What does it really mean to be called a native Iowan?
Our recent issue featuring Johnny Carson (March/April) was a big seller for us, no doubt due to the immense popularity of the television icon and the terrific photo of him on the cover. But it also sparked an interesting discussion at several locations where I have given speeches lately, and in emails from some of our readers.
Though Carson is one of the best-known entertainers of all time, many people were unaware that he is an Iowan. They think he is from Nebraska, as Johnny often talked about Nebraska on his beloved national television show.
Michael Swanger’s fine article pointed out the fact that Carson was born in Corning, Iowa, and lived in three other Iowa towns (Red Oak, Avoca and Clarinda) before his family moved to Nebraska when Johnny was eight years of age. No matter how long Johnny Carson lived in Nebraska, he is a native Iowan.
The article and ensuing conversations has brought to the forefront a point of order when labeling a person’s background – what is it that defines whether someone is an Iowan, or a New Yorker, or a Californian? In the opinion of most historians, it’s where you were born that determines your labeling with regards to states, not where you spent most of your childhood. If you are born in a certain state, it can claim you as a native no matter how long you lived there.
Such is the case with many Iowa legends – Johnny Carson, John Wayne and George “Superman” Reeves, to name but a few. They were born in Iowa but moved on in their early years. Donna Reed, on the other hand, is a tried and true Iowan, being born on a farm near Denison and living there until graduating from high school in Denison some 16 years later.
This brings to mind an interesting story about a famous actress of the 1950s and ‘60s. Julie Adams was a gorgeous brunette who starred in numerous films, including the steamy and popular cult film, “Creature of the Black Lagoon”. Though the movie is tame and somewhat humorous by today’s standards, it was considered dark and frightening when it hit the nation’s theaters in 1954. Clad in a tight fitting swimsuit for some of the key scenes, Julie made a memorable impact on the movie-going public of that era.
Julie Adams appeared in nearly 60 films, playing opposite such Hollywood legends as Jimmy Stewart, Elvis Presley, Charlton Heston, Rock Hudson and John Wayne. She was in over 100 television programs during her long career, even appearing in an episode of “Lost” in 2006. Today, she lives in Tarzana, California, and still appears at film festivals from time to time where she is treated like movie royalty – which she is!
For years, I heard the story from my grandmother that Julie Adams was born in Waterloo, not far from where my grandparents and their family lived. My grandmother and my aunt Helen knew of some of the details but I had long forgotten them and those wonderful ladies have long since passed away.
Several years ago, I came across Julie’s biography on google and, sure enough, it said she was born in Waterloo, Iowa. Some time later, I contacted her agent with the idea of perhaps doing a story on her Waterloo upbringing and was told that the actress was indeed born in Waterloo – but never lived there at all.
Apparently, Julie’s parents lived in Blytheville, Arkansas, and her mother journeyed to Waterloo to visit her sister, who lived there. When baby Julie arrived early, they stayed with her mother’s sister for a few days, until they were healthy enough to return home to Arkansas …. and that was the extent of Julie Adams’ Waterloo connection, other than a few more trips later on to visit her aunt.
Julie Adams told her agent that what she remembers about Iowa is “the snow in winter, the snow angels, wearing snow suits and snow boots,” and that “the people of Waterloo were always very friendly and very helpful.”
Regardless of where she grew up, Julie Adams is an Iowan. She may have lived the greatest portion of her youth in Arkansas and made her fame in California, where she still resides, but she’s “from” Iowa. The fact is that one can be a native Iowan without actually ever living in the state.
(Mike Chapman is the publisher of Iowa History Journal. Born and raised in Waterloo, he retired from a 35-year newspaper career in 2002. He is the author of 21 books and is a public speaker. He and his wife, Bev, live in Newton.)