By DANIEL P. FINNEY | Copyright The Des Moines Register
Fremont County farmer Robert Birkby saw an advertisement in the Shenandoah Evening Sentinel in the fall of 1949.
The newspaper sought a farmer’s wife to write a homemaker’s column.
Robert Birkby encouraged his wife, Evelyn Birkby, to apply.
“I don’t know how to write,” Evelyn Birkby remembers telling her husband.
Robert disagreed. He retrieved the family typewriter, put some paper on the roller and suggested she write about anything that came into her mind.
“It’s just putting words onto paper,” Evelyn remembers Robert saying.
Evelyn acquiesced and typed a story about her family.
Thus began a weekly tradition that continued uninterrupted once a week for 70 years, delighting readers in southwest Iowa.
Her final, “Up A Country Lane,” column appears in the Valley News on Wednesday.
Evelyn Birkby, 100, is retiring.
Well, sort of.
She plans to work with her son, Bob Birkby, to write memories to top off some of her favorite columns through the years.
Evelyn Birkby was the daughter of a Methodist minister in Sidney. She took speech and teaching classes at Simpson College. She taught school for a while before having the first of her four children.
She never dreamed of being a writer, let alone one of the longest-tenured columnists in American newspaper history.
The first story she tapped out on the typewriter was about her family. Many of her columns would be.
The editor of the Evening Sentinel liked her submission. He hired her with one suggestion:
“He said, ‘Put a recipe at the bottom of every column,’” Evelyn said. “’If nothing else, they’ll read that.’”
Evelyn was aghast. She considered herself a poor cook and baker.
And, while not yet a published writer, she had an instinct for offense peculiar to newspaper writers.
“It shocked me that I would work hard on the column and all people would read is the recipe,” Evelyn said, expressing a sentiment shared by every ink-stained ragamuffin who put fingers to keyboard since Benjamin Harris published the first newspaper in Boston, 1690.
(This reporter, being no dummy, has included one of Evelyn’s recipes at the bottom of this column.)
Evelyn pleaded with readers to send in ideas as her own recipe box was lean. She bought a copy of Better Homes and Garden New Cook Book.
“She tried the recipes out on us,” her son, Bob, said. “The ones that didn’t work out got scrapped into the garbage. The ones that did we never got to eat again because she was off to test a new recipe.”
Evelyn’s columns were printed efforts to be a good neighbor. She spoke about her family, her community and stirred in wit and wisdom.
Her voice inspired young writers at the Sentinel including a young Chuck Offenburger, former Iowa columnist for the Register.
Offenburger was 13 years old when he started working at the Sentinel and made a point of getting to know all the staff members.
“Evelyn is an excellent storyteller,” Offenburger, now 72, said. “She has a great voice. Her copy is letter-perfect. There was a lot to learn from her.”
Over the years, Offenburger and his wife, Carla, became close friends with Bob and Evelyn Birkby. Shortly before New Year’s Eve 1999, Chuck called Evelyn and asked what the couple would be doing.
“Oh, we’ll probably watch the ball drop on TV if we can stay up that late,” Evelyn said.
The Offenburgers decided to visit the Bixbys on New Year’s Eve. Shortly before midnight, at the dawn of a new millennium, Evelyn had an idea.
“You know,” she told Chuck, “I’ve got the keys to the old Methodist church in Sidney. We could go ring the bells at midnight.”
So the two couples drove downtown and counted down in the church, literally ringing in the year 2000.
When they finished their fun, they were met at the door by a Sidney police officer who wondered just what the heck was going on.
“Then he saw Evelyn, smiled and said, ‘Happy New Year,’” Offenburger said.
Eveyln’s columns were mostly lighthearted, but she wrote about serious topics, too. She wrote about losing her daughter, Dulcie Jean, to a sudden illness when she was 5. She wrote about losing her sight in old age.
She wrote about falling in love with her husband and his love letters, though she would never be so bold as to publish the actual text.
Evelyn rarely delved into politics. But when she did, it had an impact.
“It was always a call to civility,” Offenburger said. “When she wrote about a hot-button issue, she was usually asking, ‘Can’t we do better than this?’ That woke people up and people did do better.”
Mostly, though, Evelyn wanted to bring sunshine and smiles into people’s lives, if for no longer than the length of her stack of paragraphs each week.
“A few years ago, I learned I was going blind,” Evelyn said. “I sat down and thought, ‘Well, this is it, kid. You’re old. You can be grumpy or you can get on with it and be cheerful. I decided to be cheerful.”
Perhaps the most astounding accomplishment in Evelyn’s tenure is her consistency. She never missed a week in her 70-year run, though sometimes she would have her husband ghostwrite for her when she was unavailable.
After she lost her sight, she dictated to her columns to her son, Bob, who wrote them up and sent them to the paper.
Evelyn was also a multimedia star. She made regular radio appearances on the Shenandoah radio station KMA-FM, part of a long tradition of homemakers sharing life tips on the airwaves that dates back to the 1920s.
And she published 13 books during her career, three in the past seven years.
Evelyn still makes occasional appearances on the radio station but hasn’t had a regular gig in several years.
Bob Birkby died two years back at 98. Evelyn misses her husband, who launched her on this great adventure.
But her love of life remains ever-present. She lists three secrets to a long life:
- “Don’t drink or smoke. I keep my mind sharp because God only gave me one, and I’ll never get a rerun.”
- “Always be cheerful. And help others be cheerful.”
- “Drink lots of milk.”
She’s strict on that cheerful business.
“I have around-the-clock care at my age,” Evelyn said. “They have to be cheerful, or I don’t let them in the house.”
Evelyn Birkby’s favorite Thanksgiving recipe
The recipe was suggested to Evelyn Birkby for her column by her neighbor, Erma Faye Polk, who lived on a farm north of Sidney. Birkby has included it in most of her cookbooks.
HAY HAND ROLLS
1 cup lukewarm water
1 tablespoon dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
4 cups lukewarm water
4 cups white flour
1 cup salad oil
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon salt
2 eggs (optional)
Additional flour to make a soft dough
Dissolve yeast in 1 cup lukewarm water with 1 teaspoon sugar added. When the mixture is bubbly, add 4 cups lukewarm water and 4 cups flour. Mix well and let mixture set, covered, in a draft-free place until mixture bubbles up, making a “sponge.”
Add oil, sugar, salt and eggs, and combine well. Gradually add enough flour to make a soft dough. Turn out on a floured breadboard and knead until smooth, adding a little more flour if needed. Place in a greased bowl (or two — this is a large recipe). Turn the dough to grease on all sides, then cover and let rise until double in bulk. Take out the portion of dough you want to bake immediately. Put the remainder, covered, in the refrigerator for another day.
Knead the dough you kept out on a floured board for 4 or 5 minutes until the dough is smooth and springs back in your fingers. Shape into loaves or rolls or whatever shape you wish. Put into greased pans and let rise until double. Bake in a 375-degree oven for about 20 to 30 minutes or until nicely brown on top. Turn out on a cooling rack to keep the bottom from “sweating,” and coat the top with butter for a tender crust.