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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  • Epitaph for Elmer

    • Posted on Jun 15, 2014 by Scott Cawelti
    Published on March 1, 2008.  I repost it here in honor of Father's Day and Elmer Cawelti, who died late February 2008.  I miss him.  


    My dad Elmer lived five years shy of twice as long as my mother.

    Beany, as everyone called my mom, (she was bean-pole skinny) ) died when I was twenty.  He died at 95 early last Monday morning.  

    In that forty-five years he remarried, changed jobs, retired, traveled, and most of all became a role model as a husband, father, grandfather, neighbor, and friend. To everyone who knew him in one or another of these roles, he served almost as an ideal. Or at least that’s how it seems to me now, having known him for six and half decades. 

    Until my mother died he and I weren’t all that close.  He tended to be the reinforcer of her threats, as well as the distant, busy working man that so many fathers become to their younger children.  He lectured me on my sometimes unruly temper, and usually didn’t miss a chance to berate me about my general klutziness. 

    After Beany’s death, though, we began to spend more time together.  He transformed into quite a different man, especially after he married Jane, our family’s longtime friend and his second love.  He became, well, just plain fun, generous with his time, completely non-judgmental, and breathtakingly good-natured and optimistic.

    When he began to get down, he would mutter out loud,  ‘I’ve got to get my mind right” and sooner rather than later, he found a brighter side. He actually developed a mental habit of seeing goodness and humor everywhere. That’s a prescription every doctor would support, and probably one of the reasons he lived so long.

    He didn’t pursue happiness; he found it, in his friends, his cards, his jokes and joshing, which were almost constant, and his kindnesses to everyone.  As his neighbor Les Huth told me, he was the class act in our family. 

    Though I felt sorry for myself when my mom died, realizing that she would never see my children, my years and years of friendship with Dad has almost made up for it. He could never replace a mother, but he made a world-class father.

     When I came into his room last weekend, I woke him from one of his many naps, and I asked if he had been dreaming.  He hadn’t been dreaming, he said, but thinking.  “What about?” I asked, wondering if he had caught a glimpse of an approaching light.  “I’m thinking about what a great family I have,” he said. 

    We had become a mutual appreciation society, and for that I’ll always be grateful.

    Now, one of the many passions he bequeathed to me was a love of music, and he and my mom encouraged me to sing and play almost before I could walk.  From my dad’s example, I learned to love music, and to sing harmonies almost as effortlessly as he did.

    Angeleita and I sang this simple old folk song, not for him, but WITH him, last Saturday afternoon, 36 hours before he died.


    Down in the Valley, the valley so low.
    Hang your head over, hear the wind blow.
    Hear the wind blow love, oh hear the wind blow,
    Hang your head over, hear the wind blow.

    Dad sang those old folk tunes, and whistled so well,
    His harmonies echoed, gave hearers a thrill. 
    The best words were spoken, by a neighbor so wise,
    He knew Elmer’s presence made everyone high.

    He said it and meant it, and now it’s a fact.
    No doubt about it, you’re dad’s a class act.
    Down in the valley, the valley so low
    Hang your head over, hear the wind blow. 

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    Posted in
    • Nostalgia
    • Personalities
    • Death
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
  • Midwestern Style, a la Gary Kroeger

    • Posted on Apr 28, 2014 by Scott Cawelti

    This was first published on March 8, 1987, and it seems to hold up pretty well, given the passage of 27 years or so.  Gary Kroeger in fact has returned Cedar Falls, Iowa, --ever the Midwesterner.  He does seem perfectly suited to the "land in its working clothes," as poet James Hearst once called Iowa.  


    There’s no denying this: we’re all Midwesterners. How do we know that? Because we all act alike, as anyone from California knows.

    So when Midwestern characters show up in television programs, they behave in the expected fashion. Otherwise, don’t you know, the audience would get confused.

    A case in point is “Spies,” the new CBS adventure/comedy that stars Cedar Falls native Gary Kroeger and Mr. California Tan himself, George Hamilton as “Ian Stone.”

    Kroeger plays “Smythe,” a new spy for “the company” who idolizes Ian Stone, and through a series of plot strains, gets to be his partner.

    Smythe hails from the Midwest, (Kansas) and boy, and does it show? Let us count the ways:

    • His clothes. “If you’re going to work for me,” Stone tell him, “you’ve got to stop looking like an Amway salesman.” Stone buys Smythe (from their expense account) two thousand bucks worth of designer clothes.

    Oddly enough, pre-fashion wardrobe Smythe looks great to me: button-down shirts that almost fit, run-down loafers, semi-baggy pants. Smythe complains that he prefers Sears to Ralph Lauren. Ian Stone sniffs, “You think Cheryl Tiegs really wears that stuff?”
    So from now on, Smythe won’t look much like a Midwesterner. Instead, he’ll look like a Midwesterner in California clothes.

    • His language. He says “darn” a lot. “DARN?” asks Stone. “Where’d you get that expression?”

    “Kansas,” replies poor Smythe. “We say that a lot out there.” He also says “a lot” a lot. And if he had been writing it, he would have spelled it “alot.” That’s how my Midwestern writing students spell it.

    Smythe also speaks with the voice of a parent. Every other sentence contains “should” or “must” or “have to.” That’s the Midwest, through and through.

    • His conscience. This is the trait that “Spies” plays up the most. Ian Stone amounts to an American James Bond, always with the women, always seeming to put pleasure before business. He’s a playboy, an irresponsible high-living, big spending rake.
    Smythe, however, worries constantly about Stone’s wasteful lifestyle. “Couldn’t you drive a nice Pinto?” he whines, as they sit in Stone’s Ferrari. By way of reply, Stone shoots Smythe a withering glare. 

    Every Midwesterner who’s gone to California has seen such glares. I saw it several times last summer when I asked Riverside natives why they can’t use the municipal swimming pools, (instead of wasting precious water for backyard pools) or why they can’t build a decent mass transit system. I played Smythe to their Stones on a daily basis.

    • His frugality. Smythe constantly worries about money, counts up their expenses, calculates their budget. Stone, meanwhile, brings in blindfolded musicians to play for his private parties, rents whole skating rinks for his date, and draws ahead on his company salary. (He’s been paid ahead until 1997.)

    Smythe insists that they pay as they go. Stone seizes the day, and lets tomorrow take care of itself. Come to think of it, the federal deficit comes by way of a former Californian. It all makes sense.

    We can moan about having to live down these Midwestern stereotypes all we want, yet when people hear where we’re from, they see Gary Kroeger’s Smythe fashion-blind, conscience-stricken, frugal to a fault.

    Darn it all, anyway.  A lot.  
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    Posted in
    • Personalities
    • Humor
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
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