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DUNKIRK — In the coming months, readers of London, England’s Daily Telegraph will see the presidential election in the U.S. through the eyes of people in Dunkirk, Ohio.
Not only will they hear the political views of Kevin Ridgeway, Dan Marshman, Pete Brunow and others, they will see their pictures and grow to know them and what life is like in rural Ohio.
The project is the brainchild of Peter Foster, the paper’s U.S. editor.
“Dunkirk is to be the centerpiece of our election coverage,” he said Monday. “The Telegraph has adopted this town for this election.”
The Daily Telegraph is the largest non-tabloid publication in London, said Foster. It prints 600,000 copies each day and reaches 45 million people internationally.
So why Dunkirk?
The answer is partially based on the name’s historic significance, said Foster. He was driving through Ohio from Cleveland to Lima, when he saw a sign at an exit for Dunkirk. Being a “Brit”, the name Dunkirk caught Foster’s attention since the World War II Battle of Dunkirk plays an important role in British history.
Foster was also seeking a change of pace. He had just arrived in the states after spending four years in China. He wanted to experience rural American life, but he also was tired of his fast food diet.
“I wanted to talk to real people in real places,” he said.
As Foster made his way to Hardin County, he was taken in by the landscape. It was a cold, February day, but he loved the farmhouses and the barns.
“This was the real America we don’t see in England,” he said.
When Foster arrived in town, he ate lunch at Moe’s Dugout, the local bar, where he talked with some of the customers about the presidential election, but also about the changes in America in recent history.
“I was taking the pulse of the normal person,” he said. “The place stuck with me.”
As he drove on to the political rally in Lima, he realized what the candidates for both parties were saying and doing had little impact on life in Dunkirk and other small villages.
“The campaigns had nothing to do with the people in Dunkirk who are trying just to get along,” he said.
That is the story Foster decided to share with his readers. He, along with his Texan intern Charlie Whitfield and photographer Dermot Tatlow, have spent the past three days in Dunkirk talking with the men at the barbershop, attending council meetings and eating pulled pork at a church benefit.
As a result, said Foster, he is seeing rural America as a visitor and can report it with a better understanding of the people who live there.
“This is a story about the changing of the guard in America,” he said. “It’s not about the American decline, but about America adjusting its sights.”
During his visit, Foster met residents of Dunkirk who could remember the town thriving with three grocery stores and a theater. They could recall when a large percentage of Dunkirk people had family members who worked at Rockwell in Kenton and brought home healthy paychecks.
“This town was built on an economy which no longer exists,” said Foster.
The families who brought home the $70,000 salaries are often struggling now, he said.
“The loss of the manufacturing jobs that paid good wages has had all kinds of impact on the community,” said Foster. “The whole of America is changing … America always in the end works out what is next. What we have found in Dunkirk, no one knows what is next and they are not going to let their town decay.”
The picture Foster hopes to portray of Dunkirk isn’t bleak, he said, but inspiring.
“We want to tell the other side of the decline,” he said. “Show the strength and the volunteers painting and having hog roasts and the stuff people are doing to keep the show on the road.”
As part of the project, Dunkirk will speak to England. A book is planned to be placed in the soon-to-open cafe Oh My Grill on Main Street. Residents and Hardin Northern students are encouraged to write their feelings in the book, which will be shared with Telegraph readers.
While Foster continues to cover the campaign from California to Michigan, Whitfield will maintain contact with the Dunkirk residents and report his discussions to Foster. Later in the fall, a film crew is set to visit Dunkirk as part of the process. They will be doing interviews to do online coverage of the election.
“The one thing I love about this town is it thinks rural, not Republican or Tea Party-type of thinking,” he said. “It is much more mixed here than people might think … I haven’t chosen Dunkirk in a super scientific way to represent America. It is in a swing state full of ordinary American people trying to get by … Dunkirk just caught my fancy. There are thousands of Dunkirks out there, but they can’t all be in this. Dunkirk is the one.”
By DAN ROBINSON
Times staff writer