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The old man and his hometown

Hemingway's birthplace - a mecca of Midwestern Rotarianism - celebrates the author's centennial in revolutionary style.

Ernest hemingway supposedly said of his Midwestern birthplace - a leafy suburb with arching oaks and big Victorian homes - that it was a town of "broad lawns and narrow minds."

Remind folks here of that statement and they'll swear there's no record of him saying it. They'll also remind you that Hemingway's friend Gertrude Stein supposedly said he was "more Rotarian than revolutionary."

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This week, Oak Park, Ill., is celebrating the 100th birthday of its most-famous son. And for all the celebrated differences between the author and his birthplace, there are also a few surprising similarities.

Maybe there's some Rotarian - and some revolutionary - in both. And maybe the icon who revolutionized the nation's literature is a bit more connected to an American suburb than his enduring image lets on.

Sure, Hemingway lived a life of passion and adventure. He was wounded in World War I. He was there for the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, and ran with a fast crowd of intellectuals in Paris. He lived in Key West, Fla., and bequeathed the house to his cats, who still prowl the place today.

And sure, things are a little less passionate and adventurous in Oak Park. On weekend mornings, the Cozy Corner Cafe is busy with folks reading papers and eating cheese omelets. At the Factory Store's Dollar Days sale, a roll of wrapping paper is just $1. And one of the featured gifts at Fannie Mae's candy shop is a plastic box of gummy fish.

But Oak Park is also a think-outside-the-box kind of town. In Hemingway's day, its mostly Protestant preachers spoke not of hellfire and damnation - as many Midwestern ministers did - but of the dignity of man and the goodness of God. Hemingway's mother even agitated for women's suffrage.

Today it's a relatively liberal, mixed-race suburb. In fact, the town actually declared itself a nuclear-free zone a few years ago. Chicagoans call it "The People's Republic of Oak Park."

As for Hemingway, he was far from a rebellious kid chafing to get out. He was a straight-A student, captain of his high school water polo team, editor of the newspaper, and a member of many clubs. His father loved to lead outdoor expeditions and fostered in Ernest a love of nature. His mother's family was very musical and young Ernest played cello.

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As an adult, he didn't return to Oak Park, which fueled speculation of his dislike for the place. But residents will tell you that he wrote numerous letters to people here. In one letter to the city, he enclosed a $100 bill, saying it was in case he had any overdue library fines. If a revolutionary, he was certainly a responsible one.

"He liked to make people think he was different from Oak Park," says Bill Young, the winner of the 1984 Hemingway look-alike contest in Key West, Fla., who was in Oak Park for the festivities. "That was part of the image."

Yet this week's Hemingway festivities also show the differences are indeed strong - and that Oak Park, for all its sophistication, is still pretty Rotarian.

The highlight of the week: "The Running of the Bulls" modeled on the Pamplona event Hemingway made famous.

Except Oak Park's "bulls" are big lumbering creatures made of molded drywall that's painted black and mounted on wheels. Instead of running away from the menacing beasts, residents run toward them, stuffing raffle tickets into holes in their heads. First prize: a trip to Spain.

"I was hoping it might be the running of the Chicago Bulls," says resident Julie Olmsted Cross, chuckling as she stands on the sidewalk watching a mom in Keds tennis shoes run up to a bull and stuff her raffle tickets inside. The basketball team's mascot did show up for the parade. He hugged every kid in sight.

What would Hemingway think of all this? Hard to tell, but Mr. Young, the look-alike who knew the author, says, "He loved to be where the action was - any action - and I think he'd eat it up."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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