Growing Up in a Small Iowa Town

In 1949 my parents and I moved to my Dad’s home town of Perry, Iowa– 6,000 population only 40 miles northwest of Des Moines. My Dad bought an interest in the Perry Granite Works. My Mother soon thereafter started working as an assistant librarian at the town’s Carnegie Library and later became its Head Librarian.

I finished my last two years of elementary school in Perry followed by six years of junior and senior high school. Although there were not many optional courses in the schools, I did have math through trigonometry, physics, chemistry, speech, American and English literature, world history and social studies. I also took typing and at least one shop class. (The only foreign language was Latin, which I did not take because I was confident I would go to nearby Iowa State University to become an engineer and have no need for the language and because I was scared of Latin.) I had some excellent teachers; the ones I especially recall are Emma Hepker, Charles Bennett, Elsa Hay, Gayle Junkin, David Evans and Leonard Rossman.

I always did well in school and finished as the 4.00 valedictorian of my high school class of 62 members and as a member of the National Honor Society. I was a finalist for a National Merit Scholarship and National Honorary Society Scholarship. (Close, but no cigar.) The local Elks Club named my best friend and me “The Most Valuable Students” of our class, and he and I were the town’s representative at Hawkeye Boys State where I was elected Secretary of the mock Iowa Senate.

I was active in the Speech Club and served as its president my senior year. I won top honors in state contests in radio speaking and extemporaneous speaking. (There was no debate program.)

I lettered in football my junior and senior years. I played offensive and defensive end even though I was not very big (155 lbs.), tall (5’10”), fast or strong. One of my favorite football stories is about tackling the star running back on the team from Winterset (John Wayne’s hometown); I did not tackle low like you are supposed to do; instead I tackled him straight up; he was carried him off the field on a stretcher while I put my helmet back on and continued playing. The captain of the team my senior year was my best friend, who played center at 135 pounds. (A medical problem prevented my playing my freshman and sophomore years.)

I also lettered in track as a member of relay teams, and in the summer I played shortstop or second base on a local town baseball team. The “Perry Wildcats” we were called. After finishing high school, I managed the team one summer.

Another extracurricular activity was concert and marching band. I played the alto saxophone and occasionally was a soloist in concerts and state music contest.

Playing the tenor saxophone with me in the band was Norman Lewiston, who was a year ahead of me and a tall, socially awkward, farm boy. He, however, excelled in the sciences and was the valedictorian of his class. Later he became a respected physician and Professor of Pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine. After he died in 1991, each of his three wives discovered the existence of the other two. This real-life drama was made into a movie–The Man with Three Wives–starring Beau Bridges as Norman. The concluding scene in the movie has one of the wives returning to the farm just east of Perry and throwing Norman’s ashes to the wind.[1]

 

Perry Methodist Church

The local Methodist Church was another center of activity. I was in the Youth Choir and a member of Methodist Youth Fellowship, and its president my senior year. I fondly remember when our church was visited by five college students on what they called a Youth Caravan to assist the MYF programming. The senior pastor was Rev. Arlie Krussell, who was reserved in what seemed like an English manner; he urged me to go into the ministry.

In junior high, I had a newspaper route for The Des Moines Register. Later for several summers I detasseled seed corn in the area. I also worked as a sales clerk at a local men’s clothing store and did all sorts of jobs at my Father’s monument store. After I had a driver’s license, I drove the Perry Granite Works truck to local cemeteries to deliver and often install the monuments. I also learned how to sandblast the names and dates of birth and death of the deceased into the granite stones.

On Saturday nights my friends and I frequently would “shoot the drag,” i.e., drive in one of our cars up and down the few main streets of the town. We also had pork tenderloin sandwiches at “Sam and Chuck’s” restaurant at the east end of town or a “Maid-Rite” sloppy-joe hamburger at the town’s only franchise operation. (We had no pizza restaurant. One had to drive to Des Moines to get this delicacy.)

There were many aspects to life in this small town that were enjoyable. I seized the many opportunities it offered.

I was interested in politics back then. For example, The Des Moines Register reported that a high school teacher in northern Iowa had been fired for assigning certain books to his students. My letter to the editor protesting his dismissal was published in the same newspaper. Soon thereafter I started receiving letters and materials from the Young Communist League in the U.S.S.R.

I was growing up during the presidencies of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. In the Fall of my senior year of high school I moderated a school assembly about the 1956 presidential election between Eisenhower/Nixon and Stevenson/Kefauver. As was true in Iowa and the U.S. as a whole, the Republican candidates won by a large margin in our mock election.

The Cold War overshadowed my high school years. The Korean Conflict ended in 1953 after “Ike” Eisenhower had pledged in his first campaign to go to Korea to end the war. Just before I entered high school, Joseph Stalin died, and Nikita Krushchev became the First Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed for transmitting U.S. atomic secrets to the U.S.S.R. J. Robert Oppenheimer was charged with possible treason. There was open-air testing of atomic and hydrogen bombs by the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. The Soviets crushed revolts in Poland and Hungary. The first nuclear-powered submarine and the first satellite–Sputnik–were launched.

In the U.S. civil rights issues were prominent. In 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court issued its school desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education. In 1956 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., then 27 years old, organized a boycott of public transportation in Montgomery, Alabama while in Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus challenged the Federal Government over school desegregation in Little Rock.

It is perhaps difficult to appreciate now that television was new in these years. I remember when my parents bought our first small, black-and-white TV set. The first World Series I watched was the 1950 Yankees-Phillies match with Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto and Whitey Ford of the Bronx Bombers and Richie Ashburn, Robin Roberts and Jim Konstanty of the Phillies. I also recall watching news of the Army-McCarthy Hearings of 1954 when the Boston lawyer, Joseph Welch, punctured McCarthy’s big ego.

Elvis Presley burst onto the national stage with such hits as “Love Me Tender,” “Hound Dog,” “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Jailhouse Rock.” I remember watching Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show, when the TV cameras were not allowed to focus on his shaking pelvis. Little did we know at the time that we were witnessing the start of an American cultural phenomenon.

In this and other ways, television was just starting to break down the sense of social isolation I felt growing up as an only child in a small town in Iowa, far away from where things were really happening–Washington, D.C. and New York City. Europe and the rest of the world were even farther away, places that I never thought I would visit some day. Iowa, of course, was (and still is) primarily an agricultural state, which did not have much status in the larger world. Nor did my Dad’s business. I did not want to be trapped into taking over this business although this was never mentioned as something expected of me. All of this produced in me a sense of being an outsider. This sense of isolation also helped motivate me to work hard at school as my way to escape this small town and its life.[2]


[1] Paddock, Doctor Led Three Lives with Three Wives: Polygamy: Stanford Professor never divorced and kept households with each of the women. Truth emerged after his death in August, L.A. Times (Oct. 14, 1991); The Man With Three Wives, http://www.fandango.com/themanwiththreewives_v467704/plotsummary.

[2] I already have mentioned my visits to eastern universities in the summer before my senior year of high school to explore the possibility of going there for college before I decided to go to Grinnell College. (Post: Selecting a College (Aug. 10, 2011).)

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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