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The state of the union is...

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
A U.S. flag flutters above the Statue of Liberty in New York on December 9, 2010.
A U.S. flag flutters above the Statue of Liberty in New York on December 9, 2010.
  • President Obama will deliver the State of the Union address Tuesday
  • People will instantly debate the president's remarks, says Bob Greene
  • Another way to gauge state of the union is by reading local newspapers, Greene says
  • They report tales of cooperation, sacrifice, service and compassion, he says

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose books include "Late Edition: A Love Story" and "And You Know You Should Be Glad: A True Story of Lifelong Friendship."

(CNN) -- The state of the union?

President Obama will outline his version Tuesday night in front of a joint session of Congress. Almost as soon as he has finished speaking, a chorus of voices will rise to say that he was right, or that he was wrong.

The state of the union? It's such a big and daunting subject.

One way to observe the state of the union, in fine brushstrokes, is to take a look at local newspapers from around the country, from small and medium-sized towns, and find out what has made the front pages. Not the national wire-service stories, and not the grimness intrinsic to police-blotter reports of crime and mayhem. But the quiet tales that usually never make it past the county line.

The stories can be moving, they can be quirky, they can be inspiring, they can be funny.

Here are some of them. They have only two things in common:

They were all published on a single day during the week leading up to this year's State of the Union address. And they all made Page One of the print editions of the papers in their towns.

State of the Union address preview
Previewing the State of the Union

In East Jordan, Michigan, a fourth-grade teacher named Tina McDuffie noticed that there were other teachers in her school whose classrooms didn't have enough books and materials. Some of the teachers were new to the elementary school. So, McDuffie told reporter Alice Perrault of the Petoskey News-Review, she applied for and received charitable grants worth about $900, and was able to help her colleagues: "I got started with this whole thing because I felt bad for the other teachers. I know the panicking feeling you have when you need materials for your classroom but don't have them."

In Dubuque, Iowa, the mother and father of Marine Lance Cpl. Christopher Billmyer, 22, were doing their best to help their son adjust to his new life after he lost both legs to an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. Jim and Cheryl Billmyer told Craig D. Reber of the Dubuque Telegraph Herald that they are especially proud of the fact that their boy, with all he has endured, seems so concerned about properly expressing his gratitude to friends and strangers who have sent him cards and letters of encouragement: "Christopher said, 'Dad, how am I going to be able to thank all of these folks who have been helping me?' I said, 'Christopher, right now you can thank them by doing the best you can to get better every day.' "

iReport: What's the state of your community?

In Lubbock, Texas, longtime residents were reminiscing about how much a simple piece of furniture -- the lunch counter at the Pancake House -- has meant to the community in the 50 years since the restaurant opened in 1961. The current owner of the place, Damon Stotts, told Ray Westbrook of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal that the counter has served as a point of continuity for the town: "We can solve the world's problems here." Stotts said that a woman now living in Florida walked in recently and said, "Wonderful. I used to come in here. My daddy brought me here when I was a little girl, and I just wanted to come back to see it. This is just like coming home.'"

In Mendham Township, New Jersey, the Alderton family was celebrating the swearing-in of Jay Alderton, 26, as the new volunteer fire department chief of Brookside Engine Co. No. 1. He is the third generation of his family to serve as volunteer firefighters in the area; his grandfather, John Alderton, 79, and his father, Jack Alderton, 56, showed him the way. The dad, who was present for the swearing-in, told Vanessa Vera Roman of the Daily Record of Morris County: "Watching your son grow up to be the chief of a great fire company ... I was so proud. I was proud as a father, proud as a firefighter."

In Hutchinson, Kansas, a reader wrote to the Hutchinson News: "Would the News carriers who place rubber bands around the paper in the wee hours of the morning appreciate it if we saved our rubber bands and returned them so they could be recycled? Also, do they have to pay for their own rubber bands or does the News provide them?" Amy Bickel of the News staff replied that the carriers, as independent contractors, supplied their own rubber bands: "If you aren't using your bands to make the world's largest rubber band ball, feel free to drop them off with our circulation department here at the office or, if you have a newspaper mailbox, stick them in there and your carrier will pick them up."

In Rome, Georgia, the number of inmates booked into the Floyd County Jail was down sharply after an unusual recent snowstorm. The reason, according to reporter Kim Sloan of the Rome News-Tribune? An unanticipated and helpful side benefit that the storm bestowed upon the community: Criminals were deterred because so many people were stuck inside homes that might otherwise have been burglarized. And "after a man burglarized the Gravy Boat on Dean Avenue on Monday, police were able to find him by tracking his footprints."

In Waynesboro, Virginia, Logan and Jaime Kelso were feeling indebted to a pair of local men who, without thinking twice, took action to save the life of the Kelsos' bleeding and injured pet dog. The dog, a chocolate Labrador, had been playing in the Kelsos' enclosed back yard when, without them noticing, he jumped a fence. According to to Chase Purdy, a reporter for the News Virginian, the Kelsos drove around the neighborhood, looking for the dog. He had been hit by a car on Poplar Avenue. Two members of the Waynesboro First Aid Crew -- Ralph Brewer and Jeremy Green -- found the dog bleeding profusely and in great distress. They wrapped the wounds tightly; "If we hadn't stopped the bleeding, the dog would probably have died," Green said. They ran an intravenous tube into the dog's leg and put an oxygen mask over his snout. Because of them, he lived.

In Opelousas, Louisiana, the local public library, hoping to spark in the town's children a lifetime love of reading, planned to hold a winter-themed free story time. Books with cold-weather titles sure to appeal to the children -- "The Mitten," "Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear?" and "The Snowy Day" -- were scheduled to be read. The idea, library volunteer Cheryl Schlomer told William Johnson of the Daily World of Opelousas, was to introduce the boys and girls to the joys of the library: "The children really love being able to take home a book of their very own. We also hope to encourage family reading time."

In South Dakota, people were learning that a boy who grew up in Rapid City, T.J. Ellwein, has been nominated for the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation's American Spirit Award. Steve Young of the Argus Leader of Sioux Falls reported that, as part of a service project to become an Eagle Scout, Ellwein and 40 friends and fellow Boy Scouts went to Chaplains Hill at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, and, by hand, meticulously cleaned the marble headstones of military chaplains and chaplains' assistants buried there dating back to World War I. Scout Ellwein said that, in addition to honoring the service of the chaplains, he undertook the task to honor his parents, Fred and Dianne Ellwein, both of whom are serving in the U.S. Army.

The state of the union?

Sometimes we wonder. Often we worry.

It is a continuing story, being written every day.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.