Friends wherever you go

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

My alma mater in St. Paul was kind enough to invite me to speak at the University of St. Thomas library and read from my new book, Storm Lake last Friday as part of homecoming. I read to a packed room where I used to smoke and read the newspapers as the bulk of my scholarship. A voice from the crowd asks if I would read a short section starting on page 45, where I describe starting an underground newspaper at St. Mary’s School in seventh grade.

Why would he want me to read that section?

The one-edition sheet (it was confiscated and we were gagged, lucky to get off with that light a sentence) was produced by Dan Statz, Guy Colvin, Charlie Dick and me.

“I’m Charlie Dick,” the voice said.

I hadn’t seen Charlie since 1975.

He said it was an emotional moment, and I guess it was for me, too. And that has been like wherever I have been of late — from Grinnell to Sioux Falls to Carroll — speaking about rural Iowa and trying to schlep that book. People have been unbelievably kind, and you find that you have more real friends than you really know.

Don Christensen, SLHS ’61 (brother of John and Clark the bridge-builders) was a friend of brother Tom’s and went on to become a Congregational minister. He couldn’t have been kinder at the St. Thomas event. And there was my old bud Marty Case, my St. Mary’s classmate, in the audience. His book, The Relentless Business of Treaties (Minnesota Historical Society) is on the shelves at St. Thomas and it should be in your library, as well. I hope the Storm Lake Public Library has it. It is about how we stole all the land from the Native Americans, and which families did it. And the Murray cousins we played with in our childhood. Tom Wallace, my son Joe’s godfather, was there shooting pictures. It is sort of overwhelming when you hear people clap for something you wrote.

Common Good bookstore sold out at the St. Thomas event. Peggy Murray left with empty hands and a full purse but we will take care of her somehow.

The room was packed at the public library for the Iowa City Book Festival on Saturday. There were over 150 people, some sitting on the floor. I asked the Storm Lakers to stand up and it looked to me like half the crowd, although it wasn’t. But there were a bunch of them littering the room. A former Buena Vista student asked a great question: “So what do we do?” First, read the newspaper and then the book, and then vote!

I got a big hug from Lucas Benson, son of Terry and the late Jim Benson of Marathon. Jim died last year from complications arising from Lou Gehrig’s disease, and I dedicated the book to him. He was one of the wisest men I ever met. The last words Jim spoke to me were, “We can’t go on like this.” And he didn’t really want to live in a Trump world.

I was busy signing books and looked up. Greg Brown of Iowa City, our state songwriter laureate and veteran of the Prairie Home Companion, was there with two books to ink. He is Lucas Benson’s father-in-law. Consti Brown is expecting their first baby. I get to read from my book when Brown plays Bryon’s in Pomeroy on Nov. 4. Talk about bucket list. Check out his song about Early, Iowa, or The Iowa Waltz.

Prairie Lights bookstore in Iowa City reports that Storm Lake is a top seller. Matt Lage of Iowa Book around the corner says it is the best book he has read this year. On Amazon, Storm Lake was #4 in state and local politics on Monday.

This week it was Drake University in Des Moines on Tuesday, with the Wisconsin Book Festival coming up Friday and an event in Dubuque on Saturday. I have received lovely press from old friends — Mike Kilen bowled me over with his story on the front page of The Des Moines Register on Saturday.

This is all about me, me, me. But this is supposed to be about friends. My gosh, look around and see how many people actually care about what you have to say. It is surprising. Surreal, really. And how many people mourn the loss of rural Iowa, and that they can see hope in Storm Lake. Not so surprising. That’s what Don Christensen was talking about. They show up to support you, when you always wondered what people thought. Now I know. In the newspaper business you often look over your shoulder when the press starts and put a garbage can lid on your backside.

There are a lot of people who will not like the book, which was put on sale Oct. 2. If you don’t like immigrants, if you think the current ag production model is working fantastic for rural Iowa and farmers, and if you think that climate change is a hoax you probably will not like Storm Lake. But the book was written with love, not so much for politicians who run down Storm Lake or for the erosive status quo but for The City Beautiful itself, and the larger community that is much-understood and under-appreciated rural America. It is honest reporting.

We’ve sold nearly 100 books out of the office so far and hope to sell several hundred more. Son Tom needs a new pair of size 15s. I just signed a copy for Darel and Kay Burns, to their daughter Cindy Sippel (SMHS ’75), on whom I had a crush in grade school. Sheri Davenport (SLHS ’68) just stopped in for a copy for her sister and another for herself. Classmate Candy Clough was with her, put down her book and banged out a tune on the old upright in the vacant pressroom. I have a crush for both of them now. (Little heart signs here.)

Storm Lake is great. Always has been. Always will be, with people like these.

Thanks, everybody.

It sure will be good when I get to just stay home, because if this rain turns to snow I’m not going anywhere.