Kevin Ward Junior and Community Spirit in My Hometown



Growing up in a small town, I used to get a kick out of seeing my village’s name mentioned somewhere in the media. Most of the time, I’d see the village of Port Leyden, New York associated with heavy snowfall. The neighboring villages in this Adirondack foothills region included Lyons Falls and Boonville.

I got my diploma from the South Lewis Central School District in Turin. These villages are within a few miles of one another. Recently, all of the four communities mentioned above were in the national news, but there were very few smiles as we read and watched the news reports this time.

Hometown of Port Leyden

Port Leyden, my hometown, is also the hometown of race car driver Kevin Ward Junior. By now, you probably have heard Kevin was struck after he got out of his racecar at a western New York dirt track on August 9. Lyons Falls was where Kevin worked on his racecars.

The funeral home calling hours were held in Boonville. On Thursday August 14, his memorial service was held at South Lewis High School in Turin where there was enough room for the hundreds upon hundreds of friends, family, and supporters who came to express condolences.

Port Leyden, NY photograph from USA Today
Port Leyden, NY photograph from USA Today

You may also be familiar with the video shown hundreds of times in the days following the tragedy. Kevin’s car was bumped out of contention by driver Tony Stewart.

The video shows Kevin getting out of his car. Stewart’s car appears to slow down, and then speed up in a fishtail that pulled Kevin under the rear wheel.

As the week passed, we saw fewer replays of the incident, and more stories about Kevin, his family, and his hometown. I read how Kevin and his friends would work on cars every Sunday following a Saturday night racing event. Among the photographs from the memorial service, I recognized his dad and a couple of his uncles that I knew when growing up. Their sadness is our sadness. And that’s why at first it was hard to see the names of those villages mentioned. I still go back to Port Leyden every year to visit family and friends. Seeing the names of these communities in the context of this horrible tragedy was hard to take at first.

Many magazines and newspapers chronicled the tragedy.

Writing for The Marbles, a sports blog from the website, columnist Jay Busbee described the pathways a young person has in a small town “You've got two choices: you decide you're going to settle in where you are, or you race as hard and fast as you can to achieve escape velocity. And you don't have long to make the choice.”

In USA Today, writer Kevin Oklobzija described the upstate spirit this way: “Here, in these tiny towns at the southern end of New York's Adirondack Region, there are no strangers.” Writing for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, reporter Jeff Gluck quoted a teenager who summed up her feelings about community, “Port Leyden and Lyons Falls are so small that everyone not only knows each other but everyone feels like family. We're all really close, When something happens, everyone around here is there for each other.”

Article on Port Leyden from USA Today
Article on Port Leyden from USA Today

As I started to reread some of those articles I saw those communities described with phrases such as: close-knit, everyone is treated like family, and everybody knows everybody.

Community pride

My sense of community pride was awakened. That’s what I remember most about my hometown and the many communities surrounding it. Even if you didn’t know everyone, you felt as though you were part of the family that defines a community. A lot has changed in my hometown since I left it over thirty years ago. Large manufacturers abandoned the villages of Lyons Falls and Boonville in the past decade. Dairy farms are so prominent some have said there are more cows than people living in the area.

Population has declined over the years. In a way, the makeup of the community I knew no longer exists. But some things never change. Reading about my hometown and surrounding villages coming together to pay respects and offer comfort to a family that is looking for answers says a lot about what I remember about community spirit.

Spirit of Upstate New York

Community spirit is alive and well in the village of Port Leyden as well as the surrounding communities in Lewis and Oneida Counties in upstate New York. It may have taken the tragedy of racing star Kevin Ward Junior for the rest of the nation to see this community spirit, but it’s been part of the fabric of rural upstate New York for a long time.

Steve Newvine lives in Merced.

He wrote about his home town in the books Growing Up, Upstate and Grown Up, Going Home.