Home / Car News / A Look At Small-Town American Car Culture: Scott, His Tesla, And The Tiny College He Runs

A Look At Small-Town American Car Culture: Scott, His Tesla, And The Tiny College He Runs

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Welcome to another Dispatch from the 2,500-resident town of Sterling, Kansas — the “Silver City.” Some of you may be surprised to learn that Sterling is a college town, and that means young people hang out here, and professionals who care for young people hang out here, and all their cars hang out here, too. In this dispatch, let’s hang out ourselves for a bit in the part of a Venn diagram where prairie car culture and prairie higher ed coexist.   

First, the news.

At the risk of propagating nagging (but, admittedly pretty accurate) stereotypes of the prairie, it was incredibly windy in Sterling last week. Kudos to the commercial drivers who kept goods and people on the move in high-profile vehicles, fighting the crosswinds all week long, having to spend hours upon hours executing airplane-like slip maneuvers just to keep their trucks moving straight ahead.

Here’s what the wind did to me last Thursday in my Sprinter on the way back from Scranton, Kansas where I bought a set of used tires. These were probably 35-40 mph sustained winds from the north:

 

[Editor’s note: As I said in the intro article, my goal with this series from the random, small town of Sterling, Kansas is to fill a void I’ve noticed in mainstream automotive media — there’s just not enough written about rural American car culture. The fantastic little nugget above about pulsing wind gusts from the gaps between train cars pushing vehicles around is exactly what I had in mind. It’s just so obscure and great!]

So that wasn’t a fun drive.

It’s a safe bet that anytime molecules move that fast from one place to another, we’ll throw little molecule-yokes on them and make them do work. Here’s a pie graph I screenshotted as soon as I got back, from Southwest Power Pool (spp.org). 

I get it, it’s self-evident that the wind won’t blow all the time (among other reservations about wind generation), but last week it sure did! I could do with less wind for a few days, but I’m starting to get psyched about spring storms. Towering anvil clouds do for me what taillight lenses do for Jason Torchinsky!

Scott, Tesla, and the Cars of our College

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Our town, with Cooper Hall peeking over treetops, as seen from the new highway bypass under construction

 

Tesla has sold over a million cars in the USA. Accounting for collision losses and the occasional Roadster placed into solar orbit, the numbers suggest that there is one Tesla out there for every 350 people in the USA.

In Sterling, where if Tesla penetrated the market evenly we’d expect about seven Teslas, there is but one. A Model Y with dual motors and a black interior, the car belongs to Scott, the president of Sterling College (SC), our flagship cultural and economic institution.

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Cooper Hall

 

A quick mental exercise before we go on: Which of the following words best represents your first “gut” reaction to the vehicle I just described? Which embodies your first reaction towards college CEOs? And which term works as your knee-jerk thought about a college CEO driving a Tesla?

–”Elite”

–”Smart”

–”Bold”

–”Expensive”

–”Annoying”

If you drive in America, cars are a form of expression. Even appliance-drivers express themselves. To paraphrase the GREAT rock band Rush: If you choose not to express yourself automotively, you still have made an automotive self-expression.

For a locally-prominent leader like Scott, the consequences of self-expression intensify and dissipate more slowly than they might for someone in a less visible position. This is a small town, and the fact is that the way we exchange information — even through just pleasant discussions about our well-being — with essentially the same group of people we see several times a week (some of whom care about us, some who really don’t) adds risk to one’s choices of expression. Around here, other people, what they think, and what one thinks they think, tend to get inside one’s head and rattle around.  

Welcome to our small town, where we’re only self-conscious because everybody is looking at us.

Scott’s Cars

For a fifty-something, Scott’s car-nology is pretty long. Here’s what he’s owned:

–Chevy Nova SS

–Pontiac Grand Prix

–Mazda pickup

–Mazda MPV

–Ford F-150

–Toyota Tacoma

–Jeep Wrangler (TJ)

–Volvo sedan

–Jeep Wrangler (JK)

–Chrysler 300

–Ford F-250

–Toyota Tacoma

–Alfa Romeo Giulia

–GMC Sierra

–Toyota 4Runner

–Tesla Model Y

The customary car-taste patterns that I tend to see among locals Scott’s age emerge, here: youthful speed-worship, commencement of child-rearing, and eventually curating a complementary, binary fleet (Chrysler 300/Ford F250, etc.) to manage the contradictory needs of family, economy, and hauling. Scott’s impressions of his car-nology today generally organize around issues of reliability: the Toyotas were good cars; the Chrysler and ESPECIALLY the Alfa Romeo were bad. I know, I bet you’re all surprised.

Queen of the Kansas Plains, ca. 1925 (courtesy Jerry Bourgain).

 

The college president told me that for his car decisions, issues of identity or style were–and are today, including with the Tesla–subordinate to function. For example, Scott must manage a perennially tight budget for Sterling College business travel, and the Tesla is just cheaper to operate than anything else on the road.

But many of SC’s alumni donors, who need to be visited and courted, live in southwest Kansas, and Tesla’s charging network doesn’t live in southwest Kansas. So, is that Tesla really about sensibility? And wait, isn’t there an Alfa Romeo in Scott’s background? Bold, good-looking, and exciting cars clearly appeal to Scott, but this is a small town, and Scott has an extremely important, public-facing job, so it’s no surprise he emphasizes one truth (sensible) over another (sexy).

Egg hunting on the Cooper Hall lawn, Easter 1976 (courtesy Jerry Bourgain).

 

Most Sterling College alumni and employees are undoubtedly proud of Scott–and they should be–for multiple reasons, including his long track record of competence in a hard job.

CEOs and academics aren’t the most beloved figures these days, but if the image of Scott sitting in an ivory tower on the plains comes to your mind, you might need to visit us to set that idea straight. Sterling College is a grittier, more textured and complex place. If you are a resident of Sterling, you might see SC as our central nervous system–as SC cycles through periods of stability or distress, so go the rest of our institutions. Or, you might see it as an earnest and spirit-filled Christian college churning out preachers and teachers every year to serve up a gospel influence in a lost world. Or you might see rank hypocrisy in the beer-can empties lining the ditches near the dorms. Or you might be baffled and indignant when the homecoming musical is either censored, or not censored, in any way contrary to your own very specific cultural and religious sensibilities.  

It’s for these reasons that Scott’s job is so tough. He’s in charge of a place where the contradictory, triple standards of business, ministry, and higher-ed frequently clash, and he has to somehow make it work.

Cooper College changed its name to Sterling College in 1919 because administrators were tired of explaining where the college was. The arrival of students has always brought vigor to town! (Courtesy Jerry Bourgain)

 

Indeed, I have observed that some of our people here fall into a judgmental If-he’s-driving-that,-Sterling-College-doesn’t-need-my-donation mode of thinking, although they’d be unlikely to ever say so directly to Scott’s face, because that might seem disagreeable. 

Ultimately, no one, including Scott, likes to be told (i.e., murmured and small-talked) what to do.  He wanted a Tesla, and it made some sense, and it was exciting too, so he got one. Cars bring Scott joy, and most of us Autopians can relate.

Residents Roll Their Eyes at The Students’ Cars, but Pray Those Kids Stick Around

Chandler and his sweet GTI. Chandler–one of my favorite people–is not an SC student but he has brothers who attended and work at SC, and he moved here with them from Colorado.

 

The students at Sterling College–about 600 in total–drive all sorts of cars. Take every visual image you may have absorbed from popular culture of prairie towns–Norman Rockwell, Smallville, Field of Dreams, whatever—and lay over top of that image a soundtrack of thumping bass, straight-pipes, and failing CV joints turning sharply and too fast on marginal tires. These loud noises in particular identify us as a college town. We also have the subtle backing track of affordable appliance-cars idling in harmony to warm up before a mid-February 7:50 class across campus. And we have occasional resting measures of modern hybrids and start-stops waiting at our stop light (yes, singular stop light). It is a choir of sorts, and you can hear all of it within one square mile.

Students walk to Wednesday chapel (student cars in background).

 

Youngsters in their jalopies, ragged last-gen pony cars with exactly one can’s worth of primer gray, coal-rolling bro-dozers, and the OCCASIONAL spotless and mint-condition GTI (I’m looking at you, Chandler!) give our town something that most little prairie burgs covet–YOUTH, vitality and a chance (you’re saying there’s a chance!) that they will stick around, maybe even settle and reproduce.  

“Voices” in a “choir” of sorts, Part 1

 

Like wary birds down low within the prairie grasses, SC students are heard before they are seen. 

They aren’t just any young people, they are our future, and the automotive sounds of their attention-craving, undeveloped prefrontal cortexes have an effect not unlike our own children crying at night out of hunger or a scary dream. Exasperating? Sure, at times, but when you’re in serene Sterling and you hear that fart-canned Honda, ATTENTION MUST BE PAID. And that’s a good thing.

More “voices,” part 2.

 

The Sterling College faculty and staff–with Scott in the lead–wrap caring arms around our students and nurture them as long as the students will let us. The community in general does its part too, providing places to do laundry and plates of cookies and going to all the games and shows. The relationships that develop here, with relatively little to distract from familiarity that grows into intimacy between humans, tend to be healthy and enduring.   

Yet more “voices,” part 3.

 

They’re young. They don’t want to be told what to do. We’ll roll our eyes plenty, but heaven forbid they, and their cars, ever go away. There’s not much else unpleasant to listen to here, so we can take it. Maybe, when that prefrontal cortex fills out, they’ll think about hanging around, having some kids themselves, and putting them in car seats. In a Buick Enclave. 

I’m Glad Scott Drives That Model Y

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The view from Cooper, looking toward the new bypass

 

The buttoned-down college CEO undersells his automotive self-expression. His tatted and studded and green-haired students oversell theirs.

In a sense, humans have been seeking a place where they can express themselves comfortably, probably forever. In one narrative, people crossed an ocean, established a frontier, and kept pushing that frontier further west seeking that place where they could exist without judgmental oversight.  

It begs the question: Where is our frontier of self-expression now? Is it in metro areas, where concentrated population dissolves individual expression into a vat of indifferent anonymity? Or is it a prairie town where ATTENTION MUST BE PAID?

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My friend, also named David, checking out the view with me. In Sterling, as you’ll see over time, we climb to the top of the tall things and look around every chance we get.

 

While it might seem exhausting and overwrought, I like that we have so much interaction and so many ways to exchange information about our condition at any given time–even if it’s unintentional, and even if we’d sometimes rather not.

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Thanks for expressing yourselves in Sterling, crazy kids!
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Thanks for expressing yourselves in Sterling, crazy kids!

 

The less Scott feels conspicuous and judged for driving a Tesla, the more likely he will stick around and do a hard job well for kids who themselves–let’s face it–embody an opportunity we cannot afford to squander. I am glad Scott is here. I’m glad he drives that Y. I want what he wants.

 

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24 Responses

  1. When I worked in Kansas City the locals told me that a Kansas wind meter was a 3 inch link chain nailed to a 3 foot post. Completely down: rare calm day. 45 degree angle: normal day. Straight out: take cover – tornado’s coming.

  2. I really enjoyed the historical perspective here, David. If any part of the original species of Americana remains in this era of social media, then it survives in small college towns in the MIdwest. You are a very lucky man. Thanks for your perspective on Tesla ownership outside the Big City.

    1. Business language has crept into academia. Especially in private institutions like the one he’s talking about. It’s quite probable that the guy has both titles. Take it from another guy who works at a private institution of higher learning.

  3. You may find that pieces like this will get relatively less engagement and comments, but I really appreciate these perspectives. The common theme is our love of cars/transportation, regardless of how we got to that point.

  4. This series is really awesome. There are a lot of things I enjoy about this site and the articles herein, but in the site full of novel and special things this seems like one of the most novel and special, keep it up!

  5. Another Midwest kid here reading with great interest and appreciation. This stuff is great! I will be eagerly looking for your articles in the future. The middle of nowhere town I grew up in was also a small college town and this resonated very strongly. There was always unspoken tension between the townies and the students (gownies???) but everyone knew that both relied on each other so there was also a lot of understanding and tolerance for differences. Blend that with the standard Midwest-nice passively judgmental nature and it all makes sense. Great writing. Thank you.

  6. This is fantastic. You clearly love your town, and it shows. Keep ’em coming!

    By the way, have you ever read an author named Michael Perry? He writes about small-town life as well, in western Wisconsin. His book “Truck: A Love Story” is a favorite of mine. Check it out; I think you’d really enjoy it.

    1. I can answer that! The trip through Sterling on Broadway is a time-suck, with many pedestrians, and the existing road south of town is narrow with no shoulders, so car traffic tends to fan out on several paved county roads from Chase northwest to Hutchinson to southwest. (Heavy non-farm trucks are generally prohibited from the county roads and still go through town.) KDoT expects traffic to consolidate onto the new road with faster and/or safer transit. Plus, it’s expected that some travelers from Tulsa/OKC/NW Ark to CO will use our diagonal route rather than squared-off I-135 thru Salina. As you can imagine, it feels like an important moment.

  7. *Drives $60k Tesla because it minimizes long-term costs*
    “If-he’s-driving-that,-Sterling-College-doesn’t-need-my-donation”
    *Drives $60k Lariat-trimmed, chrome-bedazzled truck*
    “Well that’s an honest vehicle”

    Culture, and the norms and assumptions that come with it, is a funny thing ain’t it? And I genuinely say that as an observation, not a judgment, of midwest culture. A similar set of curious norms and assumptions plays itself out on the coasts, where driving a Tesla with the exterior build quality of a 2003 Kia Rio and the half-assed interior of that same 2003 Kia Rio is considered a status symbol.

    1. It floored me that they get away with selling a Model Y for 15k more than the equivalent Model 3. (I had to look it up but I didn’t realize the Y was that bad)
      Also cars and EVs in particular are too expensive. I don’t want to spend 40k, but would consider an EV under 30. Maverick is compelling for MPG, but I like minivans. I barely want to spend 10k though so I have a 5 speed Camry.

      Your points aside from pushing me to look into MSRPs are all compelling and a funny thing indeed. Culture and norms especially in small towns are baffling

      1. Cultural norms aside, I think it is worth pointing out this guy spent $63,000 with the apparent goal of getting cheap transportation. If he really wanted cheap, reliable transportation (as opposed to a vehicle that makes a statement), why not buy a Prius?

        A new $30,000 Prius is almost certainly going to be cheaper over the life of the vehicle than a $63,000 Tesla. Even with gas at $5 per gallon and the Prius getting only 40 mpg (both are worst case scenarios), the $33,000 saved by buying the Prius would be enough to drive over 200,000 (that includes gas, routine maintenance, and the occasional repair). I know EVs require minimal maintenance and a Tesla might depreciate less rapidly than the Prius, but I doubt that can possibly cover the $33,000 difference in purchase price.

        Of course, if he simply wanted a Model Y since he liked it, that is a perfectly valid reason to buy it. I just don’t like seeing luxury items rationalized as fiscally responsible purchases.

  8. David, love the idea of bringing small town car culture to Autopian. They rely on cars and not having that acknowledged seems silly.

    However,

    As an academic,

    I CANNOT get over your inconsistent use of president, CEO, and other terms for this man. If he’s actually titled CEO, that’s a problem. Universities (and hospitals, incidentally) should bit run as businesses. College presidents have executive functions, no doubt, but CEO is that little line too far. Yes, we live in a capitalist country, yes that means education must be explained within capitalism (just as families, friends, and wars must be). But that doesn’t mean CEO vs. President vs. Chancellor is “just semantics”. Semantics matter. Or why not call him the Führer of Sterling College? (see, semantics matter).

    Anyway, keep on keeping on with this beat. But watch for meaningful words.

  9. “give our town something that most little prairie burgs covet–YOUTH, vitality and a chance (you’re saying there’s a chance!) that they will stick around, maybe even settle and reproduce. ”

    Good luck with that. Maybe if more of their cars have catastrophic failure, they’re stuck there with nowhere else go, and somehow manage to get a job at the college. The job opportunities in most of these towns are practically non-existent. The part time, minimum wage jobs in local businesses usually help students afford gas money, but aren’t sufficient for much of anything else. A peek at most of the recent census data shows that small town America is literally dying out. Just a recent example:
    https://www.businessinsider.com/map-shows-births-deaths-natural-change-by-us-county-2022-4

  10. As a former resident of a small New England Town with a small military university, I understand completely the love/hate relationship between the locals and the students. Especially the need for the dollars generated vs the constant turn over of students, just when you get them trained they go and graduate! Rarely to return , except for homecoming weekend.
    Thanks Dave.

  11. A faculty brat, I grew up in various college towns across the Midwest(though none that small). You captured well the love/hate relationship the townies had with students & faculty. These dispatches from small, rural towns out in the middle prompt strong nostalgia in me. Thanks for that.

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