A special delivery: Love after tragedy brings baby into world

By DANIEL P. FINNEY | Copyright The Des Moines Register

Dear Caralyn,
You’re barely a month old now, too young to read this letter. But one day soon, someone will show you this, and maybe it will help you understand the wonderful confluence of love and hope that brought you into this world on Nov. 26, 2013.

It began with your mom, Laura Brammeier Yoho, a beautiful woman with focused brown eyes, long brown hair and a lean, lithe body from a lifetime of work in the gym and near-perfect nutrition. But her heart beat hardest for the loves of her life, you and your dad.

She met your dad, Nate Yoho, while they both worked at the Aspen Athletic Club on Merle Hay Road in 2007. Your dad played baseball at the University of Iowa and in the minor leagues for the Milwaukee Brewers. He is a hunk with a barrel chest and arms like steel cable, but his strength runs so much deeper than his muscles.

Your mom and dad fell in love. The day they proposed was so special that they re-enacted it on video, and it became a commercial for a local jewelry store. They married in August 2011. If life were a storybook, they would have lived happily ever after. Unfortunately, life doesn’t always work out that way.

Read the story from July after Laura’s death; see engagement video

Not long after your parents got engaged, your mom got sick. She had brain tumors. She fought them off once, but the disease was aggressive. Your grandpa, Robert “Tim” Yoho, is a doctor. He knew how deadly the disease can be.

At one point before the wedding, Grandpa Tim took your dad aside and said, “Are you sure you don’t want to wait and see how things go with the treatment?”

Your dad, Nate, smiled that easy, confident smile of his. He replied, “Dad, I love her. And every girl deserves a wedding.”

“Right then and there, I knew what kind of man my son had become,” Grandpa Tim would later reflect. “I regretted saying anything at all. You hear about children who look up to their fathers. Well, this is one father who looks up to his son.”

Before your mom had her first round of treatments, she froze some embryos. Those are the cells that are the building blocks for human life. The doctors told your mom and dad that fighting the tumors would make it hard for her body to carry a child. But your parents loved each other and knew they wanted a baby someday.

At a dinner one weekend, your mom casually mentioned to her best friend, Kara Stetson, that she and your father might look for a surrogate mother. A surrogate is another woman who carries a baby for someone who can’t do so on her own.

Your mom and Kara met in elementary school in Tipton. They became best friends in second grade and were inseparable all the way through college at St. Ambrose University and into adulthood.

“It’s hard to explain what having a best friend like Laura for 24 years meant to me,” Kara recalled. “We were different enough and alike enough to get along perfectly. We never argued. We never got sick of one another. We were like sisters, soul mates and a best friend all rolled into one.”

They were so close, in fact, that Kara, who already had two children with her husband, Aaron Stetson, was offended by the notion that Laura would ask anyone other than her to carry her child.

This is a big commitment, Caralyn. Without going into graphic details, it involves sharing a lot of information about your body with people, having to go to the doctor a lot and asking your family to bear with you while you suffer morning sickness and other ills associated with pregnancy.

There were lighter moments, though.

Kara told her children, who were ages 6 and 9, what she was going to do for her friend. Her son, 9, asked a few questions, shrugged and sort of forgot about it. Her daughter, 6, was thrilled by the idea. She used to talk to you when you were in Kara’s womb. She told others about your surrogate mom.

“She didn’t always get the details quite right,” Kara remembered. “She would say, ‘My mom is having a baby, but it’s not my dad’s’ or ‘My mom is having a baby, but she doesn’t want it.’ We got some strange looks and had to do some fast explaining.”

What’s absolutely certain, what you should never doubt, is that your mom, Laura, really wanted you. She would have carried you herself if she could have, but her body — as fit and strong as she once was — was too weak for a pregnancy.

The tumors in her brain came back. The doctors did everything they could to help your mom. But she got sicker. She struggled to remember words. It got harder for her to walk. She kept hitting the gym. She fought so hard to be here when you were born.

Your mom’s friends hosted a baby shower at your parents’ house back in July 2013, about four months before you were born. That night, your mom got very tired. She went to bed. The next day, she was very sick. The disease was winning.

She died July 23.

Everyone was so sad. Your mom was gone.

But there was hope. You were coming. Your dad anticipated your arrival every day. He grieved for his lost love, but he prepared for his new one — you — just as hard.

Think about this: Your dad lost his wife in July, and you arrived in November, the day before Thanksgiving. In that period, he started his own personal training business and laid out plans to open his own gym.

“Both Laura and I worked very hard to be in a position where we could support Caralyn and give her security from the day she arrived,” your dad said. “I’m very much a motivated person who sets goals and goes after them.”

You were born about noon on Nov. 26. You weighed 7 pounds, 8 ounces and were 21 inches long. You were the biggest baby your surrogate mom, Kara, ever carried. And you came out with a lot of dark brown hair, just like your mom’s.

You quickly landed in the arms of your dad. And he took to being a father as naturally as he roamed the outfield when he was a ballplayer.

“If there’s anybody who has the strength to do this right, to raise Caralyn the way Laura would have wanted, it’s Nate,” Kara said.

Your dad has had plenty of help. Your grandparents, Tim and Donna Yoho, moved in to your dad’s Grimes townhome for a while. They help where they can, but your dad is running the show.

“Sometimes he kicks us out for a while,” your Grandpa Tim remembered.

You and your dad lived with your surrogate, Kara, and her husband, Aaron, for a few days after you were born. And your other set of grandparents, Doug and Lenore Brammeier, visit every few weeks from Wilton. They’ve been doing a lot of driving. Your aunt and uncle had a baby girl, your cousin, just a few weeks before you were born.

Everyone really misses your mom, Caralyn. The hurt is still fresh. She was young and beautiful and strong. And then she was gone. But you came along.

Oh, you weren’t a replacement, not at all. You were you, a whole new person, part your dad, part your mom. Loved by all. But your arrival helped ease the grief.

“It helps having her here,” your Grandma Lenore said. “You’ll never get Laura back, but you get a little bit of her in her daughter.”

Caralyn, your mom died before you drew your first breath. That’s not fair. But you will know her. Your dad has videos. Your grandparents have pictures and stories. And your surrogate mom, Kara, she’s got stories, too. You’ll have to be a little older to hear the ones from college.

Nobody will ever take the place of the mom you didn’t get to meet. But these kind, selfless people are going to make sure you have everything your mom would have wanted you to have.

And what she wanted you to have more than anything in this world is love and hope. The next time you’re at a family gathering, take a look around at the faces of all these people who helped get you here.

That’s when you’ll see and feel your mom the most.

Best wishes,

Daniel P. Finney

Register writer Daniel P. Finney first wrote about Nate Yoho and his wife, Laura, in July, the week Laura died. Today, he writes a letter to their now one-month-old daughter, Caralyn, to tell the story of her parents’ love and the unusual circumstances that surround how she came to be born.

‘Reuben Spider-Man,’ 4, finds his way home with a little police help

By DANIEL P. FINNEY | Copyright The Des Moines Register

April 7, 2011

Des Moines Police Sgt. James Butler was loading his squad car last month when he noticed the pint-sized power walker.

The boy, 4, hustled east on Court Avenue at the bridge. Butler asked the lad where he was going.

“That way,” the boy said, pointing toward the Capitol building for emphasis.

Butler asked where his parents were.

“I don’t know,” the boy said. Butler radioed dispatchers to ask if there had been any missing child reports. There hadn’t. Butler asked the boy his name.

Reuben,” he said.

Butler asked, “What’s your last name?”

The boy replied, “Spider-Man.”

Butler said: “Right. Reuben Spider-Man.”

Butler decided to drive the boy around to see if he recognized any buildings. The boy was hesitant. Butler offered to let Reuben wear his police hat. That sealed the deal.

He climbed into the passenger seat and clicked on his seat belt without being asked, Butler said.

The child didn’t recognize any buildings as they drove by. He was small enough that the sergeant would occasionally have to stop so the boy could unbuckle himself and stand on the seat to see over the dash.

Butler asked Reuben when he had last eaten.

“I’m hungry,” Reuben said.

Butler took the boy to McDonald’s. He ordered a Happy Meal. The server said, “What kind?”

“Small,” Butler said.

The server looked at him. “No,” she said, “hamburger, cheeseburger or chicken nuggets?”

Reuben selected a cheeseburger.

“What kind of toy?” the server asked.

Butler leaned across the counter and whispered to the woman. “Miss, I’m 43 years old. I don’t have any kids of my own. I’ve never ordered a Happy Meal in my life. Can you help me out here?”

The woman smiled and selected a toy for the boy.

Eventually, Butler’s radio squawked. Some Liberian immigrants had called police, looking for their nephew who had gone missing about 20 minutes earlier.

Apparently Reuben had wandered off from a park on East Sixth Street and made it all the way to the police station at East First Street and Court Avenue.

Police confirmed the boy belonged with the family, but a language barrier prevented Butler from learning Reuben‘s last name.

That’s OK. Everybody knows Spider-Man needs a secret identity.

‘An extraordinarily gifted storyteller’: Former Register writer Ken Fuson dies at 63

By DANIEL P. FINNEY | The Des Moines Register

Jan. 3, 2020

Ken Fuson would have written this better.

He would have found a hook, a way to summarize the depth and breadth of his life’s adventures in a single, poignant sentence that would grab a reader by the heart and bring them along for a story the way no other could.

But Fuson is gone.

He died Friday from complications of liver disease at the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. He was 63.

“Ken was an extraordinarily gifted storyteller,” said Randy Evans, a retired Register opinion editor. “He found a way that allowed the reader to savor the experience of reading.”

Good writers show the story rather than tell it, goes the trite line. But Fuson really lived that.

He once profiled a beloved Des Moines pediatrician whose gentle manner made it easier for children to take shots and not cry from the pain.

When the pediatrician died, Fuson’s first paragraph was: “This one’s going to hurt.”

When a group of Des Moines businessmen died in a plane crash, he told the story through the men’s friendship: “They had more in common than the way they died.”

Fuson grew up in Granger and learned to read on the pages of the Register. He went to the University of Missouri to study journalism but never graduated.

His first job was at the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri. He worked so late on a story one night that an editor found him asleep on a couch in the newsroom the next morning.

“Never love a newspaper,” Fuson remembered the editor telling him. “It’ll never love you back.”

Fuson ignored the advice. He loved newspapers and the Register, in particular. He believed the Register connected with its readers in ways no other newspaper did.

He left the Register in the mid-1990s to work at the Baltimore Sun. He returned to the Register at the end of that decade. One of the reasons: He missed writing for Register readers.

“Fuson’s byline on the front page … meant you were going to read the very best journalism had to offer,” said Lee Rood, Reader’s Watchdog for the Register and friend and colleague of Fuson for 20 years.

Fuson’s skill was so legendary it had its own nickname. A well-told story became known as “Fusonesque,” the way long home runs are still called, “Ruthian,” in honor of Babe Ruth.

Fuson would hate the mention of a famous New York Yankee in his obit. He was a devoted Cardinals fan. His favorite player was Bob Gibson.

When he joined Facebook a few years back, he asked for help setting his profile photo. He picked Gibson as his avatar. He never changed it.

Fuson took time to nurture young reporters. Scores of us went to him for advice. We wanted him to bestow upon us the gift like a wizard, but the advice was usually plain and to the point.

“Your writing is only as good as your reporting,” Fuson once told me. “You measure a good story by how much good stuff you had to leave out.”

In recent years, Fuson taught high school journalism camps around the country, including one at Drake University.

“The students loved him, too, and kept in touch with him. He was a great, kind, funny, smart, caring and generous teacher and mentor,” said Kathleen Richardson, Drake’s journalism school dean and a former Register news editor.

The Fuson that Register readers knew was a storyteller who saw the inherent humanity in every story, drew beauty from the details of daily life and believed there was a shared, deeply personal connection between Iowans.

The Fuson that Register readers did not see was a man who lost every penny he ever made to gambling addiction and struggled with guilt and self-loathing.

“He was close to living out of his car when, outwardly, he was at the top of his career,” Rood said.

Fuson never hid his struggles with gambling addiction and was an active member of Gamblers Anonymous. He counseled dozens about their addictions, speaking in churches and one-on-one. He was 11 years clean at the time of his death.

“He made himself available to all who needed him,” Rood said. “I turned to Ken last year for advice with a loved one with a gambling problem. He never failed to pick up the phone, even as he came to grips with his worsening health.”

During my own struggles, Fuson often repeated this story to me: 

A few years ago, in the depths of depression, Fuson kneeled beside his bed at his Des Moines apartment, clasped his hands together and prayed to God for redemption and relief from the clawing hunger to gamble.

He told me he believed God came to him that day. He felt relief and pledged to return that grace however he could.

“It was the first time I could remember that I didn’t hate myself,” Fuson told me.

Fuson joined the Lutheran Church of Hope where he served in soup kitchens, hosted meetings on religious studies and volunteered for every community service organization he could.

“Lutheran Church of Hope changed his life,” said John Carlson, a retired Register columnist and Fuson’s longtime friend. “Ken was always a good person, but he became a great person. He didn’t have anything to give materially, but he gave of himself and made hundreds of friends.”

Fuson learned he had liver disease earlier this year. His health declined steadily. In recent months, his cognitive ability diminished.

He stopped driving and moved in with his father and brother in Granger. He went to Omaha in hopes of getting well enough to receive a transplant, but an infection festered and ultimately took his life.

Fuson is survived by his father, brother and three adult sons.

One of Fuson’s best-known stories was one of his shortest: a weather story from 1995.

Weather is not all that fun to write about, as many Register reporters would attest. But in Fuson’s hands, it became something special.

He produced a 400-word story about a 70-degree day in March that was a single paragraph. The story’s final lines described the rarity of a nice day in Iowa’s oft-volatile springs.

The final clause of the story read, in part: “… if in all of history there has ever been a day so glorious and concluding that there hasn’t and being afraid to even stop and take a breath (or begin a new paragraph) for fear that winter would return, leaving (the day) in our memory as nothing more than a sweet and too-short dream.”

And with our friend Fuson gone, we exhale with grief, for his words won’t fill our pages again, but we know how real the sweet memories of his too-short life were.

Register Storyteller Daniel P. Finney grew up in Winterset and east Des Moines. He wrote his first story for the Register in 1993 at age 17. He has stacked paragraphs ever since. Reach him at 515-284-8144 or dafinney@dmreg.com. Follow him on Twitter at @newsmanone or Facebook at @danielpfinney.

‘The other Bob Woodward,’ a beloved Drake University journalism professor, dies at 82

By DANIEL P. FINNEY | Copyright The Des Moines Register

Jan. 3, 2020

Robert D. “Bob” Woodward, a decorated Drake University journalism professor, died Thursday. He was 82.

”He died peacefully beside my mother (in the morning) watching the news,” his daughter, Meredith Woodward King said in a statement.

The wild-haired, scraggly-bearded Walt Whitman look-alike inspired legions of journalists and other students at Drake with his passion for the craft and intellectual curiosity.

He shared a name with the Washington Post investigative reporter who worked on coverage of the Watergate scandal in the 1970s, but Drake student’s knew him as “our Bob Woodward.”

I hear the old man’s voice in my head as I write his obituary. He disliked dependent clauses — that’s the bit between the commas. He thought they slowed stories. He advocated for specific nouns and strong verbs.

He didn’t care for the Register’s practice of putting people’s nicknames inside quote marks. He thought that confused readers.

“The reader does not need an excuse to quit reading,” Woodward told his classes.

He also nixed opening paragraphs that began with the words: “It is.”

Sometimes, he would point to a dictionary, open at all times on a lectern in his classroom.

“There are 171,000 words in the English language,” Woodward said. “Surely you can find two better than ‘it’ and ‘is’ to start a story.”

Diane Graham, a retired Register managing editor who was a Drake student when Woodward joined the journalism school, said he pushed his students to be the best. 

“He was always trying to make every story you wrote better,” she said. “He was always refining your story idea and constantly helping you tweak your work.”

Woodward famously kept a string pinned to the bulletin board of his office. Each time one of his red, felt-tip pens went dry from editing student stories, he hung the caps on the string.

“By the end of the semester, it looked like a string of scalps,” Graham said.

Those same pens scrawled compliments in the margins in all capital letters, such as “TOP-FLIGHT REPORTING” or “HIGHLY INTERESTING SUBJECT.”

Woodward connected with his students at a deeply personal level. He was like a father figure who could be stern, but also loving and mischievous, his students recall.

“Even today, 40-some years into my career, I still want to make Woodward proud,” said Lee Ann Colacioppo, a Woodward pupil and editor of the Denver Post.

Woodward grew up in Rodney, a city of about 60 near in Monona County near the Little Sioux River. He studied at Indiana University, where he learned to speak Swahili.

He worked at the now-defunct Washington Star as a copy editor and later a news editor.

He edited the columns of the late Mary McGrory.

When blizzards battered his home state, Woodward slipped briefs about snowfall amounts into the national report of the Washington, D.C., paper.

He was preparing to lead a bureau in Africa for the Star when the paper changed strategic direction and decided to focus more on local issues. Woodward quit and became a teacher, landing at Drake in 1972.

“Woodward was one of the professors that showed interest in a student who was clearly talented and those who were uncertain,” said Tom Hallman, a Drake alumnus and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Portland Oregonian. “I was one of those who was uncertain. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, and I didn’t think I was very good at it, but he encouraged me.”

Hallman remembered his final day in Woodward’s classroom. Woodward told the class: “This is now just the beginning of your education.”

“That always stuck with me,” Hallman said. “There’s no finish line to this. There’s always more to learn.”

Woodward was an early adopter of the importance of the Iowa caucuses. He encouraged his students to follow the news media to see how the events were covered.

“Always ask yourself, ‘If you had to write the big story of the day, how would you say it?’” Woodward told his students. “How would you make your story stand out from all the others told that day?”

Woodward was a pioneer in teaching the internet as a news gathering and news distribution medium, teaching about the fast-evolving web as early as 1994.

Woodward could be blunt. He once pulled me aside while I was a student at Drake to tell me a column I’d written for the Times-Delphic, Drake’s student newspaper, should have been spiked. (That’s industry-speak for not published, ever.)

“If that had crossed my desk when I was an editor of the Washington Star, I would have thrown it right in the wastebasket,” he said.

I was crushed. The next week, he cornered me again and handed me a second-hand book. It was a collection of Jimmy Cannon columns from various New York newspapers.

“See if this gives you any ideas,” he said.

If my home caught on fire, that would be the one book I tried to save, not just because of the content but because of the man who gave it to me.

Woodward retired from Drake in 2004, but he returned periodically to teach honors classes or plumb the library archives for one of the scores of projects that interested him.

He was particularly interested in monarch butterflies. He grew milkweed in his yard to attract the orange-and-black-winged insects.

His students returned to him for advice years after they left his classroom. He re-centered us and reminded us why we chose this oft-maddening trade.

“Woodward gave us the foundation,” Colacioppo said. “The business has changed so much. When I was his student, we were still using typewriters. But the foundation remained the same. Do the work. Get it right. Be accurate. Tell the truth.”

Woodward is survived by his wife, Georgia; two daughters; and several grandchildren.

I lost count of how many stories I’ve written a long time ago, but truthfully, every one was written with Woodward’s voice pushing me to make it special for the reader.

And now, even with him gone from this earth, I hear his voice:

“Accuracy. Accuracy. Accuracy,” he commanded, quoting Joseph Pulitzer.

And, of course: “Spell all the names right.”

Register Storyteller Daniel P. Finney grew up in Winterset and east Des Moines. He wrote his first story for the Register in 1993 at age 17. He has stacked paragraphs ever since. Reach him at 515-284-8144 or dafinney@dmreg.com. Follow him on Twitter at @newsmanone or Facebook at @danielpfinney.

Iowa World War II vet still finds joy of a hard day’s work slicing meat at 95

By DANIEL P. FINNEY | Copyright The Des Moines Register

Jan. 17, 2020

Look at the clock.

If it’s between 6 a.m. and 1 p.m. on a weekday, Bob Knudson is at work.

Mark it down. Count on it. It’s a bet so safe, Vegas wouldn’t put it on the board.

Knudson is 95 years old, a World War II veteran, widower and, maybe above all else, a worker.

He’s celebrating his 15th year at Brewer Meats, a south Des Moines company that provides premium meat cuts to restaurants and events in the metro.

Knudson is a meat cutter. He arrives at 6 a.m. sharp each day and cuts meat until 1 p.m.

“Bob never stops,” said Phil Barber, owner of Brewer Meats. “He just works until he’s done.”

Knudson doesn’t take breaks.

He doesn’t stop for lunch.

He just slices.

“He can take a break,” Barber said. “He just doesn’t want to.”

Bob Knudson was born in Mason City, the son of greenhouse manager and a homemaker.

As a sophomore in high school, he got a job building tents at Mason City Tent and Awning.

“The war was on and everybody was expected to pitch in,” Knudson said. “My buddies and I all got jobs sewing tents for the military.”

Knudson graduated from Mason City High School in 1944 and, at 18, joined the Navy.

He was colorblind and couldn’t read the signal flags between ships. The Navy transferred him to the Seabees, the nickname of the Navy’s legendary construction battalions.

“It beat the heck out of living on some ship in the ocean,” Knudson said.

Knudson served from 1944 to 1946 in the Pacific theater. One of the tents he lived in came from Mason City Tent and Awning.

He built camps, walls, bridges, docks and all manner of projects.

“They needed it, we built it,” Knudson said. “Our motto was, ‘Can do!’”

Knudson worked in units with men in their 20s or older. They were mostly professional construction workers, plumbers and others.

“I was the low man in terms of age and experience,” Knudson said. “They taught me how to do everything right. And they led me astray a few times.”

The men introduced him to booze.

“I learned to drink all kinds of strange things that I wasn’t used to drinking,” Knudson said. “They learned to mix up some pretty strong stuff in the Navy.”

Knudson discharged from the Navy and enrolled at Drake University.

One day he spotted a “terrific looking blonde walking across campus,” he said, “and I said, ‘She’s for me,’ and luckily, I was right.”

The woman was Geneva Cowden. The couple would be together for 66 years until her death in 2016 at 88.

Their marriage produced a daughter and two sons.

Knudson earned a degree in business. He went to work for a company that produced mechanical parts and industrial hand soap in Corydon in 1950.

The company eventually moved to Des Moines; Knudson was part owner when he sold out in 1981.

He bought himself a new business, the former Valley Bait and Grocery on George Flagg Parkway, and ran it for 24 years.

While there, Knudson got to know the workers at Brewer Meats, who stopped by in the afternoons for sandwiches and pop.

He made friends with Barber, the owner, who offered him a job if he ever needed one.

Knudson sold the shop in 2005. It looked as if he might finally try retirement.

He swept the garage. He swept the front stoop.

He repeated that about four times.

“Not working was not for me,” Knudson said.

He called up Barber and took him up on that job offer.

Knudson became a meat slicer and a darned good one, too.

“He puts us all to shame,” said Barber, who is 70. “Meat slicing can just ruin your arm and shoulder, but it never seems to bother Bob. He never complains.”

Brewer employs about 22 people. Many have hard, backbreaking work and cherish their midday breaks and lunches.

Not Knudson.

He comes in at 6 a.m. and starts slicing. He keeps going until 1 p.m.

“I try to get the younger guys to look at Bob and see the value in hard work,” Barber said. “I don’t know if they understand the lesson, though.”

For Barber, Knudson is an American hero. Not only did Knudson serve in World War II in a critical role, but he’s never shied away from a day’s work.

When Kundson’s wife died in 2016, Barber called him and told him to take the day off. 

“He said, ‘I’d feel better if I came in to work,'” Barber said.

And so he did.

Sometimes Brewer’s get an emergency order in from a restaurant that doesn’t have enough meat for a big party.

“Some of our younger guys will be like, ‘Oh, no,’ because it’s a lot of work,” Barber said. “But Bob will be like, ‘All right. That’s a good sale. And he’ll start slicing.”

Knudson has no plans to retire. He likes his job. About four years ago, it got a little easier.

Barber invested in a high-tech slicing machined that slices and stacks for the operator. It saves on Knudson’s shoulder.

But it wasn’t as if he ever complained.

“The man just likes to work,” Barber said. “He values it. You don’t run into people who value work the way he does. That’s why I call him a hero.”

Register Storyteller Daniel P. Finney grew up in Winterset and east Des Moines. He wrote his first story for the Register in 1993 at age 17. He has stacked paragraphs ever since. Reach him at 515-284-8144 or dafinney@dmreg.com. Follow him on Twitter at @newsmanone or Facebook at @danielpfinney.

Ticked-off basketball fans led to the invention of first time clock for high-school sports

By DANIEL P. FINNEY | Copyright The Des Moines Register

Jan. 20, 2020

An angry mob of boys’ basketball fans blocked Elmer Foster’s path to his car after Dallas Center lost in overtime to their Dallas County rival, Adel, in January 1934.

Foster taught physics and served as superintendent of Dallas Center schools.

Foster walked home on that cold night because of the hotly contested boys’ basketball game at Dallas Center. The Adel team featured future University of Iowa football star and Heisman Trophy winner Nile Kinnick.

In those days, there were no scoreboards with time clocks. The score was displayed at center court at the scorers table using papers on rings, turned over with each basket.

But the crowd couldn’t see the time in the game. Each team provided an official timekeeper with a stopwatch rather than having a game clock displayed for all to see.

An Adel player sunk a shot as time expired to tie the game. The two timekeepers argued. The decision fell to Foster.

“Everyone was jumping up and down and yelling, ‘How much time?’” Foster told the Register in a 1955 profile. “I thought then there ought to be a scoreboard to let them know.”

He ruled “fair play” should decide the game, and the teams went to overtime. Dallas Center lost.

A few hometown fans made for Foster’s frigid walk. But he used the stroll to think, and that night hatched the beginnings of a device that would change sports forever: a basketball scoreboard that showed both the score and the time remaining in the game.

Scoreboards dated back to the 1890s in Ivy League football games and electric baseball scoreboards began in 1908 with Major League Baseball teams in Boston.

Baseball is a sport without a clock. Football fields displayed the score, but referees kept the time on stopwatches; the public couldn’t see it. Foster set out to combined the two so fans and officials alike could see it.

Foster asked a Dallas Center jeweler to convert an electric clock to 8-minute intervals that could be controlled by a wired remote box on the sidelines.

The original board stood 3-feet tall and 3-and-a-half-feet wide. Belts swiped from his wife’s Singer sewing machine turned the analog clock.

Foster installed the scoreboard in the Dallas Center gym in time for Dallas Center’s first home game about a year later. Dallas Center won 28-10.

Foster quit his teaching job to make scoreboards full-time. He named his company Fair-Play Scoreboards.

By 1955, Fair-Play hit $1 million in sales. Today, the company, still headquartered on Delaware Avenue in Des Moines, has more than 100,000 operational scoreboards in the United States, from elementary schools to major pro sports venues, said Alex Gomez, spokesman for Fair-Play.

The company moved its manufacturing to suburban St. Louis when the company needed to expand capacity. (Missouri’s incentive package beat one assembled by Des Moines and Iowa officials.)

Still, the company remains incorporated in Iowa.

“We are dedicated to our Iowa roots,” Gomez said. “That is where our foundation and history is.”

So Tuesday, when the Dallas Center-Grimes basketball teams host Adel-DeSoto Minburn, fans from both sides will glance up at the scoreboard and know it was a crafty superintendent who helped everyone know the how much time was left.

Register Storyteller Daniel P. Finney grew up in Winterset and east Des Moines. He wrote his first story for the Register in 1993 at age 17. He has stacked paragraphs ever since. Reach him at 515-284-8144 or dafinney@dmreg.com. Follow him on Twitter at @newsmanone or Facebook at @danielpfinney.

Crime novels, comics, plays and movies: Prolific Iowa author Max Allan Collins writes them all

By DANIEL P. FINNEY | Copyright The Des Moines Register

Jan. 2, 2020

The story of how Max Allan Collins became one of the most prolific writers in Iowa history began in 1930 in Chicago, 18 years before he was born. President Herbert Hoover, a native of West Branch, Iowa, ordered U.S. Treasury agent Eliot Ness to assemble a team to bring down notorious Prohibition-era gangster Al Capone.

Chester Gould, an artist at the Chicago Tribune, followed the lawman’s exploits and created the square-jawed police detective Dick Tracy as an homage.

The flesh-and-blood Ness and fictional Tracy would become frequent subjects in a writing career that spans comic strips, crime novels, historical fiction and screenplays.

At 71, Collins is at work on at least six books, including a second biography of Ness, “The Untouchable and the Butcher: Eliot Ness, Al Capone and America’s Jack the Ripper.”

“I’m still wondering where my next check is going to come from,” Collins said in an interview with the Register. “I’m waiting to hear back on three pitches right now. I’ve turned my hobbies into a career, but it’s still a hustle.”

Collins was born Max Allan Collins Jr., the son of Patricia Ann Rushing Collins and Max Allan Collins Sr., on March 3, 1948, in Muscatine, where he continues to live. Friends and family called the boy Allan; his father went by Max.

Patricia Ann read Dick Tracy comic books to her son. The youngster thrilled to the yellow trench-coated, fedora-wearing Tracy’s never-ending battle against the monstrous underworld filled with grotesque villains such as Big Boy, the Brow, Flattop, Pruneface and Little Face Finney (no relation to this friendly paragraph stacker.)

He spent his allowance on Dick Tracy comic books and he drew Tracy. His mother sent a letter with some of her son’s drawings to Gould.

Gould returned the note with a drawing of Tracy saying, “Hello, Allan,” and signed by Gould.

Gould “said of all the kids in America that sent him drawings, mine was the best,” Collins said.

Collins wanted to be an artist, but family friend Keith Larson, a poet, farmer and part-time writing teacher at Muscatine Community College, encouraged the younger Collins’ writing talent.

He had already written a book when he enrolled in the prestigious University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He sold two before he graduated.

Still, the early years were lean. Never sure when the next publisher would accept one of his books, Collins worked part-time as a writing teacher at Muscatine Community College.

Then Dick Tracy came to the rescue. Gould was retiring after writing and drawing the series for nearly a half-century. The Tribune syndicate invited writers, including Collins, to compete for the job.

“I had them a script in about three days: ‘Dick Tracy vs. Angeltop,'” Collins said. “I got the job.”

He became the regular writer on Dick Tracy, the comic-strip cop inspired by the real-life gangbuster Ness.

Collins befriended Gould, and one night over dinner, Gould gave Collins some advice.

“’You’re doing a good job,’” Collins recalls Gould saying, “’But, remember, this is mine. You need to create something of your own.’”

Collins took that to heart. In the years to come, he would produce more than 230 books and other works.

Collins was one of the first authors recruited by Hard Case Crime, a small imprint founded in 2004 that produces the kind of hardboiled pulp novels that were commonplace in stores and on newsstands from the late 1940s to the late 1970s.

Through 2019, Collins had contributed 17 novels to the publisher, the most of any of the imprint’s authors, which include Stephen King, Gore Vidal, Michael Crichton and Joyce Carole Oates.

“Max was the perfect person to reach out to when we were starting up Hard Case Crime, because he’s the person who kept the genre alive all these years,” said Charles Ardai, co-creator of Hard Case Crime. “He’s just such a pro, and his books read so well.”

Throughout his 50-year career, Collins became friends with crime-fiction greats such as Mickey Spillane, creator of the Mike Hammer series, and Donald Westlake, who also wrote under the pen name Richard Stark.

Collins didn’t know the connection between Westlake and Stark and once listed the two names as his first and second favorite authors, a story Westlake delighted in retelling at gatherings of crime writers.

Westlake advised Collins to move to either New York or Hollywood to be closer to the publishing and movie industries. Collins, though, decided he wanted to stay in Muscatine.

“I really didn’t want to quit my band,” he said of Crusin’, a 1960s tribute band he’s led for 45 years.

Collins came across Spillane’s “Mike Hammer” series, which was televised on ABC from 1958 to 1960. He read all the books and wrote prodigiously to Spillane.

Years later at a mystery writers convention, Spillane was introduced to Collins by one of the convention’s organizers. Spillane, Collins recalled, said, “Oh, I know Max. We’ve been corresponding for years.”

Collins said, “Yeah, about 100 letters from me and one from you.”

The two became close friends — so close that Spillane left Collins all his unpublished material to finish when he died in 2006.

Collins created his own of characters, from the post-Vietnam era hitman Quarry, no first name, to Chicago cop Nathan Heller, who, of course, is pals with Eliot Ness.

Ness stars as the main character in three Collins books and, in one odd twist, appears in an alternate history of Batman as the man — not billionaire Bruce Wayne — behind the Dark Knight’s cowl. 

Collins’ skill was recognized with the Grand Master of Mystery Writing at the 2017 Edgar Awards Ceremony, the highest honor bestowed on a crime writer.

He’s probably best known for his 1998 graphic novel and its prose and comic sequels, “Road to Perdition,” which became a well-reviewed 2002 film starring Tom Hanks and Paul Newman.

“That’s the thing I’ll always have that’s mine,” Collins said. “Everything I do from then on will be, ‘From the author of ‘Road to Perdition.’”

A tie-in to another movie kept the drumbeat of Eliot Ness alive for Collins.

In 1990, Touchstone Pictures released a “Dick Tracy” movie starring Warren Beatty, Al Pacino and Madonna, with bright reds, blues, greens and yellows to imitate the palate of a newspaper comics page.

Collins insisted on writing the novelization of the movie.

“I wasn’t going to let anybody else do it,” Collins said. “I was the Dick Tracy writer. It remains one of my best-selling books.”

A. Brad Schwartz, a kid in East Lansing, Michigan, bought a copy of the paperback.

That book brought Schwartz both to Collins’ writing and into the world of crime fiction that Collins created.

Schwartz persuaded his parents to drive the 475 miles from East Lansing to Des Moines to see a play about — wait for it — Eliot Ness.

Collins had written the one-man show, which starred the late Des Moines actor Michael Cornelison at the Des Moines Playhouse.

Schwartz picked one of the few nights Collins wasn’t at the performance, but the cast hooked him up with a T-shirt. He wore the shirt when he met Collins at a book signing in Chicago, and the two began a correspondence.

Both bemoaned the absence of a thorough and historically accurate record of Capone and Ness.

Schwartz earned a history degree from the University of Michigan. He wrote his first book, also wrote for a PBS documentary, and entered Princeton University in the graduate program.

He kept in touch with Collins. When another of their conversations returned to the subject of Capone and Ness, Schwartz proposed a partnership.

“We’d complained about this long enough,” Schwartz said. “It was time to do something about it.”

Many of Collins’ novels are set during specific times in history. His Nathan Heller series hands the fictional detective some of the great unsolved crimes in American history.

Collins closes books with thorough notes to distinguish fact from fiction and explanations about how he developed a theory of the crime from his own research.

Schwartz was already an accomplished researcher and writer.

The combination of their research abilities and Collins’ crime novel experience resulted in “Scarface and the Untouchable,” a well-reviewed, historically accurate book about the battle between Capone and Ness that reads like crime fiction.

A second volume — due in 2020 — will explore Ness’ career after bringing down Capone on tax evasion charges.

Ness moved to Cleveland and eventually became the city’s safety director in charge of police and fire departments. He rooted out corruption. He pushed new police techniques to improve traffic safety and curb juvenile delinquency.

Ness’ police hunted a grisly serial killer who dismembered and decapitated victims, known as the “Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run.” But he also stumbled into a series of personal and professional gaffes that saw his reputation and career erode.

Once offered a $2,000-a-week bribe by Capone’s men — about $36,000 a week in today’s money — Ness died penniless after a heart attack in a small Pennsylvania town. He was 54.

His life was one of twists, turns and mysteries, ultimately ending in tragedy.

It’s just the kind of story Collins, an Iowa kid who grew up reading Dick Tracy comics inspired by Ness, and Schwartz, a Michigan history writer, who grew up inspired by Collins’ writing, could make into a real page-turner.

“It’s funny how lives intertwine,” Collins said. “It’s a hell of a story.”

Collins would know.

Register Storyteller Daniel P. Finney grew up in Winterset and east Des Moines. He wrote his first story for the Register in 1993 at age 17. He has stacked paragraphs ever since. Reach him at 515-284-8144 or dafinney@dmreg.com. Follow him on Twitter at @newsmanone or Facebook at @danielpfinney.

How a California crow named Clover made Jenni Boonjakuakul central Iowa’s ‘bird lady’

By DANIEL P. FINNEY | Copyright The Des Moines Register

Dec. 3, 2019

The 20-year adventure for Jenni Boonjakuakul from a college student turned crow caretaker to a trusted “bird lady” in Des Moines began with a commotion under a car at a Northern California apartment complex.

Boonjakuakul was a student at the University of California-Davis on the day in 1999 she found a baby crow under a car surrounded by feral cats who wanted much more than play.

Boonjakuakul scooped up the crow with a towel and put it into a cat carrier to take inside.

She called one of her professors who had raised a baby robin in his office. She brought a can of cat food to the crow, whom she named Clover.

The first week in her care, Clover couldn’t stand. He hopped around on the patio area. He eventually moved to a tree, hobbling down to Boonjakuakul when she brought him food.

Clover “was sort of like a roommate living on the patio for free,” Boonjakuakul said.

She and Clover became close, too close for Clover’s own good. Scientists call this bond on a wild bird “imprinting,” and it prevents birds from rejoining the wild and fending for themselves.

“I made a lot of mistakes that summer,” Boonjakuakul said. “When he did learn to fly, I could call him and he would fly right to me, which is obviously not a good thing.”

Crows are corvids, some of the most intelligent birds, and are especially territorial.

Clover began dive-bombing neighbors. Police were called. Cops told Boonjakuakul it was illegal for her to keep a wild bird as a pet.

Boonjakuakul called a local aviary for help. She surrendered Clover so he could learn to be a wild bird again.

Her experience with Clover excited something inside Boonjakuakul.

“I have always been an animal lover,” she said. “Clover definitely changed my life.”

The next summer, Boonjakuakul, still a UC-Davis graduate student in microbiology, started taking classes on bird rehabilitation.

She learned bird nutrition and caging. She treated medical needs such as cat bites, which can be infectious.

She learned to bandage wings and set legs. She rarely sutured wounds, but would dress them and take the birds to vets who specialized in wild birds.

Boonjakuakul worked mostly with songbirds and waterfowl.

What began as a single crow friend spread to more than 50 birds in a two-bedroom apartment “with a boyfriend and some cats,” Boonjakuakul said.

Boonjakuakul moved to Iowa for post-doctoral studies at Iowa State University in 2007. She and her husband continued fostering birds.

Boonjakuakul got permits from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the federal government to be in line with both state and federal laws governing wild birds.

Boonjakuakul soon developed a reputation as the person to whom you brought battered birds. People came to her with birds whose nests had fallen from trees, those who’ve flown into windows and other assorted avian catastrophes.

It began with a handful of birds at their Beaverdale homes. But soon the animal shelters in West Des Moines and Des Moines found Boonjakuakul.

“Our facilities aren’t really set up to care for wild birds,” said Tom Colvin, CEO of the Animal Rescue League of Iowa. “We take in pets — parrots, parakeets and cockatoos — so having someone as knowledgeable and properly accredited as Jenni is a real asset to the community.”

Boonjakuakul’s kindness for feathered friends may seem like a fevered hobby, but it is actually an important act of conservation.

A recent study published in the scholarly journal Science found the bird population in North America had declined by 3 billion birds since 1970, a drop of nearly 30%.

About 1 in 8 bird species is threatened with global extinction, according to a report by the conservation group Bird Life International, which cites as factors expansion of agriculture, logging, invasive species, hunting and climate volatility.

“While it may seem unimportant if we lose one … species, it matters because all species are connected through their interactions in a web of life,” Renee Cho wrote for the Earth Institute at Columbia University. “A balanced and biodiverse ecosystem is one in which each species plays an important role and relies on the services provided by other species to survive. Healthy ecosystems are more productive and resistant to disruptions.”

Driven by environmental crises or simply fondness for animals, demand for Boonjakuakul’s services ballooned. Some 700 to 800 birds a year came into Boonjakuakul’s care by 2017.

Her husband runs an acupuncture clinic in Urbandale. Boonjakuakul left microbiology to take over the clinic’s business operations — and take care of more birds.

Birds need to be fed every hour. During the summer, she would pack 50 or 60 bird cages into her car and leave it parked in the lot with the windows down.

“The birds aren’t bothered by the heat because they’re used to being outdoors,” she said.

She takes a break from the clinic to feed each bird hourly. She keeps an incubator under her desk for smaller birds with specialty needs.

Boonjakuakul went to the Drake University Legal Clinic, where she got help setting up a nonprofit organization called Iowa Bird Rehabilitation. She can now take donations to help offset the costs of caring for so many birds, which in peak times of the summer surpass $200 per month for everything from specialized bird seeds to meal worms.

She has received generous support from Bone-A-Patreat and other organizations, she said. Volunteers help her, but there are limits.

“Right now, we do everything in the basement of our house, which means I have to be there while the volunteers are feeding the birds or doing chores,” Boonjakuakul said.

She wants to build an aviary on her property that will allow volunteers to come and go throughout the day. She hopes to raise $15,000 to $20,000 for the project, which she hopes to open by spring.

As ambitious as her plans are, Boonjakuakul’s mission remains largely the same as the day she took in Clover 20 years ago:

Find a bird.

Help it heal.

Get it flying.

Register Storyteller Daniel P. Finney grew up in Winterset and east Des Moines. He wrote his first story for the Register in 1993 at age 17. He has stacked paragraphs ever since. Reach him at 515-284-8144 or dafinney@dmreg.com. Follow him on Twitter at @newsmanone or Facebook at @danielpfinney.

From advice to recipes, Iowa woman retires after 70-year career as one of nation’s longest-serving newspaper columnists

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:

  1. “Don’t drink or smoke. I keep my mind sharp because God only gave me one, and I’ll never get a rerun.”
  2. “Always be cheerful. And help others be cheerful.”
  3. “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.


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.

The day KCCI’s Weather Beacon went dark for good

By DANIEL P. FINNEY | Copyright The Des Moines Register

Sept. 26, 2012

Iowa lost two treasures in less than two days. First, Wall Lake native and famed singer Andy Williams died late Tuesday. Wednesday, word came from KCCI-TV the station was switching off its beloved Weather Beacon for good.

The beacon was to flicker off a final time at dawn Thursday. Station owners decided costs and upkeep of the colorful icon outweighed the benefits of keeping the beacon lit — much to the anguish of central Iowans who grew up with the forecast lights.

“We are losing a true landmark,” said Bernard Harmeyer of Altoona. “I always looked to the tower to see what was going on with the weather. It made (KCCI) stand out from the other stations.”

First lit in 1960, strings of colored lights at the edges of the downtown transmitter tower for Des Moines’ CBS-TV affiliate gave an at-a-glance forecast on the capital’s skyline.

But the traffic light bulbs used to create the colorful forecast are no longer manufactured. Station officials ordered custom-made bulbs, but the color flaked off the red and green bulbs, which regularly forced engineers to scale the 500-foot tower to replace bulbs.

The tower, KCCI reported Wednesday, was built to meet 1980s code, and any remodeling would have forced expensive repairs.

The Weather Beacon went dark in 1973 because of high energy costs. When KCCI moved to its current location at 888 Ninth St., the tower was rebuilt and the beacon returned in 1987.

Former Des Moines Register Iowa Boy columnist Chuck Offenburger rallied the station to return the beacon in many columns through the 1970s and ’80s. Now retired and living on a Greene County farm, he was ready to sound reveille in the 21st century.

“Occupy KCCI!” he said Wednesday. “Look what other fine restorations there are around Des Moines — the World Food Prize headquarters, the Temple for Performing Arts, Terry Branstad.

“Surely the Weather Beacon can be made over and given extended new life, too, can’t it?”

Connie McBurney Percival, a reporter and forecaster with KCCI for 24 years, flipped the switch on the resurrected beacon.

“It was extravagant at the time,” she said. She planned to take a last look at the beacon while visiting friends in Des Moines on Wednesday night. “A lot of people really liked it, but it’s probably about the electric bill. I’m sure it was quite costly.”

The Weather Beacon became a beloved fixture. A “Save the Weather Beacon” group sprung up on Facebook. And a post on The Des Moines Register’s Facebook page about the beacon going dark generated more than 100 comments in less than an hour.

Some remembered the beacon’s first light.

“I know when it was first turned on 52 years ago,” Allen Taylor-Turner of Des Moines recalled. “I had just had my son on Oct.18 and was in Methodist hospital. I walked down to the end of the hall and saw it turned on. I will never forget.”

Others believed it was a monumental loss to the capital.

“The Weather Beacon is to Des Moines as Big Ben is to London,” said Melissa Vorel of Des Moines.

A few called for an updated rhyme.

“Weather beacon dead, no weather ahead,” said Joseph Louis Vaughn of Ames. “We should start fund raising for a more efficient beacon with LED lights and bring it back to the Des Moines skyline.”

The beacon was green on its final night.


The Weather Beacon was backed by a catchy rhyme the news station used in promotions for decades:

Weather Beacon red, warmer weather is ahead.

Weather Beacon white, colder weather is in sight.

Weather Beacon green, no change in temperature is foreseen.

Weather Beacon flashing, night or day, precipitation is on its way.