A Yooper Abroad

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“Rural Voices” shares cultural, educational, economic and artistic views of people who have lived and thrived in the Upper Peninsula. Each of our authors in Rural Voices may be living here in the U.P. or living someplace around the globe, but the U.P. is an important part of who they are and what their beliefs and values are today. Rural Voices wants to share the voices of our neighbors and friends about life and experiences in the UP.

Like many people, I did not recognize the special nature of the place I grew up, until I had grown up.

The farther I got from the Upper Peninsula (and I have gone quite far) the more I came to appreciate it. Growing up in Marquette provided me the proverbial benefits of life in small-town America and gave me a point of reference for my 30-year career representing America overseas.

Diplomats are routinely asked, “where are you from?”

The first answer is “America,” which is often sufficient. What “America” conjures up for foreigners is hard to say, but it almost certainly isn’t the UP.

When I offer “Michigan,” the most likely association is Detroit, and the automobile industry. I had not known that Henry Ford recruited Yemenis to work in his factories until I moved to Yemen and found that plenty of people knew not just Detroit, but also Dearborn and Hamtramck.

But even people who don’t know Detroit from Dallas recognize Ford and GM, whether or not they have ever driven a Mustang or a Cadillac.

Very few folks ask, “where in Michigan?” (and that applies to many Americans, too, not just foreigners).

We have all met supposedly-informed fellow citizens who want us to indicate our hometown on the palm of our hands, thinking only of the mitten and not the better peninsula.

Who hasn’t taken pride in adding the upper hand, thumb indicating the Keweenaw, with Marquette just about where the index finger meets the palm?

I’ve had the good fortune to serve in two countries that share climate and vegetation with the UP–Russia and Sweden. It’s a bit harder to explain eight months of winter to a Saudi citizen, or a Sri Lankan.

Nearly universal, however, is pride of place and place of origin. Turks who have lived in the big cities of Istanbul or Ankara for three generations will still tell you they are from the Black Sea coast, or Antalya.

Bangladeshis who migrate to the capital for employment return to the Hill Tracts or Sundarbans for the Islamic holidays. And Yoopers who roam the world find themselves drawn back to the shores of Gitchee Gumee.

Why is this? Returning home is of course universal, whether or not Robert Frost was right. It’s only human to claim that your hometown is the best of all. Yoopers just have the advantage of being right.

I don’t have to dwell on the particular aspects of the UP that make us proud. Did I mention the long winters? And the long coastlines and the endless trees, the fauna, the sand and the ores.

More than those things, however, is the people. These days we argue on Facebook about who is really a Yooper. Must your politics be one way or the other, did you have to be born here, are you a Yooper if you come from “a big city” like Marquette?

Regardless, we all have in common the remoteness of this place, the long drives to Chicago or Ann Arbor, the flights that never take you directly where you want to go without first hopping to Detroit or Minneapolis.

We have in common the shoveling of snow and shivering of ten below. We share the frigid delights of Superior and Michigan in August or whenever we are brave enough to go in. Most of us have that Yooper twang, and revert to it when we cross the bridge.

I can’t be the only one who gets a thrill out of being asked “Youse want coffee?” when I come home and sit down at a restaurant for the first time.

A foreign diplomat friend of mine recently learned that she will be her country’s next Consul General in Detroit. She asked me to tell her a bit about Michigan. Of course, I had to mention the effing Lions and Vernors, but I also urged her to make the UP an early destination.

Start with the best, I said. With luck I will be able to join her, give her the tour. Share the excitement of seeing the Mighty Mac for the first time, as well as the tedium of M-123 and the Seney Stretch.

Show off the Big Lake anywhere between Munising and Marquette. Treat her to a pasty (I told her always ketchup, not gravy). And with luck, get her ice fishing or onto a snow machine.

On our long bus trips returning from downstate, the Redmen Chorale would often start singing “show me the way to go home…I’m tired and I wanna go to bed.”

I think we were influenced by the bluesy Emerson, Lake and Palmer version. I still feel that way sometimes, in the far corners of the world where I am privileged to live and work.

If I’m tired and I wanna go to bed, thinking of the UP brings me rest.

The author is a Foreign Service Officer with the United States Department of State. The views expressed are his own and do not represent the United States government.

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Rob Hilton

Rob Hilton, a graduate of Marquette Senior High and the University of Michigan, joined the United States Foreign Service in 1988. He has been posted in nine countries in the Middle East, South Asia and Europe, as well as Washington, DC. In his current assignment as Counselor for Public Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, he is responsible for media relations and people-to-people engagement to advance U.S foreign policy goals in Turkey.

32 Comments

  1. Avatar Stu Bradley on January 27, 2021 at 12:25 pm

    Nice story

    • Avatar Lyn. Qui. on January 27, 2021 at 10:17 pm

      I really enjoyed reading this. I am a ketchup girl BTW

  2. Avatar Robin on January 27, 2021 at 1:01 pm

    Rob,

    You nailed it! Thank you.

  3. Avatar Eric Smith on January 27, 2021 at 1:45 pm

    Rob, your insights are “spot-on”! Little did any of us know when you and your MSHS teammates secured the U.P Championship on WNMU’s “High Schoool Bowl” that your chosen career would provide such a unique perspective on life as a Yooper. Congratulations on a stellar career in the US Foreign Service. Tom Baldini would be so proud.

    • Avatar Robert Hilton on January 30, 2021 at 6:27 am

      That is very kind, thank you Eric!

      • Avatar P.G. Allen on January 31, 2021 at 6:44 pm

        Enjoyed your piece on Yooperland (born in Marquette in 1947/ father (Dr. Max Allen) was a professor/ administrator at NMU). Are you related to Dr. Earl Hilton who also taught at NMU in the 50s-60s? Grew up with his kids/ daughters. Thanks.

        • Avatar Robert Hilton on March 28, 2021 at 10:59 am

          Sorry for the late reply! Yes, Earl was my father! He passed in 2002. You might have grown up with my older siblings — Ann/Sue/John/Maggie.

  4. Avatar Frank Malette on January 27, 2021 at 2:37 pm

    Well said and a good reminder to all of us how special this place we know as the UP is.

  5. Avatar Don Shapero on January 27, 2021 at 2:44 pm

    Sounds like home even if I’ve never been there

  6. Avatar John Hilton on January 27, 2021 at 3:02 pm

    Thanks, Rob! To add a Canadian twist, when I spot the bridge the song that plays in my brain is the McGarrigles’ “Sun, Son”: https://www.lyrics.com/lyric/1670318/Anna+McGarrigle/Sun%2C+Son+%28Shining+on+the+Water%29

    • Avatar Robert Hilton on January 30, 2021 at 6:31 am

      I wasn’t familiar with that one, thanks John!

  7. Avatar Retha Sandler on January 27, 2021 at 4:48 pm

    Great article, Rob. I’m a native Yooper who agrees with you wholeheartedly that our beautiful U.P home is the best on earth. But, I must correct you on a more important issue. Pasties are best served with gravy. Shame on your for misdirecting your colleague to ketchup. Just teasing:-) Sending good vibes from one Yooper to another across the globe. Your home will always be waiting for you.

    • Avatar Mary Lou Curtin on January 27, 2021 at 8:22 pm

      The older I get the more I realize how lucky I am to be the product of a Pioneer family of the Keweenaw. I know my Paternal family history of the young man, recently discharged from the Swiss Army who met the love of his life at Quincy Mine in 1884. Maria was 17 when her family arrived to the area from Prussia, Germany.((Heinsberg West Phalia). My Maternal family arrived at about the same time from Quebec. Pierre lost his young wife in childbirth. He and his new wife came to the Keweenaw to start anew.. He was a leader in the French Canadian community, Pres. Of the St John de Baptiste Society. My husband’s family arrived from Cornwall, England and Sumosalmi Finland. What stories we learned as children……..

    • Avatar Robert Hilton on January 30, 2021 at 6:32 am

      Agreeing to disagree…so hard yet so important! Enjoy your gravy Retha!

  8. Avatar Steve Valen on January 27, 2021 at 5:55 pm

    Loved the article, Robert. Even though I consider myself but an honorary Michigander (UM Law), the story brought me back and reminded me of that special place. While I didn’t make the bridge crossing often, and too have enjoyed life abroad as a diplomat, I envy you Yoopers and appreciate that place you call home above the mitten.

  9. Avatar Kristin Stordahl on January 27, 2021 at 6:24 pm

    Exactly!

  10. Avatar Linda anglin on January 27, 2021 at 6:30 pm

    Love your story! I have been gone from Negaunee for 43 years.. I visit often as possible and most of my family is still up there! My parents are in heaven tho… I am a 4th generation Yooper! Your story brought me a little closer to the U.P. For a minute or two… thank you!

  11. Avatar Gaily on January 27, 2021 at 7:46 pm

    Yep – me too….4th generation (5 & 6 are already in place ) Yooper and go home (Newberry) as often as possible , too – it will always be home – been gone for a long time with no regrets because my Honey and my life were good , but still miss it.

  12. Avatar Janis Peterson on January 27, 2021 at 9:33 pm

    I moved here in 1976 and CHOSE to stay! Lake Superior, the pristine forests and ‘go-for-the-gusto’ people with strong support for the ARTS make me proud to call this place home.

    • Avatar Robert Hilton on January 30, 2021 at 6:48 am

      The arts are also an important part of my Marquette identity, starting I think with plays at Parkview and Graveraet, chorus with Mrs. Green, band with Jim Smeberg, then of course Ellen Clement, Shirley Smith and you (!) at MSHS. A certain self-confidence and ease at public speaking are useful abilities for a diplomat, and to the extent that I have those characteristics, they from my time on stage at Kaufmann and the Little Theater.

  13. Avatar Sue Szczepanski on January 27, 2021 at 10:51 pm

    Rob, I remember you from kindergarten in Ruth Gustafson class. I was a teachers assistant in her class before I took a full time teaching position. You’ve done well, young man! I enjoyed your thoughts on Marquette.

    • Avatar Robert Hilton on January 30, 2021 at 6:33 am

      Thank you for the kind words, Sue, and for being a teacher to me and many others.

  14. Avatar Lillian M. Heldreth on January 27, 2021 at 11:54 pm

    Well-written story, Rob. Just nicely done! Do you remember babysitting for my boys? They thought you were the best, and so did I.

    • Avatar Robert Hilton on January 30, 2021 at 6:35 am

      How could I forget?! Great children, plus Leonard would often let me borrow his board games!

  15. Avatar Susie Skibo on January 28, 2021 at 10:02 am

    I’m a Yooper living in Oakland County in Lower MI. The UP is always home and will always be special.

  16. Avatar Marilyn Taylor on January 29, 2021 at 8:04 am

    Rob What a great article. You absolutely nailed it! I was raised a Yooper from Marquette, married a NMU Wildcat (now living in Traverse City). Crossing the Mighty Mac still gives me a thrill and hearing a friendly “How she go?” never gets old. We make the trip 2-3 times a year…thank you for reminding us of all the unique and wonderful things we all share…Someplace Special !

  17. Avatar George Tomasi on January 29, 2021 at 5:06 pm

    Good work, Rob, Your article is both thoughtful, filled with love and heartwarming to the reader. Thank you.
    I believe that native Yoopers who have had the opportunity to live elsewhere have a special appreciation for this peninsula and its citizens. Your travels have been extensive and your love of this country is obvious. It is great to learn that a boy from the neighborhood has done so well. Congratulations on your success. Your wonderful parents are gone, but I am sure that their pride in you endures and shines upon you from above.

    • Avatar Robert Hilton on January 30, 2021 at 6:39 am

      Growing up on the east side with the Tomasi kids, among many others, was wonderful. And while Dad is indeed gone, Mom is still with us, having moved to Brookridge a couple of years ago. At 96 she has perhaps slowed down a little, but her mind and personality are still quite strong, for which we are very grateful.

      • Avatar Kara (Braak) Witham on January 30, 2021 at 9:54 am

        Glad your mom is still around and going strong!
        The UP will always be home to me. When people ask where I’m from, that’s always my first thought. When I travel back home, crossing the bridge is my first release. The feeling of ‘I’m home again’ accompanied by a big breathe. My second is my first glimpse of Lake Superior, which often causes me to laugh, crying, or do both. It’s then that I realize how much I miss it.
        Our daughter’s found her home in the UP at MI Tech. Having her there is giving us wonderful opportunities to explore even more of our great home, the Keewenaw.

        • Avatar Robert Hilton on January 31, 2021 at 2:13 am

          Delighted that your daughter is a Husky! In my mind, Houghton is even more remote and snowy than Marquette, which is saying a lot.

  18. Avatar JOHN H SMOLENS on January 30, 2021 at 9:41 am

    Come on home anytime, Robert…

  19. Avatar Clyde Narhi on February 14, 2021 at 9:42 pm

    Yoopers til 1965, left for adventure and fortune but drawn back hundreds of times. Would never live further than a days drive from the UP. Family, Lake Superior, our heritage there always drew us back. We love the western UP, Misery Bay, from the Porcupine mountains to the Keeweenaw , the small range towns, our parents and grandparents’ homes, farms, and their lifes’ efforts. We knew in youth the booming days of copper mining were waning and our fortunes lay beyond, but our love for the UP has always remained steadfast.

    Lake Superior was the draw to our present home in Duluth-Superior, but still return to the UP often.

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