Larry from Walmart

Larry holds a sign near Walmart in Ontario on Monday morning. There’s a lesson here.

It’s just after 8 a.m. on Monday, and I’ve been in Ontario all of 15 hours. You’re having a heat wave, and I feel at home — I’m from Arizona.

I work for Wick Communications, the parent company of The Argus Observer. I’m the editor of two newspapers in Southern Arizona but I have a second job. I’m the editorial director for Wick’s 30 papers in 11 states. I’m in Oregon helping a good newspaper become great.

It’s daunting, but not as daunting as pulling into a community and trying to get your arms around it in just a few days. My go-to in other towns has been McDonald’s — mostly because I like their coffee and because normal folks with lots of opinions hang out there.

Monday was no different. I sat down and talked to a guy named Kenny who said he’s pushing 90 and has been here about 25 years.

We talked a while, and then Kenny jumped into a conversation with a couple of other guys. The question of the day: “What does this town need?” Here’s what they decided: fewer dollar stores and coffee shops, more industry and men’s clothing stores. (That last one surprised me, too.)

What else do they want? Strong leadership.

And that’s what really caught my attention. Something in their tone suggested it wasn’t necessarily leadership out of City Hall they’re after. Just leadership in general — somebody to help set the agenda and make sure things move forward. It describes the role of a good newspaper, and is part of the reason I’m here.

A good newspaper listens, then it helps the community build a road map and start the journey. It comes alongside groups, businesses and decision-makers. It points out warts and gives a pat on the back.

A good newspaper also is the town square — the gathering spot where the community exchanges ideas and thoughts. A place where all voices are welcome.

All voices — that’s important. Because when I pulled out of McDonald’s, I saw Larry standing on a corner across the street.

What captured my attention? His hand-lettered cardboard sign saying he was hungry and homeless and that his family needs help.

“I don’t like to have to do this, but I don’t know what else I can do,” Larry told me.

He said he’s 52, has three sons and spent the previous night near the river. Larry said this was his fourth day on the street corner and he’d collected about $60. He gets advice, money and offers to do small jobs, and he takes them. He said PTSD and anxiety limit what he can do.

“I don’t do well with large crowds or face-to-face dealings with people,” he says. “It’s hard for me.”

I talked to Larry about 15 minutes and there were a lot of things that didn’t add up. But I learned a lesson from my time with him. When I arrived at the newspaper office I dug in to their reporting on the homeless issue, which is big and growing. But there are also a lot of groups trying to figure it out. In fact, there are groups trying to figure out a lot of things in Ontario. I like that — it’s the mark of a community that wants to get better and isn’t afraid to roll up its sleeves and work.

No, I haven’t figured out Ontario yet, but I know enough to say I like it, and I think it has a promising future.

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