communities always have that person. Perhaps you’re lucky enough to know the type.

Then there was that Sunday morning when I received a frantic call from a nearby Chamber of Commerce woman who asked if we could quickly put together a canoe trip on the river, that there were three Hollywood actors in town who had expressed interest in doing a paddle.

A call was put through to Dixie, who said the canoe trailers were set up and ready, to just come by for the key. Phone arrangements were then made and my “river truck” was aimed toward Montevideo. Dixie met me at the door with one of her beautiful and encompassing hugs, and handed me the keys. When I got to the garage under their Main Street office, there was a flat tire on the trailer.

“Dixie,” I said over the cell phone, “where can I get a flat tire fixed in Monte on a Sunday morning?”

She didn’t know, but said Jerry was on the way down to help. He drove up before I could ring off. Using a jack from my river truck, we easily removed the tire. “Let’s put it in the car,” he said. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“Should I come along?”

“Just stay here with the kids,” he said, because my two exchange students were along for the adventure. Meeting Hollywood actors obviously offered more excitement than homework. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

Indeed, it didn’t take him long. We positioned the tire and secured the lug nuts and let down the jack. That’s when I noticed the color of the wheel. It didn’t match the trailer, and it was obviously a different tire than we had taken off moments before. “The service station have a spare?” I asked.

Jerry Tilden smiled. “Nah, I just took it off my trailer. I’ll get the flat fixed tomorrow.”

I’ve thought a lot about community after I drove slowly down my street this week, past a few neighbors whose names I don’t know but who were assembling as part of National Night Out, the often try-too-hard evening to get people to be less isolated, if only for a night.

I waved. Nobody waved back. That’s life in my suburb, where I stopped bothering to snowblow neighbors’ driveways after none of them could be bothered acknowledging that I had.

I visited Montevideo a few years ago when I was doing the People You Should Meet series and it struck me fairly quickly as the kind of place I’d miss in a few hours.

Sure, you might get a different impression once you learn the warts of a town, but there was still a “this is what my town is missing” feel to the place, primarily because of the people I met there.

There are a lot of things that make a community a living, breathing thing, the city planners will tell you. But I’m not aware of it ever happening without the Jerry Tildens of the world.

Who makes your community a community?