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In a small town, children need more than scenery

Rising Sun looks the very picture of a Norman Rockwell town, full of American Gothic houses and Thorton Wilder archetypes. Jean Conner doesn't see it that way.

There's another side to life in a small town like this, Mrs. Conner says. There are probably as many views of this life as there are parents and families in Rising Sun. But her perspective is instructive as a self-portrait of one mother who has her hands full trying to get the best for her children in a small town.

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''I like it here,'' acknowledges Mrs. Conner, wife of the county sheriff, talking over the crackle of the police radio on her husband's desk. ''There's no violence, no crime. The biggest (police problem) in a small town like this is the town drunk. You may have a bad weekend once every 10 years. ... We do have dope in the town. You know it's there. You try to shelter your kids away from it. But the kids are all one big happy family here. At least, it's very minimal here.''

Dope isn't the problem; apathy about children is.

''We absolutely have nothing for the children in this town, no civic center, no music, no bowling alley,'' Mrs. Conner says. ''If I win the lottery today, I promise to build a tennis court here. ... We have a beautiful little town, and everybody wants to keep it that way.''

Not everybody wants to do much to improve children's lives, though, she argues. Sitting in the sheriff's-office-cum-home of this county seat, she says that the adage ''You can't fight city hall'' applies as much to a bureaucracy in a small town as it does anywhere else.

The schools in Rising Sun, she observes, ''don't have the advantages of the city. They don't offer enough courses. There are no computer courses. It's just very limited. You get the fundamentals, and that's all.'' Much of this, she admits, can be explained by the fact that small towns lack the resources of larger cities. But she sees another aspect of small-town life that is less easily explained.

''There's no school football, no soccer, no gymnastics - all they have are some mats.'' And no one in the school system shows any particular interest in improving the situation, she maintains. ''When kids graduate (from) school here, they have to move away. There are no jobs. Basically, it is becoming a retirement town. They don't want a swimming pool for the kids.''

This puts parents in a town like this to strange tasks. Anyone traveling through Rising Sun on a rainy day this August would have seen parents standing in the middle of the road at busy intersections with buckets collecting funds for a small independent football league.

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According to Mrs. Conner, small-town politics stands as a barrier to improving the situation. Over the decades, she says, a small group of like-minded people has assumed control over the purse strings and the avenues of power in those places where things could be made to happen.

She and other concerned parents find themselves outvoted and outmaneuvered, she says. ''You find this in a small town.''

Her son Mike would settle for ''some place you can go swimming every day. Mom won't let me swim in the river.''

''I respect the river,'' Mrs. Conner says firmly, ''and I expect them to respect it. It's pretty to look at, and that's it.''

Like the river, the town is ''pretty to look at,'' with its spreading trees and quaint, well-kept houses. It nestles in the crook of a particularly picturesque bend in the river. Down the end of a random side street, you can see a distant boat plying the steady currents.

But Mrs. Conner's children, like others in towns of this size, need something more than scenery. And she doesn't have a clue as to how they will get it.

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