Elvin’s Voice

The dapper white-haired man sits elegantly entwined upon himself — leg over leg, arms crossed lightly, waist turned gracefully inward.  A flower waiting to open.

“I started what is now as an international plant society about Gesneriads.  That is the African Violet Family, you know.”

No, I don’t.  In fact, I can’t distinguish an African Violet from a shrinking violet.  As for identifying a Gesneriad . . . .

The 78-year-old man is nonplussed by my ignorance. He smiles graciously.  He explains when necessary.  And in every gesture and turn of speech he treats me as if I knew what he knows.  I don’t.

“I was 13 and living on our family farm in Oklahoma when I wrote the letter to the Flower Grower magazine saying let’s start a society for Gesneriads.  I was 14 when we published our first society journal.  I was plowing a wheat field when my mother brought me the first copies from the printer.”


“Total books that I’ve written on gardening?  75 all together, I think.  I never pulled them all together until I was named Iowa Author of the Year by the Des Moines Public Library Foundation.”

The white-haired man gives a self-deprecating laugh as he remembers that event.

“I was invited to serve on the selection committee for author of the year.  When I got there, they said if you vote for yourself, it will be unanimous — you’ll be the Iowa Author of the Year.  The next thing I know I was on the board.”


Elvin McDonald looks every bit the Southern gentleman as he putters in his garden dressed in a jacket, tie, and, yes, even a pocket handkerchief.  He has been a garden writer and editor and educator his entire life, most recently for Meredith as senior editor for Traditional Home Magazine.  But there is hardly a garden publication out there that he hasn’t somehow shaped or started or influenced.  That he is the Botanical Educator and Ambassador Emeritus for the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden is no surprise.  In charge of the gardens at Terrace Hill?  Of course he is.

But Elvin also had another life at another time.  A society life that speaks of elegance and celebrity and bigger-than-life characters.

“I got a job at House Beautiful in New York as a garden editor.  It was love at first sight.  A southern Tennessee lady , with a capitol ‘L,’ was the editor.  Sarah Tomerlin Lee.  She was shapeless.  She wore these tents.  But she had this French chair and this big French desk and she’d lean back the whole time.  She started the interview by saying, ‘Honey, I love you, I think you’re going to be very expensive, but we’ll work out something.’”

“I did a story with C.Z. Guest, who was a famous socialite and sportswoman.  And through C.Z., I met Oscar de la Renta.  And I remember walking down Madison Avenue, seeing them, and they’d say, ‘It’s Elvin.’”

“Eleanor Noall was part of old New York society.  She was the last woman Paul Child dated before he married Julia.  Not too long before Julia died, I did a story with her for Traditional Home and I mentioned Eleanor Noall to her.  And she said, ‘That Eleanor Noall, is she still around?’”

“Audrey Hepburn was a darling person.  She told me when she didn’t have a dime she wallpapered her apartment in New York with seed packets.  Colorful pictures from seed catalogues.  In the end, she had this fabulous property in Switzerland with a rose garden and orchard and kitchen garden.  Robby Wolders, her last companion, was the nicest man in the world.”

We sit in his garden, Elvin and I, looking out over the early spring blooms.  The white whicker chairs are comfortable and bright.  The late afternoon sun is beginning to promise warmer days.  And Elvin speaks of life and death and gardens and beauty . . . and the endless characters that have starring roles and guest appearances in his 78 years.


“The original purpose of the botanical garden was to contain in one place the knowledge needed to replant the earth in the event of a cataclysm.  And the oldest one is in Padua, Italy.  It dates from the 1500’s.  It is still alive and thriving.  Mike LaValle’s favorite Italian cuisine is from Padua.  And the Des Moines Metro Opera is performing an opera at the Botanical Garden in July that is set in Padua.  Is that not great?  All the pieces connecting.”

Now and again, Elvin chokes up as he speaks.  A very small sob in the middle of a story.  Almost an unnoticeable hiccup.

“Are you sad that many of these people have passed on from your life?”  I ask.

“No,” he says, surprised that I don’t understand,  “I am happy and in wonderment of the memory.  That is why I cry.”

There’s a flower out on the market.  A late-blooming white narcissus.  It’s called Elvin’s Voice in honor of Elvin McDonald.  You might want to go listen.









“I’m not a vegan, I’m a meatatarian.”

The clean water appears below us, deep down the shaft at Des Moines Water Works.  A submarine view.  The man and I gaze reverently down the tube.  Neither of us talk.  It seems we’ve discovered a new planet.  Clean water.  In a galaxy far far away.


My guide to Des Moines Water Works checks me over.  And I him.  His long white hair is parted off-center, eyebrows still dark from a once-upon-a-time youth, and soft, gentle eyes.  All wrapped in a work shirt, work jeans, and work shoes.  “Maintenance man” would be my guess, especially with the key ring strapped to his belt.

“And here’re the tanks that remove the nitrates.”


Ah, the problem of nitrates.  Too much of this stuff in our water and we’re talking serious illness and sometimes death, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.  Not a good thing.  And my guide told me that Des Moines has had too much for too long, requiring these machines to work too hard to keep our water safe.  And, as nitrates keep increasing, new expensive machines are going to be needed.  He doesn’t think Des Moines should pay to remove the nitrates put in our water from upstream farms and pig lots.  It’s time to sue to make the upstream folks pay the bill or clean up.

“This state has to be something more than a feedlot between the Missouri and the Mississippi rivers.  Our interest is safe drinking water.  The other side’s interest is avoiding regulation.  No one in the science community believes that voluntary efforts are working.”

My guide sadly shakes his head and continues our tour through Water Works.  Large old basins, smelling of high school swimming pools, line the long hallway. Not a soul is around.  We walk into watery rooms crisscrossed with narrow walkways.  Water is being treated in every direction I look.  I start walking on the balls of my feet, certain I’ll fall into your next glass of water.

“Everybody with half of a brain understands that the corn belt is the main contributor to poisoning the Gulf.  What you’re going to hear from the Farm Bureau is that weather is the real culprit.  Well, water does not create nitrogen.  It transports it.  Nitrogen is an element.  What’s happening is that anhydrous ammonia from fertilizer and sewage from 21 million hogs are getting into our waterways.  Stop with the smoke and mirrors of volunteerism.”

My guide lumbers forward, deep into Water Works.  I realize I’m being guided by a bear. His broad back slightly bent.  Head leading down the hall.  One eye on his cubs.  Confident in each step.

“Our state leadership says we are feeding the world and more livestock is a good thing.  We don’t even ask the basic question what is the point of saturation.  What is the point when we have too many hogs?  21 million hogs in this state.  Seven times more than we have people.  If we had 21 million people, we’d be very concerned about the sewage treatment systems and about the environmental implications of that.  But when we have 21 million hogs, we think it is a great business opportunity and we fight any regulation.”

We walk into a mammoth generator room, high ceilings, large tanks, and marks on the wall to show how high the flood waters rose in 1993.  He points out the flood lines that show the building was overwhelmed.  But Water Works survived to clean water another day, he emphasizes.

“Volunteerism is a failure.  It’s the tragedy of the commons.  We can agree in principal that we should not abuse a natural resource that we share, but when it comes right down to it our self-interest will trump that.  If we depended on volunteerism for income taxes, or for abiding by the speed limit, or for air traffic control, or for the safety of food or pharmaceuticals, we’d kill a lot of people.  You can only do this through regulation.”

He doesn’t want to sound fanatical.  He doesn’t want to be marginalized into a category we can readily dismiss.  He is a pragmatic environmentalist.  He is not pro-Democrat or pro-Republican.  He doesn’t think either party is measuring up.  Neither has the political will to fight Farm Bureau, to fight big agriculture.  Water is his business and he wants to do good business for his clients.  So now he’s going to use the legal system to do good business for his clients.

“If you go through our employees’ parking lot, you will not see bumper stickers to save the whales.  They take rivers that are essentially industrial agricultural avenues to the Gulf of Mexico and turn it into water you and I can use.  The people I work for, the board I work for, believe that safe drinking water is a fundamental human right.  It has to be safe, it has to be affordable, it has to be in quantities that people can use.  That’s what these folks do.  And that’s my job.”


Bill Stowe, CEO for Des Moines Water Works, smiles.

“Listen, the folks here are dirt-under-the-fingernails environmentalists, and so am I. . . .   I’m not a vegan, I’m a meatatarian.”

And, with a laugh, off he lumbers to continue the fight.








You have to get in line

The line has only one other couple.  Young and bright-faced.  The docent takes them under her wing and gently guides them through the exhibit.  We follow after.  The birth, life, and death of Anne Frank is on display for all to see.  Made famous by her diary of two years hiding in the secret annex.  And her ignoble death a few months later.  Her story is told in this quiet, small exhibit at the Viaduct Gallery of the Des Moines Social Club until April 26.  An exhibit put together by the folks that run the Anne Frank House.  You can find it on the first floor of the old fire station.  Don’t worry, there is hardly any line.


Half a continent away from Des Moines, the crowd stood patiently in line stretching several blocks to get into the Anne Frank House.  Young women.  Old men.  Families.  Foreigners and natives.  It appeared that they stood without any forward movement as the morning ticked past.  Only the shifting feet in the wet and cold indicated they were not escapees from Madame Tussauds Wax Museum down the street.  Umbrellas and raincoats and good shoes were prerequisites as the rain drizzled steadily throughout the morning.  Oh, and don’t forget the chill that was alive and well and looking for the slightest opening.  But everyone remained.  Waiting.


“This museum is an empty house.  It’s empty because it reflects the absence of people that should be here.  The same is true for 60,000 other places in this city.  There are underneath the reality of Amsterdam that you experience right now, there are 60,000 of these empty places.”

So the executive director of the Anne Frank House, Ronald Leopold, told me last fall of the strangeness of his museum.

“The house represents what happened in Amsterdam, what happened in this whole country, and what happened in many places of Europe when people returned and found emptiness.  Here at the Anne Frank House you can feel that very emptiness. The emptiness of those returning, and all those who remained, and all of us who should be aware of the emptiness.”

The train lines at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Extermination Camp are also about remembrance.  This side of the tracks — you went to the gas chamber.  That side of the tracks — you were worked to death.  Anne Frank was placed on the side of the track that would be allowed to live a few more months.  What remains are empty tracks.  No trains come to this dead-end now.  Only the birds singing in those birch trees at the end of the line sing the same song.


“We don’t know what Anne Frank thought when she was in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.  We don’t know whether she kept her hope, her optimism, her idealism, or whether she lost it in the terrible circumstances she was in.  We don’t know.  I don’t want to speculate about it.  What is important is to be sure to know that part of the history as well.”  Ronald Leopold patiently explained to me.

The same day I talked to Ronald Leopold in Amsterdam, I was in a neighborhood bar in another city.  A line of men flowed out the front door.   Chanting and singing and excited.  I flowed out with them.  The chant became more raucous.  I smiled and watched on the other side of the street.  I later asked my friend, who spoke the language, what the group was chanting.

“Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas.”


“After pessimism, what?  When I see the incredible energy of young people, and how they strive to make the world a better place and how they are inspired by Anne Frank, that is still very hopeful.”  Ronald Leopold sat quietly for a moment.  “Perhaps you saw the line in the front of this museum.  The interest is only increasing.  There is a young generation growing up very much committed to build their future.  We as grown ups have a responsibility to help them.”

But you have to get in line.







“Yes, Ms. Griffin.”

The school door swings open.  A room.  Just like any other school room.  That is, if your school room was in Silicon Valley and was called Apple, or Google, or Facebook.

“If I were going to sit down at a dinner with ten people at the table and ask everybody to draw a picture of what you think a classroom look likes, nine out of ten of those pictures are going to look pretty similar.  But if I ask ten people to draw a kitchen, they would draw something that they could use, that was tailored to their needs.”

She’s tall.  Soft eyes countered by a no-nonsense jaw.  Strong hands.   Sleeves rolled back.  She is a force.  Perhaps she is that teacher in tenth grade whom you accidentally called “mom” to the hilarity of your peers.  Or perhaps she’s that nun, with only the oval of her face framed by her habit, for whom you drew hearts in second grade.  I don’t know.  It’s your fantasy.  But, trust me, an archetype she is.

“We don’t treat our classrooms like kitchens.  We first think about the curriculum and we may not even think of the space.  Changing the space changes how the curriculum is taught.  It causes you not to stand and deliver.  It causes you to design things kids can do together.”

Maureen Griffin smiles.  She is at the end of her day.  Tired.  Too much going on.  Of course there is.  Ms. Griffin is the STEM Academy Director at Hoover High School, among other things.  STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.  STEM academies are our country’s response to the idea that we are not keeping up with technology while educating our kids.  We’re falling behind.  Someone’s going to land on the moon before us.  So now we have an Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council, and Hoover High School is one of the few schools in Iowa with a STEM Academy.

And how best to train these rocket scientists is Maureen’s job.  So, this gets us to her room.  Right smack in the middle of Hoover High School.  A room used by about 75 students and multiple teachers in the course of a day.  And sometimes even the football team.

We walk around the room.

A giant interactive white board hangs against one wall with a projector shining on it from the ceiling.  It is possible to project your computer screen onto the board and then overlay it with notes drawn on the white board.  It is a group document in work — something out of a science fiction novel.

A large low table with chairs sits kitty-corner to the white board.

“This table allows you to write directly on the table.  I can bring my small group to this table.  I’m going to brainstorm here.  It allows the small group to interact on a shared idea.”

Across from the table is a more traditional TV screen.

“This is the video conferencing area.  We use it to Skype.  But it does everything.  You plug  your computers to this connection and you project it onto the TV.”

Strange green mushroom-shaped chairs surround the video area.  Yup, they bounce when you sit on them.  “A student favorite,” Maureen claims.

And then there’s the cushioned stairs, with computer connections spread at the base of each stair.  And wide cloth chairs with swivel arms for your notes.  And even a spot for a student to tinker on an idea isolated away from the group.



A school room like none I’ve ever seen.

Ah, this is all well and good, but are acronyms and high technology the whole answer? Hmm . . . .

Maureen and I walk the halls.

“Hoover is now one of the best schools in Des Moines.  It was all hands on deck.  We took control of everything.  You screwed up, there was consequences.  Now people are transferring here.  We are doing things right.  Our graduation rate is higher than anyone in the district.  It’s all about individuals.”

Every ten steps I see what she means.

“Sarah, did you get that done?  Do you need some help?”

“Yes, Nathan, come and speak to me later.”

“Olivia, what are you doing still here?”

Student after student is greeted, cajoled, confronted, mildly scolded, greatly praised, and certainly acknowledged.  Maureen at work.

“Every time a kid comes into my office and has screwed up, or needs help with something, I draw a picture.”

Maureen starts drawing a time line on a white board, with me as her student.

“Joe, this is you born, right here.  This is you dying.  And this is you probably in high school.  And I’ll call it out.  You’re an African American.  You’re going to die probably around 83 if you’re fortunate to live through this tumultuous time.  You’re going to live to about 83.”

As Maureen draws the time line, underscoring my birth and death with quick hash marks, I swallow self-consciously and start fidgeting.

“So you’ve been doing school your whole life.  And I’ve got this really short window with you, four years.  And I’m preparing you for the rest of this time.  Because if you never see another teacher, if you never see another person in an environment where you have to be there from 7:40 to 3:10 every day, you’re on your own.  I have this little window to help you.  And you’re right here.  And you are still screwing up, and I only have this much time left.”

Lord help me.  I am right there.  What am I going to do?  How do I get a handle on this before it is all over?   Yikes!  I am screwing up.

“And so my theory is, if I get you for 6 1/2 hours a day, 180 days a year, if the only pleasure of your day is you coming to school and knowing that Ms. Griffin is going to be there or your teacher is going to be there and they’re going to welcome you, then I want them to feel welcome.  I think it’s our duty to every kid.  Don’t you think?”

I wipe my brow.  “Yes, Ms. Griffin.”


And Ms. Griffin, perching her chin on her hand, gives me a mildly skeptical look.  And then heads out the door to take care of her next kid.








A good man in desperate times

The grizzled man climbs up out of the litter-strewn riverbank at dusk.  He hesitates.  Flannel shirt wrongly buttoned over multiple undershirts, pants bunched on top of long underwear, a tight stocking cap pulled over a shaggy head with long white hair hanging from the sides.  A homeless man.   The blackened fingers, bitten by frost, are waved in my direction.  He looks down the bike path, his head turning left and right, and then slowly shuffles towards my car in the gravel lot.

A furtive telephone call brought me down to the river’s edge.  A call promising too much.  I was used to dead ends, and sat resignedly waiting for the man to make his way over.

I knew this part of town.  The homeless camp on this bank was cleared long before winter came.  Eagles work the waters below this bridge on Scott Avenue.  A few fishermen hang around during the day.  And occasionally, the laughter and music from Mullets Bar will drift across and down to the sandbars.  But in this evening gloom, when the early night air touches the river creating a low-slung fog, no noise is heard.  Although we are in Des Moines, it could be the dank and musty Thames flowing below London Bridge, or a creaky canal in the warehouse district of Amsterdam.  A place of dark deeds for sure.

The man leans on my car.

“What should I call you?” I ask.

“Is Deep Throat taken?” he says in a low, growly voice.


“OK, how about Bill Stowe?”

The man, who has spent his adult life studying the river up close, saw and heard a bit too much.  He has a secret that refuses to stay hidden below the layers of flannel shirts.  A secret he wants to share.

“It’s in the Raccoon River,” he says.   “Go check the river.”

So I do.

Down to the river I hike.  The water drifts flat and syrupy.  The Raccoon, born from the joinder of the North and South Raccoon, feeds into the Des Moines River at Principal Park.  The Raccoon spans Buena Vista, Sac, Calhoun, Carroll, Greene, Dallas, Audubon, and Guthrie Counties.  It is the drain in the tub for northwest and north central Iowa.  It’s here where the water flows that the man said I would find the secret.

Climbing to the water’s edge, I see that the muddy river looks darker than usual.  Somewhat like the oil on your dipstick.

I take a smell.

Oh my lord.  It’s crude oil — with just a bouquet of nitrates.  Bakken Crude Oil.  The man didn’t lie.  There is a secret hidden in the river.


Back to the man I go.

Why is Bakken Crude Oil coming down the Raccoon River?

The man shuffles back and forth.  Left foot, right foot, left foot.  Looking down the entire time.  A young school boy caught doing mischief.

“The nitrate level was out of control,” he says as a preamble.

I reassure him that everyone understands that problem.

“I did everything I could to make the water safe for the people of Des Moines.  After bringing that lawsuit against the upstream counties, I was at my wits end.  So don’t judge me harshly.”

I was perplexed.

“So I made a deal.”

It began to dawn on me at last.  A deal struck in desperation.  Voluntary efforts had failed. The legislature was not supportive.  The governor was less than helpful.  The man was at the end of his rope.

“We made a swap.”

Ah, so they did.  The brilliance and audacity was stunning.  Who could have possibly guessed how this man had struggled in this dance with the devil.  He knew the water was being poisoned by nitrates.  He knew there was no political will to address the problem.  He knew that his chances of success were slim at best.  But, the bottom line, people needed clean water.

Of course.  It is so obvious.  Crude oil from the Bakken fields is gushing down the Raccoon River.  No doubt, the oil refineries can much more easily deal with the nitrate runoff.  And, as a bonus, no more worry about oil spills in the middle of farm fields.  The land is saved.  Hoorah!

But what about our drinking water?  What is the other side of the swap?

“The crude oil pipeline is quite clean.  This isn’t as crazy as it sounds.  Rural water comes through pipes.  Your city water comes through pipes.  This is not a new idea.”  The man’s tone has changed.  He wants me to understand.  He wants me to see what he’s seen.

So, down the crude oil pipeline our water comes.  Nitrate free.  Just as mother nature intended.  Wow.  American creativity at its best.

I stare at the man as he mumbles quietly to himself.  He then slowly shuffles back to the river, back below the Scott Avenue Bridge.  His long white hair blowing softly on either side of his stocking cap — a rock star leaving the darkened stage.  Who would have guessed?

A good man in desperate times.


[This is an April Fool’s piece.  In real life, Bill Stowe, the CEO for Des Moines Water Works, does not live under the Scott Avenue Bridge.]









“Every punch hurts”

A knockout is clean and simple.  You get knocked down.  You don’t get up.  It’s all over.  No more floating like a butterfly or stinging like a bee.  The end.

A technical knockout is not so clean and not so simple.  The referee calls the fight usually because the losing boxer’s safety is at risk.  Why?  Because the poor guy is getting walloped by the winning boxer.  It’s not an uplifting sight.

Or maybe it is.

“I was born and raised in Fort Dodge, Iowa, with two sisters and three brothers.  My dad worked on the slaughter floor and my mom was a nurse’s aid at the county home.”

The words are jumbled together, chewed on, and delivered like taffy being pulled at the State Fair — a long string of stretched-thin sentences with no periods or spacing or changed intonation.   The large pink jacket doesn’t help dispel this illusion.

John Roby continues . . . .

“One of my goals is to get on the Ellen DeGeneres show.  I hope my story will change people’s lives.  My story is my life.  Look at it back then and look at me today.  I think it is a touching story.  It’s a little depressing.  How you can be at the top?  And then everybody takes you for what you’ve got?  It’s a sad story.  But it is touching.  What do you think of my story?”

April 3, 1993.  Dalton, Georgia.  Roger Bonine versus John Roby.  130 pounds.  International Boxing Organization World super featherweight title is on the line.  Out of the ring will walk a changed man.  Adulation, respect, endorsements will follow.  Champion of the world.

“My manager said, ‘John can you make 130?  There’s a title out there for you.  If you make this weight, we’ve got the title shot.’  So I went down another weight.  And I had the title shot with Roger Bonine.  From Georgia.  He had the title for super featherweight at 130.  Eventually I made the weight, two days before the fight.  I was amazed.  I went down as the 2 to1 underdog. And what do you know, I knocked him down in the fifth round and I took the crown.  IBO crown.  One of the biggest belts in the world.  April 3rd, 1993.  Preston Daniels, the mayor of Des Moines, made it John Roby Day.”


The 52-year-old hands are remarkably fine.  Fingers long and delicate.  Knuckles unswollen.  Nails neatly trimmed.  The hands of a patrician, not a boxer.

John Roby takes a long breath.

“What did I do to deserve this crown?  I waited for so long.  It was a blessing.  I see myself winning the belt in dreams.  And sometimes dreams come true.  And my dream wasn’t a fantasy, it was the real deal.  It came true.”

John Roby’s life dramatically changed.

“It was like I was reborn.  I was giving people autographs.  People noticed me more.  ‘Hey, Champ.  How are you doing?’  It made me feel great.  Especially when I was going to schools and telling the kids about my career.  The recognition made me feel good.”

And that was the beginning of the end.

“My downfall was being ‘mister-all-that.’  Mine wasn’t dope, drugs.  Mine was being a ladyizer.  I liked being out there.  Chasing women was my problem.”

The big money never happened.  John Roby worked at Dahl’s in the produce section to make ends meet.  One year later, in 1994, he lost his crown to Jeff Mayweather by a 12-round decision.  But worse than the loss, he had an accident at work.  He injured his neck and head.  His life would never be the same.  Fifteen losses and a few wins later, his career was over.

“John, how do you survive today?  Where do you get your money?  How do you live?”

He turns away.  He coughs.  His brow furrows.  A heaviness comes from deep down in his throat.

“I didn’t want to tell you, but I get a check.  I feel like I’m stupid because I get that check.  I feel like I’m retarded.  I feel like I’m retarded.  I have failed.  I’m trying to do this story.  I feel ashamed.”

John Roby recovers slowly from this blow.  He looks directly at me.

“Everything is slow these days.  Reflexes, legs. . . .  But I think I could make a comeback!”  He laughs almost painfully.  Then he becomes serious.

“Now I have feelings.  Every punch hurts right now.  Back then the punches didn’t hurt.  Right now, every punch hurts.  I was like superman.  I’m still superman, but I don’t have the cape anymore.  I’m not the man of steel.  I’m just John Roby.  The puppy, John Roby.  The old puppy, John Roby.”

So John survives.  Volunteers with kids at various places.  Helps out where he can help out.  Tries to inspire people with his story.  And has a message he delivers in quick jabs.

“Go to school.  Get your grades up.  Respect your teacher.  Respect your parents.  Discipline.  Make your dreams come true.  If you want to become a professional anything, you’ve got to give it your best.  You can’t listen to negative.  If you’re listening to negative, you aren’t going anywhere tonight.  Be sure to get your education.  Don’t be a boxer.  You need your brains.  Become a doctor.”


“Is this a sad story for a fighter?  I blew my money.”  He shakes his head.  “I gotta get another shot.  Do you think I have a good story?”









Crossing paths

Illness is an interesting sculptor.  It pulls the cheek bones higher.  Hollows out the spaces near the mouth.  Brightens the eyes just a tad.  And, as the man across the table laughingly told me, “It is a hell of a weight loss program, it is effective, but I don’t recommend it.”

We laugh, because we haven’t been together long enough to cry.  We sip our coffee quietly.

Frankly, when I first met him 34 years ago, he was an irritant.  Over the tops of the five-foot high cubicles at the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, his voice would boom and shake.  A flyover on a quiet work day.  Startled, we would all stop working and wait for the ruckus to subside.  It could take awhile because hearing the voice meant Rich Richards was back at the AG’s Office after being in court.  Good for Rich, but bad for the second floor of the Hoover Building.

“I still have timbre in my voice,” he proudly tells me.

No kidding.

The second time I met him, he surprised me.  The opera was all new for me as I sat near the edge of the stage in Indianola.  Amazing singer after amazing singer would appear.  I saw a large man enter stage left.  He was a good six-and-a-half-feet tall, with that tell-tale handlebar mustache.  And there was the voice.  Booming across the stage.  Rich Richards.  Opera singer.  Who knew?

“I had the unique opportunity to perform with the Des Moines Metro Opera for quite a few years.  About a dozen.  Sometimes as the lead and sometimes as a secondary character.   But the shelf life of an opera singer is strictly defined — it is so demanding on your voice.”

Perhaps, but YOUR voice sounds just fine.  In fact, the studious people in the coffeeshop are starting to edge away from our table.

The third time I met him, he and I argued.  The federal building was a bit more open in those days.  A few of us went from the Polk County Attorney’s Office to talk to the United States Attorney’s Office to see who would prosecute a case out of Polk County.  We all argued what the other should do.  Complicated, of course, because we all thought we spoke with the voice of God.  And there was Rich, on the feds’ side.  Slapping me on my back.  Welcoming.  Larger than a man should be.  A big personality.

“Been with the Department of Justice since 1983.  U.S. Attorney’s Office.  Trial attorneys learn just enough to be dangerous on a particular subject, and then they are done with that particular case.  They forget all about what they just did and move on to a whole other area.  A rewarding professional situation for me to have this kind of practice.”

His head shakes as he looks backwards over time.  He then laughs — just as you’d expect — large and loud.

The fourth time I met him, he was (and is) performing with Repertory Theater of Iowa, Clarence Darrow: A One-Man Play.  Yup, he is the one man.  As we talked, I couldn’t tell when Rich was talking as himself or when Clarence Darrow was talking.  He flowed from one into the other and back again.

“There are things Darrow says about the practice of law.  ‘It is a bum profession as generally practiced because it’s devoid of idealism, almost poverty stricken as to real ideals.’  I absolutely agree.  It is a bum profession as practiced.”

Rich looks at me to see if I agree.  But with whom am I agreeing?  Clarence Darrow or Rich Richards?

“Some of the issues Darrow debated — for instance, does man have an immortal soul?  ‘Once when I was debating a man he got so carried away he told an audience, “I’m the master of my fate, captain of my soul.”  ‘Captain of his soul?  Hell, he wasn’t even a deckhand on a raft.’”

I’m beginning to wonder if Rich has internalized all the characters he’s portrayed over the years.  Is he Marley’s ghost from A Christmas Carol?  Is he Lane from The Importance of Being Earnest?  Is he Giles Corey from The Crucible?


And then Rich Richards talks of being sick.

”I was ill for a long time.  I was so sick I could not even attend my youngest’s kid’s graduation party.  MRSA [Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus] did so much damage, they were saying my liver was failing, I was eligible for a liver transplant, kidneys were starting to shut down.  I was incredibly ill.  It was really 50/50 whether I was going to make it.  I still have residual problems with my liver.  But I feel good.  Feel better than I have in a long time.”

A shoulder replacement, a fused ankle, and a tremendous loss of weight, thanks to MRSA.  Rich is sanguine.

“Clarence Darrow talked a lot about life and death.  ‘A lot of people were sure as I got older, closer to my final exams, I’d get religion.  Never did.  I still believe when I die there will be nothing left over.  Neither heaven nor hell.’”

“Darrow’s second wife is named Ruby,” Rich says to me as an aside.  And then continues as Darrow.

“‘Ruby had a slightly different point of view.  She does believe in a heaven and a hell.  But it won’t make any difference which one I go to because I have so many good friends in both places.’”

“That’s the kind of guy he was.”  Rich gives me one last smile.

This is the kind of guy Rich is.

And, with a shake of hands that pulls into a hug, off we go to follow our separate paths once again.








Reflections on a 50-year-old cop

The hallway is empty.  High ceilings stretch off in the distance.  Dark woodwork marks the openings for doorways hidden in shadowed recesses.  And a low murmur of voices provides background.  1600 voices to be exact.  Oh, yeah, and one cop.

I follow the directions from the front desk.  Right.  Then left.  Then another left.  “And then you’re there.  On the right.”

Now was that a right, then a left?

“I still hear the stories about my dad when he was a police officer.  It was a different time back then.  My dad grew up boxing.  He was an east-side boxer.  He brought that knowledge to me and my brother.  We both knew how to fight.  I grew up fighting.  It’s come in handy some time

I ask the guy at the front desk to give me the directions again.  It doesn’t help.  I know I am somewhere in Roosevelt High School.  Lost for sure.  Wandering the halls looking for the promised land.  Will I have to re-enroll in high school?

“I was aggressive in my early career.  I was 23 when I came on to the Des Moines Police Department.  I was probably immature.  But I had a goal to put as many bad guys in jail as I could.  With maturity came understanding.  It is not always about putting bad guys in jail.  I was on the SWAT team for 20 years.  I was in the gang unit for nine years.  I worked the east side on patrol.  I was in the most aggressive areas of the department.”

I continue down the hallway.  A little worried.  Knowing that at any minute a bell will ring, the doors along the hall will open, and I’ll be swept away into teenage angst.  Not a pretty sight.  I didn’t do so well the first time around.

“I wanted to be where the excitement was.  Where it was a hundred-miles-an-hour-with-my-hair-on-fire all the time.  Chasing people.  Being shot at.  All that stuff was great, and exciting, and never the same thing twice.  That’s why I loved the job.  I absolutely loved it.  And if they would have told me we’re going to take away half your pay, I would have still done it.”

Finally, a voice calls my name at the far end of a long hallway.  A waving figure in blue, handsome in a rakish way, with a big smile and a balanced stance, laughing and beckoning me with open arms.  A man who is not lost.

“Like I say, with maturity and understanding, things started to change.  It was a learned thing.  It came from a lot of older policemen.  They told me, it’s not all about putting people in jail, it’s about changing lives.”

Des Moines Officer Mike Moody gave me a big hug.  Yes, a hug.  Is this the crazy kid I taught in police recruit class 26 years ago?  Whose enthusiasm to get the bad guys made me more than a little nervous?  Who was so certain of himself it made me uncertain?  Is this really Mike Moody?  A school resource officer?  It can’t be.


“My job now is to provide a safe place for these kids to come and get an education.  I take it a step further.  I want to get to know these kids, get to know what’s going on in their heads, in their families, what they do outside of school.  So if they have a problem, they can feel comfortable coming to me, talking to me about it.  It’s a completely different law enforcement.  I went from kicking in doors and pointing guns at people, telling them to get on the ground, to sitting down in an office with a 16-year-old kid and just trying to figure out what’s going on in his or her life.  To see what I can do to help them out.  It’s cool.  It’s a great change.  It’s an awesome change.  I love it.”

Officer Moody is interrupted as we sit in his office.  “What’s up, Anthony?”  “Hi Jordan.”  “Hello Michael.”

Clearly, I was occupying a chair reserved for these kids.

Officer Moody began to tell stories.  A boy climbing up on a building at the shopping center to hold up a sign asking a girl to homecoming.   A gang kid learning to trust Officer Moody as he relentlessly engaged the kid at school — day after day after day.  Two girls being spiteful to a third girl, taking her purse, texting where the purse was located, and then the two girls crying in remorse in Officer Moody’s office.  This isn’t complicated.  Right and wrong, poor behavior and good character, wallowing and getting on with the task.  Life lessons.  Everyone ends up with Officer Moody for a chat sooner or later.

“I have a good rapport with many of these kids because I have the same maturity level.”  Officer Moody laughs at himself — slow and easy.  “I still haven’t grown up.  When I was 15 years old, I told my dad, ‘When I grow up I want to be a policeman.’  He said, ‘Son, you can’t do both.’  I never understood what that meant until now.”

So this tough, aggressive, in-your-face cop sits behind a desk at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa.  Buying lunches for the senior basketball players, just so he can find out about their plans and make sure they have a future.  Encouraging a freshman basketball player to persevere, when he sees the kid pouting on the bench.  Shaking the outstretched hands of fathers he’s arrested, because the fathers are thrilled Officer Moody is watching over their kids.

“This is the greatest school on earth.  I swear to God.  It has the best administrators, the best teachers, and the best kids.  Kids from south of Grand, kids from the hood, kids from the east side, and they all come here.  I have not seen anything about racism, it is everybody hanging out together.  If our city was as good as this school, we’d have no problems.”

Happy as a clam, Officer Moody is home.


“This is the best job on earth.  I get paid to build relationships with kids that I actually like.  I get actual feelings for these kids.  I say to them, ‘Dude, I get to  know you for four years.  We are going to be great friends.  Do you want to know the worst part of this job?  When you graduate.’”

Officer Moody’s eyes glisten at the very thought.  Really?

“I love the job, Joe, I can’t say enough about it.”

And Officer Moody leads me out of Roosevelt High School.  Safe and sound.










“I’m right here.”

Just a goodbye is what she asked.  Write a farewell.  Nothing more.  Certainly nothing rude.  Nothing getting even.  Nothing to settle old scores.  Just goodbye to old friends, old enemies, and all the in-between.  And, most importantly, goodbye to the neighborhood.  To the East Village, a simple goodbye.

The past few weeks have not been easy.  Holding down a spot in East Village for so many years, Marsha Steele’s time is out.  Her lease is dried up.  Her spot on Grand Avenue is done.  No hard feelings.  But the reality is that her small business is soon to be a business no more.

For 25 years, Marsha successfully worked in the insurance world.  But in 2005, she turned her back on that world and opened a vintage shop in East Village — Found Things.  A dream come true.

“How do you make your dream?  You moonlight.  I painted house interiors on the side so I could support the store.  I went to a small business administration class at night.  They gave you a business plan boiler plate.  Eventually I was able to be open five days a week.  And before long, I was open six days a week.   I then moved to this bigger space in 2008.”  Marsha smiles proudly as she looks around her store on Grand Avenue.

Let’s just take a turn around Marsha’s dream.  Go through the large glass door and up a step.  See that old mortar and pestle on the counter?  It’s Marsha’s favorite item in her store today.  The wooden handle of the pestle is worn smooth by the palm of some long-forgotten person grinding and crushing spices into powder.  Marsha will tell you about the pestle.  She’ll ask about the space you want to decorate, ask about your wants and needs, and suggest other items which might work.

Then she’ll ask about you.

I’m not kidding.  She is going to connect with you.  Sorry.  You don’t even have to buy that crazy mortar and pestle.  She is all about her customers — as she looks directly at you with eyes slightly magnified by the perfectly rounded vintage glasses and a wry smile dancing across her lips.  This is who she is.


Let’s take a turn to the west wall.  Past the mason jars and bowls and cupboards.  Yup, that is a deer head on the wall.  You’re right, there are a lot of points on the antlers.  Of course it is dead as a vintage door nail.  Stuffed.  Exactly what you’d expect to find in your grandpa’s attic next to his tuba and your grandma’s old phonograph.  Come on, here’s your chance to be politically incorrect.  Buy it.  And you might as well also buy that used fur coat since you’re on that slippery slope anyway.

And while you’re browsing, Marsha will tell you about the other great stores in East Village.  You like her vintage glasses?  Well, go to the optometry shop down a few blocks.  You want men’s clothing?  Just go over to that bridal shop and they have a great men’s line of clothing in the back.  You want soap?  You want spices?  You want painted furniture?  You want fresh tea?  You want a latte?  Marsha will point the way.  All in the East Village.

“All the small businesses in the East Village adapt.  We keep ourself viable.  It is something to be proud of.  And look at all the women entrepreneurs: Sarah Grant, Amy Hassebrock, Jen at Eden, Teresa at Kitchen Collage, they’re all still here.  There’s a great camaraderie of female business owners.”

Yup, she’s about you, but she’s also all about these women, these small businesses.

Now we are towards the back of the store.  If you look up, you’ll see a wooden canoe hanging from the ceiling.  Old as Moses.  A future decoration for some modern downtown loft is my guess.  Perhaps a conversation piece that will float above the cocktails.  Although I don’t see any paddle.

Speaking of no paddle . . . .

“There was a vacuum in the board of East Village.  Six or seven of us were appointed new.  The president resigned thirteen months earlier.  At that meeting, seven new people were voted on the board and they said, ‘Okay, we need a president.’  And somebody said, ‘Marsha, you be president.’  They voted on it, and I became president.”

And it might be an understatement to say Marsha became a very vocal member of the East Village Neighborhood Association.

“A lot of detractors will say I was the bitch on Grand.  That hurts my feelings.  I’m a very direct person and half the population doesn’t want someone to ask them a direct question.  Another portion doesn’t want you to re-ask it because of no response.  I always called myself a pusher.”

Marsha was passionate about East Village.  She loved all the festivals that the City put in East Village, but hated that all their businesses would be virtually shut down during these two-day events.  She railed against noise coming from the bars.  She argued for planters and sidewalks.  She didn’t want drunks out on the street.  And on and on and on.


Marsha circles back to the front of the store.  Customers need her attention.  A hipster is piling items on the counter, wanting to know their back stories.  Two fashionable women have questions about some funky furniture they saw in the back.


Next to me are old suitcases stacked on shelves.  The kind of suitcases you’d imagine a silent screen star having in hand on a train ride in the 1920’s, perhaps on the slow train to Paris.  Or the kind you pack up to leave home.

“I want to leave good energy behind for the people I’ve worked with, and leave good energy for my fellow business owners.  I don’t want to give a teary send off — I want to say, ‘Keep being great downtown retail, keep being the hottest retail district in the state, keep redefining yourself’ —  because I’m watching.”

Marsha’s eyes glisten.  Her heart is broken.  Her love for East Village, her love for small businesses, her love for her customers, is too much for her today.

She sets a compass on the table in front of me, unable to make eye contact.

“I carry this old thing with me.  And, not being a boy scout, and not knowing my way, I pull this out.  And whenever I wonder where I am, I’m right here.”







A bird’s eye view of wrestling

You couldn’t make it?  Too bad.  It’s Iowana at it’s best.  From all over the state, young men and women came to compete — to see who is the strongest, quickest, and most clever.  They did moves like the half nelson, the single leg takedown, the double leg takedown, and the ankle pick.  Of course, these might also be the specials they were offering at the concession stands.  Got me.  Although, I was mildly disappointed to find out there would be no one wrestling in a costume calling himself “The Undertaker.”  But I went this year because that’s what retired guys do.  Here’s what I saw and here are the new words I learned.

Water bugs.  At 106 pounds these are water bugs.  All legs and arms and quick movements skimming the surface of the mat.  When they lock together, it is an entanglement of filaments — a leg twisted around an arm, twisted around a waist, with a head over there and a foot over here.  A bundle of limbs.   The wrestlers skittle on and skittle off.  A victor is found, but I’m not sure if body parts haven’t been exchanged.  A whole new water bug leaves the mat.


Bull elk.  Large.  Powerful.  Shy, but territorial.  285 pounds of a boy not yet a man.  There is nothing mean.  Nothing brutish.  Nothing evil in these mammoth boys.  Gentleness is the name of the game.  But out they come to lock horns.  Knotted together at the arms and shoulders.  Immovable.  Neither one bends to sweep the legs.  Neither one feints to the right or to the left.  How dare they?  Their mass unbalanced will quickly tumble them to the ground.  And that is the end.  They struggle with this knowledge.  Locked together.  Knowing that today it is you on the ground, tomorrow it is me.


Roosters.  Prancing around the gym at 182 pounds, chests thrust out, arms sculpted with muscles, chins chiseled.  They are 17 years old going on 27.  They needed to shave twice today just to keep up appearances.  And here they are.  Ready to fight.  Watch them warm-up off the mat.  Glaring and thumping and dropping to one knee to shoot inside the imaginary opponent.  The fans whoop it up on the sidelines.  Happy.  Excited.  Watching the wrestler off-stage.  Forget the actual match.  This is the real arena for the 182 pounder.  Strutting their stuff in the chicken yard.  And the interesting twist?  It doesn’t really matter if they lose a feather or two.  Their crow will still be heard in the morning.

Prairie dogs.  The coaches all line the corners of the mat.  Sitting two abreast.  Placidly at the start.  Then bent at the waist.  Then hands cupped around their mouths to shout.  Then conferring intently with each other.  Then — wait for it —  they spring out of their holes.  Jumping and shouting and gesturing.   Whew.  Back to their hole they go.  Sitting placidly once again.  Wiping their furry brows with a small hand towel.

Yellow labs.  Their butts high in the air.  Chest down on the ground.  Eyes forward watching the action.  Scooting to the left.  Then scooting to the right.  Dancing and dancing around all the fun.  Pulling in close to slap a hand against the mat.  Darting back out to circle and circle and circle.  Barking at one wrestler.  Then barking at another.  It doesn’t stop until everyone is herded off the mat.  Wagging their tails, the referees are just happy to be there.


There you go.  Now you know everything I know about Iowa high school wrestling.  I can’t wait for high school basketball.