In 1973, two newcomers to Wake Forest, Mrs. Jafar Ali and Mrs. Leon Stenzel, decided it was time for locals to celebrate the nation’s Independence Day with community activities, a parade and fireworks. The two women, both from up North, were channeling celebrations from their own childhoods.
Many who have come to visit, some to attend Wake Forest College, others for business purposes or personal reasons, have remained, falling in love with the town. They’ve added their diverse talents, ideals, beliefs and spirt to the mix that makes up the community. They were welcomed in, then and now.
That includes George and Mary Bolus, emigrants from Lebanon, who started the town’s first Catholic church in their home and also established a department store.
There was Tony Trentini, the Italian-American football coach at Wake Forest High, who was so revered for his passion for the students they named the stadium for him.
There was Yankees pitcher Tommy Byrne, Baltimore born and bred, who loved Wake Forest so much while in college he came back to live here, and was later elected mayor.
Another future mayor and chamber of commerce director, Henry Miller, grew up as a ranch hand in Oklahoma. The Army brought him here, and he stayed. Without his generosity, the town might not ever have had a hospital, library or Miller Park.
Wake Forest has had its share of notable natives as well, including the revered African-American educator Allen Young, who, much in the spirit of the formation of the college, founded the first school for blacks in town.
His daughter Ailey Young was the town’s first black commissioner. She championed the cause of the town’s East End, which once had been allowed to languish.
There are too many more examples to share.
Wake Forest is a town rich in history. But that history of these varied peoples teaches us that people of different faiths, with different backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures and ideals, can come together to make their community stronger and better.
It’s easy to watch TV or get online and find instant reasons to divide us. It’s easy to choose the information we receive to reinforce our beliefs and heighten our anger at our fellow man. It’s easy to deride and mock, to demean and taunt.
But the perceived recipients aren’t faceless. They don’t exist only in the ether. They don’t reside in secret societies.
They are your friends, your neighbors. They sit next to you in church, prayer book in hand. They stand by your side during the playing of the National Anthem, hand over their hearts, reciting the words, not by rote, but as we all do, as proud Americans.
This Independence Day, as you’re attending the festivities, or sharing special time with friends and family, look around you at all of the people who make up your hometown, and ask yourself if you can really see them as enemies. It’s a sure bet that even with your closest friends, you have many differences.
Ask yourself if those differences are worth fighting for in the name of freedom, if they’re worth celebrating and if they’re just the kind of thing that makes your community, and your country, such an incredible place.
This Fourth of July, let’s all raise a glass of whatever we’re drinking — be it lemonade or sweet tea or beer or ice water — and toast to those many individual differences that, in the end, so strongly unite us.