Flashback: Massillon, Ohio (1966)

I’m pretty sure this “flashback” post will have limited appeal. That’s fine with me.

I spent my childhood in rural northeast Ohio, a few miles outside the city limits of the gritty industrial town of Massillon. In my adulthood, now informed by a half-century of perspective, I’ve often said that I grew up at a great time and in the best place on Earth.

American traditions and Heartland values. Unabashed patriotism. Blue collars and shit-kickers, steelworkers and meat-cutters and third-generation farmers, men who worked with their hands. Veterans of World War II and Korea who gave us their stern guidance and humbly accepted our thanks. Family, the center of the community.

And football — always football.

Lest anyone get the idea that I’m painting it as perfect, even idyllic, I can assure you it was neither. These were the Vietnam years, raw and real. The civil-rights movement had a nation wrestling with its conscience. American cities were singed by riots, the country scarred by political assassinations.

The August 12, 1966 issue of LIFE magazine carried the feature article, “A Town’s Troubled Mood As a War Comes Home: The ‘credibility gap’ widens in Massillon, Ohio,” an unflinching portrait of my hometown during the turbulent mid-1960s. Here’s an excerpt:

“Massillon, like many small cities in the country’s heartland, is a blend of payroll town and rural trade center, of boosterism and nostalgia for the past, of complacency, generosity, bigotry, progress and decay.”

“Though it voted for Lyndon Johnson over Goldwater in 1964, Massillon, like much of America between the coasts, is politically, economically and socially conservative. It has a staunch John Birch chapter. Its citizens voted down urban renewal and twice rejected fluoridation of the city’s water. Its school system, run by young Ph.D.s, is good. But progress has largely bypassed the shabby downtown, which is losing shoppers to the suburbs.”

As I recall, Massillonians didn’t much appreciate LIFE‘s treatment of our town at the time, probably because it was so brutally honest. But for this native son, reading it now, it’s poignant. That “shirtless boy on an Ohio sidewalk,” captured at the cemetery in the article’s opening image, could easily have been nine-year-old me.

I expect this post, and that 55-year-old magazine article, to strike a chord with my childhood friends. If you grew up around the same time I did, perhaps in a similar place, maybe it’ll grab you, too.

To view the LIFE article on Google Books, click here. For another perspective on my growing-up years, read my earlier blog post, “Day 212.”

Though the image was snapped by a LIFE photographer a couple of years before I made my grand entrance at City Hospital, this 1955 scene typifies the Massillon, Ohio into which I was born.