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COLUMNIST: Think-Off finalists speak well of NY Mills experience

The fact that the Great American Think-Off is not your normal small town event became evident even earlier than usual this year. During the pre-Think-Off dinner held at the Mills Creamery on Friday night, I met a visitor from New Hampshire while waiting to order. Rick Lee had heard about the Think-Off on the radio in February and decided it would be fun to attend. On Friday morning, he decided to make good on his interest in the radio story from months before. He got himself a plane ticket and called up the cultural center to make sure there would be a ticket waiting for him. Eight hours later, he found himself standing in line for dinner at the creamery in our small town halfway across the country.

The Contestants

The best part of the annual Think-Off is not the arguments, or even the fact that our small town manages to gather a crowd to observe and engage in what has become an outdated mode of interaction: intellectual discourse. Besides those features and others, the best part of being involved in the annual Think-Off is getting to know the contestants. Each of the four contestants had been intrigued enough by the event and this year's question, "Is it ever wrong to do the right thing?," to write an essay and submit it. The four finalists were also skilled enough at crafting their arguments that their essays stood out from among the 400 plus essays submitted this year.

As the official press representative for the Herald at the Great American Think-Off, I had the opportunity to speak with the contestants in my official capacity before the doors opened to the audience. Being a transplant to New York Mills, I am always interested in learning how our visitors learned about our town, what caused them to come, and what they thought of it. So, I thought I'd ask the four Think-Off finalists questions that would help me, and you, get to know them.

Arguing on the side of the affirmative--yes, it can be wrong to do the right thing--were John Pollack and George Holley. John, a public interest lawyer from Montgomery, Alabama, couldn't remember how he learned about the Think-Off, but he was drawn to write his entrance essay because he was preoccupied with the concepts of right and wrong at the time.

George, a retired brokerage professional and owner of a retail franchise from Tuscon, Arizona, had read about the Think-Off from an AP news release in one of the local Arizona papers. He always enjoyed argument, but his appreciation for the conversational form has evolved over the years.

"As I got older, I've learned that you don't discuss to win, you discuss to learn," Holley stated. He read about the Think-Off and said to himself, "This is something you enjoy and always like to do, so why not enter?"

Rick Nichols and Erik G. Schultz argued the negative side of the question--no, it is never wrong to do the right thing. Rick is from Leavenworth, Kansas. He is an essayist, environmental activist, and former employment coach of adults with disabilities. Rick read an article about the Think-Off in the Kansas City paper, and it inspired him to write his entrance essay. Erik is a 15-year Master Sergeant enrolled at the National Defense Intelligence College in Washington, DC. He read about the Think-Off in the Washington DC Metro paper where there was a small article stating that the Great American Think-Off had released its topic for the year.

By far, the essay question reflected the topic he was most interested in. As Erik was also studying for an analytical bachelors degree that was teaching him how to think through difficult questions, writing the entrance essay for the Great American Think-Off was an excellent opportunity for him to make use of his education.

So what did these first time visitors think of our home town? And what stood out for them in their first impressions? Of course, none of the Think-Off finalists were likely to tell the representative from the local paper anything negative about New York Mills, but each offered a thoughtful response. Rick is from Leavenworth, Kansas, but used to live in a town the size of New York Mills. He was impressed with New York Mills, especially with our efforts to use the arts to bring our town to the attention of the outside world. "New York Mills is a neat little place," he said.

John Pollack now lives in Montgomery, Alabama, though he is originally from my neck of the woods, New York and Boston, and has spent much of his life in cities. "I am growing to appreciate the bucolic nature of these small towns, especially as someone who has grown up anywhere but," he said.

Erik appreciated the "down-home country feel" of our town. He said New York Mills reminded him of Charlevoix, Michigan, the town where he was born.

George also described New York Mills as a wonderful town. "There is something about a small, rural community that allows people to slow down, be more friendly, and spend more time talking."

The Mills Creamery--not to mention its cozy environment, and its home-cooked food--was the first thing that Rick and Erik noticed about New York Mills. The first thing John noticed was that New York Mills was incredibly quiet. He could go places and not hear things. He also loved the trains and train whistles. George first noticed the slower pace here and the quality of our facilities. "I think small communities like New York Mills have an awful lot more to offer in the way of culture, education, and entertainment than I think people realize."