MOUNTAIN HOME, Idaho – The mere mention of Idaho can subject one to ridicule. And telling a Black person that you're going to Idaho is likely to draw the same reaction as announcing that one is about to embark on a trip to Venus — without a space suit.
Of course, I know differently. I first visited the Potato State in the early 1970s to cover a college basketball tournament in Pocatello for Sports Illustrated magazine. I came back twice, once to speak at Boise State University in the 1980s, and crossed the northern tip of the state in the 1990s en route to Montana.
Those familiar with one of the country's least populous states know that the majestic mountains and beautiful skies makes this one of the most picturesque states in the union. And despite northern Idaho's reputation of harboring right-wing zealots, people here are at least as friendly as elsewhere.
I knew all of this before I accepted an invitation from Mayor Joe B. McNeal to serve as keynote speaker last week for the city's annual observance of Black History Month. The fact that this community of 11,565 residents, of whom only 2.6 percent are Black, would observe Black History Month is a telling fact within itself. It is even more telling that McNeal, an African American, has been elected mayor twice, the last time by 86 percent of the electorate.
Proudly driving me around town, it was evident that McNeal loves Mountain Home and its residents love him. He acknowledges that there are "a few nuts" in southern Idaho, but says they are easily overshadowed by fine people who are mislabeled and misunderstood.
"This is my little slice of heaven," he tells me. "Look at those mountains. You can't find that everywhere."
Mountain Home is a small, clean city 49.8 miles from Boise and at least 100 miles from nowhere.
Still, McNeal was able to persuade Marathon Cheese Corporation to locate here from Wisconsin. With the land donated, the company has erected a sprawling brick structure that is expected to employ about 600 residents.
Now, when he sees a flashbulb go off, McNeal says, "Say cheese — your future depends on it."
A while back, when there were personnel cuts at the air base, the mayor pledged to never be dependent on a single industry, as the town had done for years. That's why he is proud of landing Marathon Cheese and already has his eyes set on establishing a community college, not far from the cheese factory.
It's interesting to watch McNeal interact with voters.
When we entered the Dilly Deli on the east side of town, the mayor greeted a couple already sitting in the small neighborhood restaurant and it was instantly clear that he is on a first name basis with all of the employees.
"When are we going to get started on the next campaign?" a full-sized White woman asks. The mayor, who is seeking a third term, assures her that it won't be long.
Sitting at a table with me and his wife, Mildred, McNeal said the worker had never been politically active prior to his campaign. But because he placed an ad in the local newspaper asking for help, she volunteered to work for him in the last campaign. And so did her daughter.
Of all of the places I've traveled, I felt the least amount of racism in Amsterdam. And while I didn't get that same feeling in Mountain Home, I did get a sense of decency, with many residents openly striving for a harmonious community. I felt it at a book signing at the new public library; I felt it when I was introduced to travel agents who had arranged my flights; I felt it in City Hall and I certainly felt it wherever I went with Joe and Mildred McNeal.
People can joke all they want to about Idaho, the McNeals — and many others — have found their little slice of heaven here.
George E. Curry is editor-in-chief of the NNPA News Service and BlackPressUSA.com.