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  • Happy Father Figure's Day

    • Posted on Jun 19, 2016
    Here's today's (6-19) Courier column.  It celebrates fathers who weren't birth fathers--father figures, whom we all remember and appreciate.  


    We all know father figures: Father time, godfathers, the father of radio, computing, broadcasting, psychology, (etc.) and the Father who art in heaven.  

     They’re different from mother figures, earth mothers, mothers of invention, Mary, mother of Jesus, who helped save mankind from mother Eve’s mistake. 

     Mother figures nurture, advise, understand, and love unconditionally.  
    Here’s a surprise:  So do father figures.  They bring different perspectives—feminine and masculine—but they all nurture and advise.   

     Since it’s Father’s Day, let’s celebrate father figures. 

     I’ve become acutely aware of fathers and father figures while reading Thomas Wolfe’s epic American novel “You Can’t Go Home Again.”   Well before WWII, Wolfe wrote bedrock truths about American life that still resonate. 

     We read Wolfe now because a New York editor, Maxwell Perkins, discovered Wolfe’s writing genius, and helped him shape sprawling masses of prose (Wolfe wrote constantly and compulsively) into novels that changed American literature. 

     Incidentally, don’t confuse Thomas Wolfe with Tom Wolfe, a contemporary writer most famous for  “Bonfire of the Vanities” and “The Right Stuff.” They’re both important writers, but reside on separate literary planets.  

     In Thomas Wolfe’s third novel, “You Can’t Go Home Again,” Wolfe calls Perkins “Foxhall Edwards” and writes, “[Wolfe] knew that Foxhall believed in him, and the editor’s faith and confidence, coming as it had come, at a time when [Wolfe] had given up all hope, restored his self-respect and charged him with energy for new work.” 

     At their best, that’s what father figures do—they insist their “sons” develop new expectations, and live up to them.  

     The film “Genius” just arrived in movie theaters, and gives Perkins and Wolfe long-needed attention for a relationship that resulted in enduring literary works. 
    In my own life, I’ve had three father figures, and still feel grateful for their influence.   

     Merle Picht, my Cedar Falls High School drama teacher, offered guidance and confidence starting in the 10th grade.  He showed me ways to get outside my little box, and sparked motivation to work harder.  He believed in my abilities far more than I did, and that made all the difference. 

     Robert Waller, my singing partner for years, offered a focus on performing that I wouldn’t have thought possible.  As a college freshman—he was a senior—I was making money performing with Waller, and having a fine time.  He had so much confidence in our duo that I just went along, and it worked.  For a good while, Waller offered life advice that saved me mountains of trouble, both academically and personally.  

     Charles Matheson, my college voice teacher, created a passion for music that
    was contagious.  I caught his passion and never lost it. 

     I still remember these father figures fondly for their support and patience, and especially for being role models I could admire and emulate.      

    Their influence waned as we all moved on, which is both inevitable and necessary.  Yet without them, my life would have been considerably different, and likely considerably worse.  

     So here’s to father figures everywhere.  Just by being themselves, they become
    the sorely needed fathers beyond what real fathers provide.    

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  • A Tale of Three Mayors

    • Posted on Jun 05, 2016
    Here's this morning's (June 5) Courier column.  I've gotten to know three mayors, one from living in Cedar Falls, (Jon Crews) another from living in Charleston, S.C. (Joe Riley) and another from recent observations and an extended lunch conversation in Waterloo.  (Quentin Hart) 

    Both Crews and Riley retired from politics in December, 2015, and Hart began his
    political career as Waterloo mayor in January, 2016.  A comparison of the three seems in order, since they share several important traits.   

    Below is a photo of me, Joe Riley, and Lonnie Stewart, a sculptor friend who was discussing the possibility of his creating a large version of the model in the photo for Charleston's African-American museum.   We were meeting in Riley's Charleston office a few years ago.   

    Jon Crews, former Cedar Falls mayor, Quentin Hart, current Waterloo mayor, and Charleston, South Carolina former Mayor Joe Riley, deserve mention in the same breath.  Crews and Riley served their cities successfully for literally decades, each leaving a positive legacy.

     If Waterloo’s major Quentin Hart continues on his current political path, he stands to make a similar enduring difference.     

     A few words about the two lifelong mayors.  Each began their terms in the nineteen seventies as young men. Crews began in ’74 when he was 24.  Riley’s began in ’75 when he was 32.  Each ended their political careers in 2015. 

     Crews won 15 two-year terms for a total of thirty years, with terms off, successfully succeeding his successors, as he put it.  Riley won 10 consecutive four-year terms, running as a Democrat in a fully Republican state. 

     Last week I was reminded of Riley’s popularity when I attended a concert in Charleston for the 40th anniversary celebration of Charleston’s two-week long Spoleto USA Arts festival. 

     Riley spoke onstage to a sold-out concert audience and received a rousing standing ovation before he started.  He seemed startled by the outpouring of affection.  

     His speech offered enthusiastic support for the renowned Spoleto festival. He detailed its beginnings in 1976, and reminded the audience of its early struggles. Insisting that Spoleto was his major contribution to Charleston’s culture, Riley revealed his passionate support for the festival that put Charleston on the map.  

     Riley fought long and hard to make that happen, marshaled support and got it done—among other major transformative projects.  

     Through it all, Riley was a trustworthy and approachable mayor.  As a visitor from Iowa, I met with him a few years ago about a possible a street marker in downtown Charleston to honor Judge Waties Waring, a white civil rights leader years before civil rights became a cause.  (See Tinsley Yarbrough’s “A Passion for Justice.”) 

     Riley fully agreed, and even went further about the need for a sculpture to honor Judge Waring.  Three years later I visited that life-sized sculpture in downtown Charleston.  He had made it happen.   

    Visionary, personable, willing to listen and get things done—that’s Joe Riley.  

     So too with Jon Crews.  At a recent lunch, he was just as open and clear about his years of paying attention to constituents, and why he sometimes didn’t, in all honesty.   
    Moreover, he and Riley share a rare trait:  Humility.  

     They both give serious credit to citizens who helped along the way, knowing that it takes a village to run a city. Small egos make great leaders.   

    Then there’s Waterloo’s newly elected mayor, Quentin Hart.   In my several hours of talking to and observing him, I observed these same qualities—openness to citizen input, clarity in decision making, and humble about his place in the scheme of things.   

     Waterloo is lucky to have him, just as Cedar Falls and Charleston were lucky to prosper under the long leadership of Jon Crews and Joe Riley.  


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