When you’ve just turned 50 years old, it’s great to be known as the new guy.
I’ve been walking among you for a few months now, but I’ve been working over in New Hampton, at the Tribune. I liked that job very much, and I love New Hampton and the people there, so it took a little convincing when the good folks here at the Press invited me to join them.
I’m convinced now — after a few days of getting settled in — but just between you and me, it was a tough sell.
My first day I walked into the break room here and looked up at a sign on the wall that said “Employee’s Only.”
Yes, the apostrophe was in there. You don’t have to be an English major like me to know that it shouldn’t be. And so, that’s going to be driving me crazy every day I work here.
But if that’s the worst thing, I think everyone’s going to be all right.
For about the last 30 years, I’ve done just about every job there is to do at a newspaper, at small and medium-sized papers all over the Midwest. I’ve also worked in radio.
Mostly I like to write, I like to observe and listen, and I like to tell stories, and I’ve been told that I’ll get the chance to do that here, so I’m excited about that.
The reason I’m here comes with a long story — actually several little stories, all of which I’ll probably tell you over time. Essentially, after 27 years at a school district in southern Iowa, my wife received an offer to teach here in Charles City. We visited, we loved it, we decided to take a shot.
And so now, she’s here and I’m here. I’ve met some of you already, now it’s time to meet all of you. I look forward to hearing your stories in the coming weeks, months and years, and I’m hoping you’ll appreciate mine.
And if you’re kind and polite, I’ll be kind and polite, too. I’m old enough to believe that there’s a lot to be said for kindness and manners, and that they’re in short supply these days.
I came here from Bloomfield, Iowa, which is a wonderful and amazing little town, straight down highway 63 just south of Ottumwa, in Davis County. Davis County is on the Missouri border, and I lived close enough to Missouri that I could hear the banjo music in the distance at night.
I’ve lived and worked all over Iowa and Minnesota, but I actually grew up not far from here, in Oelwein, so I’m quite familiar with this part of the planet. My parents still live in Oelwein, as do some of my oldest friends. It’s an old railroad town, just like Charles City.
Of course, Oelwein and Charles City share a common date in their collective histories.
Fifty years ago, May 15.
The worst day for tornadoes in recorded history. One of them hit your home town, while at the same time, one was hitting my home town. Both of them were absolutely devastating, and they changed the course of history, for both of our cities.
In recent years, when I’ve talked about the Charles City and Oelwein tornadoes, I’ve called them “The Ghost and the Darkness.”
I was just two months old when The Ghost and the Darkness hit Oelwein and Charles City, so I don’t remember a thing about it. I wouldn’t even live in Oelwein until a couple years later.
But yes, I grew up with a whole bunch of people who were born the same year the tornadoes came. One old friend and teacher once told me she thought our class — the Class of ’86 — was strange and unique because when we were all babies, either in the womb or just out — we’d been all shook up.
There may be some truth to that, but I also think that we were strange and unique because we all grew up in the aftermath of that tremendous shaking. We were told about the tornado persistently. We saw the concern in our parents’ gazes as they watched thunderstorms approach in the western sky. Our entertainment came from nursery rhymes, Sesame Street, and storm safety handouts.
The city we grew up contained an eclectic mix of tired old buildings that had survived the tornado, brand new buildings that replaced the ones destroyed, and heartbreaking stories of wonderful buildings, now shadows of spirits, that no longer stood. We were forced to learn to love the old, embrace the new and appreciate what once was.
And it seemed like we had a tornado drill every week at school. With each drill came important lessons:
— Know where the strongest structure is, with the sturdiest walls.
— Get there, as fast as you can, as orderly as you can.
— When it’s an emergency, it’s ok if you’re a boy and the strongest structure is the girls’ restroom, and vice versa. Just get there.
— Keep track of all your friends and classmates, and make sure they get there, too.
— You have a buddy. Even if he’s not usually your buddy, he’s your buddy today. Don’t lose track of him. Look out for your buddy. Trust that your buddy will look out for you.
— Stay calm, stay low, listen to your teacher, and huddle together.
— It’s ok to be scared, it’s ok to cry, it’s ok to laugh, it’s ok to sing, and it’s ok to pray. It’s also ok to do none of those things.
And so, after all those lessons in my formative years, I’m big on strong walls, doing your own thing, staying calm, huddling together when it’s necessary, and looking out for my buddies.
Some buddies are buddies for life, and some are just buddies at the moment. Either way, it’s important to look out for them.
I’m big on understanding that sometimes events lead you to places you never thought you’d go. Sometimes that’s the opposite-sex restroom. Sometimes it’s Charles City, Iowa. When the time comes, don’t worry about it. Just get there, as quickly and as orderly as you can.
I’m also big on listening.
Thank you for letting me join you here in Charles City. Let’s keep track of each other. Help me learn to love the old, embrace the new, and appreciate what once was.
Let’s find the sturdiest structure together.