A couple years back, I was tending a booth at Bristol’s Rhythm & Roots celebration, selling “I Love Bristol” T-shirts to raise money for local children’s causes. A handsome man about my age (who, unlike me, had kept all his hair … no, that’s not what made him handsome) came up to me and said he wanted 10 Bristol shirts. He spoke English with a thick and stunningly elegant French accent. “I love this place!” he told me, with no reluctance of joy. “I have traveled every continent but one, and this is the friendliest town ever have I visited.”

I was so proud of my hometown (indeed my whole Appalachian region) that I was at a loss for words. So I replied, “You know, my dad visited France once. He and a bunch of his friends hit a beach in Normandy.” It seems I often resort to interjecting humor when I don’t quite know what to say. It’s a lifelong habit I can’t seem to break. Mostly for good, I suppose. But as soon as I spoke those words, I didn’t think my new friend got the gist of what I was saying.

I was soon to be proven wrong. “Dear friend,” my new friend said. “I wish to God your father was here now. He and all his friends. I would embrace them and kiss them all on the cheek. They saved my country. They saved the world. I love America. And I think your town here best represents all that is good in this whole world. It is the people, not things, that make such a place. Your people are gemstones. Do you all know what a treasure you are?”

Back in June I took a wonderfully kind and brilliant British couple (a lady from England and an Irish gent) hiking here locally. The lady is writing a book about America. She loves Bristol (indeed, she loves our entire greater Appalachian region) so much that she spent a great deal of her time in America here locally. These two foreign friends eagerly shared with me their personal experiences regarding the genuine friendliness of our local people. “I feel so safe riding my bike on the roads here,” this good lady told me (yes, I loved hearing her accent, as she did mine). “People are kinder to you here than anywhere I’ve ever ridden. You may very well have the friendliest people on Earth.” And this lady has ridden many a mile on many a bike in many a land.

If you’re only looking at an elephant up close, and you do it long enough, you eventually forget that you’re looking at an elephant. Right there in front of you. In the room.

What “foreigners” who visit our region seem to realize so readily is that our greatest treasure is not any or all of the following wonderful “things”: our one-of-a-kind Bristol Country Music Museum, the world-class hotels springing up, Bristol Motor Speedway, the reenergized downtown State Street area, The Pinnacle, The Falls, our chance for a huge resort-casino, our prospects for interstate passenger rail travel, or even our famous grand welcoming sign. All these things and ventures are wonderful; and each has great economic value to our people. But our greatest treasure is our people.

Many of us locals rant and rail about the poverty here in Bristol and much of the Appalachian region, myself included. And well we should.

As is the case anywhere in America, the strongest foundation for fighting poverty is to provide full support for local public school systems. Without such support, good hard-working families (the kind we want to attract) often lack enough incentive (despite all the other great things going on around here) to come here to begin with, to stay here, and to raise their children here.

Let’s all be mindful to take good care of these “friendliest people on Earth.” Our region’s boards of supervisors, city councils and school boards will all find common ground and rise to the task together; I truly feel this will be the case. If our children don’t have the best school facilities and finest education possible … then whatever wonderful things may happen in our good town and Appalachian region, no matter how pretty they may glitter or beckon or promise … will all be gained in vain.

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Ben Talley is an inductee into the National Teachers Hall of Fame, a former Virginia Teacher of the Year, and a McGlothlin Award Winner for Teaching Excellence.

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