Alba Craft: Oxford’s uranium-laced history

The Robinson sisters played in the water that shimmered and shined as it moved through the gravel and grass on its path down west Rose Avenue and onto south Main Street. Carol Robinson, the self-proclaimed mud pie queen, splashed in the rivulets that trickled off the roof and around the massive industrial facility next door to the Robinson’s home. She paid little attention to the bustling sounds of workers coming in and out of the concrete complex.

The girls, all six of them, made an innocent hideout among the raspberry bushes that grew in their neighbor’s yard and on the building outside the perimeter of their own yard, often plucking and eating the wild fruit right off the vine.

That was seven decades ago. The Robinson sisters — Terry, Gail, Carol, Kelley, Peggy and Amy — didn’t know it then, but the center for processing radioactive uranium in Oxford, Ohio was directly behind their backyard.

The Alba Craft Laboratory, Inc.

From 1952 to 1959, former Miami professor and Oxford resident Eugene Albaugh owned and operated Alba Craft Laboratory, Inc. on 10-14 Rose Avenue.

Albaugh was subcontracted to manage Alba Craft by National Lead of Ohio, a company that controlled Fernald, which was a uranium processing facility for the Atomic Energy Commission until it closed in 1989.

But it wasn’t until March of 1993 that Daryl Kimball, who worked for the Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), a Washington D.C. group that informs the public on health risks of nuclear weapons-related activities, discovered by chance that his hometown, Oxford, had been added to the Department of Energy (DOE)’s Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP).

“It was a long time ago, but I remember it quite well,” Kimball said. “I was working for PSR, leading a research project about the nuclear complex industry. I was speaking with a DOE official at Oak Ridge who was ticking off the locations of FUSRAP sites throughout the nation and when I heard Oxford, I went, ‘Wait, back up, please.’”

That same Friday afternoon, Kimball told his mother, Linda Musmeci-Kimball, co-founder of Oxford Citizens for Peace and Justice (OCPJ) and director of the Peace Center in Oxford, about what the DOE had been hiding from the public.

Musmeci-Kimball was shocked to learn that Alba Craft, which in 1993 had been an embroidery shop, used to process uranium for the government during the nuclear arms race.

When her son called, Musmeci-Kimball was in the Peace Center (OCPJ office) with her two interns, Jason Gambatese and Michon Woods. And, as soon as she got off the phone she immediately lept into action, taking Gambatese with her and telling Woods to stay behind.

“I wasn’t sure what we were going to find,” Musmeci-Kimball said. “[Woods] was in her prime childbearing years.”

Musmeci-Kimball and fellow OCPJ member Yero Peterson (who had lived on Main Street near Alba Craft during the 1950s) immediately began contacting the DOE and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. They wanted the department and laboratory to release the results of the DOE’s report: “Results of the Radiological Survey at the former Alba Craft Laboratory Site Properties, Oxford, Ohio.”

“I was concerned because it was in the middle of town, two blocks away from the apartment [Village Green] where my younger sister was living while she was at Miami,” Kimball said.

In early 1992, nearly a year before Kimball’s discovery, the DOE had informed several officials on Oxford City Council, as well as the owners of Village Green and the Alba Craft building, that the building was being considered as a potential site requiring radiological cleanup within the next 15 years.

Musmeci-Kimball couldn’t believe that the DOE was willing to put Oxford on the back burner, conceivably until 2008.

“Were it not for [Daryl’s] persistent requests to the DOE for a pre-publication copy of the unclassified report on the September 1992 radiological survey, I am not sure how many more months it would have taken for the data to reach anyone in Oxford,” Musmeci-Kimball wrote in a 1994 column of The Oxford Press.

The “Significance of Findings” section of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s September 1992 report concluded that “the former Alba Craft Laboratory contains quantities of uranium that pose little health hazard if left undisturbed.”

In reality, months later the DOE manager of the clean-up, Dave Adler, admitted that the amount of contamination ranged from 10 to 100 times the radiation levels considered normal under DOE regulations, Musmeci-Kimball said.

Unfortunately, Oxford was just one small cog in the uranium machine that operated throughout Ohio and the United States during the Cold War.

The center of the ‘atomic mindset’

The Fernald Feeds Material Production Center, or simply Fernald, was the third largest nuclear waste dump in the country. Facilities around the nation would send waste to Fernald with the belief that the center would process the radioactive materials, but there was no place to put any of the waste after it was processed. Thus, it was buried in pits beneath the ground.

From 1951 to 1989, the plant produced 170,000 tons of metric uranium, most of which was conducted under secret government contracts. Many employees who worked for Fernald and its subsidiaries had no idea what their work exactly entailed.

Alba Craft was one of 83 companies that were subcontracted by National Lead of Ohio during the nearly four decades when the Fernald plant remained in operation for the Atomic Energy Commission.

Specifically, Alba Craft was one of 17 Ohio sites that worked with radioactive material and uranium metal in conjunction with Fernald from the 1950s through the 1970s. Outside of Ohio, there were 65 other sites that worked underneath the Superfund (locations categorized by the EPA as candidates for hazardous waste cleanup) site, Fernald.

While the DOE began its own record search for the cleanup that began in 1987, it was difficult to compile a list of commercial facilities that Fernald subcontracted.

“I had to base our search on old contracts and rumors from former workers and residents of these sites,” Adler said in a Hamilton Journal-News article from 1994.

In a special edition of the Oxford Daily Bugle (a newspaper produced by an English 212 public affairs reporting class in Miami’s English department on Dec. 23, 1994) a student interviewed David B. Fankhauser, a genetics expert, biology and chemistry professor from the University of Cincinnati.

Fankhauser independently surveyed the Alba Craft property and reviewed the DOE’s original report from 1993.

He was disturbed to see how his own conclusions about the level of contamination around the Alba Craft site differed from department’s initial assessment.

“[The survey] appears disingenuous and self-serving to the DOE who would be responsible for the clean up,” he said in an article from The Bugle. “At a time when our government was [supposed to be] protecting us from a threat…we were exposing ourselves to a greater real threat than the Soviet threat.”

Six years after Daryl Kimball found out that Oxford was home to a FUSRAP site, USA Today came out with a comprehensive list of private sites where companies contracted work for the government’s nuclear weapons program.

The report from Sept. 6, 2000 compiled a list of 150 sites where USA Today was able to verify the “specific nature of the contracting operations,” by analyzing data from over 300 private companies and over 100,000 pages of declassified federal records.

Twenty-four states were included in the special report. There were companies engaged in nuclear weapons work everywhere from Cranston, RI, to Granite City, IL, to La Jolla, CA. And 26 sites were identified in Ohio.

Oxford was listed underneath Ohio’s subsection, with Alba Craft Shop as the contractor.

“Machining of large quantities of uranium metal, 1952-57. Operations raised substantial amount of radioactive dust,” the report read. “Federal cleanup, removal of 2,800 cubic yards of contaminated soil and building completed in 1995…”

Alba Craft was even the catalyst for a book, Romancing the Atom: Nuclear Infatuation from the Radium Girls to Fukushima. Author Robert R. Johnson, a former Miami professor, learned of the facility’s history during his time in Oxford and featured it in two chapters of the book, which outlines the evolution of America’s “atomic mindset” in the past century.

Contamination cleanup

Starting in late March 1993, Musmeci-Kimball spearheaded the charge to inform Oxford’s city council about what her son had uncovered.

She has spent much of her adult life publicizing and condemning the U.S. government’s nuclear arms race. As the co-founder of OCPJ, she worked relentlessly to promote peace during the Cold War era.

“To realize that this entire time I was working for OCPJ protesting against the proliferation of nuclear weapons, there was a uranium machine shop hidden within the Mile Square of Oxford was shocking,” Musmeci-Kimball said.

Musmeci-Kimball and her OCPJ colleague Peterson issued a public notice for “major concern about Alba Craft”, which was read aloud at a city council meeting on March, 23 1993.

“Oxford residents are [to be] kept informed of any action that takes place at the site,” the notice read.

The notice also called on the Ohio EPA to conduct an independent assessment and asked that the city push for the DOE to execute a full and quick cleanup of the site.

While members of city council had been informed a year before that the DOE had conducted a radiological survey and ran tests, they were unaware of the scope of contamination at Alba Craft.

“In 1992, the EPA told us the site was clean,” former councilwoman and current OCPJ director of the Peace Center Janis Dutton said. “We accepted their word at face value. Unfortunately, you can’t just make up scientific decisions.”

Following the city council meeting in late March 1993, Dutton and various members of the council and city staff teamed with OCPJ to lobby late Ohio senator John Glenn’s and then congressman John Boehner’s offices.

“We took two lobbying trips to D.C. to try and get the state to fund an independent surveyor,” Dutton said. “We wanted the DOE to give Oxford a higher priority because Alba Craft was in the middle of a residential neighborhood.”

Promises were made by Glenn, Boehner and the assistant to the secretary of the DOE, Dan Reicher, to expedite the cleanup process.

One of the promises involved decontaminating the home of Marilyn and Wayne Elzey, who had unknowingly bought Eugene Albaugh (Alba Craft’s owner)’s former home.

Albaugh, who lived on South Main Street, had often traipsed through what was eventually the Elzeys’ home in work boots covered in radioactive material.

Little did Albaugh know that, over three decades later, Marilyn and Wayne would be directing DOE crews on where to remove flooring coated with uranium dust in their living room.

“We were upset that we never knew what had happened when we bought the house,” Marilyn said. “The DOE gave us the option of moving out, but we chose to stay.”

The decontamination crews came to the Elzeys’ home in October of 1993 every day for a week. They cleaned up the garage, the master bedroom, family room and pathway from the backyard through the garage.

“We ended up moving in 2000,” Marilyn said. “My husband was very angry. He was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease in 1997 and was diagnosed in 2010 with pancreatic cancer and passed away. We never pursued it because you have to get on with your life. If you become obsessed with something like that, you can’t live.”

Less than a month after the DOE’s hazmat crews cleaned up the Elzeys’ former home, the DOE said it might have Alba Craft cleaned up by 1994.

It took another full year for the president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), Arjun Makhijani, to speak in front of Oxford City Council on Nov. 29, 1994, and deliver his recommendations on the DOE’s cleanup progress as an independent surveyor.

“Radiation levels in the area posed some health risks,” Makhijani said at the council meeting. “DOE officials could not truthfully tell residents there is no large risk.”

Makhijani submitted his “Recommendations to the City of Oxford, Ohio regarding Alba Craft” on Jan. 10, 1995 to city manager James Collard.

He outlined various steps he believed the city should take, including following through with commitments made through Adler and the DOE and putting pressure on the DOE to “fund a dose reconstruction effort” to understand how exposure to uranium affected the former Alba Craft workers and surrounding residents.

The DOE contracted Bechtel, a construction and civil engineering company, to help clean, decontaminate and disassemble the Alba Craft Shop throughout 1995.

While notice of cleanup certification for the site was published in the Federal Register on Nov. 26, 1996, according to the DOE’s “Long-Term Surveillance and Maintenance Plan for Completed FUSRAP Sites,” the effects of Alba Craft’s uranium machine shop years still linger.

Aftermath of Alba Craft

Of the six Robinson sisters who played in the water contaminated at the Alba Craft shop, five have had thyroid cancer.

In 2004, Terry Robinson Fulton “had two partial thyroid removals and underwent radiation treatment for the thyroid cancer that spread to her liver,” according to an article in The Oxford Press from July 16 of that year.

For years, Terry had been incredibly worried about the effects the Alba Craft building and its contributions to the nuclear arms race had on her sisters, her children, and on herself.

One of her vocal cords was removed in 2004 and she was constantly waiting to see “whether cancer cells [were] forming again in her throat or liver,” according to a Hamilton News-Journal clipping.

Two years later, Terry died by suicide at the age of 54.

Kelley Robinson Hickey, who had surgery to remove one of the lobes on her thyroid gland after a tumor developed, died on March 12, 2014 at age 51.

The other four sisters, Amy Robinson Ferris, Gail Robinson Marbut, Carol Robinson McLaughlin and Peggy Robinson Feller, are alive today.

Gail moved to Garden City, KS as an adult. Her daughter, who never lived in Oxford, was also diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2004. Amy owns property in Oxford, but rents it out for student housing, and Peggy lives in Mt. Vernon, WA.

Carol, the mud pie queen, lives in Liberty, IN.

Carol suffered two bouts of initial thyroid cancer as a young child. In the 2004 article in The Oxford Press, Carol discussed how she “ha[d] three growths on a thyroid goiter and the removal entails risks of losing her ability to swallow.”

The Robinson sisters were just one tragic casualty of the four decades of inaction that passed following Alba Craft’s closure as a machine shop in 1957.

“There’s the old adage, ‘If you don’t learn and understand history, you’re bound to repeat the same mistakes,’” Daryl Kimball said.

“Our neighbors and residents have been affected by the Cold War in a profound way,” Kimball said. “They paid a price in the name of national security, and we need to honor them to make sure we don’t allow that to happen again in our lifetime.”

Kimball, along with his mother, Linda, and Janis Dutton, Marilyn Elzey and Arjun Makhijani, is adamant that remembering these events is important.

“The reason I had to discover its existence in the first place is because it was forgotten,” Kimball said. “If this generation doesn’t understand nuclear history, especially between the Fernald site and Alba Craft, we could repeat the same mistakes.”

Slow Down

2:45 a.m. on May 4

“Slow down, man,” says the kid waiting in front of me at the register.

The air is fruity and the lights are soft in the Oxford Hookah Lounge.

He blinks slowly, giving his eyelids a few moments to travel back up to an inebriated resting position. He’s wearing a short-sleeve, red and black button-up shirt with a dragon on the back. His hair is styled into a little tuft at the front.

“Just slow down,” he slurs, like I might not have heard him the first time.

*  *  *

3:00 a.m. on May 4

The lounge’s address is 15 North Beech Street, but really the building sits on an alley behind Left Field Tavern, off the corner of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park Uptown.  

Through the front door is the head shop — polished and gleaming pipes and hookah parts are displayed for sale in glass counters.  You enter the main lounge through a doorway opposite the register in the head shop. The cinderblock walls are painted red and black, and the two-story ceiling gives space for the clubby light fixtures you find in every college bar. They draw red and blue and green beams through the haze that has accumulated from the evening’s exhalation of flavored tobacco smoke.

Thirteen people are crowded around the largest table in the room. They pack a couch and a handful of padded stools and chairs, all drawn close to the four hookahs set up on the table. One of the guys, with blond hair, leans back and spreads his arms wide over the top of the sofa.

A case of Natty rests on the floor, alongside a lone empty beer can and an open bag of Doritos. A dozen more cans occupy the tabletop territory left unclaimed by the smoking rigs. The brunette sitting next to the blond guy takes her mouth off the hose, locks her lips around what looks like a bubble wand for 20-somethings, and blows a wobbling smoke bubble.

The squirrely orb rises up to join one or two others of its ilk floating in the air. Each is the subject of a communal hot potato game, as people sitting around the table wave their hands and blow at the bubbles, propelling them from one laughing friend to the next.

The brunette flaps her hand wildly beneath her tentative creation. It lingers, corporeal, for a few seconds before it bursts, releasing a cloud of smoke above her head.

The blond guy cocks an eyebrow and wrinkles his nose. Clearly, he’s seen better bubbles.

*  *  *

1:10 a.m. on May 13

Amid the din of laughs, smoke curls and top-40 playlists that fill the air, a couple sit on a couch by themselves. A. They are older than the students in the room, but not yet middle-aged. Between hits from a hookah, they sip Turkish coffee, tipping back demitasses of the unfiltered brew toward weathered cheeks. He wears a faded Ed Hardy-esque sweatshirt.

They were smiling earlier. Now, they look straight ahead at nothing as they puff.

He talks for a little while without changing his gaze and then pauses before talking again. She rests her head in her hand and her elbow on the couch. He puts two fingers to his head and runs them over his eyebrows, smoothing them out. She fixes her hair. He talks again and receives no response.

They leave after a while. Their eyes are glazed.

*  *  *

About 3:10 a.m. on May 4

One of the girls from the big group stands up from her stool, getting ready to leave.

“Sam!” calls a slim guy in a grey sweatshirt at a neighboring table. He was curled up comfortably in the corner of a couch, but he leans forward a little bit and his eyes open wider at the sight of her.

“You heading out?”

Her jeans have wide, intentional holes down their length and run tight from the top of her thighs down to her ankles. From the front, they barely qualify as pants.

She cocks her hip, accentuating her curves, and, with a smile, yells back something mostly indistinct but for, “Of course I am.” She then spins around to leave.

The slim kid leans back into the cushions. His eyes follow her out. He puts his hand up to his forehead and pushes his hair up and back, holding it tight for a beat. He lets go and exhales. His eyes drift to the ceiling.

One of his buddies says something that pulls him back, and his gaze shifts to the floor as he cracks a crooked smile.

A few minutes later, he pops his hood up and pulls his hookah hose tight against his chest. He’ll nurse it until he leaves.

*  *  *

1:45 a.m. on May 13

A trio walks in and settles around the table in the front of the lounge. A tall guy in a bright red polo takes a stool and his friend, wearing a sweater that falls somewhere between beige and heather grey, plops into the couch opposite him. They’re both smiling.

The lone girl in the group climbs onto the couch and sits cross-legged, scooching into the corner. Her hair is bedhead-frizzy and she’s swimming in a Miami crewneck and thick cotton sweatpants. Her face is blank; she’s absorbed in the phone cradled in her lap.

A hookah arrives at the table. The guys smoke and laugh. The one in the vaguely-taupe sweater spreads out his legs a little wider on the couch. They smoke and laugh some more.

The sweater guy lays his right arm in the empty space in the middle of the couch between himself and the girl. The girl keeps playing with her phone.

The guy in the polo leaves to go to the bathroom and the sweater guy starts talking to the girl. She responds with a word or two, keeping her eyes down but for a brief glance at the ceiling.

He moves his arm an inch closer to her, in the deliberately casual way boys try to slip an arm around a date at the movies. He keeps trying to talk to her. She tucks her legs underneath herself and points her knees away from him.

The guy in the polo comes back and the guy in the sweater smiles, immediately turning his attention back to the one person at the table interested in talking to him.

The girl brings her head up to steal a glance at the sweater guy when he isn’t looking.

*  *  *

3:35 a.m. on May 4

A pair of jingle bells tied to the shop door clink as new patrons walk in at 3:30 in the morning on a school night.

Amad Megatheh, the youngest of the three brothers who own and operate the Oxford Hookah Lounge, walks over to check on the slim guy’s group in the corner. He’s wearing dark jeans, with a clean beard and styled hair.

He puts his hand on the shoulder of one the guys in the group and makes a remark that elicits laughs all around. He swaps out the sooted coals in their hookah for glowing ones, pivots easily to grab their trash off the floor, then glides to the back room to drop it off.

Amad comes back and settles into a vacated stool at the large table. He says something to the dragon-shirt guy, then turns and talks to the girl on his left. She brushes back her hair, smiles and laughs.

*  *  *

4:00 a.m. on May 4

The music drops a few notches. Usually, the lounge closes at 2 a.m. on Thursdays, but Moe, the middle Megatheh brother, says if people are coming in, they’ll keep the lights on. But, by now, the post-bar crowd of 50 has shrunk to less than a dozen.

The group dwindles to a few stragglers after a couple stumbles out, almost colliding with the wall as they do.  Another exodus is led by a guy in a black ballcap who promises to a hockey teammate at another table, “I’ll be bringing my A-game tomorrow.”

Amad stands up from his stool and begins straightening up chairs and wiping down surfaces.

With yawns cascading around the room, the blond guy — the one from the group blowing bubbles — stands up, tilts back his head, and polishes off a can of beer. He walks, a bit dazed, out the jingling door and into the drizzling night.

David Dabney: Every Day is a Music Video

The 18,500 students tucked away on a college campus in Oxford, Ohio walk past one another, pausing to smile at a student I nickname Dancing Speaker Guy. He wears a grey cable-knit sweater with a shawl collar, three wooden buttons to the left side. His indigo-dyed jeans are slightly worn and a little loose; his life tends to do that to most things.

DavidDabney3.jpg
Photo by Victoria Ferguson

He grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, riding horses. His just-under-six feet frame may be better suited for basketball, but his equestrian childhood shows in his mannerisms – how he contemplates before speaking, pausing mid-sentence to craft his message; how he leans forward to characterize the story, hands sweeping through the air; how he holds your gaze with the intensity of a horse, those chestnut eyes painted over with a world-changing softness.

None of the students know why the young man dances across campus, blasting music from a speaker no bigger than his hand and smiling as though life is beautiful. Well, here’s why:

Because, in his second semester of “real life,” he wanted to eliminate the awkwardness of dancing to music no one else could hear.

Because walking from entrepreneurship to music composition is a lot like driving. It’s pausing at red lights and obeying green ones. It’s the boredom cured with the push of a button, the melodic click of FM radio. A journey doesn’t have to be silent just because you’re on foot.

Because the five hundred weird looks and lingering stares are worth making one person’s day a little bit better. “Doing this makes people stop and think, ‘Maybe life isn’t so serious,’” he tells me. His choice of music depends on the moment – the liberation of a two-hour lab ending echoed by Kanye West, the calming blanket of clouds highlighted by Frank Ocean’s new album.

Because it simply feels so good to watch the trees blur into color.

Because the student center is a stage, a tavern – a gathering place for biology majors and animation minors alike. If it weren’t for the cool, late-September air, he might be wearing a T-shirt with the New York City skyline.

Because it takes less than a song to cover a ten-minute walk. He glides across the pavement like a young, self-described Shakespeare, dramatic and self-aware.

Because in three minutes and forty-five seconds, a ten-page research paper and thirty equations can morph into freedom. All that remains is the moment: a setting, a soul, and a song.

Because there’s beauty in the struggle.

Because the hours spent waiting for the musician to help the lyricist are a blank canvas.

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Photo by Victoria Ferguson

The past three years have been a symphony of rap, culminating in his first unfinished single. Dancing Speaker Guy is simply a byproduct.

Because improvisation changes the brain, turning anxiety into creativity. The POWER button unhinges the dam, letting the pain flood out vocally – the pain of young loss, the pain of living in a world with stereotypes, the pain of emotionally segregated lunch tables.

Because Dancing Speaker Guy believes in a world where poor and rich kids can eat their sandwiches across from each other, where compassion is brewed through a changed education system.

Because when you’re an underground artist, most people aren’t eager to help.

Because there’s an Indian tribe that puts their children in a dark room for 24 hours, believing in the importance of having one’s first relation with the world be with one’s heart, not other people. When the heart and soul are disconnected, chaos ensues.

Because it’s the natural trust in this connection that makes magic happen.

Because his heart is telling him “White Smoke” – two words lighting up the pixels of a computer screen, musical stress-relief you can buy for a couple bucks.

Because he is living his album: the smiles from strangers, the late nights with loud music, the long afternoons spent in lecture halls. He looks at the life surrounding the brick buildings and amber leaves and thinks, “This is the art piece that’s going to tell its story.”

Because “every day is a music video.” There’s a tiny GoPro camera on the left strap of his backpack, pitch black and unassuming. Occasionally it records the story of a striving artist, a college student, or an overjoyed dreamer. It’s documenting how a dream comes to life, the seven months before someone makes it big. Just like how chapters make a novel, clips make a television show.

Because that’s what makes the dream so beautiful – it is uncertain.

Because one afternoon, on the ledge of the architecture building, a student smacked a five-dollar bill next to his feet and shouted over Frank Ocean, “You made my day.”

Oxford Community Dinner Gives Chance to Give Back

I went to high school with an immense amount of students (4,000 to be exact). And trust me, I was never the student who got a 36 on their ACT or participated in multiple varsity sports. However, I did find my way by volunteering every week at a different organization through my school.

One week I would play bingo with residents of Sunrise Nursing Home, the next week I would serve food at A Just Harvest for their community dinner. I did it all four years of high school, but stopped once I came to Oxford.

Even before I stepped on campus, words and abstract ideas like “major,” “job” and “career” jumbled through my mind although I still had four years to ponder over my future. I saw it as survival of the fittest and to get what you want — you have to beat people out. So I met weekly for clubs, attended lectures to boost my grades and applied to everything that I thought would improve my resume.

As I slowly became consumed in achieving the “perfect” adult life, my real priorities were left behind. I missed opportunities to connect with people and invest my time where it was needed most.

Sophomore year, I quit everything I wasn’t passionate about and dug into my community service roots. I still don’t have the same free time as I once did in high school, but I volunteer the third Wednesday of every month at St. Mary’s community dinner in Oxford.

The first time I went there, my arms were exhausted from all the food I brought it. Cars kept rolling up behind the church delivering food; one brought a dish with mac & cheese, another with grapes. One student even brought boxes of Insomnia Cookies. By the time it was 5:30, the dinner and desert tables were overflowing with food. I though absentmindedly that some of it might slip off.

Oxford residents flooded the room and greeted each other as they passed by like old friends. People were alone, with their significant other, or with their families. The ages ranged from toddlers to seniors, all of them waiting in line patiently for dinner to be served.

Dinner started off with a prayer. I’m Jewish, so I’m not familiar with Catholic prayer, but many of the people there were. At the end of the prayer, someone said “Let’s eat!” and the feast began.

The community dinner comes together because residents of Oxford and Miami students take the time to either buy or cook food to provide meals for those in the area that are less fortunate. But it also provides volunteers more than the opportunity to bring and serve food. They also have the opportunity to grab a meal and eat with members of the community and get to know them. In a town like Oxford where students and community members rarely mingle despite being so close to one another, it was a refreshing experience.

The holidays remind people that if you’re lucky enough to live a good life, then it’s important to give back to the people who don’t have the same luxury.

“There is no exercise better for the heart than reaching down and lifting people up.” – John Holmes

‘Chickpea Chicks’ Jen and Kelly Bring Happiness and Hummus to Oxford

To have Jen Eastridge and Kelly Armstrong tell you how their company Chickpea Chicks got started is a little like when a couple tells the story of how they met, minus the “and the rest was history” cliché.

Jen and Kelly finish each other’s sentences, words blending with bright smiles and laughter as they explain how they began as peers at the Art Academy of Cincinnati before becoming friends a decade later on an alumni tour. It wasn’t until last spring, however, that they decided they wanted to start some sort of business together.

“We’d been sitting there brainstorming, and we had a page with these ideas on it, and I’m eating this amazing hummus,” Jen says. “Because for years, Kelly has been making and bringing hummus to parties and get-togethers we have. How long have you been a vegetarian for?”

Kelly thinks it over and decides it was sometime around 1988 as Jen goes on without missing a beat.

“So she’s been a vegetarian for decades and hummus has been her go-to for protein and party food and appetizers,” Jen explains. “And all of a sudden it was like, ‘Ding!’ and I said, ‘Kelly, have you ever heard the saying that sometimes the answer is right in front of you? Have you ever considered doing this?’”

The best friends have been providing Butler County with locally-sourced hummus for almost a year, and community members can’t stop coming back for more.

Today, they could be called business partners, but they’re adamant that the friendship comes first.

“We made it clear at the beginning that the friendship took precedence over all,” Jen says. “If there ever was a conflict we couldn’t get past, our business would take a back seat.”

They both have their talents — Jen, the bold personality who persuades wary shoppers into trying their products; Kelly, the mastermind behind the flavors that make the company so successful.

“She is the flavor genius,” Jen gushes of Kelly. “She has this beautiful mind — it works with spices like mathematicians do with numbers. She just knows how it goes together. Thank God!”

Kelly is as complimentary of Jen.

“Look how awesome she is! She’s the smart one,” Kelly laughs.

Others see the magic of the duo, too.

“They have to produce everything, they have to pack everything, it’s not like they can just do a little of this or that. They have to do everything,” Craig Armstrong, Kelly’s husband, says. “They’re kind of a perfect balance of each other. They were made to work together.”

Despite their popularity and rapid expansion, they continue to make their hummus the way they always have — in 2-gallon batches from borrowed kitchen space at the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) in Hamilton. Kelly’s parents usually come to help them produce about 300 pounds of hummus weekly.

While hummus has its roots in the Middle East — Israel in particular — the hummus from Chickpea Chicks is not a traditional take on the dish. Kelly uses unique ingredients designed to bring new flavors to hummus, creating strange concoctions like Pumpkin Curry and Cincy Style (an ode to Cincinnati chili).

Everything about Chickpea Chicks goes back to their philosophy of doing the right thing. Their ingredients are bought locally and their packaging is recyclable; even their sample spoons are biodegradable.

“It just feels right to use things that can have another life, whether it’s recycled content in our packaging or compostable product,” Jen says.

Because hummus has a short shelf life, product that doesn’t sell quickly enough is taken weekly to the local Shared Harvest Food Bank in Fairfield or to Serve City in Hamilton.

For Jen and Kelly, it’s never been about turning a profit. They believe in doing what’s good, whenever possible.

“We both had moms who were foodies, and we both grew up very fortunate to have food accessible to us,” Jen says. “And I think the older we get, the more we realize that that’s not something to be taken for granted. And not just food, but good food — real food. Non-processed food.”

Miami students hungry for Chickpea Chicks hummus no longer have to wait for the Oxford Farmer’s Market on Saturdays — as of mid-March, the hummus is now sold at the market in MacCracken Hall on campus. It’s also available at Moon Co-op in Oxford, Jungle Jims in Fairfield, Local Yokel Organic Market in Glendale and Jackson’s Market & Deli in downtown Hamilton.

The regular flavors are all there — Lemon Zowie, Cincy Style, Smokin!, Toasted Sesame and Wasabi Green Onion.

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Then there are the seasonal options, ranging from inventive to downright outlandish. For this spring, they concocted an Indian-inspired Masala flavor that packs on the heat and spices.

Craig is always happy to assist Kelly in the hummus creation process and flavor trial-and-error.

“I’m always there as a very willing guinea pig,” Craig says.

For those thinking of summer days to come, the tomato basil flavor will be arriving in June — with basil straight from Jen’s house.

No matter how much this team expands their business, their focus on quality, local food remains paramount. They’ll be participating in Local Food Day on Miami’s campus on May 4, handing out samples and showing how to use hummus in recipes like hummus mashed potatoes. Giving back to Oxford is one of their favorite things.

“It’s a pretty magical little town,” Jen smiles. “We couldn’t be happier to be located where we are.”

An Introvert's Guide to Uptown

Your friend says, “Hey, let’s go Uptown tonight!”

If your first reaction is clammy hands and blood deserting your face fast enough to make your head spin, fear not: there are other people like you. For those who aren’t particularly fond of being surrounded by swaying sweat-machines and sticky floors, Uptown can be a difficult place to navigate. However, it is not impossible. Here are a few tips to guide my fellow introverts through the tumultuous streets that make up Oxford’s Uptown.

Avoid the Bar-muda Triangle

The area that stretches between Brick Street, 45 East, and The Woods/New Bar is one of the busiest places at night in Uptown, particularly from Thursday into the weekend. If loud music and crowds of people give you anxiety, this is one area you should steer clear of.

You’re Fired! (so stop working and relax)

This little shop offers a friendly, cozy environment to unwind from a stressful day (or week) through art: just pick a ceramic piece and however many paints your heart desires and you’re good to go. Be sure to check their webpage for for special dates with discounted studio fees!

People-watch in Uptown Park

Maybe you’re feeling outgoing but not up to the levels of entering a club. Or maybe you want to be involved with the nightlife but without actual commitment. Or maybe you just want some entertainment. Either way, Uptown Park is a great place to observe weekend crowds in action without actually putting yourself in the sweaty, alcohol-y mix.

Take some time at the Tea Cha House

The de-stressing wonder that is taro bubble tea — that is all you really need to know. (But if that isn’t enough to convince you, this little shop is quiet and relatively undisturbed, very rarely packed, and the perfect place to catch up with friends over a variety of teas, coffees, and smoothies.)

Grab some Graeter’s

If you haven’t already taken advantage of this new addition to Uptown, you have not experienced some of the best ice cream and environment in Oxford. Though this is generally busier than the Tea Cha House for said ice cream, it makes a nice getaway from the bustling night life just down the road.

Kick back at Kofenya

This little local coffee shop is a go-to for those looking for a low-key, comfy environment. There’s a wide selection of drinks — including a bottomless coffee option. Not only that, but everything is much cheaper than Starbucks. So if you’re looking for a place to relax with friends, get some work done, read a book, or ponder the questions of the universe, Kofenya is a solid place to be.

Swing by Bird House Antiques

Bird House Antiques is located near Kofenya, and is a great way to spend some time on a lazy day. Whether you’re searching for some vintage Miami gear or just browsing for some curios, the owners are knowledgeable and friendly, and can help you find whatever you’re looking for.

Fresh food and fun and the Farmer’s Market

If you fancy yourself a morning person, the Farmer’s Market in Uptown Park provides an excellent for shopping and socializing. Everything is homegrown or homemade — which makes it not only a good escape from campus party life, but also campus food. Once you get hooked, the goat cheese pastries from Terra Nova Bread Basket and the pumpkin chocolate chip muffins from Chubby Bunny Bakery are enough to get anyone out of bed on a Saturday — and that’s not even including all of the fresh produce.

There are few things to do Uptown that don’t involve partying, but not as few as you might think. There’s always something to do if you know where to look. Happy exploring!