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An auspicious moment for tiny Centre College, town of Danville

Town revels in national attention

DANVILLE, Kentucky (CNN) -- The citizens of the little college town of Danville, Kentucky, have been more than happy this week to tell anyone who would listen that nothing bigger has ever happened here.

Lieberman
Lieberman  

Nor has so much attention been trained on Centre College, the 1,300-student liberal arts school that played host to Thursday night's vice presidential debate.

Now that it's over, they say they'll actually miss all of it -- the candidates; the Secret Service agents trailing them; the legions of Kentucky State Police sent in from all over the state to keep traffic flowing and maintain order; and the hordes of reporters who occupied the field house for two days and stomped down the well-manicured campus' green grassy areas.

There is an air of minor anxiety here, as faculty, staff and students lean back in anticipation of the dividends this sort of event should yield.

"For a year now, the community has been saying 'It's coming, it's coming,'" wrote student Ryan Moore in the Cento, Centre College's student tabloid. "With all the attention centered on the presence of the debate, very few people have stopped to consider what will happen when it's gone."

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Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman debate in Danville, Kentucky

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Some on campus are hoping members of the media return home bearing positive memories of Centre, with some faculty members predicting a handful of reporters will remain in the area for some days following the vice presidential contest.

But perhaps most importantly, for the faculty members who have spent months carefully planning Thursday's national spectacle, the self image of the tiny school should be improved significantly.

"What I hope the debate does for Centre will be to give our faculty and students a greater confidence -- that in spite of our size, we are a college that thinks and acts on a national scale," said J. Carey Thompson, the school's dean of admissions and student financial planning.

Traditional liberal arts atmosphere

The atmosphere at Centre -- that of a small liberal arts school where all the students live on campus and seem to know each other -- is becoming more and more rare, as college-age students opt for larger schools that specialize in business instruction or high technology. Students and school operatives went out of their way Thursday to demonstrate the campus' sense of community, and its symbiotic relationship with old, historic Danville.

Neighboring cities as well seem to regard the little school with great affection -- the Churchill Downs and Keenelands horse race tracks each donated portions of their outdoor public address systems, which were set up on the campus quad so the entire student body could watch the debate on towering, state-of-the-art television screens.

The front portions of the campus itself were festooned with balloons and streamers, and bands churning out George Jones and Charlie Pride covers could be heard throughout the downtown Danville area into the evening. These pre-debate dealings looked more like a carnival than the lead-up to a vital national exchange, in sharp contrast to the locked down University of Massachusetts Boston campus, which hosted the presidential debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush on Tuesday.

Cheney
Cheney  

Demonstrations were encouraged here, though the state police pleaded with participants to keep their protests confined to the "Speaker's Park," which occupies space between the school's baseball diamond and football stadium.

As a concession to those who wanted to get their message across to people closer to the campus gates, a "literature exchange table" was maintained on the central lane leading into the school.

Winona LaDuke, Ralph Nader's running mate on the Green Party ticket, made a brief appearance early on Thursday at the Speakers' Park. A small cadre of Naderites occupied the campus through most of the day, with some 200 of their ranks marching across Danville's main street late in the afternoon, blocking traffic for a few minutes.

That was about as restless as things got here.

Many of the groups who sent representatives to the park might now be considered just on the edge of the mainstream, as third-party efforts continue to demand attention in the runup to this year's election, in the hopes of better showings at later times.

The Reform Party, the Libertarians and the Constitution Party participated, as did members of the American Association of Retired Persons, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the American Civil Liberties Union and a number of leftist student groups who made road trips from the University of Kentucky.

'Dry' on a wet night

But with all the harmony seen on campus, some students are seething at one aspect of life in the Danville area -- they live on a "dry" campus, in a dry county. And while some of them were willing to talk about their frustrations, they didn't want their names mentioned.

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"This is a small place," one student volunteer said Thursday night. "If you go to college here, there isn't a lot to do."

The solution for those who are so concerned, many said, is to make a 23-mile trek to the nearest liquor store. "We've got it all down," one freshman girl said. "You have to know where to go around here. You have 'dry' counties, 'moist' counties, and 'wet' counties."

"Some students get in trouble here now and then," she said indignantly, "But, you know, it's not like we have stills or anything like that."

"Dry," of course, indicates no alcohol may be sold within county lines. A "moist" county is one where beer and wine may be obtained, and a "wet" county means anything can be had.

The student volunteer's observation that Centre College and Danville are small places was borne out somewhat late on Thursday night, when a campus security officer driving a handful of reporters back to their cars in a relentless rainstorm received a call from a concerned student.

Answering the speakerphone in his van, the officer tried to calm a dorm student who was reporting suspicious activity across the street from here building.

"There are some girls sitting in a car next to the dorm, and they are drinking, and they are singing 'I Love American Music,'" the breathless caller said.

The officer promised to dispatch someone shortly, but a second call was received just three minutes later. The same girl this time said, "I just called about some girls drinking and singing songs. Well, they all just got out of the car. They were too drunk to drive."

The officer thanked the caller, and ended the call.

Campus security, the state police and secret service had spent their day shuttling hundreds of luminaries and interlopers on and off the small campus with precision and timeliness. And every form of crisis would seem to have been averted in Danville Thursday.

Now, the school awaits its rewards.

 
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