Polly Campbell: Loving Cincinnati takes, and rewards, commitment

Have I ever told you how I got to Cincinnati? It’s not the usual school- or job- or family-related reason. Sometimes people find it surprising. 

But let me start with how I met my husband. People also find that rather surprising. We met on a computer date. Happens all the time now, but this was 1978. I often wonder if we are some kind of first. 

Polly Campbell
Polly Campbell

At Indiana University, there was a well-known student on campus, sort of a hippie with an entrepreneurial spirit. One of his projects was to use the mainframe computer to create a dating service for students. You paid $5 to fill out a questionnaire, answering questions like, “Do you smoke marijuana?” or, “Do you have sex on a first date?” The answers were transferred to punch cards and fed into his program, which must have been pretty rudimentary. You’d get a dot-matrix printout of your best ten matches and their phone numbers. 

I just want to say, neither of us was desperate and dateless. I had left Bloomington, where I grew up, and started college elsewhere. But I was back, trying to figure out what to do with my life, a question that had been vexing me since high school. It seemed like a larkish way to meet boys, so my roommate and I signed up. 

I met the first nine guys on my list, mostly for coffee, and wasn’t especially impressed with any of them. But I figured I’d finish it out, so I called the last name, #10, Neil. Turned out he was from Bloomington, too, but went to the other high school. We went on a very 1978 date: a Weather Report concert. 

It took a while for me to come around to Neil. He was awfully quiet. But by the time I’d graduated a few months later, I had discovered all his not-immediately-obvious sterling qualities and we were totally enamored with each other. 

But I had finally figured out what I thought I should do next with my life. On spring break of 1978 I went to New York City with a friend, and that solved one question for me: I had to live there. Then I got the idea of working in book publishing. So after graduation, I went there and got a job, working on Madison Avenue. I was never more excited or proud of myself. 

However, and I will condense: About four years later, Neil and I decided to get back together. The question was where? He was still in Bloomington, and I wasn’t about to move back to my hometown. He had no interest in New York, and I realized when I got in a yelling fight with a man in the TKTS line, maybe it wasn’t that great for me anymore.

We made a list of cities. About 10 names, more or less. Then, a process of elimination. I struck off all the East Coast cities. I wanted someplace I felt more at home. Minneapolis? Too cold. New Orleans? We loved it, but humidity and crime…. Louisville? Too Southern, and terrible highway on-ramps. Cincinnati? We knew nothing about it. Neil had a friend or two here, a second cousin. We visited, and then we chose it. We just moved here. Not for school or a job or family, just for a place of our own, I guess. An adventure, but one we could handle. 

A little later, we got married. It’s been a good marriage. Maybe those punch cards were smarter than you’d think. But aside from how right we were for each other, we have consciously made it good. No marriage just turns out without some active commitment to doing what makes it work. 

I wasn’t as sure about living in Cincinnati. It took a while for me to come around. In 1983, you could barely get a cappuccino or decent baguette. There was only one professional theater company. We were neither Catholic nor Republican. There are no lakes to swim in. Every time I visited siblings or friends in more clearly desirable parts of the country, I came back wondering why I lived here. But, though we’d come with the thought we could leave if we wanted, we became committed at some point. And then we worked on the relationship. 

Nothing about Cincinnati had the big stamp of approval on it: no Broadway or Metropolitan Museum of Art. I had to discover for myself what I liked here. Things felt accessible, and personal interest and involvement were rewarded. You didn’t have your pick of fabulous restaurants, but you could become a regular at your favorite. There’s a couple of Rembrandts at the Taft you could go visit anytime and get to know intimately. 

We easily found people who shared our values through our neighborhood, jobs and sending children to excellent public schools. In New York, I would never have gotten the job I worked at for years here, never could have afforded the bigger house we have now. Also, commiting to this city has meant being in on its transformation. It is so much more than the city we moved to those 40 years ago. 

It’s partly who you’re married to, partly how you’re married. And where you live is less important to your life than how you live there.


Polly Campbell covered restaurants and food for the Cincinnati Enquirer from 1996 until 2020. She lives in Pleasant Ridge with her husband, and since retiring does a lot of reading, cooking and gardening, if that’s what you call pulling weeds. She writes monthly on a variety of topics, and she welcomes your feedback and column suggestions at editor@moversmakers.org.


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