By ANNIE ZELM
Crystal Bowersox left Elliston and Toledo a few months ago as a singer whose exposure was mostly limited to the local performing circuit.
She came back Friday a national celebrity, with all of northern Ohio anxiously awaiting her arrival and paying homage to their own American Idol.
Banners lined the streets of Oak Harbor, and signs wishing her luck were plastered across the windows of businesses from the Chop Shop to the local McDonalds.
At least 6,000 people packed into the Ottawa County fairgrounds before Crystal made her grand entrance in a Ford Mustang, trailing a parade that marched through Oak Harbor.
Taking the stage with her longtime bass player, Frank May, she opened with a cover of Janis Joplin's "Me and Bobby McGee."
Her half-hour performance also included two original songs, "Holy Toledo" and "Speak Now," one of her personal favorites she wrote before moving back to Ohio after chasing her dreams in Chicago.
"I wasn't sure how my life was going to go, but I'm kinda liking how it's turning out," she said with a grin.
Offering a peace sign, she thanked the crowd for their support and promised to return.
"Really, the only way I'm going to get to the top is you guys," she said. "God bless you for carrying me this far."
People arrived as early as noon to snag seats close to the grandstand for "Bower-stock," a celebration organized largely by the Trinity United Church of Christ in Elliston.
Church parishioners and others sold T-shirts to benefit the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and Diabetes Youth Services, a Toledo-area agency that hosts an annual camp Crystal attended as a child.
"The exposure's been a godsend," DYS operations coordinator Terry Rudes said. "We've been in existence since 1984 and we haven't had this much publicity, ever."
Proceeds from the shirt sales and donations have already allowed the agency to send 22 children to a summer camp for free, she said. The camp normally costs $1,000 per child.
Chris Bury, 50, a construction worker from Genoa, doesn't usually take the day off when the weather's nice but couldn't pass up the chance to see Crystal.
"How often is this gonna happen?" he asked. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing."
Eight-year-old Cierra Stotridge hopes to be a singer like Crystal someday and practices at home on her karaoke set.
The third-grade student at Hayes Elementary in Fremont came out to see her with her parents, Dan and Sara Stotridge, and her 11-year-old brother Caleb. She's gotten her whole family hooked on the show, she said.
Fans of all ages held up homemade signs and wore mismatched knee-highs known as "Bower socks."
"I voted for her like a thousand times on my cell phone," said Courtney Hunter, 11, a fifth-grader at Rocky Ridge Elementary School and distant cousin of Crystal.
Those who met Crystal before she became a household name say they're not at all surprised by her success.
Barb Rhodes, a teacher at Kersten's Korner Nursery School in Oak Harbor, taught Crystal more than 20 years ago. She held up a sign with a photo of a blonde 3-year-old singing a song about a Jack-O-Lantern for Halloween.
"She was already a spitfire then," Rhodes said as she stood with two fellow teachers. "One of those kids you couldn't help but love."
At the preschool graduation, Crystal's teachers asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. She told them she wanted to be a teacher just like Mrs. Rhodes.
"She was just a child you wouldn't forget," said Bonnie Adkins, 59, a custodian who remembers her as a student at Rocky Ridge Elementary School. "She made an impression on everyone."
Sylvania resident Don Goins, a friend of Crystal's mother, jokes about proposing to a 13-year-old Crystal the first time he heard her sing. He was in his mid-40s at the time.
"I always knew she was going places," he said.
At Oak Harbor High School, where Crystal attended, many of the students were granted an early dismissal to join in the festivities.
"There's quite a bit of buzz," Oak Harbor High School principal Keith Thorbahn said. "It's fun to watch, to see somebody this close."
Meanwhile, officials blocked off streets through the tiny town of Elliston, a few miles from the fairgrounds. A few sheriff's cruisers parked in front of the home of Crystal's father, Bill Bowersox, so she could visit her family in the midst of a tight schedule that included radio and TV interviews, a few surprise stops in Toledo and singing the national anthem at the Toledo Mud Hens game.
The baseball team broke a single-game record for attendance, with 13,200 fans flocking to the field to hear her.
Toledo resident Vickie Linke, 51, said she's been following Crystal on the show and was even more impressed by her live performance.
"She rocks all the time," Linke said. "It's a pretty good thing when the crowd asks for her original stuff over the stuff they know. It's a true testament to her talent."