We idled down the main street of a neighborhood we’d never seen. We looked at the houses and strained to see what kind of people were inside. To anyone watching from the curb, we clearly didn’t belong there. We were outsiders.
An older man shuffled in our direction with a small dog at his side. I knew what was coming and readied myself for the interrogation. I was going to explain that I wasn’t any reason for the Neighborhood Watch to start worrying, but rather that my family and I were looking for a new place to call home.
I barely had to open my mouth before I felt like the man’s lifelong friend. He’d never worried that I was trouble. Instead, he was ready to call me a neighbor before I’d even bought a house. I told him we had big dogs, and he smiled widely.
“Sometimes I think there are more dogs than people here,” he said.
Over the next five minutes, we learned everything we needed to know about the neighborhood we would come to call home.
“I’m Bill Kutz,” the man said.
Over the past week or so, we had lots of friends and family in town. People came in from Charlotte, N.C.; Nashville, Tenn.; Tampa, Fla.; and San Francisco. We saw Jason Isbell play the ZooTunes fundraiser concert at the Greenville Zoo. We had drinks at The Playwright. We ate at Bacon Bros., The Shuckin’ Shack, Nose Dive and The Lazy Goat. My wife and I gave what we’ve come to call the Unofficial Chamber of Commerce tour. We walked the length of Main Street three times, strolled in Falls Park, took pictures on Liberty Bridge and checked out the Chihuly glass sculpture at night.
For us, these tours are more than entertainment. We hinted that we’d love to have our out-of-town friends as neighbors. In 1999, my wife and I came to work for WYFF-TV on a three-year contract. Within a few years, we knew weren’t leaving. Our tour is our way of saying, “We weren’t born here, but this is our home now, and it makes us proud.”
The Greenville area has seen lots of people like us adopt it as their home. Companies like BMW and Michelin bring in new folks from around the world. Countless “Best Of…” lists lure in people looking to be part of the city’s stellar reputation.
In the span of just two decades, this city has had to redefine a lot about how it thinks of the word “neighbor.” For some people, that’s not an easy transition. For a very long time, Greenville didn’t appear on magazine covers. International companies didn’t fill the streets with different accents and cultures. These days, a neighbor is not only someone you’ve known since kindergarten. It’s someone from a faraway place who may not share our religion, our race or even our nationality. Nevertheless, that person is our neighbor just the same.
The question is: Do we have what it takes to be good neighbors? When people we don’t know come here, can we imagine first that they aren’t outsiders, but instead that they are about to bless our community with yet another new voice to make Greenville an even better place?
If we need any help at all, we could learn a lot from the first man I met in my neighborhood.
Bill Kutz died last weekend.
Bill knew what it meant to be a good neighbor. He was one of the first people to live on his street. His first instinct when seeing an unfamiliar face wasn’t to look sideways in fear. He was a one-man welcome wagon who went out of his way to make everyone feel at home in his neighborhood. He never explained how he opened his arms and heart so wide, but I like to think he knew people who felt welcome would treat his neighborhood like they would treat their own home.
This week, my community lost one of its best neighbors, a man who leaves a legacy we should all hope to emulate as both human beings and citizens of one of America’s best communities: Bill Kutz made his neighbors feel welcome.
Brad Willis is a writer who lives in Greenville County. In addition to his other professional work, he writes at RapidEyeReality.com.