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Little change in small-town life

| Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

CHESTER, W.Va.

When the family of seven sitting near the front of Connie's Corner restaurant discreetly held hands and bowed their heads in prayer before their meal, no one in the bustling diner seemed surprised.

At the same moment, 400 miles east at Sotheby's auction house in New York City, “Saying Grace” sold for $46 million. The painting by Norman Rockwell vividly depicts a crowded restaurant (not so unlike Connie's Corner) where a grandmother and her grandson pray at a table as truck drivers watch.

In the 62 years since Rockwell brought a family in prayer to life on canvas, some aspects of how Americans conduct their lives have remained the same — such as a family praying before dinner in this northern panhandle town.

“I love that about Chester and small-town American cities,” said Scott Paulsen about the family giving thanks for their food. The 54-year-old WDVE morning radio host in Pittsburgh spent his childhood here, exploring the nearby woods and finding adventure along the train tracks.

Connie's Corner was Allison's Restaurant when Paulsen moved here from Baltimore as a seventh-grader. Connie Hissam was a waitress then; today she owns the restaurant. “What a great American success story,” Paulsen said of her rise from employee to employer.

When Paulsen's family moved to Chester for his father's management job in the steel industry, a red-and-white building in the shape of a teapot sat across the street from their new home; attached to a pottery outlet, it was used to sell trinkets and hot dogs to travelers. Today, after the town rallied to save the 1930s roadside relic, it sits proudly on a corner of the Lincoln Highway, a beacon to locals and visitors.

In the beginning, Chester's prosperity depended on the very soil upon which it rested and the river that curved around it; the clay and the water were ideal for making pottery. The town rose and fell with both the pottery and steel industries.

“We do fine here,” said Hissam, who has owned the restaurant for nearly 10 years. The Mountaineer Casino Racetrack & Resort and the Homer Laughlin factory are the area's biggest local employers, she said.

In her diner, brightly colored Fiestaware dishes and platters made a mile away at the Homer Laughlin factory are filled with eggs and bacon, turkey and stuffing, meatloaf and mashed potatoes.

Homer Laughlin employed more than 3,500 locals in its heyday in 1929, but the decline in American-made pottery already had begun when tariffs were removed from pottery imports in 1910.

This is a slice of America that has ebbed and flourished over the years. Yet, for the most part, the people who live here remain the same; they still go to the same church on Sundays, still walk “up the street” to pick up milk and eggs, and still go hunting with friends and family.

What they don't do is protest for higher wages outside a small business like Connie's Corner; they don't feel entitled to much of anything — other than some peace and quiet to watch a football game or a boxing match — and they find irony in President Obama speaking about economic inequality while standing on one of the wealthiest patches of real estate in the country.

Most of all, they enjoy hard work and being part of a community. Just ask a woman named Irene, who retired from Homer Laughlin after 42 years as a brusher in the decorating department; she returned to the plant less than two years later, she said, because she missed both of those things.

Rockwell's “Saying Grace,” played out in real life here, gives an observer the emotional tug of roots and continuity; it makes you feel good about yourself, your community and your relationships, and it provides a texture that is sometimes missing in our daily lives.

Our constant news cycle and the politics of Washington tend to make us believe that we live in a nation filled with self-indulgence and hatred. But most folks don't see it that way. The truth is, we are surrounded by good deeds. They are not exceptional, newsworthy moments, but they are there — and all you have to do is look up from your iPhone to see them.

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media (412-320-7879 or szito@tribweb.com).

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