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Whiskey Break! (Templeton Rye)

Most towns 20,000-some bicyclists pass through on RAGBRAI (The Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa) are known for something. It’s a strongly (though not exclusively) American  impulse: to find that one thing in one’s burg, no matter how small, that connects with the national consciousness, no matter how tenuously.

My hometown of Clarion (RAGBRAI overnight stop 1993, meet-up town 2007), for example, is the birthplace of the 4-H  emblem – each of the four leaves of a clover representing one of the H’s of the agricultural youth organization’s pledge.  I never joined 4-H, what with being a solid small town urbanite who grew up a full block from the corn fields. The local point-of-pride that interested me more was Glen Buxton, Alice Cooper’s lead guitarist, who retired to semi-obscurity in Clarion and whose death in 1997 sparked a brief media blitz. Once – while I was volunteering some service at the cemetery with a local youth group I was a part of – my quest to find Mr. Buxton’s gravesite was detoured by an adult leader who steered me toward the grave of a high school girlfriend of his who had died young, him lamenting (during the steering) that there were plenty of other people who had lived and died around here too. Anyway (whiskey is coming, I promise) at several local events during my own high school years, I portrayed O.H. Benson, the local school superintendent who, in 1906, decided to attach the clover symbol to the Wright County Agricultural and Homemaking Clubs, inspired by a gift of seven of the good luck charms from children at the one-room schoolhouse that now sits in the Clarion’s Gazebo Park. In 1911, Benson went to Washington D.C. to help develop such groups nationally and brought the symbol with him. Five minutes ago, you had probably never heard this story, but every child who goes through the Clarion-Goldfield public school system knows a simplified version of it by some combination of heart, hands, head and/or health.

Several miles up the road from Clarion is Woolstock, birth place of TV’s original Superman, George Reeves. Further in Southwestern Iowa, the McDonald’s in Denison has a wall display dedicated to native daughter actress Donna Reed. Towns without a vaguely-recognizable figure who was born or died there tend to adorn their welcome signs with gentle hyperbole like “Crossroads of the Nation” (Early, pop. c. 600) and/or hyperbolic puns like “A Gem of a Town in a Friendly Setting” (Jewell, pop c. 1,200) or hyperbole and gently-obscene-but-not-really puns like “The Friendliest Town by a Dam Site!” (Quasqueton, pop. c. 500).  While RAGBRAI didn’t pass through any of the above towns in 2011, one of the great joys of the ride is seeing how local pride manifests itself in the friendly people at each stop who are trying to sell you pie. A highlight this year for me: Oxford, in which photographer and resident Peter Feldstein took pictures of all but three of  town’s 800-some residents in 1984 and 2005-6 and published a book about it. Usually, however, a town’s fame does not precede it – nobody knows Elkhorn & Kimballton (2011 Day Two stops) have the greatest rural concentration of Danes outside of Denmark until they see a giant windmill and are confronted with a long line for ethnic pastries and – interest perked – later check Wikipedia.

An exception to this relative obscurity is Templeton (population c. 300, a 2011 Day Two stop) or “Little Chicago,” according to a serviceman in the Philippines as recounted by Templeton Rye company co-founder Keith Kerkhoff. During Prohibition, informal distillers around Templeton (Kerkhoff’s grandfather Alphons among them) made a rye whiskey known for it’s quality that was allegedly favored by Al Capone. Today, the legal variation of Templeton Rye has been selling out wherever it’s allocated in Iowa and going for $18 a shot in (Big) Chicago. Shortages caused by the four-year distilling process and Iowa’s alcohol distribution laws have turned finding the stuff into a cross-state treasure hunt. Templeton Rye jerseys were everywhere on RAGBRAI (look above and to the right) and personally, it’s been a factor in my switch from gin martinis to Manhattans. I won’t embarrass myself by attempting to describe the flavor with adjectives other than “tasty” and “drinkable,” though those are words I’ve never before used to describe whiskey.

Spirited Enterprise – Profile: Keith Kerkhoff, Founder of Templeton Rye

Keith used to play football for Buena Vista University (whose marketing department for which I work) and after graduating came within a few picks of making it to the pros. I was lucky enough to get to profile him – and the story of Templeton Rye – for the July issue of our magazine, BV Today. If you’re curious about how illicit Depression-era stills begat what’s fast becoming 21st-century Iowa’s best-known high-end beverage, 70s college football, the minutia of liquor distribution and three generations of the Kerkhoff family story, pour a shot  and fire up the ol’ PDF viewer.  I said one shot! You’ll want to keep a level head while reading.

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Videos for a Hospital in a Small Town

In my last entry, I wrote about my hometown of Clarion, Iowa, and the relationship between the look of the surrounding landscape and the practicalities of living there.  Pictures I’ve taken with my new Canon 5D Mark II (see below) indicate I won’t be abandoning those themes of specificity and abstraction anytime soon – the Midwestern identity, aesthetic, and experience are rich in these sorts of tensions, a fundamentally ironic one being that the region’s reputation as a ‘place where nothing much happens’ often undercuts their mention.

So, with thoroughly Midwestern tensions in mind, I hesitated a bit with the title on this entry. The rural medical center certainly embraces many small-town ideals, placing a high value on friendliness and viewing its function as an integral part of  the community it serves. Residents know their doctors, professionally and socially; the clinic itself is the setting for dramatic times of joy and sorrow and hundreds of everyday events in between. While this no doubt happens in cities of all sizes, an important small town difference is how this experience in one particular clinic is shared by the majority. Heck, before Clarion got its first hospital building in 1951, surgeries were performed in what was a house, doctor-owned, a one-time home – an apt symbol of the integration of medicine, community, and expectations that care be both professional and patients still be treated “like family.” Long since demolished, I imagine this house as the Eagle Rock Hospital in Cold Turkey, Norman Lear’s pre-All in the Family satire of (among other things) small-town Americana, shot on location in the Iowa towns of Greenfield and Winterset (birthplace of John Wayne, seat of bridges-laden Madison County).

At the same time, the rural medical center tends to be sensitive about being perceived as a podunk ‘band-aid station’ by its urban peers. In that sense the hospital is an effective synedoche for a significant aspect of the Midwestern experience: a fear that comfort is a symptom of provincialism, as exacerbated by the Midwestern capacity for joking self-effacement and the default tendency of media to ignore, romanticize, and/or dismiss what happens outside the city.  It’s telling that Cold Turkey – an eminently watchable film prominently involving well-known talent (Lear, Dick Van Dyke, Randy Newman) and in my opinion one of the funniest films of the 1970s – has yet to see an official release on DVD (let alone Blu-Ray or Netflix) and is most readily available through a Youtube channel named “Rarevintagefilms.” Put another way, while small town America is still very much alive in the present, the friendliness-and-apple-pie part of its image has connotations of belonging to an idealized past, creating a dissonance (or at least a pause) when one thinks of the small town and its relationship with advanced technology and (in this case) the drama of medicine.

To be sure,  hospitals in small towns usually don’t have the pressures and excitement you’d find in a big city E.R. In recent years, however,they have begun to intentionally identify and boldly seize on the strengths of their locations. There exists in northern Iowa a friendly unity and rivalry among several expanding medical centers, each striving to serve their communities with high-quality family practice clinics while angling to become regional centers in differing specialty services.

In the case of Clarion’s Wright Medical Center (WMC), the services offered (particularly orthopaedics) are ever-expanding, while the service quality is patterned after what one might expect from a good hotel if it were run by one’s family. People say hello in the halls; staff don’t just point  you where you need to go, they walk with you to your destination. WMC’s$70 million facility is profitable without subsidies, employing several hundred people (in a town of 3,000 and a county of 13,000), including 26 full-time providers and 30 specialists on staff. As a community member it has been a thrill to watch WMC’s ambition and edifice grow, and yet still be able to find my old gym teacher exercising, walking throughout the connections between the hospital and the connected senior apartments.

By now, of course, you’ve no doubt noted another tension at work in this blog entry: one between reportage and commerce. I’m not just biased by hometown pride, but the fact that since 2008 I’ve produced several videos for WMC, beginning in 2008 when I shot one to honor CEO Steve Simonin at a national convention where he was named to healthcare consulting firm The Studer Group‘s Fire Starter Hall of Fame (Steve, incidentally, asked me to evoke Cold Turkey on this project, which was my introduction to the film). This followed with a move to high-definition in 2010, when I made another to introduce the hospital at the 2010 Iowa Recognition for Performance Excellence (IRPE) banquet. In these videos, I worked with WMC’s marketing department, Steve, and the non-profit Wright Medical Foundation to identify goals and then was turned loose to handle all aspects of production, including directing, shooting, and editing. The links below are to my own high definition streams on Youtube; WMC plans to upload lower-res versions to their own website soon.  Music in both videos is by Josh Woodward, a singer-songwriter who’s been kind enough not only to license all his songs under creative commons, but also to make them available on his website in both full and instrumental versions.

Introductory Video – Iowa Recognition for Performance Excellence – Silver Award, 2011

This video was made to introduce Silver Award winner WMC at the 2011 Iowa Governor’s Recognition of Performance Excellence Celebration, held May 5, and was an updated version of the video that played at 2010’s banquet. While no videos played at the 2011 event due to technical difficulties, the Iowa Quality Center has since found a home for them on its website. All interviews with staff, providers, and the CEO were unscripted; I shaped the narrative in editing.

Wright Medical Foundation – Fundraising Video, 2011

While Wright Medical Center makes more than enough revenue to cover its operating costs – including $14 million in improvements currently underway – many of its major expansions have been financed through the generosity of donors.  These include the first hospital building that was constructed in 1951 and expansions in the 90’s and 00’s that built senior apartments, assisted living facilities, and added new equipment that would otherwise not have been purchased. This video is designed to be played live as part of presentations in homes and at larger banquets and events. The interviews with CEO Steve Simonin and patients Kelly and Judy were captured unscripted, while I wrote the script for Foundation representatives Lisa and Duane. The video went through several major re-drafts, driven by the input of focus groups, before we reached the final version linked above.

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But enough words, you were promised photos! Since I shot these videos I’ve added some lenses and upgraded to the Canon 5D Mark II, renowned for its full frame sensor, vivid image quality, and terrible auto-focus system. While I haven’t yet experimented with its video function (which has been used by others to record such projects as the seventh season of House), here are some new pictures that revisit familiar themes. First: some shallow-depth-of-field-friendly portraiture of my friend Angela and her garden, which (the garden) you can read more about  in her blog  “Could the World Be About to Turn?”, which (the blog) covers gardening and the hope of peacefully promoting positive social change and justice, illuminating and embodying numerous regional tensions in her explorations of politics and agriculture:

Next: more life on an abstract plain, more Wright County from the air, in the cautionary words of my my friend Dave “a totalitarian use of land” (a quote I use on this detail-test piece to perhaps balance some of my more Romantic leanings):

Continuing the theme of Midwest-as-abstraction, my favorite of the set:  people relaxing in the middle of the lake, as viewed symmetrically from above, captured on the same flight –

And the city of my current home, Storm Lake, downtown, at night in low light, capturing the anxiety of the photographer over the surprising lack of effort needed to make some subjects look good:

That’s all for now – like I did this time last year, I’m leaving the internet to join one of the most quintessential Iowa experiences: RAGBRAI, the 20,000 person town-t0-town bicycle ride/week-long party that rolls  from the banks of the Missouri River (this year at Glenwood) to the mighty Mississippi (at Davenport).

Pie, beer and 454 miles await.

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Underground, Out West, Through Business and History: Pursuing the American Myth and Dream

Feature and Web Story Roundup, Quarter One 2011

The landscape was hilly, but quintessentially Iowa: nearby was an old windmill and not much further away a church, an idyllic late-winter landscape rendered slightly surreal by the 20 wetsuit-clad people standing in a circle in the middle of the field. We waited there to descend, one on the ladder at a time, down the shaft’s warm air 180 feet into the dark.

There are three ways in to Coldwater Cave – which, with 17.5 miles of tunnels, is the 33rd largest cave in the United States. The first entrance, discovered in 1967, starts in Coldwater Spring; it requires scuba gear and has not been used in decades. When John Ackerman, Minneapolis-based furniture upholsterer and caving enthusiast, was denied access to the second entrance (a 94-foot shaft drilled four years later by the Iowa Geological Survey), he – not without conflict and controversy – drilled his own. This was the entrance through which we went to spend the afternoon wading – sometime swimming – up several miles of underground river, guided by our gracious and enthusiastic host.

For more information on Coldwater (and the controversy over its ownership and entrances) check out this 2009 article from Iowa Outdoors magazine, posted online at Ackerman’s web site. For the February’s trip described above, I was primarily along for the experience, offered to BVU students and staff through the Department of Outdoor Recreation.  I also took the above picture and wrote this story for the University’s web site. Telling about these things is my job; the experiences and people along the way are some of its best parts.

For recent web stories, I’ve interviewed an alum returning to Japan to help with disaster relief and students raising funds and awareness to help the local high school music programs.  My most in-depth  BVU stories,  however, appear in print, in the magazine BV Today and alumni publication BV Briefs. The most recent issue of Today dropped last month; I’ve included in this post PDFs of feature stories I wrote that appear in it, as well as ones from two past issues. Enjoy!

“That Much Further West” (Feb 2011) tells the story of media studies professor Dr. Bruce Ellingson’s six months of travels to capture western America’s national parks via ‘high dynamic range’  photography – and how he utilizes the Internet to promote his work . Bruce and wife, Margie, traverse two landscapes – the iconic American West, and the brave new world of social media. I borrowed the title from a song and album from the band Lucero, who – like the story – deal thematically in Americana.  You owe it to yourself to check out Bruce’s pictures on Flickr – I could describe them with adjectives, but they’d only sound exaggerated. This feature was quoted in a subsequent story in the Des Moines Register.


“Opportunity, Next Exit” (Feb 2011) covers the winding career path of Brad and Dee, a husband-and-wife pair of alum, from internships in the Mexico Desert to an on-campus student business selling carpet scraps to a major street paving project in Omaha to hearing aids to software. Opening the story is an interview with Brad’s  mentor, owner of a southwestern convenience store empire that was – however one may view the enterprise – instrumental in the shift in economy on Native American reservations from barter and trade to cash-based.


“A Man of Many Words” (July 2010) profiles the dryly humorous and highly conscientious Dr. William Cumberland, professor emeritus of history, who was well-regarded by colleagues and students throughout his 33 years at BVU – and told the story of the school in his History of Buena Vista University, currently in print in its third edition. Cumberland is also an expert on the Jehovah’s Witnesses and author of several articles and a biography (Iowa Rebel) of Wallace Short, Socialist, onetime mayor of Sioux City, and “Iowa’s most distinguished radical during the 1920s and 1930s.”


“A Changing Practice” (Feb 2010) covers the career of an alum from a college football career cut short to becoming one of Phoenix’s most prominent cosmetic surgeons, in the process touching on changes in cosmetic medicine throughout the 2000s and how the ‘Great Recession’ hit Phoenix and affected people’s outlook on cosmetic procedures.


*Also, unrelated to anything above, last Saturday I recorded the concert of a friend – Cherokee, Iowa-based musician Andy Juhl – utilizing an experimental setup to cover nine musicians on stage with six relatively inexpensive cameras. Some of the footage has begun to trickle onto his Facebook page.

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Now, in Korean! (plus thoughts on the diversifying small town)

Storm Lake is one of the most culturally diverse cities in Iowa – according to the old  2000 census data, 2,186 of the area’s 10,150 residents (21.5%) are foreign-born, with 64% arriving by way of Latin America and 30% hailing from Asia. I’m guessing the results from 2010 – when they are available in more detail – will show this trend has increased, and that a lot of Iowa’s marginal 4.1% population growth will be attributed to people born outside the US. There are interesting historical and contemporary threads that contribute to Storm Lake’s present, among them the post-Vietnam War relocation of the Tai Dam people to Iowa – which I hope to research and write about at greater length sometime in the next few months – and employment opportunities offered by the local Tyson plant. Though many challenges are associated with the changing demographics and economics of the area (and the globe, for that matter), I find a lot heartening in the idea that even as many natives of the region eventually leave (and I expect I will, eventually), people still want to come from afar to build lives in the rural Midwest.

In the case of my own family and one great-great-great (give or take a few ‘greats’) grandfather on my dad’s mom’s side, the impetus to seek a new life came under circumstances into which I will attempt to spin civic-minded motives: after a carousing night of contributions to the local economy and cultural scene at an area drinking establishment, Grandpa felt it was the social sector’s responsibility to help him back home safely. When the postal wagon he flagged disagreed, Grandpa pulled a knife, panicked, and hopped the next ship for America. There, he reunited with Great Great Great Grandma – who Great Great Great Great Grandpa & Grandma had sent to the New World in part to keep away from Gramps – and the rest is family history. My grandma, currently age 90, grew up in Eastern Iowa attending German-language church services and speaking German at home, a resilient cultural trait which ended after it was crippled by one world war and finally killed by a second. Or so the family narrative goes, more or less.

The image of the Midwestern small town has largely descended, like most of its residents, from north and central European roots. While I’m grateful for many parts of the small town as I experienced it growing up, as Richard Longworth also wrote about in his 2008 book Caught in the Middle, the Iowa we grew up with isn’t built to last our lifetimes.

This is, of course, not all that related to why I wrote the copy for an ad for to be placed in a Korean-language publication. Though I have occasionally received versions of news stories and press releases I’ve written that have been translated for the two Spanish-language newspapers in town, writing specifically for translation is new to me, as is the BV-Korean study abroad  initiative the ad supports. The language is a little rougher (allowing for production considerations) and more explicit than for an ad that would stay in English. Nonetheless, whether it encourages students to come and stay for a semester, year, four, or longer, I’m glad there are individuals, cultures, culture, and food that make trips from far away to take up the charge of continuing to develop the next phase of the small town.

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Arctic exploration. World peace. Volunteer justice.

The inglorious refrain of the internet – “under construction.” It was plastered all over my Angelfire account back when I was much younger, back when it was the custom of the day to accompany it with all manner of flashing lights and chartreuse and other hard-to-spell colors. Here we are though in 2010, the colors of the internet have pleasantly been subdued, and suffice to say in the unlikely event that nothing follows this post by February, I’ve probably shuffled off this virtual coil (at least in any practical sense).

I’m starting this as a professional blog. My goals is to make this a nexus for my writing, photography, and video projects, some of which I do full time – as a web & marketing writer for Buena Vista University – and all of which I do on a freelance basis.

For some initial examples – three stories I wrote are currently highlighted on the BVU homepage:

Arctic Dogsled Expedition Leader Speaks on Campus

Students Make Paper Cranes for Hiroshima Peace Memorial

BVU Criminal Justice Program Partners with Innocence Project of Iowa

Arctic adventure! Oragami! World Peace! Cute puppies! Wrongful accusations! Justice at whatever the cost*! Higher education! It’s all above, folks, with more to come!

*for free!

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