HUMMELSTOWN, Pa. - People in Newt Gingrich's hometown got a thrill Dec. 10 when the long-ago little kid, who hunted turtles and played cowboys and Indians at the local rock cavern, mentioned his Pennsylvania roots in a presidential debate.
Mayor Brad Miller said that if Gingrich wins the Republican nomination, Hummelstown will invite him to speak at the town's 250th anniversary celebrations in July.
"I mean, we'll invite him win, lose, or draw," the mayor corrected himself.
And if Gingrich is elected president?
"Maybe we'll name the town square after him. We'll name something."
Gingrich, 68, who was born in Harrisburg Hospital and lived in Hummelstown from ages 3 to 11, has been on the rise as a presidential contender. And this borough of 4,400 near Hershey is basking in the reflected glow.
Gingrich's ascent could be good for business if there are many curiosity-seekers like Mike Szymanski of Baltimore.
The ballcap-wearing Szymanski, a steak and seafood salesman, showed up at the historical society library Tuesday. He was "just passing through" with his refrigerated truck on the way to see customers in Grantville.
He had heard Gingrich say in an ABC News debate from Iowa that "when I was young, we lived in an apartment above a gas station on the square in Hummelstown, Pennsylvania."
Where was that apartment? Szymanski wanted to know.
Borough Manager Michael O'Keefe walked him down the street to an 18th-century house on the corner of Main and Hanover Streets.
He pointed to the second floor above the Main Frame, a computer store that occupies the space where the Esso station used to be. The house's stone front has been covered with gray vinyl siding since a fire in the 1970s.
That was it.
"I was just interested in finding out where he grew up," Szymanski said. "I just wanted to see it."
Including Gingrich, four of the seven GOP presidential contenders have Pennsylvania connections. Ron Paul grew up near Pittsburgh and went to Gettysburg College. Jon Huntsman graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. Rick Santorum (a Penn Stater) was, of course, a two-term U.S. senator from the state.
Szymanski said Gingrich was one of several in the GOP field he could vote for. His preferred candidate: "Anybody but Obama."
The only sign of a Gingrich connection to the house was a bronze plaque at the base of an 18- to 20-foot zelkova tree.
Gingrich, as speaker of the U.S. House in 1997, came to Hummelstown to dedicate the refurbished square. He and his family - his mother, Kathleen, and his three half-sisters, Susan, Roberta, and Candace - planted the tree in memory of Gingrich's stepfather, Lt. Col. Robert Gingrich, a career Army officer who died the previous year.
Reg Dunkinson, owner of the Main Frame, recalled Gingrich standing out front, "talking to someone and pointing to the apartment upstairs."
Gingrich did not respond to a request for an interview made through his presidential campaign. But he expressed his feelings for Hummelstown in his '97 visit, when 700 to 800 people turned out to hear him.
He was in a nostalgic mood.
"I stand here with more emotions than almost any place I have ever been," he said.
He recalled digging a pit for a "turtle zoo," sledding on the ice, visiting a candymaker to get a treat, and risking parental wrath by going down to the quarry or hiking "through the swamp" to Hershey.
"When you were 8 or 9 or 10 years old, these were great adventures," he said. "This was like going to Africa."
Founded before the Revolution, Hummelstown is picturesque and quiet. It couldn't be called affluent, but it's comfortable. Residents work for the state government in Harrisburg, at the Hershey chocolate plant, or at Hershey Medical Center - jobs with decent pay and benefits.
Gingrich said his stepfather was once in a "very bad car accident." His mother had to take a job at a clothing store in Harrisburg.
"I know how difficult and hard that period was. We didn't have any money, but we weren't poor. I don't know of anybody in Hummelstown who was rich. If they were, they weren't part of the group we hung out with."
Edward Swartz, a veterinarian and boyhood friend of Gingrich's, who still lives in the area, recalled that Newt loved everything about Africa he had glimpsed in the adventure movies of their youth.
"I remember the first time I ever met him he was 4 years old; he was coming down the alley in one of those African helmets," Swartz said.
Hummelstown's main tourist attraction is Indian Echo Caverns, a limestone cave owned by Swartz.
"We used to play out there - cowboys and Indians," Swartz said. "We would also go around and explore the woods."
Even as a boy, Swartz said, Gingrich "could always talk."
He recalls that the Gingrich name was pronounced Ging-rick, the German way. Newt started calling himself Ging-rich after he went to school in the South and took up his career there, first as an academic and then a politician.
The family left Hummelstown in 1954 after Robert Gingrich came home from the Korean War and finished his degree at Gettysburg College. They lived at Fort Riley, Kan., and then near military installations in Europe and South Korea.
The parents came back after Robert retired from the Army in 1974. They settled in Dauphin, 18 miles north of Hummelstown on the Susquehanna River. They'd travel to Hummelstown at least twice a month to eat at the Warwick Hotel and visit friends, said Roberta Gingrich Brown, of nearby Mechanicsburg, the candidate's middle sister.
Roberta, seven years younger than Newt, is retired from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, where she was a division chief.
Their sister Susan Gingrich, five years younger than Newt, is a policy analyst for the state Department of Public Welfare.
Third sister Candace Gingrich-Jones, two decades younger, never lived in Hummelstown. She works for Human Rights Campaign, in Washington, and is a gay activist who has publicly differed with her brother over many political issues.
Their mother died in 2003. Newt attended her funeral in Hummelstown, as he did his father's.
He had been in town for his parents' 50th wedding anniversary party at the Hershey Italian Lodge in 1996.
Kathleen Gingrich had been 16 when she married for the first time and 17 when Newt was born.
The marriage, to Newton "Big Newt" McPherson, was short-lived. But Roberta said biographers had unfairly written McPherson out of her brother's life.
He often got to see both his dad and paternal grandmother, she said. He would spend summers with the McPherson family in Steelton.
Newt's maternal grandmother lived with them in Hummelstown, Roberta said.
"She had been a one-room schoolteacher in the early 1900s, and she devoted herself to Newt in reading, writing, and mathematics. So he was very well-prepared when he went to first grade."
The most famous Gingrich story in Hummelstown concerns the time when, at age 11, he decided Harrisburg needed a zoo.
"He took the bus to Harrisburg and went to the state museum," Roberta said. "He had all of the information, which animals, what it would cost. He was prepared."
Everyone was so impressed, the story was printed in the paper. The Associated Press picked it up and put it on its national wire as a "bright" to fill holes on newspaper pages.
It was short, but it was Gingrich's first time on the national stage.