By Mike Chapman
Nile Kinnick: His Death and Legacy
(This is the final article in a three-part series about Nile Kinncik and why he is still so important to Iowa yet today)
The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, changed the world forever. It propelled the United States full force into World War II, with millions of men and women going into harm’s way. Among those who would pay the ultimate price for America’s involvement was the most decorated athlete in Iowa history!
Nile Clark Kinnick, Jr., spent his first year in law school in style, ranked third in the class of 104 students even while coaching the freshman football team. He had also entered the Naval Reserve Air Corps and was called to active duty on December 4, three days before Pearl Harbor. After basic training, he began keeping a diary, exposing his inner most feelings, now available for all to read in the remarkable book, A Hero Perished, published by the University of Iowa Press in 1991.
Nile was not at all interested in living in his past glories but was always looking ahead. He expressed some doubts about the perils that lay ahead but, in typical Kinnick fashion, he was resolute in his determination to face anything in his path.
“Every man whom I have admired in history has willingly and courageously served his country’s armed forces in time of danger,” he wrote to his parents. “It is not only a duty, but an honor to follow their examples as best I can.
“I hope God will give me the courage and the ability to conduct myself in every situation that my country, my family and my friends will be proud of me.”
With no college courses to keep him busy, he did a considerable amount of reading during this period of his life, including such fine works of literature as War and Peace, the 1,300-page novel by Leo Tolstoy, and other classics. He devoured biographies of Abe Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, whom he deeply admired. He studied and engaged anyone who came within earshot on a variety of subjects. And always, he was reflecting on the largest issues of life.
“What a magnificent job the Russians are doing,” he wrote in his diary, concerning their efforts in the early stages of the war. Then, he added prophetically: “What is to keep them for overrunning all of Europe? What a problem the U.S. will have with Communists…. must England and the U.S. end up fighting that outfit too…. it looks like a pretty rough and rocky road ahead.”
He enjoyed movies, and went to them frequently while living on the various service bases, and dined out whenever possible. He wrote continually – in his diary, to his family and to friends. He loved receiving letters, and was disappointed when they didn’t come more frequently.
“Don’t seem to get much mail anymore …rather depressing, too, there are several people who owe me letters,” he wrote on April 22, 1942.
Clearly, by late 1941, sports had disappeared almost entirely from his sphere of importance. As a youth and young man, athletics had been a proving ground, a means to test himself, but after graduation from Iowa in the spring of 1940 he moved well beyond the narrow confines of an athletic field. He had spurned offers to play professionally for a reason: Nile Kinnick was now marching to a different drummer. But, then, he had always been concerned with the plight of people less fortunate than himself.