Dan Smith and Silvina Morelos

BY ART CULLEN

Dan Smith is Storm Lake. He sat facing headwinds with his dad, Joe, trying to catch a catfish from the muddy roil off Chautauqua Park jetty. He crooned the Beatles in a high school garage band and the pretty girls dug him. They still do, judging from the photo above the fold on Page One of The New York Times on Tuesday. There he was at the bar with a lovely laying a hand on him as he spoke the truth about Our Hometown.

“I harbor no ill feelings for anybody who’s trying to make a better life for themselves,” Smith, 66, who is about to retire from Tyson pork, told economics reporter Patricia Cohen. “They’re just trying to make a buck for their family, like I am.”

He was a union man at Hygrade. And he was among the first at the non-union IBP when it opened the shuttered pork plant in 1980. He makes about the same amount of money today as he did at Hygrade 40 years ago.

He knows everybody — redneck, doctor, Latino, lawyer, black, old rockers, young Asians, priests and publishers — and so he knows Storm Lake. He professes his love for the hometown.

And so do his new neighbors. Silvina and Ayela Morelos of the meat market by the same name, who switch shifts between the pack and their downtown store. “A lot of different communities are living together,” Silvina tells Cohen.

It hasn’t always been easy. It still isn’t. Fifteen bucks an hour is a living wage, but no princely sum. But, Tyson could have closed that turkey plant after the fire and during the bird flu. We watched and prayed with bated breath. What about those poor workers? What would happen to them? What would happen to Storm Lake if the eggs weren’t broken and the turkeys weren’t trucking?

It’s a gray shade of reality here in The City Beautiful.

The wages aren’t Manhattan but they’re enough to get by in Storm Lake. It is the best a proud person illiterate in English from El Salvador could hope for. It offers the freedom that is yet a dream in Myanmar. If offers peace from the civil war in Sudan, and a place for the long wandering migrant to plant some roots. The Morelos have a little farm north of town.

Smith’s children — lovely and smart — moved away seeking greener pastures and paychecks. His brother Jerry has made a success of himself by working like a dog in the sun laying concrete anyplace, any hour he can. His son Matt and brother Doc work with him. Jerry and Ann worked their way to a home on the lake. From a family whose dad worked at the pack back in the day and had just enough to get a boot on the ladder. The Smiths certainly never lived large. But they lived in the comfort of Storm Lake.

That is not nostalgia.

Dan Smith wants to see the same thing for the Morelos and the Lost Boys of Sudan.

He is not afraid of any of it.

He understands, we understand, that America does not place a premium on food. The cheaper the better. The workers are an abstract. Until recently, Hygrade and IBP and Tyson operated on razor-thin margins in the live slaughter business. That has been our business. Ship out corn and soybeans and pork and turkey for further processing some place else, where more value is captured. We have been a purveyor of raw commodities where profits are leanest. More recently, Tyson has moved up the value chain in further processing with the purchase of Sara Lee and Hillshire Brands. Profits are getting fatter, and starting wages have cropped above the living-wage threshold. Tyson is better than IBP, which was better than a closed Hygrade. Rembrandt Foods lifts corn prices by its presence. It employs families like Tyson does. Many of them move up the management scale and into the upper middle class of rural Iowa. Many are hurt on the job and wash out in pursuit of something better.

But every year Storm Lake grows. We are building new schools without drowning in debt and property taxes are relatively stable. Just Wednesday we published a front-page photo of the Storm Lake soccer team populated by immigrants heading to the state tournament — again. These graduates will come home to win for our community in a few short years. They already are. On that same front page is a Latina,Yadira Alday, graduating from Buena Vista University so she can teach next year in the Storm Lake elementary school. She is our future. That bargain is struck all over town — we will work our hearts out so that you can do something great in our new hometown.

The New York Times captured that reality perfectly. It is a place that struggles on the prairie as it always has, against the weather and the markets and the wind of politics, to reinvent itself and find a way forward. These are exciting times in Storm Lake, Iowa. Thanks to Dan Smith for reminding us with his honesty and cheer.