We Want to Live in a Company Town

Shortly after I moved to Baltimore for graduate school, my elders’ quorum gathered for softball one morning. The small son of one elder was hit by a softball, and immediately three doctors converged to examine him. (He was fine.) From there I moved to Los Angeles. LA is a big city with a diverse economy, but it was noticeable that a small elders’ quorum included an actor, a screenwriter, and a film editor. Next was Detroit. In our part of the western suburbs, the standard greeting for new move-ins was “So, you work for Ford?â€, posed half as question, half as probable statement of fact. Jonathan Stapley of Splendid Sun and By Common Consent, a food chemist, used to live in Battle Creek. How many guesses as to his previous employer?

My wife is from Los Alamos, a town of 18,000 in the mountains of northcentral New Mexico. It was created by the federal government during the second World War as a place to develop nuclear weapons, and the lab’s 8,000 employees and 3,000 contractors continue stewardship of those weapons and other scientific tasks in the national interest. Demographics mark it an anomalous island. In the area surrounding Los Alamos are settlements going back 400 years where families can be found occupying multiple houses on a road where their great-grandparents lived. Many workers native to the area provide support services at the lab, but the more specialized positions draw in people from around the nation and abroad. Among the many things this affects is the Church. In Los Alamos are two robust wards that provide most of the leadership of their stake. The rest of the stake has three wards and five small branches serving over 200,000 people.

People don’t move across the country to take a job they could have found where they were. Consequently, the newcomers presence is more tied to the major institutions of a community than it is for those who are already there. For example, when I arrived in Baltimore, both of the bishop’s counselors were there because that’s where Johns Hopkins University is. When the studies of one and those of the other’s wife were complete, they moved away. When I was done, I left. This influx can be the source of vitality and also a degree of instability. Those who have uprooted from home communities to find what they need elsewhere have even less connection to hold them to their new homes. Even people who stay in a place two or three decades and raise their children there retire and return at last to Idaho. Their children, following the rootlessness of their parents, will have already gone someplace else.

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About John Mansfield

Mansfield in the desertA third-generation southern Nevadan, I have lived in exile most of my life in such places as Los Alamos, Baltimore, Los Angeles, the western suburbs of Detroit, and currently the northern suburbs of Washington, D.C. I work as a fluid dynamics engineer. I was baptized at age twelve in the font of the Las Vegas Nevada Central Stake Center, and on my nineteenth birthday I received the endowment in the St. George Temple. I served as a missionary mostly in the Patagonia of Argentina from 1985 to 1987. My true calling in the Church seems to be working with Cub Scouts, whom I have served in different capacities in four states most years since 1992. (My oldest boy turned eight in 2004.) I also currently teach Sunday School to the thirteen-year-olds. I hold degrees from two universities named for men who died in the 1870s, the Brigham Young University and the Johns Hopkins University. My wife is Elizabeth Pack Mansfield, who comes from New Mexico's north central mountains and studied molecular biology at the same two schools I attended. We have four sons, whose care and admonition, along with care of my aged father, require much of Elizabeth's time. She currently serves the Church as Mia-Maid advisor, ward music chairman, and choir director, and plays violin whenever she can. One day, I would like to make shoes.

14 thoughts on “We Want to Live in a Company Town

  1. It’s definitely a trade off. There tends, in my experience, to be a certain “closed mindedness” in communities that are largely inhabited by people who’ve been there for generations. There’s that “that’s the way we’ve always done it” mentality. Yet, as you point out, the rising cosmopolitan generation has fewer roots to hold them in place. Further, there is often far less of a sense of community.

    Some kind of middle ground would be nice.

  2. John M, my ward in Miami is an interesting study. It is in Central Miami (the most densely populated part of Florida) and stretches almost 50 miles from east to west and about 15 miles from north to south. We have two major universities (UM and FIU). There are at least three Spanish wards and one Portuguese branch within our English ward boundaries (I think this is the only area in the world where the Church has Spanish language and English language stakes with approximately the same boundaries). We get a huge number of students who move in for a year or two and then move out. Neither of the schools have an on-campus Institute program, and there is no single’s ward. Keeping stable leadership is extremely difficult.

    But, interestingly, there is a great spirit in our ward. It helps that we have an extremely spiritual bishop who truly shows love and tolerance for the many people in his charge. Despite the challenges, I can feel the Lord working through our little group.

  3. One of my favorite wards was in West Lafayette while at Purdue. It was half grad students and half stable families, most of which were not afiliated with Purdue. There is obviously a divide in the Ward as it is hard for the old timers to keep making and losing friends, but grad students stick around for a while and the turn over requires a resilliance and vibrancy that is wonderful.

    On the other hand, I spent about four years in the Leavenworth ward in Kansas which is primarily a military ward (war college). As one of the small minority that lived in Missouri and wasn’t military, we didn’t fit in the heirarchy that spilled over to church dynamics. There is a tendency to respect rank even perhaps with callings. That was a bit tough.

    …it is also not well known that Post is also in Battle Creek, though I didn’t work for them :)

  4. I too attended a military ward in Bellevue, Nebraska near Offut AFB. The first Sunday we attended, I was asked by multiple people if I was in the Air Force. When I replied no, a disappointed look came across their face. We never really fit in with that ward. It was strange. Talks would open with jokes about the differences between the Army, Navy, and Air Force, or there would be talks on “Raising a military family in the Gospel,” etc. When we moved back to the area, one of the stipulations we had was not living within those ward boundaries. I’m not sure our Real Estate agent understood our strange geographical pre-requisites.

  5. J. Stapley and Tim Jacob, I had hoped someone would provide an experience of life in a ward dominated by a military base. Thanks.

  6. I’ve lived in wards where half the ward was in the military and seen both acceptance and rejection. I’ve also lived in wards close to universities where social events included all the students or all the married families, but rarely did they all mix except at official ward functions.

    I even lived in a ward where a few people told me that IF I lived there for 2 years or more I would be invited to their home for dinner. 2 years later we received 3 invites for dinner within a month, compared with no invites from families that had been in the ward longer than we had in the previous 2 years. Though I must admit we only invited over people who had been in the ward less than we has.

    Don’t get me wrong, inviting someone into your home is not the only method of fellowship. And I don’t go to church to be social, but “that same sociality that exists in this realm will exist in the world to come.” -Joseph Smith (I think I got the reference right, correct me if I’m wrong.

  7. Every ward I’ve been in has had a certain character to it: in CA they were all lawyers; in Houston, all FBI agents; in Austin, all computer geeks. We fit in here, esp. my husband, who actually gets a positive response from some people when using circuit analogies in sacrament meeting talks ;).

  8. I mostly grew up in a town along the Hudson River in New York State. From age 5-15. We always joked that IBM stood for “I Been Moved” because they would always transfer people all over the place. And pay moving and eating expenses for the move and stuff too.

    My dad started working for them in the 60′s, back when computers were HUGE. They’d send him all over the world, to Guam, even, and all sorts of places. Until the late 70′s, very early 80′s, when you had to have degrees to do what he did (there WERE no courses for it when he started). So they transferred him to this IBM town, from California, and there we stayed for 10 years.

    I always thought it was NORMAL that half the ward worked for IBM, that half the town or more was involved with IBM in some way . . . unti I hit my teens. Our family had great friends there, much closer than any they were ever able to make when we moved to Bountiful. People just seemed so much more . . . uptight, closed off, not open to new friendships . . . which is a shame. Plus, very much of that “Utah Mormon” attitude of rejecting anyone or anything different.

    Woops, I’ve rambled.

    Part of me wonders if the closeness we had with a variety of families was because of the IBM thing, being a “mission field” (ugh, as if we aren’t a regular ward, from Utah Mormon perspective) ward, or just because there were some great people and a good ward. I suppose it could be all of the above, or none, or one. We did have friends in the ward who were NOT IBM, so, I still feel the IBM thing wasn’t an overwhelming factor, but it was very present.

    Especially since IBM, every year, held a Family Day thing, which, in such a high-IBM-concentration town, justified them bringing in all sorts of rides, etc. like a mini-amusement park. They’d have this huge thing for all the families, and of course we’d run into quite a few ward members there.

    When we moved to Utah, it was very . . . cold. Interpersonal-wise. It was, OH Bishop, we are so happy to do as you ask and help walk the new girl to school and make her feel part of the group, and then they’d proceed to treat anything I did, thought, or said that was different than the way most people around here did, thought, or said . . . it was as though I had said nothing. And, at times, as though they couldn’t SEE me, either.

    Anyway, ugh. I sound bitter! Lol. I still wonder if part of the closeness I remember from New York was the IBM thing, and so that might be why I had a harder time adjusting here (aside from the culture shock).

    But in New York, though I hated my life there, I had a horrible time, the family friends we had, and the bishopbric my dad served in (the closeness with the other families in the bishopbric may also have been a factor), I still feel the ward there was the most “ideal” ward, according to the purposes and aims of the Gospel and Church, that I have ever been in.

    I didn’t mean to go on so long! Boy, this sure brought up some reminiscing . . . Guess I’ll have to note THAT for a blog post, too.

    Hope you didn’t mind my trip down memory lane . . .

  9. I grew up in Rochester MN, population c.75,000. Given that the Mayo Clinic there employs 15-20,000 people (doctors, nurses, hospital staff, food services, hotel and hostel services) and IBM employs another 5000 or so, when people moved into the ward, the question was “Mayo or IBM?”

    We played an annual ward soccer game in July for a few years, and once in playing, my Dad did something to his foot. He was instantly embroiled in a discussion with at least four others of which metatarsal (fourth or fifth?) had (something)ed and whether it required a (something).

    Talks sometimes included discussion of “cases” in “the OR.” Lots of people in the wards had seen death and serious disease, either because they worked at the hospital or had moved there for extended and serious treatment.

    For a city of 75000 outside of Utah, I find it astounding that Rochester now has two buildings, three wards, and a branch in town, as well as two other branches within 45 miles or so. (The rest of the stake stretches out horizontally about 3.5 hours each to the east and west of Rochester.)

  10. When my wife and I (music major) moved to Salt Lake City to attend the University of Utah, our first married students branch was dominated by med students. All members of the branch presidency (this was in the early 1970s) were doctors and nearly all of the leadership positions were held by med students. As soon as they heard that I was a musician they made me Ward Choir Director. Over the next six months I had a grand total of 2 people attend choir rehearsals.

    The happiest day of my life came when we moved to a different apartment and left that ward far behind.

  11. The problem with a company town is when the company closes, the wards are hosed.

    The stake I live in was essentially born as a result of IBM locating here in the mid ’60s. For decades, as IBM’s fortunes went, so did the stake’s. Back in the late ’80s, so I am told, a huge chunk of the stake had to move to Phoenix; in ’92, a similar chunk moved back. As the tech-business (especially data storage)grew, more engineers/business managers would arrive every graduation season out of BYU; eventually the primacy of IBM locally waned, and data storage became king.

    So when Seagate announced it was buying Maxtor, we knew we were in deep trouble – it almost seemed to explain the 2 1/2 year delay from Salt Lake (prophetic foresight?) in getting wards realigned (one ward has 140 kids in Primary, including 65+ in nursery; others had fewer than 20). The next 6 months will have shocking demographic repercussions. In my ward alone, the inevitable closing of Maxtor will take out the Bishop (7 people), the stake ym president (8 people), and a high-council member (6 more people), at least. Rumors of moving abound.

    But with elders’ quorums so loaded with geeks, average joe types have a hard time fitting in. And missionary work among locals (it was, before the IBM influx, an agricultural area) is well-nigh impossible, because of the disconnect in mind-set. (This problem is not limited to the LDS church… government and schools wrestle with the disconnect as well, with disastrous consequences).

  12. A couple of years before we arrived in SE Louisiana, the majority of the oil industry offices packed up and left New Orleans for Houston. Our town had two acceptably-sized wards before the diaspora; they were consolidated down to one fairly large ward that could provide stake leadership and still function.

    You hear about this sort of thing all the time in military-based wards. When a big base closes down, it can take a whole stake down with it.

  13. I turned down a job in Minden, NV about 10 years ago. My wife and I noticed that the entire EQ worked for the big local corporate fish (who offered me employment). It was very “The Firm”-ish, which was the prevailing local story. I mean, if you ever wanted to look for alternate employment, it was work for the casino or move.

    Our stake now is heavily dependent on the airlines, what with two major airlines headquarters in the area and a big FAA office. [At one point, I think we figured that 15 families in the ward and maybe 250+ families in the stake were dependent on the airline industry.] The military industry is also a major player locally.

    Re the statement “people don’t move across the country to take a job they could have found where they were”, I’m not sure about that. Are we discussing mid-life career changes? The impact of a layoff? Post-graduate relocation?

    [Oh, I gag at anyone who still refers to the non-Utah parts of the US as the mission field. Please folks, get some perspective. If anything, Utah is the mission field because it baptizes more than anyone. And then they escape.]

  14. Tanya Spackman and I have decided that one of us needs to say something about life and church membership in Dugway. In case you haven’t heard of it, the Dugway Proving Ground is an Army post about 80 miles southwest of Salt Lake City. There is one ward. We do have our own chapel just outside of the post. Everyone who lives on post works here as a Federal employee or contractor. I think there are a couple thousand hardy citizens. It can be surreal at times. A friend of mine compared life at Dugway to an X-files episode. Talks in Sacrament meeting tend to be full of military stories as many of the members are ex-military. After living here for two years, I think I’m immune to Dugway-speak, but spend a couple of months, and you’ll be speaking in acronyms too. As M* members who have lived on military bases or posts can attest, it is sometimes weird living, working, and worshipping with the same people, and everybody knows everything about everyone all the time.

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