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BEDFORD, Pa. — Nestled in the picturesque Allegheny Mountains half way between this Bedford County seat and the charming little village of Everett, Pa., Santa Claus came to town right before Christmas Day.

At least to those who had layaways at the local Walmart.

It is a story of poise, generosity and gratitude, one filled with layaways, community service and creating education opportunities; it is void of the stereotypical political resentments attributed to rural Americans since this election began last year.

“It all started with a phone call from someone who was calling for ‘Santa B’ on Dec. 1,” said Ryan Kennedy, the store manager. “The person said they wanted to know what it would cost to pay off the entire store’s layaway items and when the pick-up date was,” he explained.

The Walmart is located equidistant between the two towns, explained Michael Corle, a rural renaissance man, who despite his preference for shopping local, often finds himself with his wife and three kids taking advantage of the bargains and the convenience of the big discount chain department store.

“For so many young families in his area layaways offer customers the ability to slowly pay off an item over a determined amount a time, often allowing them the ability to pay off items on their children’s or family’s wish list that they could not afford all at one time,” Corle said.

It is something they can do with dignity if they are on a fixed income or have fallen on hard times or working two or three jobs, he said.

Many families on limited budgets rely on the service, which typically does not place an additional fee like a credit card. It is also a great service for people who have poor or no credit, Corle said.

The store manager was skeptical and apparently the anonymous donor anticipated that because he directed Kennedy to Google recent past layaway payoffs to other small towns in Pennsylvania.

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“Santa B” paid off the layaways at two central Pennsylvania stores last year, one in Harrisonburg and the other in Mechanicsville. I called them up, and they verified not only this person’s pledged generosity but the fact that they indeed had followed through.

Several phone calls and days later a cashier’s check arrived for $46,265.59 and his staff got to call all 194 local customers to give them the good news.

“There were a lot of tears, shock and disbelief when our customers were told,” Kennedy said.

Like the real Santa, Kennedy has never set eyes on the donor or spoken directly to him.

Everett, where the Walmart is technically located, is a tiny little borough in Bedford County; it was originally named “Bloody Run” after a gruesome battle between Native Americans and early settlers.

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After the Civil War it was christened after the famed 19th century orator and Secretary of State Edward Everett who notably spoke for over 2 hours in Gettysburg before Abraham Lincoln took to the stage to give his brief but iconic Gettysburg Address.

Located along the old Lincoln highway 120 miles east of Pittsburgh, the median income for a household in this area is about $24,000, according to Census data, and with nearly 20 percent of the population of the town living below the poverty line, Santa B’s generosity hit home.

When the interstate came through in the 1950s it cut Everett and Bedford off of the once main thoroughfare for travelers, a move that cut off commerce, ultimately costing them companies investing in the towns.

America has been getting a lesson about the lives of rural America through the eyes of the presidential election, Corle said. “But they are not getting the full story of the people who carve their lives out here, the stereotypes through the prism of politics only tells the political shifts of the people, not their whole story,” he said.

He said the complexities of why people don’t leave because things have eroded economically isn’t simply explained in a political analysis.

Imagine New York City lost at least 20 percent of its population in 30 years due to the key industries that employed most of its people vanishing thanks mainly to technological innovations and intrusive governmental policies. An event that created an ancillary effect of shuttering the smaller business who supplied the big guys.

As young people left to find jobs elsewhere, middle-aged parents now missed a connection and relationship with their grandchildren and can count on two hands the amount of time they have spent with them in 18 years.

Middle-aged folks fled as well, leaving elderly parents to live out their lives without their families.

Soon local school programs dry up and some schools start to close because the people who have children have mostly gone, then the churches close and finally that lovely little market with the fresh arugula and organic coffee beans that your wife loved closed because disposable incomes have become a thing of the past.

Pretty soon every other business on Madison Avenue is boarded up and Central Park is decaying because there is no tax base to sustain its up keep.

And there you are sitting in Manhattan in a half empty skyscraper watching the news as pundits scold you for not moving to where the jobs are, instead remaining tethered to a lifestyle that is a thing of the past, and oh yes you are a bigot for no other reason than just because.

But at least you still have your bike lanes.

Corle has done the big city life and he admits he loves it, misses it and sometimes craves it. His decision to come back to his hometown was based on being close to family, but also close to the community feel of living in a small town.

Corle is seemingly relentless, he owns Locality, a gallery that attracts high-end Pennsylvania artists. He and his wife teach 600 students a year at all county schools through an after-school outreach program that gives students a greater understanding of their community history through the creation of short films, documentaries, and animations.

America’s rural poor are different than the poor in the city because there are cultural resources available to people in the city like libraries and art that can lift a person up to a different world.

“The kindness of a stranger lifted people up around here and they did it with no fanfare, or social media post, no press release or TV cameras, now that is true generosity,” he said.

Corle isn’t resentful or envious. Why? Probably because he is too busy. One thing that he would like is for the generosity extended by “Santa B” be extended to people to open their minds to the people who live here from the people who don’t.

“Everything is so fragile, things failed here, it wasn’t fast, and you watched it happen slowly over time,” he said.

“But there are plenty of people working really hard to turn that around, it could happen to any city or town or village in this country, we need to do a better job of understanding why people stay to try to bring these places back.”

One visit to his gallery Locality is certainly a good start.

Salena Zito is a columnist for the Washington Examiner.

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