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'Good, hard-working people' of Lancaster lost on national media

Educators call it the "teachable moment," the time when students not only learn but also act.

For the young, and old, of Lancaster a brush with the national limelight has given them that moment, a time to respond with passion and authority to pridefully shout, "We are Lancaster."

It was CNN that turned its laser-like spotlight on Lancaster, arriving in the city just days before the state's first-in-the-South GOP primary. CNN crews traveled the town and talked with residents, spending at least five hours recording interviews at Ken Killingsworth's downtown restaurant, Charley's Cafe.

CNN's report, in many locals' opinion, was too negative with too much hyperbole, making Lancaster seem to be a one-stoplight town with nothing shining.

Lines about "Southern drawls so strong they might need subtitling," or about the parking lots at the Dollar General and the credit union repo lot "brimming with cars" because the town is struggling in the wake of a bad economy and the closing the major employer - Springs Industries in 2007 - upset residents.

But what got most angry was this line: "The real proof of Lancaster's misery lies in the lives of people who live in tattered neighborhoods and shop in strip malls."

"You can't print my reaction," said Rudy Carter, who has spent 47 of his 67 years living in Lancaster County. The owner of Do It Printing, Carter serves on the county council.

"We might fight among ourselves, but don't come and tell us what to do," he said recently while shuffling "We Are Lancaster" signs. "We'll fight you."

What upset Carter and others is the characterization that Lancaster was somehow different. "Lancaster County is no different than a lot of other places," he said. "We are in the same boat with this economy."

It's not the first time Lancaster has attracted national attention. In 2008 Forbes magazine examined the strength of Main Streets across America. Its writers looked at unemployment rates, people's incomes, poverty statistics, education levels and mortgage debt.

Forbes studied 141 towns and determined Lancaster was America's fastest dying town.

Lancaster residents took the Forbes article in stride, an unwanted punch in the eye.

The CNN article "kicked our pride in the chin," said Dean Faile, one of the county's head cheerleaders as president and CEO of the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce. Others saw it as a sucker punch to the gut.

This time, people acted.

Drive around town and you will see signs and banners proclaiming "We are Lancaster." Others say "We are Lancaster Proud and Progressive," and still more read, "We are Lancaster Stand for Something or Fall for Everything." Many came from Carter's shop and the Rapid Signs shop.

Some shops, including more than one national retailer, have "We are Lancaster" on their marquees.

But what Faile and others are most proud of are the hand-made signs, evidence that this is more than just a slogan derived hastily, but with great expectations, by the chamber. They praise people who took the time to create a "We are Lancaster SC" Facebook page and to put videos on You Tube.

"We are Lancaster," Faile said, was inspired by the movie "We are Marshall." That slogan was intended to help a somber town and struggling college football team overcome tragedy.

"We wanted a slogan that was easy and quick and you automatically know what it means," Faile said.

The teachable moments have come in the schools, in beauty and barber shops, in restaurants and retail shops, even from the pulpit.

At A.R. Rucker Middle School, principal Phillip Mickles tasked students and faculty to read the CNN article and then brainstorm about the positives of their school and their county. Five hundred and fifty students, spread out over 30 classes, talked and then made their lists.

They then went to the gym for a group picture behind a "We Are Lancaster" banner.

"There were a lot of negatives in the report," Mickles said, born and educated in Lancaster. "It was important students know Lancaster has a lot to offer. ... Teaching has to be relevant, and this was a chance to be relevant using the CNN article."

At the University of South Carolina-Lancaster, Walt Collins, the assistant dean of student affairs, said he was so embarrassed about the article that he did not tell his parents or his in-laws.

He said some students reacted cynically, saying it was probably best to do nothing and give in; others discussed it in classes.

USC-Lancaster has its "We Are Lancaster" banner on display at the corner of Gillbrook Road and the bypass, across from the electric message board for Walgreen's, which periodically says "We are Lancaster." Other nearby merchants have similar banners.

If Lancaster is a one-stoplight town, then this is intersection that shouts "We are Lancaster" the loudest.

The loudest cheering has come at Lancaster High School basketball games. The team, unprompted by administrators, decided to wear blue-and-gold "We are Lancaster" T-shirts before games.

Lancaster basketball coach Richardo Priester said the team decided to wear the shirts because "we resemble, reflect our community. We play hard, smart, together and unselfish, and ultimately play to win."

The same attitude is reflected in Priester's math classroom, where the bulletin board reads, "one class, one goal, one heartbeat."

That attitude is reflected in his students who, when asked about the CNN article, shook their heads.

"Everyone has the opportunity to be great," said student Tevin Ross. He acknowledged that some in Lancaster have struggled, but on the whole, "we have a town of good, dedicated people, good hard-working people. God bless Lancaster."

Student Rushetta Drew said the article didn't show the talent in Lancaster. "Everyone has problems. The article didn't say who we are," she said.

The reaction of Lancaster residents doesn't surprise Ruddy Shipton, who expressed opinion on his business sign frankly - "Up yours CNN."

"CNN pulled the wool over people's eyes," he said.

Shipton said the network failed to focus on the people "who stick together."

Shipton knows first hand. In Thanksgiving of 2010 a fire destroyed his house. He thought about relocating to North Carolina but neighbors and strangers helped him. "The people were so good I stayed," he said.

Ken Killingsworth, owner of Charley's Cafe, said, "I haven't read the article and never will."

But he was there for most of the interviews; he knows what was said.

"There is a bit of truth in everything," he said. "There is a lot of good they choose to ignore."

Killingsworth's biggest question is how long will the "We are Lancaster" enthusiasm last and will it result in substantive changes.

"Hopefully, it will be long term," he said. To do his part, Killingsworth has had bumper stickers similar to the "OXB" circle that touts the Outer Banks made. Inside his circle is "WALA" for We are Lancaster.

Ashley Shannon is the mom of one of the Rucker students, 13-year-old Ryleigh. They talked about the day at school and what it meant. Her mom's message to her daughter was, "Yes, I'm upset and you should be too."

Shannon is also the director of marketing and public relations for Springs Memorial Hospital. She knows a bit about writing, promotions and hyperbole.

She also knows her community has challenges - high unemployment, difficulty in attracting new businesses, people struggling to pay the bills.

"We have a lot of opportunity for improvement, there's not a lack of work going into that process," she said. People who have never come together before, are now working together, she said.

So Shannon, and others, see possibility, see hope.

It is, she said, about "creating a more polished stone." A diamond she said doesn't start as a pretty stone, but after awhile, "it ends up a beautiful, valuable stone."

Lancaster bills itself as the Rose City, but for those with an eye forward, it's not a flower that will wilt quickly, but an evolving diamond in the rough.

The next step is to make sure when people Google Lancaster, S.C., they find the CNN article, the Forbes article - and lots more stories about how it sparkles.