Missing Thanksgiving Day

How different would this have been if it were a giant chicken? Or a duck? (Norman Rockwell, 'Freedom From Want,' US National Archives)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

When you are an American living overseas, Thanksgiving is an even more powerful nationally unifying holiday than the Fourth of July. All the Americans know something special is going on; for everyone else, it’s just another Thursday. Even for non-Americans who are aware of the concept, the shifting date means they can’t quite keep it in mind, as they can with July 4. So the overseas bands of Yanks figure out where they can scrounge up our national-cuisine oddities like actual turkeys (usually we made do with great big chickens in Malaysia, and once a duck in China), cranberries, filling for pumpkin and pecan pies, etc. Even the tiny marshmallows to go with sweet potatoes. Then the American expats gather at someone’s home in the evening. Back in the days of VCRs, we would play a tape of some old football game for atmosphere.

This is on my mind because this is the first Thanksgiving that I will technically miss, for dateline reasons. I’ll get on a plane when it’s still Wednesday night in the U.S., and get off on the other side of the Pacific when Thursday is almost done. It’s a brief out-and-back trip and a long story, but “2016: The Year Without Thanksgiving” is an uncomfortably close match for my mood.

Nonetheless! As time allows in the coming days and weeks, I’ll put up some brief Thanksgiving-toned items about regrowth, recovery, resistance, reform, renovation, renaissance, and overall re-themed efforts at the local level. Let me start with this one now, which involves one of the towns that epitomized the mainly white, economically beset, distressed-manufacturing zones that were Donald Trump’s mainstay. This is our frequent haunt of Erie, Pennsylvania, long a Democratic stronghold that this time went narrowly for Trump. But even as the votes were being counted, the city had some good news.

The Erie area’s most important employer is no longer GE, which for years has been shedding jobs from its huge locomotive factory. Instead, it is Erie Insurance, a Fortune 500 company that was founded in the city in the 1920s and is still run with a very strong local-patriot sense. During election week it announced a $135 million new building project in the heart of Erie’s downtown, where its main campus is already located. This complements other downtown efforts, like the one I described earlier this fall.

In October, before this news came out, I asked Erie Insurance’s longtime chairman, Thomas Hagen, and its current CEO, Timothy NeCastro, why they had kept their growing business in this relatively remote location. “Our goal has been to do good things for our customers, and also for this community,” NeCastro said. Yes, sure, anyone could and would say that. But both Hagen and NeCastro went on to argue, as NeCastro put it, “we make plenty of money doing things according to our values. By setting out to do what we think is right for the customers, and this community, we find that we generate enough profits.”

I’ll have more to say about this very interesting company, which is run on the “reciprocal exchange” model that also applies to USAA and Farmers; Erie is No. 3 in size after those two. (In crude terms, you could think of this as an insurance-world counterpart to the Vanguard model of brokerage.) For me, what’s interesting about the company involves the way it has managed to run its national-scale operations and international talent-searches from its northwest Pennsylvania outpost, and how it imagines its long-term fortunes being connected to the town’s. That’s later; for our pre-Thanksgiving purposes, here is news of the expansion and background on the company’s evolution.

Also in local good news, I’ve mentioned the stark axis of generational differences in outlook in Erie. People in their 50s and 60s and above expected to work at the big factories, and bitterly feel the loss of those jobs. People in their 20s and 30s came of age when the factories were already on the way out, and they’re very prominent in the startup, advanced-manufacturing, and civic-engagement scene in Erie.

Last week one of the people we talked with several times in Erie announced his candidacy for mayor: That is Jay Breneman, a 34-year-old combat veteran of Iraq who is now on the county council. Obviously the choice about future leadership is one for Erie’s own people to make. My point is that the generational shift already evident in educational, technological, and non-profit parts of the community is extending to public life too. (And as Breneman and others are well aware, perhaps the most urgent task the city faces doesn’t involve crumbling factories at all. Instead it is the unjust state funding system that penalizes Erie’s schools. Pat Howard, opinion editor of the Erie Times-News, made the case very bluntly this past weekend. We’ll have more on this too, “soon.” )

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Want a few more teaser items on a pre-Thanksgiving list? Well, here is the latest report from the Kauffman Foundation of Kansas City, on the dispersal of startups around the country, and an accompanying video. And here’s Steve Case to similar effect. And here’s something related from AutoDesk. And this from our friends in Fresno.

But that’s enough for now. I’ll squeeze my thankfulness into the few hours of Thursday remaining when I get off the plane.