ELYRIA — Pulitzer-prize winning reporter Dan Barry of The New York Times was looking for a quintessential American city where people were struggling on the cusp of a presidential election.
He found it in Elyria, thanks to a tip from one of the paper’s photographers, who passed through and stopped at Donna’s Diner, owned by Donna Dove.
After 10 months and a dozen or so trips, Barry turned in his stories, filled with interesting characters, most of whom have some connection or other to the diner.
His five-part series, which began Sunday, ends today.
“We decided to stop in one place and see America in one place,” Barry said.
The focus on Ohio during a presidential election is not unique for The New York Times because of the state’s reputation as a bellwether. In 1996, one of its reporters actually moved to Canton to research and write stories as then-Vice President Al Gore faced off against George W. Bush.
Barry credits a photographer for the paper, Nicole Bengiveno, with finding Donna’s after she was in Lorain in January to take photographs for a story about unwed mothers.
“Nicole kind of fell in love with this place,” Barry said of Donna’s .
Dove proudly pasted Sunday’s front-page story to her window, saying he accurately captured the struggles of a small businesswoman and the people she serves.
“A diner is a crossroads of people,” Dove said. “He became our friend, too.”
What struck Barry most was the dedication of Elyrians to their hometown, which is forging ahead despite losing thousands of manufacturing jobs in the past few decades.
“People are very, very proud to live in Elyria,” Barry said.
“My only regret is there were so many other stories I could have told,” said Barry, who peppered his story with history of the community which was the birthplace of the Easter Seals, colored golf balls and the padded bicycle seat.
“As a writer, I was really, really trying to find a way to write about the bears in Cascade Park,” Barry said, referring to a family of bears kept in a cage in the cliffs until the last one died a few decades ago.
“(But) the bosses said, ‘This is how much space you have,’ ” he said.
Elyria Mayor Holly Brinda said she viewed the series as an opportunity to tell Elyria’s story to the world, and to perhaps spark redevelopment.
Brinda said people can read The New York Times series on the city of Elyria’s website, www.cityofelyria.org.
In it, Brinda told the story of how she is trying to bring back spark to Elyria, telling Barry, “You kind of see remnants of greatness” in the city.
Since the stories began running, Brinda said she has received phone calls from all over the world, including a call from Jane Pauley of NBC’s “Today.” It isn’t firmed up whether the show will feature Elyria.
Brinda has to laugh when she thinks of how she met Barry, who won the Pulitzer at another newspaper and has been a finalist several times for The New York Times.
She holds Wednesday news conferences, and only one reporter showed up one day in February. She thought the man might be from a weekly paper in North Ridgeville, and offered him water or coffee.
“He set his card in front of me and it said The New York Times,” said Brinda, herself a journalism major in college. “I said, ‘Really?’ ”
Brinda also is a Donna’s Diner fan, and her “guilty pleasure” is a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich with a fried egg on top.
If there’s any complaint among Elyria natives, it might be that the focus was on people who are struggling, according to Beth Maiden, CEO of Leadership Lorain County.
“I think it’s an incredible series well-written, but I’m just such as cheerleader for the city,” Maiden said.
“None of the characters — other than the mayor — are shining success stories,” Maiden said. “Yes, there are people who are struggling but there are also success stories.”
Barry begs to differ, saying he wrote about the efforts of Dr. Roy A. Church and others at Lorain County Community College to rejuvenate the community with research and entrepreneurship.
The series delves into how the community is trying to rebound. Bright notes include the $70 million Elyria High School and an expansion at BASF Catalysts, where a $24.6 million federal grant is helping the company to manufacture the “guts” of lithium-ion batteries.
But it was the story of people that tugged at the heartstrings, including Dove, who talked about everything from her three marriages to her mission to keep her diner open in a poor economy.
Since the series ran, several Cleveland television stations have interviewed Dove at the diner, which also was featured in The New York Observer.
One New York Times reader was so touched he arranged to have new glasses made for one of the diner “Breakfast Club” regulars, Pete Aldrich, who had fallen on hard times and had broken glasses when he was interviewed by Barry.
“I have an appointment to see an optometrist on Monday,” Aldrich said.
Aldrich said he was touched by the generosity of the reader and the gentle way Barry described his dilemma when he was temporarily homeless.
Barry wrote: “In his early 50s, well-educated and from regional royalty, he has hit some hard times, and may or may not have slept in his car last night, cocooned by his bundled possessions.”
Aldrich said he has since gotten an apartment and is working three jobs, including one involving a company that is involved in fueling cars with vegetable oil.
Others featured in the series were Lorain Common Pleas Judge James M. Burge, who has been trying to convince Dove to open a diner at the Lorain County Justice Center and Elyria City Council Clerk Forrest Bullocks, whose family rose from being sharecropper to prominent members of Elyria’s civic community.
One of the saddest parts of the story involved former Elyria High football star Ike Maxwell.
Barry wrote that Maxwell “electrified Elyria” in Elyria High’s undefeated 1971 season alongside with teammate Les Miles, who guided his Bayou Bengals to the national title game in 2011.
Maxwell now mutters to himself on the street, lives on disability payments and is a shadow of the man known as “Dynamite Ike.”
Like many of the others, Maxwell had the common thread of Donna’s Diner in common, and frequently enjoys his favorite dinner of chef salad, steak, home fries and rye toast.
Race relations was a focus of the series. Bullocks said it was cathartic to tell Barry the story of what happened when he and his wife went to a Las Vegas night in the 1970s at a social club in Elyria.
“It was embarrassing when they asked us to leave,” Bullocks said.
Bullocks — a cousin of pop singer Tina Turner — has never stepped foot into that place again.
What stood out in the New York Times interviews, according to Bullocks, was the desire of Barry and Bengiveno to show the community’s resilience.
Like many of the others interviewed in the series, Bullocks and his wife were spotted at Donna’s Diner by Bengiveno, who had sat near them one Friday night when they were enjoying Lake Erie perch.
“They were impressed with the way this city prospered at one time and how much industry we had and how after all those industries left the community has been trying to reinvent itself with new jobs,” Bullocks said of Barry and Bengiveno.
While doing the legwork for the series, Barry said he deliberately steered clear of who would vote for whom in the presidential election.
To add color, he did report that Breakfast Club regular Speedy Amos, 86, a Republican, likes a friendly political debate with retired car dealer Jim Dall, 89, a Democrat.
“I didn’t want it to be one of those stories about ‘Who are you voting for?’ ” Barry said.
As the series draws to an end, Barry almost promises he will be back, perhaps in the near future, to report again on the city.
“I’m still totally immersed in Elyria,” he said. “I couldn’t have been treated better.”