I was going home to see my family and old friends. Something I do every summer. But this time, it felt different.
My hometown — Florence, Kentucky — was in the national news.
“A neo-Nazi’s rage-fueled journey to Charlottesville,” read the headline atop the Washington Post’s Aug. 18 story from Florence — a suburban city of 32,000 at the northern tip of Kentucky, just nine miles south of Cincinnati.
Turns out James Alex Fields Jr., the 20-year-old Nazi enthusiast accused of killing one person and injuring 19 others during that white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, had spent most of his growing-up years in Florence, too.
And the 2010 Dodge Challenger — which driver Fields, his foot on the accelerator, had plowed into a wall of bodies in a pedestrian mall — was purchased about a mile from my old neighborhood.
I realized that this trip home would be more like a working vacation. The reporter in me had questions.
By the time I took the Florence exit onto U.S. 42 — also known as Dixie Highway — I had a plan.
Mayor Diane Whalen learned about Fields’ Florence connection when she got a call at her home the day after the violence. The caller was a reporter from National Public Radio.
By 8 a.m. Monday, other reporters started showing up or calling the Florence Government Center, including the Associated Press and the Toledo Blade. Fields and his mother lived in Florence for more than 10 years, but moved to northwest Ohio in 2016.
They all wanted to know this: Was there anything about this small city that could have possibly led Fields to embrace such hateful thoughts — and later act on them?
By Tuesday afternoon, People magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, TV’s “Inside Edition” and more than 10 other news outlets had filed open-records requests to get transcripts of 911 calls from the Fields condo on Mistflower Lane. The calls were made in 2010 and 2011 by Fields’ mother, Samantha Bloom, and others. After one call, Fields, then a juvenile, was arrested for allegedly threatening his paraplegic mother with a 12-inch knife.
Not the kind of publicity a city would prefer, the mayor agreed as I interviewed her. By then, I had heard the same refrain whenever I brought up Fields’ time in Florence. “Idiots grow up in every city,” one friend responded.
“Just shows you can never be sure what crazy person is living just next door,” said another.
“I see this as more of a mental health issue,” said a third. “It’s more a product of our times than having anything to do with Florence.”
For years, Florence’s main claim to fame — at least to motorists traveling I-75 — has been its water tower, with its Southern-sounding message: “FLORENCE Y’ALL.”
Whalen gave me a bobble-head replica of the local landmark. And it was clear that, like any mayor, she would have liked it better if I’d come to interview her about how much our once-sleepy hometown had grown and prospered.
And, yes, she had seen those stories about Fields with the Florence dateline and photos of the water tower and of Randall K. Cooper High, where Fields had openly professed his admiration for Hitler and Nazi ideology.
“I hope that people who read those stories recognize that it could happen anywhere,” she told me. “An act of violence that occurred in their community doesn’t define them and a man who perpetrated those acts who may have spent time in my community as a young man doesn’t define us, either.”
And yet, as the week went on, something kept gnawing at me. Maybe because I was trying to see Florence as an outsider might.
I began with some history — my own and that of Boone County, including Florence, its biggest city.
I don’t think I knew an African-American until I went off to Catholic high school in Cincinnati. I never met a Jew until college. And growing up, I’m not sure I knew what a Muslim was.
My friends and brothers can remember only one black classmate for sure — “he was 6-foot-8 and played on the basketball team,” recalled my younger brother Terry, who played linebacker and offensive lineman.
And the mascot for the school’s teams? The Rebels.
Some have argued that the school, established in 1954, picked the name as an homage to James Dean, star of “Rebel Without a Cause,” a 1955 film about white middle-class suburban teens.
But I don’t ever remember seeing a James Dean look-alike mascot donning a leather jacket and speeding down the football field on a vintage Harley-Davidson.
What I do remember: Confederate flags and gray Johnny Reb caps.
Kentucky — birthplace of both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis — never joined the Confederacy. But many Kentuckians owned slaves — including at least one of my ancestors, Daniel Boone Roberts.
A local official going through old records discovered a few years ago that, in the 1860 presidential election, Lincoln received just one vote in Boone County.
A historical marker on the outskirts of Florence notes that, in 1863, Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan escaped the clutches of Union soldiers, thanks to “sympathetic Boone County residents” who gave him food, shelter and supplies.
And in January 1856, five years before the Civil War began, the county made national news when slave Margaret Garner escaped, along with her husband and their four children, across the frozen Ohio River to Cincinnati. There they were apprehended by slave hunters and U.S. Marshals acting under the Fugitive Slave law. Fearing her family would be sent back to slavery, Garner cut the throat of a daughter and tried to kill the other three.
Abolitionist lawyers tried to get Garner tried for murder in Ohio. Instead, she was returned to her owner.
I never heard about this case growing up. I learned about it years later, after reading the award-winning novel inspired by Garner’s story — “Beloved,” by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison.
In June 2015, Akilah Hughes showed up at her 10-year class reunion at Boone County High. Then she wrote about what it was like to be an African-American student at a school with a Confederate general as a mascot.
In an online post reprinted on the Cincinnati Enquirer’s website, she wrote about the pep rallies and the football games: “Black students and athletes had to cheer for Mr. Rebel while wearing shirts that read ‘Rebel Pride.’ The irony. The cruelty. It’s almost too much to think about.”
Hughes, a comedian and writer, wrote her story just days after white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine people during a prayer service at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. That tragedy led South Carolina officials to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse, where it had flown since 1962 — when it the flag was a symbol of resistance to civil rights for African-Americans.
There was a sign that maybe attitudes were changing in Florence, too.
The high school principal said the Confederate mascot did not fit the image of a school with students born all over the world. The phase-out was decided last year by a six-person committee — the principal, three teachers and two parents.
But it didn’t hit the news until local media called to check on the mascot’s fate at a time when many around the country were calling for the removal of Confederate symbols. Instead of Mr. Rebel, with his feathered cap and 19th century-style mustache, the logo will now be a big blue letter B, with “Rebels” inscribed inside it.
The decision brought some blowback. “We want our Mr. Rebel,” one woman in the stands at the Rebels’ football opener told WLW-TV. “Why take it away now? They’re taking our statues, they’re taking everything.”
But I found support, too. “Times change,” my friend Bo, Class of ’74, told me. “You have to consider what a symbol means to other people.”
The city is still 87 percent white — and the county went 68 percent for Donald Trump last year — but there’s a growing number of Latinos, African-Americans and Asians moving to Florence. I had only to look at my own family to see that the area is no longer encased in the white bubble I once knew.
Two of my brothers and their wives adopted children from overseas — Liam from China, Bella from Guatemala — who are now in their teens. And another brother, Terry, has been happily married to wife Lorna, an African-American woman, since 1982.
On my last day of vacation, I found the quiet street where Fields grew up, with a row of condos on one side and single-car garages on the other.
Adolph Dunsing, 90, a former neighbor of Fields’ told me he was a quiet kid. “And to me, it looked like he was lonely,” he said. “We have a swimming pool in the complex. Minors were not allowed unless they were with an adult. I’d just see him at the gate, gazing at the pool, looking like he he would love to go swimming.”
Fields’ father had died in a car crash before he was born. One of his grandfathers had killed his wife and then himself. And Fields’ mother, an IT specialist, had to rely on a wheelchair after a separate car accident.
Still, getting dealt a bad hand in life is no excuse to become a hate-monger.
Ironically, Fields grew up in a more diverse Florence than I did.
He may have cursed that. But, as I drove out of town on Dixie Highway, I celebrated my changing hometown.
Reach Tim Funk at tfunk