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Positive visit makes the difference

He came, he saw, he left sausage. That pretty much sums up the recent visit by Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, who returned to the "City of Smiles" to try and put a happy face on those he alienated following his visit last year, after which he posted an unflattering piece about Greenville and its residents on the liberal website Salon.

I had the opportunity to spend the bulk of the day with Feingold, his wife Mary and members of the local contingent including Mayor Dexter McLendon, Executive Director of the Butler County Commission for Economic Development Ricky McLaney and a host of other locals. Also in tow was a slew of media including reporters from The Montgomery Advertiser; Gannet News Service (Gannet owns the Advertiser); The Associated Press; The Birmingham News; The Anniston Star; The Wisconsin Journal-Sentinel, Feingold's home-state newspaper; WSFA and WAKA.

McLendon, McLaney and others did an excellent job of putting together an informative tour of the city at very minimal expense since the Senator paid his own way, funded by a political action committee established as he tests the waters for the 2008 Presidential race, something he didn't deny during meetings with the Advertiser and Birmingham News editorial boards.

My day following the Senator started with a somewhat awkward handshake with the Feingolds prior to breakfast at Just Julie's Caf\u00E9. After some nervous conversation, things evened out a bit and I found Feingold to be pleasant and as intrigued as I was about how the issue of his initial characterization of Greenville had taken on a life of its own, which was illustrated by the throng of press that created a convoy longer than the average funeral as we toured the city.

After breakfast Feingold extended an olive branch to McLendon giving him a box of Bratwurst, what he characterized as the "finest sausage in Wisconsin." Considering his home state, I was expecting cheese, but the brats worked.

Feingold posed for some photos at Julie's and we were off to a tour of Greenville High School, which was polished as usual, even given the fact there was some minor flooding the prior day due to some backed up storm drains. But Kathy Murphy and crew did an excellent job of showing off what I believe is one of the best assets this community has. Feingold seemed to agree, as he walked, eyebrows raised, smiling, shaking hands and taking notes. I surmised the note taking was to make sure he didn't forget any names of those he met.

After the visit to Tiger High, the entourage toured the new industrial kids on the block; Hysco and Hwashin. We donned hard hats and both industries, which support the Korean auto manufacturing facility in Hope Hull, did an excellent job showing off their facilities and giving the outside media a glimpse of what we already know; the industrial manufacturing climate in Butler County is alive and thriving thanks to the hard work and investment of everyone in the community who pulled together to get us through the tough times.

Lunch and a press conference followed at Cambrian Ridge and the senator and his wife were honored that evening with a dinner at the home of Bill and Magoo Hamilton, who were gracious enough to host the Wisconsin couple along with about 50 other people who were as anxious as I was to see Feingold in a more relaxed setting.

And relaxed it was as local comedians Jim Dunklin and Calvin Poole dressed up like a couple of characters out of the movie Deliverance and put on what the Wisconsin journalist called "a redneck skit," poking fun at what had turned in to somewhat of a love fest.

About half way through the evening's festivities, I asked Feingold what his impression now was of the Camellia City. He replied with a three word answer. "You were right."

He was characterizing my comments in a recent column about how Greenville was like many other typical small towns across the country; filled with good, hardworking people who cared about each other and did the best they could with what they had, which, by the way, was pretty darn good.

Yes, senator, I was right and had you taken a closer look the first time around you would have seen what I, and many others who live here, see every day. The reality of who we are instead of who we aren't and how far we've come in the last five years, which by the way happened while a Republican president was in the Oval Office.

Yes, senator, I was right, but then again, we were never wrong to begin with.

I do have to take my hat off to Feingold. He didn't have to invest the time and the capital to return to what many thought was the "scene of the crime." I'm sure he and his wife, and certainly his press secretary, were somewhat worried about what they might find waiting for them when they returned. What they found were smiling faces, southern hospitality and the graciousness that makes us who we are.

Not many people would willfully expose themselves to a possible drubbing at the hands of some upset southerners and while Feingold may not have earned my vote, he certainly earned a healthy measure of my respect for doing the right thing

Dennis Palmer is the publisher of of the Greenville Advocate and can be reached at 383-9302, ext. 125 or via email at dennis.palmer@greenvilleadvcate.com.