Story by Joshua M. Bernstein, BSJ ’00
Portraits by Kevin Riddell, MA ’09
Before seniors sharpen No. 2s for final exams, before they convene at the Convo to grab their degrees, preparations for the great Athens exodus have commenced. Apartments are reduced to boxes, moving trucks are reserved; it’s time to leave college, to fan out across America and the globe in search of greener pastures — though it’s tough to out-green Athens.
But for a handful of liberated students, there’s no need to pack pots and pans, order another O’Betty’s hot dog or sip a penultimate Pub aquarium. For these graduates, Athens is much more than a way station between childhood and adulthood. It’s the next stop and, and in some cases, a lifelong destination — and for good reason. Athens may not be America’s only college town, but we’d like to think it is Ohio’s best. The leafy city’s livability, strong social fabric and support of small businesses recently attracted the attention of Ohio Magazine: In 2008, it named Athens one of the state’s five best hometowns, touting its environmentalism, progressiveness and forward-thinking citizens. So it’s understandable why some graduates have proudly planted their townie flags and made their mark on Athens.
From managing the nationally recognized Athens Farmers Market to fronting a kiddie-friendly rock band to opening a family-run Middle-Eastern restaurant, alumni’s local careers are as multifaceted as the people themselves. For them, this southeastern Ohio city is not just the stage for the best four (or five or six) years of their lives. Athens is, now and forever, home.
Tony Xenos, BSED ’96
Tony Xenos knows better than to relive the past. Back in the mid-’90s, few Athens bands were bigger than Xenos’ Cactus Pears, a quirky pop outfit that played everywhere from Casa Nueva to the Union. The band broke up, then re-formed, then broke up and re-formed again.
But after fronting the band for more than a decade, Xenos wanted to steer the Pears in a new direction. "I wanted more interactive music, but nobody wanted to make the transition from bar band to fun band," says Xenos, 35, a 1996 grad who teaches math at Vinton County High School and plays music with fellow teachers in the Mind Benders. "I wanted to give back to the community and get kids involved with music."
Good-bye, Cactus Pears. Hello, Flyaway Saturns. "We’re playing adult music for kids," Xenos says, adding in jest, "it’s not difficult to hold back the F-bomb." The act focuses on singing songs for kids and making music fun for them — via interactive dances, blowing bubbles or even helping write lyrics.
"Kids are uninhibited, and it doesn’t take much to get them excited. Plus," he adds, laughing, "our old fan base had grown up and had kids."
As a child, Xenos spent time in Chicago, Ann Arbor, Mich., and Dayton before his parents moved the family to Athens. Now, married to wife Courtney for three years and living on Athens’ west side, he describes the city as an incredibly supportive musical incubator. "Athens is a great place to say, ‘We can try this out here and see what happens.’ It’s an open community in that it’s willing to try new things."
After nearly two decades as a "townie," Xenos still enjoys living in scenic, welcoming southeastern Ohio. He likes biking the rail-to-trail Hockhocking Adena path to Nelsonville, where he favors the last-Friday-of-the-month gallery hop and seeing bands such as Yo La Tengo at Stuart’s Opera House. "I feel like I put down roots here. I have everything I need. It’s all down to a science," Xenos says. "Nothing is pulling me elsewhere to start all over again."
Joanne Dove Prisley, AB ’53 and MA ’54
For Youngstown native Joanne Dove Prisley, Athens might as well have been the moon. "I had to look at a map to see where Athens was," she says of the fateful day in 1949 when her high school biology teacher drove her to Ohio University and helped her get a scholarship.
She enrolled and majored in government. In class one day, she met her husband, the late Alexander Prisley (Ohio University associate professor of political science for 37 years), and thus began her lifelong love affair with Athens and politics. She finished a master’s degree in economics and left Athens for several years, working for Procter & Gamble and BF Goodrich.
But when Alexander completed his doctorate at Brown University in 1963, the couple returned to Athens so he could teach American government. They never left. "Our son was born here. My husband is buried here. We put our roots here," says Prisley, 77. "A lot of people who don’t like it here have never given it a chance. I have friends who are on the faculty who say, ‘We don’t live here. Why should we participate in the community?’ We gave the community half a chance, and they gave us half a chance. We never regretted the decision to stay."
After son Michael was born in 1965, Prisley became a stay-at-home mom. Still, she remained active, serving as an adviser to her sorority, Alpha Gamma; joining the Democratic Women’s Club; and starting a luncheon group, which still meets at restaurants such as Stephen’s and Salaam. Eventually, Prisley began working for the Athens County Historical Society, rising to curator (she retired last year). She also chaired the Athens Planning Commission for 16 years and has served on the Metropolitan Housing Authority since 1977. "This is a small town, but there’s a lot to do — and lots of opinionated people to talk to," laughs Prisley, who still lives on Grosvenor Street.
"What makes Athens great is that you can go from wildly liberal to so conservative, but we can be friends no matter what," Prisley says. "When my husband died, everybody said, ‘You’re going to go back home.’ I said, ‘Why would I go back to Youngstown?’ This is where my friends are. This is home."
Ben Lachman, BS ’05
Like many newlyweds navigating their first year of marriage, Ben Lachman and his wife, Catherine, spent countless evenings cooking dinner together. Unlike most newlyweds, however, Lachman turned his culinary passion into a career.
"It was frustrating to use the online cooking sites, because you search for chicken and you get 85,000 results," says Lachman, 26. "We wanted something that was quick and easy that helps you cook."
So in 2006, Lachman launched Macintosh-development firm Acacia Tree Software, whose flagship product is the digital cooking assistant SousChef. "It’s now one of the top two cooking-software programs on the Mac," says Lachman, a lifelong Athens resident reared on Mill Street.
For Lachman, following his dream is a direct result of dwelling in low-cost Athens. "I have friends who have done similar things in Seattle or Boston or New York, but it’s much tougher," says Lachman, who also consults. "They can’t just say, ‘I’m going to do this,’ and leave their job.’ They have to do the research and development while working."
Originally, Athens was not in Lachman’s long-term plan. He planned to punch the clock for Apple in California. However, "I didn’t have a reason to move besides a job. I don’t want to make choices based on a single facet of my life," says Lachman. After graduating in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in computer science, he and Catherine traveled to Southeast Asia to volunteer.
The decision to return to his hometown was a no-brainer. "My wife absolutely loves Athens," says Lachman, who favors O’Betty’s hot dogs, Donkey’s coffee and biking. "We like the pace of life here." The couple bought a fixer-upper on South May Street, where they are raising their daughters Anna Belle, 2, and Elinor, nine months.
"I’ve spent time out in the Bay Area, where the pace of life is so fast," he says. "We wanted something that was a little simpler. Athens is fairly liberal, and there’s lots of interest in things like alternative agriculture. You often don’t get those things unless you live on the West Coast or some cities on the East Coast."
Sarah Conley-Ballew, BSS ’04
At the end of her sophomore year at Ohio University, Sarah Conley-Ballew was a student in crisis. She’d arrived in Athens from Pittsburgh, her sights set on a photojournalism degree. But after two years in the program, she realized her big picture didn’t include taking pictures. "I knew I needed to change my focus," says Conley-Ballew, who took a year off to enroll in AmeriCorps.
She was placed with Rural Action, where she helped coordinate Appalachian ginseng growers. Working within the agricultural community, she found her direction — and a newfound appreciation for Athens. "I got to know our local community, which is a side that most students don’t get to see," says Conley-Ballew, 28. "It’s a strong community devoted to activism and change."
Upon returning to school, she created her own course of studies, focusing on social and environmental ecology. "It was a roundabout education in the local environment and how people interact with it," Conley-Ballew says. Post-graduation in 2004, she began working at Village Bakery, before an assistant manager position opened at the Athens Farmers Market. She applied. She got the job. Three years later, in fall 2007, she became manager.
"I throw the best party in Athens every Saturday and Wednesday morning. It’s the best job in the world. I get to see all my friends, and everyone is always in a good mood," Conley-Ballew says. The market has a reputation that extends beyond Athens: Audubon Magazine dubbed it one of the nation’s best three years ago.
That goodwill extends to Conley-Ballew’s circle of friends. By 2007, her husband, Zach, had received his graduate degree from Ohio University. He accepted a teaching job at Belpre High School, and they purchased a nine-acre spread near Strouds Run. They garden with their neighbors, share dinners and serve as a support group.
"We consciously made the decision to stay in Athens and raise a family here. We knew this was the best place for us, because it’s very family friendly," says Conley-Ballew, who has two daughters, Magnolia and Juniper.
"I love that I was a student first, then I became a community member at large, then I became a mother and a whole new community opened up," she adds. "It’s hard to imagine living anywhere else."
Hilarie Lee Burhans, BSED ’77
By 1983, Hilarie Lee Burhans had long ago bid Athens adieu. After arriving in town from Ethiopia in 10th grade (her dad was a professor) and graduating with an education degree in 1977, she and husband Mark left the state. But with baby Emily in the mix, they received an offer they couldn’t refuse: two years, rent free, at her parents’ Athens home, where Mark could base his woodworking firm.
"We’d gotten married and wanted to start a family, and we knew that Athens was a really good place to do this," says Burhans, 54, an award-winning banjo player, whose husband and son Ryland run eclectic Middle-Eastern/Indian restaurant Salaam. But that’s getting ahead of the story.
For years, Burhans provided home daycare before renewing her teaching certificate. While working at Athens Middle School one day, she started chatting with a mother. "She said, ‘I’m teaching culinary arts for prisoners. You’d be perfect (for this job).’" Though uncertain, Burhans applied for a similar position at Hocking College. "I guess I answered the right questions, because I taught at seven different prisons. Teaching middle school was actually good preparation for teaching in prison," she says, laughing.
Fast-forward a few years: Son Ryland (he’s now the baker) wanted to open a hookah café. "We wanted to make it a total experience with cool décor and Middle-Eastern food," Burhans says. So Salaam was born. It was an instant hit.
"If Salaam were in a large city, it wouldn’t necessarily fly. It’s a little of this, it’s a little of that," Burhans says. "But in Athens, we don’t have the choices we have in a big city, so the community supports restaurants like ours."
Soon, the Burhans outgrew the space. They ditched the hookahs, moved to a larger venue off Court Street and the customers followed. Despite the busy restaurant, Burhans finds time to travel and seek out culinary inspiration for Salaam. On her journeys, Athens is never far from her thoughts: "When I’m out west, I miss all the green. When I’m east, I miss the relaxed feel of Athens," she says. "It’s full of really nice, good people."
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