Publisher’s Perspective

Big event promotes Iowa history

Hooray for the Iowa Studies Center at Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) in Ankeny. The center put on a wonderful event Friday, April 3, that invited hundreds of people to learn more about Iowa history. And the plan is to keep it going and growing in the years ahead.

The April 3 event was called “A Celebration of Iowa’s History, Science, Politics, Literature and Art.” The theme was, “Experiencing the strength of our heritage.” Over 250 persons attended, and Dr. Lisa Ossian, one of the co-directors of the event (along with John Liepa), is already planning next year’s program.

“We are very pleased with the turnout and the event itself,” said Dr. Ossian. “We had 30 breakout sessions, with 65 presenters. We’ve already set the date for next year – April 23. One of our goals is to get more high school teachers and students involved.”

The 30 breakout sessions were divided into 10 areas of discussion.
1. Iowa’s military history;
2. Curriculum for special topics;
3. Iowa studies with the high schools;
4. Conducting Iowa research;
5. Film and internet;
6. Churches, cemeteries and celebrations;
7. One-room schools;
8. Famous Iowans;
9. Iowa’s innovative efforts;
10. Particular projects for Iowa’s history.

Attendees were free to stay with one particular theme for the entire day, or move from topic to topic. Subjects were so varied and wide-ranging that it was hard to imagine anyone could have been disappointed.

Lectures ranged from “Trench knives and mustard gas: The Iowa National Guard in World War I” to “Iowa’s history for youth: an adventure in time travel” – from “Underground railroads during the Civil War” to the history of the Little Brown Church in the Vale – and even included a discussion of Villisca’s long struggle to escape from the image of the terrible axe murders of 1912.

Included in the topics were a discussion of the extensive collections one can see at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Libraries, and the making of a documentary about the Ioway Indian tribe (feature in the first issue of IHJ).

I WAS INVITED to be one of the presenters, talking about the Dan Gable International Wrestling Institute and Museum, which I founded over a decade ago and still serve as executive director, and of the impact of Frank Gotch on the state.

Since I was a late addition to the program, I wasn’t at all sure I would have more than a couple of people at my talk, given how many options there were for the same time period. But to my surprise, nearly 30 people showed up and their interest in the subject was heartwarming to me.

It was a good mix of young and older, male and female. I told them how Frank Gotch came off a farm in Humboldt, Iowa, in the early 1900s to become the most popular athlete in America. He won the world heavyweight championship in 1908, when professional wrestling was real, and reined supreme until his retirement in 1915. In his day, Gotch was the best-known athlete in the nation. President Teddy Roosevelt invited him to the White House, and he was the star of a play that toured the nation and parts of Europe. Gotch was handsome, articulate and a friendly, outgoing fellow – outside the ring. Inside the ring, he was a fierce competitor, like Dan Gable. His stepover toehold move was the most feared maneuver in wrestling history.

I explained to the group that wrestling was largely a rural sport in America from the 1700s to the middle 1900s, and that thousands of Iowa farm boys grew up wanting to be like Frank Gotch. Included in that group were Paul Scott, Dave McCuskey and Harold Nichols, who went on to become college coaches and lead their schools – Cornell College (1947), Iowa State Teachers College (1950) and Iowa State University (1965) – to NCAA national team titles.

All three of them told me that Gotch was a hero for them when they were growing up in their small Iowa communities.

THE KEYNOTE SPEAKER was Zachary Michael Jack, who has authored or written more than a dozen books in a variety of genres, including fiction, essay, poetry and history. His recent book, Letters To A Young Iowan, includes a letter I wrote about Frank Gotch’s impact on the state of Iowa.

Zach did a terrific job of explaining why it is important to have events like this, and what it means to him to be an Iowan. It was informative and entertaining.

Prior to his speech, I was asked to say a few words about the debut of Iowa History Journal, and was pleased to have the opportunity. I told the crowd that it is our goal to use the magazine to make Iowa history come alive in a way that is both meaningful and inspirational.

I asked if anyone there knew who Iowa’s first woman Olympic champion was, and only one person knew that it was Doreen Wilber, who won a gold medal in archery in Munich in the 1972 Olympics. Our first issue had a wonderful story on Doreen, written by Alan Cross, an award-winning sports writer.

“Doreen lived in Jefferson most of her life and passed away on October 19, 2008,” I told the audience. I added that her husband, Paul, had written a wonderful letter to the editor for issue #2, saying how proud Doreen would have been to have her story told in a magazine with feature stories on Nile Kinnick and Colonel Bud Day.

Prior to moving to Jefferson, Doreen was born and raised on a farm near Rutland, which is only a short distance from Humboldt. Paul Wilber told me a bit of ironic Iowa history – that Doreen’s grandmother had actually spent time as a nurse for Frank Gotch’s mother in Mrs. Gotch’s latter years.

I closed my little talk to the group at the event by declaring that Iowa History Journal will do all it can to keep alive the memories of Iowa citizens like Frank Gotch and Doreen Wilber. “They deserve to be remembered by us, and their stories need to be told to inspire other people to dream big and work hard,” I said.

I hope you will join us in that venture by spreading the word about IHJ, and subscribing to it yourself and your local libraries.

(Mike Chapman was born and raised in Waterloo. He was a newspaperman for 35 years, retiring as publisher of the Newton Daily News in 2002. He is the author of 21 books and is a public speaker. He and his wife, Bev, live in Newton, Iowa.)