Smithsonian

Our American Journey Story


Both of my parents grew up in Joliet, IL outside of Chicago. Joliet was a blue-collar town where many companies like US Steel, Caterpillar, Texaco Oil, Union Oil, Fisher Body (GM), and International Harvester had production facilities. My father’s father, and his father before him, each worked at US Steel. My parents had very similar upbringings. Both come from Irish Catholic families and attended Catholic schools. Most of the people they interacted with were also white Catholics and working class. Each of them met more diverse people as they grew up, but it wasn’t until they attended college that either of them experienced true racial, cultural and religious diversity.

My parents reached college age during the seventies at a time when a university education was becoming more common, and following in a parent’s footsteps was no longer the norm. Looking back, my parents say that it was the children in their families who sought a higher education that left Joliet; many of them were pulled out of state by educational and job opportunities. This was the case for my father in particular who, after completing a bachelor’s degree in Illinois sought a Masters degree in Ohio. Having already completed her Masters in Illinois, my mother followed him to Athens, Ohio where she taught at an elementary school. In Athens, my father worked as a culinary arts instructor through his graduate program and stayed for two more years after graduation in the same position. He was pulled to Toledo University by an ideal job opportunity that combined teaching and event work. My father always liked working with students, but he is a creative soul and missed food production. He accepted the position and left for Toledo, while my mother stayed behind with my sister to sell the house.

My father had only been working at Toledo University for nine months when his employer asked him to move with him to another university. The kind of position that my father held requires unique credentials, and is thus difficult to fill; the position demands industry and teaching experience, as well as a secondary degree. Prior to my father’s appointment at Toledo University, the president of the university had been interviewing candidates for two years. The new offer was for the same dual role as Executive Chef for the President and Culinary Arts Instructor in a department, but at Virginia Tech.

My father worked well with the president and his wife, and they didn’t want to lose him. At the time the university president, Dr. Jim McComas was rumored to be on the short list for appointment to the position of US Secretary of Education. Aside from enjoying his work, my dad says that he knew that he didn’t want to miss the chance to keep working with him. Still, Dr. McComas suggested that my parents visit Blacksburg, Virginia and see how they liked the town. My parents did, and fell in love with it. Blacksburg is an appealing place tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is home to a big, diverse university, yet retains a small-town feel. My father accepted the position and moved my entire family to Virginia where I was born.

My family’s move to the East Coast distanced us even further from our extended family in the Midwest. However, by this time my parents were adept at building their own friend-family. My parents bonded with other transplants that worked at the university and with those who had kids that could play with my sister and me.

My memories are full of parties that my parents hosted throughout my childhood-especially dinner parties. My parents didn’t have a ton of money, but they knew how to feed a lot of mouths on a small budget. Homemade pasta was a staple in the Sexton home, and we often had friends over to share. It’s a crowd-pleaser and goes a long way. My mother loves holidays and we would decorate the house for every occasion. One year we hosted a lively Oktoberfest party, complete with sausages and beer my father brewed in our downstairs bathtub with a friend. One of my dad’s colleagues and her husband became some of our closest friends. They had much in common with my parents, including a Midwestern Catholic upbringing. The Murrmanns used to come over frequently to share meals and play cards. They even taught me how to swing dance. Our families spent every Thanksgiving and Easter together. Thanksgiving has since grown into “Friendsgiving” during which a core group of our local friends get together, in addition to anyone else without a place to go.

I have since been fortunate to travel around the world, but I have always counted Virginia as my home. I’m not sure where I’ll end up, though I’m open to whatever comes along. As my mother, the Midwesterner who never thought she’d leave Illinois always says, “You just never know where life will take you.” Wherever I go, I know I’ll find some kind of family. My parents taught me how.