Katie Couric finds a town rowing together



In case you hadn’t heard, Katie Couric was in town last week. She was everywhere. And everywhere that Katie went iPhones were sure to follow. At the schools. Downtown. At the North Seneca public safety neighborhood outreach. And right here at The Storm Lake Times.

A couple images emerged:

Couric and Co. were impressed with Storm Lake and how it handles diversity.

Storm Lake has turned a corner past its self-conscious phase and into a self-confidence phase as an Iowa community of tomorrow.

If she were sniffing for white resentment she couldn’t smell it. And if she were looking for fear of brown people she didn’t see it.

She saw police officers playing football and basketball with African Americans at North Seneca. She saw Jean Knapp teaching young children of color how to read at Storm Lake Elementary School. She heard Dan Smith and Allyson Hartwig Munger say from barstools at Brewster’s that everyone can share a beer in Storm Lake no matter your culture.

Katie Couric saw a community making the best of it.

She asked School Supt. Carl Turner if the district asks a student about his legal status.

“What difference would it make?” Turner responded. “Whoever shows up we do the best we can with them. We educate children. That’s what we do. We leave those other things to the immigration authorities.”

Turner pointed out that since 80% of the district is immigrant, without them our enrollment would be about the size of Emmetsburg’s. With each student comes funding that provides opportunities for Anglo as well as immigrant students.

This is not a sanctuary city, Public Safety Director Mark Prosser explained. It is a city that does not arrest people just for being undocumented. That is the general guidance from the Iowa Supreme Court. There is no definition of a sanctuary city.

If she were looking for the angry white man, Couric instead found Don Gallagher, the retired 90-something feed salesman who makes friends everywhere he goes. Don extolled the virtues of The City Beautiful after coming out of Citizens First National Bank to make certain that his CD rate didn’t go up and cause him huge tax headaches. She was walking down Lake Avenue on a gorgeous autumn day and found the one guy who probably happens to know her second cousin once removed who used to feed cattle somewhere and ended up playing in the Kansas City Athletics’ minor league system.

Stopping into Better Day Café, she met Iran Carlos, a Buena Vista University student who was brought here as a child from Mexico by undocumented parents. Couric asked Carlos if she is afraid. She is. But she agreed to go on camera to speak for all Dreamers, who came here through no fault of their own. She does not know Reynosa, Mexico. She knows and loves Storm Lake.

We toured Valentino’s Meat Market downtown where cans and jars of food come in every language. If you need fish sauce, Valentino’s has it in spades.

We had fun, Katie and I, strolling down Lake Avenue as if nothing were happening — despite a cameraman walking backwards through an intersection as a pickup nearly flattened him.

Then we had a lovely lunch at La Juanita’s. She had two fish tacos and a bottle of water. I had a chicken burrito and a Coke with real sugar (I let her have a taste, and she left lipstick on the bottle.) Total bill for both: $10. Welcome to Storm Lake, where life is cheap.

She interviewed me for close to three hours about Storm Lake’s history of change.

I explained how Hygrade closed and the union was busted, how IBP came in and hired Southeast Asian refugees here through the Iowa Cares program, and how Latinos followed as the plant expanded with Tyson Fresh Meats. I told her how the Farm Crisis emptied out rural Iowa and how two-thirds of our counties are losing population every year. Storm Lake is growing — thanks entirely to immigrants.

She asked about white resentment.

I went off on a jag. I have no patience for it.

We held slaves. We drove off the Native Americans. We exploit Latino farm workers.

And then we think that brown people are somehow stealing our birthright.

We have become fat and lazy and entitled, I said.

“You sound like a heel,” she said.

I acknowledged that I am a heel, and I maintain that I am right.

If you think that Jorge is denying you your American Dream, then you need to get off the couch and get to work.

Give a Hmong woman 40 acres and see what she does with it. Give us 40 acres and we wash it down the Raccoon River with Roundup because we’re too lazy to walk beans.

That’s just one example.

Here’s another: Dan Smith worked in the pack for 33 years. It worked out for him. But he doesn’t think most white people want to work there at any price. They would rather have a job in air conditioning where you don’t get dirty. Who wouldn’t? So why begrudge the poor immigrant from El Salvador because he works the job you don’t want?

And if you really wanted that job at the pack, why did the white guy sell the union down the river and vote for Reagan?

Storm Lake is well beyond resentment.

This is a beautiful, isolated rural community that will make it because of the lake, the university and immigrants who dream like our great-grandparents dreamed. Of a place where they can be free. Storm Lake is that place. Katie Couric felt it.

So did her crew. The backwards-walking cameraman told Supt. Turner that every school should be like Storm Lake’s. They were amazed with what they saw: people of all colors getting along and working together, like a community is supposed to work. We don’t get distracted by division, we get moving in the same direction.

We’re not self-conscious anymore about who we are. We are self-confident enough to invite Katie Couric in to show the world what a little town trying to reinvent itself can do.

The show will air in the spring on National Geographic Channel.