I'm not as biased as you might assume. Even though I married the guy, that doesn't mean I didn't spend a good deal of time before the "I dos" thinking about what I had gotten myself into. Undoubtedly, the single most asked question during this weekend's open house was "What made you want to buy a school?" or "Where did you get the idea to do this?"
This is the answer:
I mean, look at that face!
We met a lot of new people during this weekend's open house. Many of you came to us through the Alton Landmark's Historic Home Tour- and are just now meeting us on Facebook or through our website.
I'll be as impartial as possible. Let's forget for a second that I'm a business partner with this fine fellow and, oh yeah, a wife, too. Allow me to introduce you to Joel Elliott- the man behind Milton.
Joel Elliott was born "Joel Elliott Johnson" back sometime in the spring of 1980. From what I hear, he's always been imaginative, an inventor of sorts, a hard worker, and a bit of a loner. By this last adjective, I'm not saying he doesn't have friends or doesn't get along with people. This is certainly not true. It may be unintentional, but Joel has spent the last thirty something years developing a sense of charisma that is as much of a part of him as the cells in his very bloodstream. He is perfectly comfortable on a stage singing and playing music or welcoming massive groups of strangers (as he did this weekend). He just prefers to work alone. Like a track athlete or a professional rock climber- he loves to be in his own zone.
For better or for worse, his childhood didn't lead him to the usual "got to college/get a job" life route. He regrets this often...stating that he wished he could have gone to dental school, started a practice, and been able to help those of his loved ones who don't have the resources to take care of dental problems. He's always selfless like that- when he dreams of what he wants to do. It almost as if he wont consider anything unless it has a more noble purpose of helping someone else in some way attached.
Growing up in a fragile home and tasting the bitterness of near poverty, life lead him into far more adventures than I have had. As a fresh twenty year old, he found himself in Alton back in the year 2000.
He lived with his girlfriend and her family in a house right across the street from Milton on Fernwood. That's a story in itself- I can tell by the way he blithely glosses over large portions of said story whenever it comes up. At some point, the relationship went sour and he found himself in Milton's parking lot, standing amongst a pile of his belongings, staring up at a sign with a phone number that read "Office Space for Lease".
Joel had been through the winding halls of Milton's massive structure once before- I believe after taking a martial arts class with Sonny Hatten. He called the number and met Gary Levi, the man who owned Milton before us.
That name might mean a lot of different adjectives to a lot of different people. I've heard a lot of those adjectives in the last four years. I heard a lot of those adjectives this weekend. But, after reading through a journal he left behind in the schoolhouse, there isn't any doubt that Mr. Levi's personality was a complex and multifaceted one. It was also a personality that included, at its core, a sensitive heart. Joel's record of the meeting is not particularly descriptive, but I think Gary saw the same thing I did when I first met Joel: A determined young man with a heart of gold who just needed a chance. Something to work with. Something to make something out of.
Joel wouldn't find it in the next eighteen months he spent (for lack of a better word) squatting in the schoolhouse. No heat, no shower, no hot water. He only lasted one winter before he moved on. Fast forward thirteen years.
"What do you do?" he told me.
"Did you ever want to come back?" I asked.
"Of course I did. I loved this place. The sun setting through those giant windows. So much space to roam...to think...to dream. So many possibilities. I had never been in a place like this. For the most part, when I lived here, it was just me. Sometimes Doug (he and I did maintenance on the place for Gary) would bring me coffee in the morning. Gary would be by on occasion and tell us what crazy thing he'd want us to do that day. But it was just me, in this place...with so many....things that could be made of it."
"Did you ever expect you'd end up here again?"
"I always wanted to. But how can you expect dreams like that to come true? That just doesn't happen. And, how could I believe I could ever make something out of this place on my own?"
Joel left a part of him behind at Milton. A part of his heart he wanted to share, and chose to share just seven weeks after I met him.
The housing market collapse had caught up with the home decor market. The year prior, I was merrily naming products for Target and CB2 before finding myself without a job in a company downsize. No worries! I had a fresh BA in Business Economics. I was bright, full of ideas, ready to work my ass off and climb that corporate ladder. And I was out of a job for six months. All I could find was a managerial position at a Family Video store on the seedy side of Springfield, IL. The only good thing that job brought me was an introduction to my future business partner and husband.
Joel and I realized very soon after we met that we didn't want to spend our lives with anyone else- but we both hated what we were doing with our lives. After loosing a bid on a restaurant in Springfield, we decided to take a date to St. Louis. That was May 2009.
He was driving from the passenger seat. We ended up at some place he remembered in Alton that he really wanted to show me. Some story about some place that was so amazing. We pulled up to a parking lot of a imposing looking brick schoolhouse- with broken windows by the dozen and chains wrapped around the doors. There was a dead pigeon hanging by its feet in the second window on the top floor. I put on my best "I'm in love so I'm going to put on my game face and pretend it's lovely" smile.
Joel didn't see all that. He saw the sun setting- golden and rich- through giant steel windows. He saw space to roam...to be...to grow. He saw a place with possibilities. But, he also looked over at me and saw someone to change the world with. I saw the same in him.
We didn't see eye to eye on what Milton was, is, or could be then. But we saw eye to eye on this: that we could do something exponentially more together than we could on our own. He presented Milton as an option and for four years we've been making a foolish and naive decision into the best thing that has ever happened to us.