Bernanke's hometown a snapshot of America

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 14, 2008 


Ben Bernanke testifies.


DILLON, S.C. — Under grilling from Congress, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke frequently reminds lawmakers that he's not cut from Wall Street cloth and doesn't forget his Main Street roots. Here in his small hometown, locals have his back.

"Everybody follows him," said Debbie Edwards, a waitress at the Charcoal Grill in Dillon, who said she was a year behind Bernanke in high school and eagerly followed news about his toils in the center of the economic story.

That means that there are also plenty of armchair Fed chairmen in Dillon.

"I think they could have put a whole lot more liquidity in the market way sooner, maybe 12 months prior," offered Todd Davis, Dillon's mayor and a local financial adviser. "I think his predecessor, (Alan) Greenspan, was more at fault for all that easy money out there."

Although Bernanke still looks like the college professor he was for years before he became the nation's top banker, he was raised in the kind of place that rocker John Mellencamp sang about in his 1985 hit song "Small Town."

Dillon's a farm town in northeastern South Carolina, and it boasts a population of 7,500. It's Any Town USA, with a tank in front of the National Guard Armory, simple neat homes with well-kept lawns and flags flying over the 97-year old redbrick county courthouse.

Once a tobacco and cotton hub, it remains a place of big-handed men with firm handshakes. Tobacco is a relic of the past, as are most of the area's textile mills. Cotton is still going strong, and there's a large Harbor Freight tool-making factory.

Bernanke's grandparents Jonas and Lina arrived in Dillon in the 1940s and set up Jay Bee Drugs, a drugstore that his father later ran.

Back then, the local pharmacist was one step removed from being the town doctor, and the Bernankes operated a virtual charity for the downtrodden.

"They helped them tremendously, and people don't forget that," Davis said. "His parents and grandparents, if they (customers) didn't have the money to pay for the medicine, they generally gave it to them."

Bernanke left Dillon at 17 for college in Boston, but he returned in the summers to work at South of the Border, a faux Mexican highway attraction that's advertised on highway billboards up and down the East Coast. He waited tables at South of the Border's kitsch restaurant six days a week.

The Fed chairman returned to Dillon on Sept. 1, 2006, for Ben Bernanke Day. In a moving speech, he recalled how life in the small town framed his thinking today:

"Now I am an economic policy maker, and I sit in a nice office in Washington. However, I try not to forget what underlies all those data: millions of Americans working hard, trying to better themselves economically, struggling to manage their family finances, and worrying about the price of gas and college tuition."


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