WASHINGTON - Late last year, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack strode into the Oval Office to tell President Barack Obama that he wanted to resign.
"Mr. President," he said, "I think it's time to go."
Vilsack had survived nearly eight years in Washington as Obama's model Cabinet secretary - a disciplined and efficient technocrat who understood the inner workings of his department, worked well with lawmakers and did not cause trouble for the White House.
Lately, though, that approach did not seem to be enough to fix the problems he was seeing in the country. Vilsack was frustrated with a culture in Washington that too often ignored rural America's struggles and dismissed its virtues. "I just sometimes think rural America is a forgotten place," he often said.
Vilsack sometimes felt forgotten, too. The number of consequential issues crossing his desk had dwindled. "There are days when I have literally nothing to do," he recalled thinking as he weighed his decision to quit.
The Oval Office conversation would change the trajectory of Vilsack's career and affect him personally in ways he that could not have predicted. Obama asked him to take over the administration's response to the opioid crisis that was ravaging rural America.
The new assignment would force Vilsack to confront not only the immediate drug crisis in the country but also the frustrations and feelings of economic hopelessness that had taken root and allowed the epidemic to flourish.
Soon Vilsack's days were consumed with coordinating the federal government's response. Each morning his staff passed him statistics that tracked the administration's top priorities: its push to train physicians on the risks of opioid addiction; the latest on its effort to get the overdose reversal drug naloxone out to more communities; the status of federal grants earmarked for struggling communities.
He visited hard-hit places, such as New England, Nevada and Appalachia. Recently he was in Missouri, a state with a surging overdose death rate, where his staff had set up a meeting with doctors, police detectives and drug counselors who waited for him in a gray-carpeted conference room in Olivette, Missouri, near St. Louis.
"I am here to learn and here to listen," Vilsack told the group. "I want to make sure that when I walk out of here, I have a very good understanding of the problem."
He pulled out a stack of index cards and a pen from his suit pocket to jot down notes.
"The last time I was on ER call at one of our local hospitals I delivered three mothers who were opioid addicted and had no prenatal care whatsoever," one doctor said.
"We have no resources here," the health director for St. Charles County said.
"We see a ton of overdoses," said the next doctor from a hospital just south of St. Louis. "This Fourth of July we had three firework injuries and 23 overdoses."
"Wow," Vilsack muttered under his breath. He scribbled "3/23" on an index card and slid it back into his suit pocket.
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The opioid epidemic was the kind of crisis that too easily escaped the attention of powerful people in Washington. It had developed slowly, over the course of decades, in parts of rural America that were isolated, poor and often overlooked.
Its effects, though, were devastating and were a major factor in the startling surge since 1999 in the death rate for white women between the ages of 25 and 55.
For Vilsack the crisis was personal. A former small-town mayor and two-term Iowa governor, Vilsack had spent his adult life fighting for rural America. He was also the child of an alcoholic and prescription drug addict.
The story of his mother's addiction and her suicide attempts had long been a part of his political identity; one that he had told hundreds of times on the campaign trail. Sometimes he used it to explain away his shyness and his gruff, workaholic manner.
In other instances, he told it inspire voters, focusing on his mother's recovery, her religious faith and transformation into a steady and sober parent.
Now, as he traveled the country, the story served a different purpose. Vilsack used it to make the case for the kind of help that Washington could provide: more money for doctors, drug counselors and mental-health clinics to treat those who were suffering.
"When I was a kid, I judged my mom," he had said earlier that morning in Missouri. "I thought she could just decide tomorrow to stop doing what she was doing. I had no idea it was a disease. I do now."
Vilsack walked out of his meeting and into the bright sun of a Missouri afternoon, mostly pleased at the possibilities the roundtable had offered. His shaggy hair, which hung over his ears, had not changed since boyhood. But his tall and rangy frame was now slightly stooped. At 65, he moved with the stiffness of advancing age.
He ran a sprawling bureaucracy with 93,000 employees and a $150 billion budget but knew that he did not have money for anything ambitious. An urgent request from the White House earlier this year for $1.1 billion to battle the opioid epidemic was stalled in Congress. His department's discretionary budget, which he could use to fund clinics, was $2 billion less than it had been in 2010.
So Vilsack channeled his energy into little things: A police officer he had met complained that prices of naloxone, the overdose-reversal drug, had tripled since January to nearly $160 per dose, making it too costly for many rural police and fire departments. Vilsack promised to raise the issue with the White House.
Someone else showed him a chemical treatment bag that could be used to safely dispose of old prescription drugs. "You can't just dump them in the sewers. The disposal bags could help," Vilsack said.
But, he was most excited about a four-state pilot program he was developing to use USDA grants to build a small number of regional mental-health and addiction clinics.
Vilsack had spent most of his adult life fighting these kinds of battles. He grew up in Pittsburgh but moved to tiny Mount Pleasant, Iowa, in 1975 when his father-in-law wrote him a seven-page letter asking him to join his tiny law practice. The salary: $1,000 a month.
Some of his first clients were farmers fighting to stave off bankruptcy during the 1980s farm crisis. "They would come in and say, 'Save my farm. Save who I am,' " he said. "You all of a sudden think, 'Jesus, what are we doing here? What can I do?' "
After a psychologically damaged World War II veteran and former POW opened fire during a city council meeting in 1986, killing Mount Pleasant's mayor, the deceased mayor's father urged Vilsack to run for the office.
There was a short stint as an Iowa state senator followed by a successful, long-shot run for governor. "For the first time in 70 years, we reversed the outmigration of people from Iowa," Vilsack said of his two terms.
Vilsack knew that the past 15 years had hit rural America especially hard. Rural child poverty rates had begun climbing in 2003, peaking at levels last seen in the 1960s. Only in the past few years had they begun to edge back down. Rural Americans were older, more likely to be obese, less likely to go to college and more likely to become pregnant in their teenage years than people in the rest of the country. And now the opioid crisis.
At a recent news conference in Missouri, reporters peppered Vilsack with questions about whether the administration was moving fast enough to address the epidemic.
"There is some frustration that it took so long . . . ," one reporter said.
"Why wasn't this done years ago?" another asked.
They were versions of a line of questioning that had begun to "piss me off," Vilsack said.
He did not blame the president for the lack of attention to rural America, though his last one-on-one meeting with Obama had taken place 10 months earlier when he tried to resign.
His frustration was with the rest of the country - the media, Congress and the private sector - which he felt had ignored the struggles and contributions of a region that produced most of the country's food and, during 15 years of war, had disproportionately filled the ranks of its military.
Publicly, Vilsack often played the role of booster, citing modest economic gains as proof of rural America's "remarkable comeback," after "years of stagnation."
Privately, he let his anger and frustration with Washington flash. He was sensitive to the smallest slights directed at rural America or his record. Denis McDonough, the president's chief of staff, sometimes referred to Vilsack as the "cranky" Cabinet secretary.
"Maybe I have been here too long," Vilsack grumbled. He gazed up at his sprawling Beaux-Arts style office with its gold filigree columns, massive windows and stunning views of the Mall.
"I have to be cranky," he continued, "because people don't pay attention to this part of the country."
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Vilsack told staff organizing his Missouri meetings that he did not want to spend his time listening to stories of people fighting addiction or parents who had lost children. He wanted to hear from the people battling the epidemic. "We're here to talk solutions," he said.
The exception was Karla Jaques, a USDA employee from Dexter, Missouri., whose 28-year-old daughter, Alicia, had died of a heroin overdose in April.
Vilsack was waiting for her in a small room at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, when Jaques walked in carrying a picture of Alicia wearing her crisp, white sailor's uniform, taken in 2007 just a few hours after her daughter's Navy boot camp graduation.
"She was so happy and so proud of herself," Jaques told Vilsack. "She always was until all of this."
"I have some understanding," Vilsack said.
He then recounted the story of his own mother's addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs. Vilsack had recently started to probe his adolescent memories, trying to piece together what might have caused his mother's addiction. He tried to recall exactly when his mother had begun to grapple with drugs and alcohol. Was it when she went in for gallbladder surgery and the doctors gave her pills for the pain? "Did she like that sensation and need more of it?" he wondered. Did her problems begin when his father suffered his first heart attack or when his father's real estate business began to fail?
These were the same questions Jaques was asking about her daughter, who had been embarrassed by her addiction and avoided her family in the year before she died. Most of what Jaques knew about her daughter's problems came from journal entries Alicia had written in rehab.
She wrote that her addiction began in 2010 when she had eye surgery and was given painkillers by Navy doctors in Jacksonville, Florida. "I would get a prescription every few months so if I was given a urinalysis test I would pass," one journal entry read. The prescription provided an excuse when her urinalysis tests came back positive.
A military career that began with promotions, overseas deployments and awards faltered and then fell apart. Her first arrest for heroin possession came in October 2014, six months after she left the service. Last fall, one of Alicia's Navy friends called Jaques to tell her that Alicia was an addict and down to a skeletal 85 pounds. There was a second arrest for heroin possession followed by a four-month stint in prison rehab.
"I want to rebuild my relationship with my mom," she wrote during that period. "I will call her more often and share pictures of myself and what I'm doing so she can help with my recovery. . . . I want to go back to Missouri. . . . I want to go back to school. . . . I want to be comfortable with myself. I want to be able to talk in front of people and not be afraid I sound stupid."
Four days after her release, she died of a heroin overdose. Jaques was upset that the Navy had just punished her daughter, rather than providing medical help. "If you have a good person and all of a sudden things start going down hill, they need to find out what's going on and not just harass them and kick them out," she said.
Decades earlier, Vilsack's mother had written a letter to her sister in Philadelphia describing her recovery and hopes for the future. Like Jaques's daughter, she had been sober for only a few months.
She wrote about rehab and looking for steady work and an apartment in the same neighborhood where Vilsack was living with his father.
"I simply cannot afford to take any more chances," she wrote. "I have all the confidence in the world in myself now - something that I haven't had in a long time. . . . I am sure if I do my part, God will help me."
Vilsack had read and reread the 1964 letter, trying to piece together what had allowed his mother to find sobriety after so many failed attempts. Her faith had been central; she found a good job at a bank that had helped ease the family's financial strains.
"Then you start thinking about the little things, like my dad used to be a bourbon drinker," Vilsack said. When his parents moved back in together, his father switched to vodka. "What was with that?" Vilsack wondered. "Maybe it was his effort to help mom?" Maybe the smell or color of bourbon triggered a craving? Vilsack guessed.
Downstairs another town hall meeting had begun. A drug-treatment court judge was saying that more than 50 percent of the nonviolent offenders coming through her courtroom were hardcore heroin addicts who only a few years ago would have been sent to a criminal court. "We are dealing with people who we would never have considered taking in the old days and getting much better results," she said. "But our funding is lacking."
Vilsack talked about the need for more federal spending, and he outlined his "four-pillar plan" to revitalize struggling rural economies. The answer, he said, was more investment in organic farming, eco-tourism, biofuels and bio-based manufacturing.
He slid his speaking notes into his suit pocket and glanced up at Jaques, who was sitting in the front row. There had been so much that Jaques had wanted to tell him and so much that she still did not know. "I was worried that I covered everything," she said.
When he was finished speaking, Vilsack sought her out in the crowd. His staff and security detail were hovering just out of earshot. His government SUV and driver were waiting outside to ferry him to the airport. Vilsack told her that he had already shared her daughter's story with Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
He promised that he would talk about it in Washington.
LYLES STATION, Ind. - The sun is just dawning over a parking lot wedged between a cornfield and a Bob Evans in southwestern Indiana. The farmers arrive early. This is like sleeping in for them. The prospect of this pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., makes them proud, nostalgic and a little edgy.
"It's a busy time to be going," says Glenn Morris, who raises cattle and crops on 425 acres a couple miles away. "You're wondering if you should be on the trip or in the field."
Morris, 78, climbs aboard an idling 56-seat tour bus and takes a place in the second row next to his wife, Julia. Destination: the ribbon-cutting of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, 730 miles away. The passengers are all connected by blood or enthusiasm to a soon-to-be famous country crossroads called Lyles Station.
Of all the stories the Smithsonian curators have chosen to tell, theirs is one of the more surprising. Certain familiar themes of the African-American story - slavery, Jim Crow, urban migration, civil disobedience - are present, but at the margins. What makes Lyles Station exceptional, in part, is that it was a haven of free blacks who were able to buy land and build their own farms before the Civil War. A century and a half later, that legacy has survived through the dogged sunup, sundown dedication and faith of generations of farming men and women like Morris. It's a missing piece of American history that scholars only recently have begun to uncover. An intimate exhibit on life in Lyles Station - farm tools, personal belongings, even a Ball jar full of soil - introduces this community to the world.
"We weren't wrote about or talked about, but we were involved in the process of building the country," says Stanley Madison, 66, a farmer and historian of Lyles Station. "We don't want a medal, we don't want somebody to give us a catered dinner. We just want to be part of this thing called the United States of America, the freedom country. We just want to be able to share with people to say: This is who we are, and this is how we got here."
But where they're going as a community is a question. Nowadays, after so much striving, Lyles Station clings to an existence somewhere between history and oblivion, protagonist and museum piece.
In a sense, this bus trip is a journey through the past in the hope of finding the future. A jar of soil is a fitting symbol of Lyles Station now - but in a generation or two, who will own this dream-soaked land?
Several of the bus passengers attended the "scanning party" the Smithsonian curators held in Lyles Station to make digital copies of family photographs. Residents combed old albums and crumpled cardboard boxes and brought hundreds to be considered.
They also donated a couple dozen objects going back to the 19th century - farm equipment, personal keepsakes, church artifacts.
Yet even during a 15-hour bus trip, they can't quite imagine how the objects will be used in the museum. In fact, they can't envision what an entire museum of African American history will be like. The one thing they know is that familiar parts of their lives will be on display for the world to see.
"When we get to Washington, the American people will know that we have built a farming community that has helped feed the United States," Madison says.
It began with another trek, 200 years ago. Charles Grier was born a slave in Virginia in 1782. His owner freed him and he lit out for the territories, reaching what would become Indiana in 1816. It was the frontier - wild but free. The young republic had declared that slavery would be prohibited in the states carved out of this "northwest territory," now known as the Midwest.
"It's really important to talk about African-American pioneers, and how they were involved in the settling of our first free frontier," says Anna-Lisa Cox, a fellow at Harvard's Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, whose work informs the Smithsonian exhibit.
Lyles Station, named after the Lyles family, is one of the last of dozens of free black settlements where some of the same land is being farmed by descendants of the pioneers.
"This is the story of claiming one's own land, claiming one's own identity at a time when land really means power," says Paul Gardullo, the Smithsonian curator responsible for the Lyles Station exhibit. "Political power, social capital, economic capital, during a period when half the country's enslaved. Presenting it to the public, I think, is going to be eye-opening."
The bus is like a vessel containing stories hurtling across Kentucky and West Virginia, and through time.
"I'm going to post a lot of the journey," says Yolonda Bostic, 50, firing up her Facebook page in the front row beside her mother, Joyce Gooch Granger, 71. "I feel so blessed to be living through the lens of my forefathers and my mom."
The stories being told on the bus are about old-fashioned values instilled by elders, about uphill struggles. Universal stories, in other words. But to be on the bus is to be working through what exactly makes your life universal. What makes it special enough to be in a museum?
"From a humble beginning, the people struggled, especially the farmers, they struggled through segregation and floods, and everything seemed to be against them," says Donnie Morris, 77, Glenn's brother. "But the people didn't give up."
Half a mile down a one-lane road in Lyles Station, edged by a flood control ditch, is special ground. This very patch, first owned by Willis Greer in 1855, supplied the soil for the museum exhibit, so chosen because it's the field that has been continuously farmed by the same family for the longest time.
Life has moved on in so many ways for America, its people and its producers. Fewer farmers are needed; better futures beckon elsewhere.
"I'm the last one to be farming it that's in the family," says Greer, 79, great-grandson of Willis. He stands straight and lean in blue overalls. "It's just about run its course. It's about the end of owning land. After I'm gone, what's going to happen?"
Non-farming descendants can make arrangements to rent, rather than sell, ancestral holdings, though money is easier to split than land.
"As long as it's within my power we will always have the property and the land," says Denise Greer Jamerson, 50, one of Greer's five daughters who grew up on the farm.
She says she didn't realize the significance Lyles Station - it was just her life - until her husband, John Jamerson, told her how his mother used to drive him as a boy from where he grew up an hour away just to witness something incredible in farm country: "A black community run by blacks."
In the late 1990s, Madison led an effort to begin to save Lyles Station's past, and the community raised $1 million to restore the schoolhouse. But scarcely a dozen of the early families reside on the land today, and fewer than that are farming.
Not long after the bus crosses the Ohio River, Lenora Cole, 77, tells about the time when her father, Wayman Stewart, then a teenager, was on the back of a wagon hauling a plow, while her grandfather managed the horses in front. A train hit the rig.
"At the age of 13 my dad became the man of the house, and quite a frugal man," Cole says. He grew into one of Lyles Station's respected farmers, but outside the community, "It was always: Wayman Stewart is a good 'black farmer,' which he was; not, Wayman Stewart is a good farmer, which he also was."
Generally, the old-timers have an indirect way of talking about race.
"If you were reared, you knew your boundaries," says Dewight "Cap" Greer, 81, a cousin of Norman's.
"You knew how far to go, let's put it like that," Morris says.
"I mean, a black man couldn't jump up and rent the ground like a white man could," he says.
Once, Morris had been farming a patch of rented ground for a number of years, spending extra effort to clear it and improve it. The owner died, and the new owner took it from Morris and rented it to a white farmer who appeared out of nowhere.
"You may be a lot better farmer than they was, but that didn't make a difference," Morris says. "The bitter taste stays there for a long time after you done all that work."
That's how the undertow of race made itself known, through economic slights, unequal access to capital, compounded over generations. The black-owned farms remained comparably small, with some exceptions.
"We got the mudholes, they got the good land," Norman Greer says. He adds: "I never borrowed a damn penny in this town [neighboring Princeton], because they wouldn't let me have it."
Even after the schools integrated, the children of black farmers couldn't join their friends at the local candy store and soda fountain. Mondays were the only nights when black kids could go to the local roller skating rink. Well into the 1960s, the local movie palace, the Princeton Theatre, maintained a separate entrance for African-Americans, who were relegated to a section of the balcony under careful watch by theater management.
There was little marching or protesting that anyone can remember. The concentration of African Americans was but a drop in nearly all-white Gibson County, and remains so.
The rage and resistance seemed far away.
"I never paid attention to none of that," Morris says. "I was always busy."
But a few of the leading Lyles Station citizens did chip in money to hire a lawyer to pressure the theater to end its audience segregation.
In Lyles Station, a different kind of black power was being practiced.
To kill time on the bus, they watch a documentary about Indianapolis in the 1950s, in which the black side of life is represented by a few strategically placed talking heads in a parade of white. This puts everyone to sleep.
The morning of the ribbon-cutting, Josiah Wilkerson, 11, starts taking pictures with his tablet on the bridge over the Potomac. He's the youngest person on the bus, traveling with his grandparents and great aunt on their first trip to Washington.
"This is a chance for him to see what his ancestors and the black race contributed," says James Wilkerson Sr., 63, Josiah's grandfather. "The history books don't teach you that several races built this country."
On the Mall, the Wilkersons take up a position facing a big screen. When President Barack Obama speaks, he underlines the grandfather's lesson that African-American history is American history:
"But too often, we ignored or forgot the stories of millions upon millions of others, who built this nation just as surely, whose humble eloquence, whose calloused hands, whose steady drive helped to create cities, erect industries, build the arsenals of democracy."
Not to mention those whose calloused hands helped clear the land and feed the nation.
Meanwhile, back in Princeton, in proud appreciation of the local connection to African-American history, the new management of that theater where the segregated balcony used to be is live-streaming the opening ceremony.
At first they are overwhelmed, speechless. The bus riders have come straight to the Lyles Station exhibit on the third floor on Sunday.
"The spirits are here in this room, the ancestors, you can feel them," says Madison.
They begin to focus on the details - all the family photos, the farm equipment, the baby dolls, a church pulpit, a quilt. There's the 19th-century plow that Madison rescued from a ruined barn 46 years ago; only now does he understand why it mattered.
Morris squints and asks, "Where's the ground - that little jar over there?" He moves in for a closer look at the soil from the old Greer place. It has been heat-treated and dried to live in vacuumed perpetuity. "It's good ground."
The objects and the images seem to exhale stories they know in their bones.
Bostic continues the Facebook journal of the journey that she began in the first hour on the bus. She aims her phone at a vintage photo - now certified museum-quality - and narrates into the microphone: "My mom in the field as a little girl, on the melon wagon with no shirt on and her back turned."
Other visitors to the museum begin to realize that they are in the presence of the living community that's portrayed in the exhibit. They want pictures, they have questions.
"Do you live on the land?" a woman asks Morris, posing him in front of the display.
"I'm the fourth generation," he says.
Here, then, is how Lyles Station might begin anew: as a legend, and a place of teaching. Now the museum's rich intersection of story lines comes into focus. Nearby are exhibits of other powerful places - the Bronx at the birth of hip-hop; Chicago and the Great Migration; Greenville, Mississippi, and the era of racist terror.
"It's an amazing feeling to see all of the many fabrics of African American history in this museum and to be a small part of it," Bostic says. "I feel very accepted today."