Scott Cawelti

About Scott Cawelti -

Scott Cawelti was born and raised in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He taught writing, film, and literature at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) from 1968-2008, and has written regular opinion columns and reviews for the Waterloo / Cedar Falls Courier since the late 1970s.  He played for years in a folk duo with Robert James Waller and still regularly performs as a singer/guitarist/songwriter. Scott continues to teach as an adjunct instructor at UNI.



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  • What Makes a Great Community--Cedar Falls' School Bond Election

    • Posted on Sep 01, 2014 by Scott Cawelti

    This appeared in yesterday's (8-31) WCF Courier.   Though I don't expect it to change any made-up minds, it might help a few people jump off the fence--in favor, I hope. 

    I REALLY hope it passes on Sept. 9, not only because it's right for CF Public Schools, but because I'm out $365 on Sept. 10 if it fails.   Pretty dumb idea, but I wrote it and meant it.  (See final paragraphs below.) 

    Over the years I’ve called several places home, meaning put down roots for at least a year and stayed.   I remember them all fondly, mostly.   

    Holstein, in western Iowa, wasn’t much fun for a single guy, and I left town as often as possible from 1965-6.  Regensburg, Germany, was remarkable for its long history and river, the Danube, that waltzed through it.   Orebro, Sweden, meant wonderful neighbors, long walks in the Swedish woods, and some of the best pastries on the planet.  

    Charleston, South Carolina, to where we retreat, combines several of these, making it my second favored city. 

    Then there’s my first, Cedar Falls.  It doesn’t have woodsy walks of Orebro, or the history of Europe and Charleston, but it does have strong advantages that attract and keep folks who come for a year and stay for decades.

    More than a few old friends who left have told me that if they ever find suitable work in the Cedar Valley, they’d move back in a heartbeat, winters be damned. 

    So what makes Cedar Falls such an inviting and vibrant community?  UNI, GBPAC, sports venues, bike trails, Hearst and Waterloo Art Centers—yes, yes.    

    And near the top:  Public schools.  It has some of the best-run and best-regarded schools in the state, and good schools attract families more than most other community features.  

    I’ll admit to a slight bias, since I’m a product of CF Public schools, graduating from CF High when it still had that new-school smell, in 1961. 

    Looking back, I received a first-rate education, with a balance of extra-curriculars and academics, memorable events and excellent teachers.    I didn’t think so at the time, but it allowed enough freedom to experiment, yet enough structure to keep me challenged and engaged.

    A great school will do that, and from all I’ve heard, CF schools carry on that tradition, though not without problems.  Our local schools have become overcrowded and just plain outdated.  CF High was built sixty years ago, and has been remodeled, fixed, and refurbished pretty much to the limit.  

    It’s time for an update, and that means replacing.  If this doesn’t happen, one of the prime reasons Cedar Falls becomes a beloved hometown will falter.  

    I’ve only heard two objections:  Cost and the choice of location, off West 27th St.     

    What will it cost the typical Cedar Falls homeowner?  About a dollar a day, say proponents of the upcoming bond referendum.  This is the first school referendum, by the way, since 1976, when voters approved $940,000 for swimming pools at Holmes and Peet Junior Highs. (Google “CF schools bond information.”)

    A buck a day? That’s less than a cup of coffee, and certainly less than the treats we grab for snacks.  Given what a daily dollar buys, it’s the best spent buck in the wallet.  

    Remember too that though CF Schools rank 17th in enrollment in Iowa, they’re 25th in terms of tax levy.  Clearly, an upgrade is in order.  

     As to location, the whole city’s moving west, and proximity to UNI makes sense, given the amount of interaction between UNI and CF High.  Remember this bond issue will also pay for additions to and remodel North Cedar Elementary, add to and remodel Orchard Hill Elementary school, and build a new elementary school in addition to a new high school.   It’s a city-wide shift to a mid-21st century educational system.  

     I believe strongly enough in keeping CF schools alive and growing that if the Sept. 9 referendum fails, I promise to donate $365 anyway—my buck a day for 2014—to the CF School district on Sept. 10. 

     It’s the least I can do, given what our local schools do for all of us. 

    What’s the least you can do?  Vote yes on Sept. 9.



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  • Aaron Podolefsky: An Appreciation

    • Posted on Sep 29, 2013 by Scott Cawelti

    This piece appeared today (Sunday) in the Waterloo Courier.  

    Word came last month that UNI’s former Provost, Aaron Podolefsky, died of prostate cancer. He left UNI in 2005 to become President at Central Missouri, then President of Buffalo State in 2010, where he remained until his death.  He was 67.   

    He loved administrating, particularly at the college presidential level.   And he generated admiration and goodwill among faculty and students wherever he served.  

    Academic administrators herd cats, as they say, and college presidents herd cats,

    grasshoppers, squirrels, sparrows, and all other unruly campus creatures.

    Anyone who’s actually good at it deserves a few medals and long life.  

    Podolefsky made his mark on UNI from 1990 to 2005.  

    When UNI was searching for a Provost in 1998 I co-chaired the search committee.  Aaron was doing fine as Dean of the College of Social and Behaviorial Sciences, but wanted more, so he applied.  

    We were impressed, and eventually recommended him for the position.

    He was highly respected as Dean, insisting that all voices be heard, and revealing an all-purpose generosity of spirit, as well as an ability to make hard but defensible decisions. Rare traits each, and unheard of together.  

    He became an excellent UNI provost.    

    I sat on a couple of committees with him, and always counted on him to make sense of complex issues. Even when I disagreed with him, I respected and eventually appreciated his decisions. 

    In 2001, he made a decision in a controversy that put him in rare company indeed.  

    Here was the situation:  Theater UNI students had decided they wanted to produce and perform Terence McNally’s “Corpus Christi,” a play that, to put it mildly, raised hackles.

     I first heard about it when friends of friends at a cocktail party were complaining, rather loudly, that UNI was going to stage a play in which Christ and his apostles were portrayed as gay.  They shook their heads knowingly, as if to say ‘typical university nonsense.”  

    Those shaking heads turned into angry protests.  The faculty director, Steve Taft, worried that the play’s very idea was too controversial, and that potential theatergoers would dismiss it as rabble-rousing blasphemy. 

    Though blasphemy is still legal in this country, hard-core believers still go apoplectic.  

    Once word got out, protests went directly to the Provost.  Outraged citizens inundated Podolefsky with calls to shut the production down.  Alumni threatened to withhold their support for the university forever unless he cancelled it.

    Some students protested as well, insisting that their freedom of religion was being curtailed because the play attacked their beliefs.    

    Provosts at other universities had caved when faced with outrage over “Corpus Christi.”  They cited security concerns or just fear that it was too offensive to most citizens, especially donor alumni.  

    What did Aaron do?  He answered the protestors, calmly and deliberately, saying.  as he later explained, “When people wrote me copious emails about values, I wrote back that I also have values — American values, and that sometimes people died protecting those values.” 

    He sat on a 2003 panel on the “Corpus Christi” controversy, asserting that his own values held that everyone be heard, even when their expressions contradicted or offended values of other groups.  He seemed to condone blasphemy, which put him on the firing line.  Actually he was supporting academic freedom. 

    So he held firm, “Corpus Christi” went on, the university survived, and we now appreciate his ability to withstand pressures that other administrators at other universities could not.

    But it wasn’t easy.     

    Jim Lubker, the interim provost who followed Aaron, mentioned Aaron’s flaw, if any:  he was too sensitive.  The Provost regularly endured stinging criticism and abuse from angry citizens over “Corpus Christi” and other less controversial decisions.  “He took it personally sometimes,” Lubker said, “And suffered from it.” 

    Few people I’ve known can avoid that flaw.  Most of us recoil at criticism, go into defense mode, then sink into self-pity.

    If Aaron Podolefsky did that, it never showed.  He carried on, cheerful, affable, putting criticism and rebuffs behind him, and making decisions for the good of most, all of the time.

    UNI will be holding a memorial service for him in the near future.  

    That’s only fitting; Aaron Podolefsky deserves not just remembering, but emulating.




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