SANDUSKY, Ohio – Chris Biechele has had just about enough. Every day he walks into the bar he's owned for 25 years, every day he hears the name of the town he loves so much, every day he looks up to the TV to see what's going on, and every day his heart sinks.
Sandusky is in the news, but it's not Sandusky, Ohio. Not even close.
"People are talking about it left and right," says Biechele, the long-time owner of the popular bar Cheers. "There's a lot of animosity around this area, with the name. It's like we're getting a lot of bad press, just for the name."
The name. Of all the names. Jerry Sandusky, accused of 51 counts of child molestation in Pennsylvania, has the same name as the city of 25,000 halfway between Toledo and Cleveland. Just dumb luck. But type "Sandusky" in a Yahoo! search and you'll get a long list of stomach-churning news before you get a glimpse of the jewel of a town with the crisp summers and the neat, new marina.
The name actually has a lovely meaning. Sandusky has Native American roots, meaning "cold water." Perched on the shores of Lake Erie, this city was originally a place where ice was harvested before refrigeration took over. Then it became known for one of the world's top amusement parks, Cedar Point.
Now there's a worry "Sandusky" will become known for something else entirely.
"You tell people you're from Sandusky and they're like, 'What?' " says Biechele. "You say, 'We're not affiliated.' It's like trying to recuse yourself from something that happened in your family and it wasn't you. It's just embarrassing."
Officials here say there hasn't been any noticeable decline in tourism since the Jerry Sandusky scandal began late last year. It helped that the news broke in the fall, after the height of the travel season. "When the scandal first came out, I thought, 'Oh, I wish he had a different name,' " says Jill Bauer of the Lake Erie Shores and Islands tourism bureau. "But we've not heard of any negative connotation."
Then leading up to Father's Day, Bauer's group put #Sandusky in a tweet promoting a spa package at a local resort. That directed people to disturbing details from the ongoing trial in Bellefonte, Pa. Asked about it last week by Reuters, Bauer said, "We never thought about the connection with the other Sandusky."
She's not the only one professing ignorance. Several calls and visits to local businesses yielded curt comments expressing little awareness of the coincidence. (One bar patron stepped to within spitting distance and angrily pointed at the back exit.) "Whatever is happening elsewhere is unfortunate," says city manager Nicole Ard, "but this is a great community to be in."
Ard then listed some of the cool things going on in Sandusky: a triathlon, a youth sailing regatta, a revitalized downtown and several fishing tournaments. The city also has some cool history. It was a stop on the Underground Railroad, Charles Dickens visited here in the 1840s and Cedar Point has the famous Blue Streak wooden roller coaster, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2014.
But the Penn State specter lingers as long as the trial goes on. Ruth Haag, editor of the Sandusky Bay Journal, says she went to a committee meeting and someone suggested changing the town name to Perkins, which is the name of the township.
"We were all laughing about it," Haag says, but she admits people are "absolutely" aware of the wretched coincidence. She says it's been particularly difficult for her friend Jerry – Jerry from Sandusky.
There have been crude message board jokes and an even cruder YouTube video by a comedian. But the poignant thing about Sandusky (the town) is how hard residents worked to get through the recent economic downturn and maintain the town's reputation as a good place with good people.
"It's a small-town community, surviving on the vacation area," says Biechele, who has lived here his entire life. "Everybody is working to make things better, and then it's on every news station every day. People are disgusted. What a terrible thing that happened."
There's really no way to control the issue, either. People are going to make the connection no matter what, at least for the short term.
"I was just walking uptown and it hits me – Sandusky," says James Clarke, a Canadian who stopped for a drink at Daly's bar after a trip from Ontario on the bulk transport ship where he works. "Prior to coming here, I wasn't associating the city with what's going on in the case."
At least there's a saving grace: When the trial is over in a matter of days, this city will go back to being what made it Forbes' "Best Place To Live Cheaply" in 2011. And next summer, perhaps, all sad irony wrapped up in this city's name will be gone for good.
That's not only reassuring, but appropriate, as Sandusky is a place where children have always visited to enjoy a day with their friends and family at Cedar Point, without a thought of the perils of the real world beyond.
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