World Series: Iowa Hall of Famer Bob Feller reached his final Fall Classic 65 years ago

By DANIEL P. FINNEY | Copyright The Des Moines Register

Oct. 27, 2019

The Rev. David Polich ministered to a parish in Harlan in the 1980s. A baseball fan, Polich often talked the sport with the retired farmers in his flock, many born during the first decades of the 20th century.

One ballplayer captured their fancy more than any other: Bob Feller, the Van Meter native who rose from an Iowa farm to become one of the greatest pitchers in Major League Baseball history.

“To people of that generation, he was a rock star before there were rock stars,” Polich said. “He was Pope John Paul II, Elton John and Michael Jordan all rolled into one.”

Today, more than 60 years since he threw his last pitch and nearly a decade since his death, Feller’s memory may have faded some against the unrelenting atrophy of time.

Still, Feller, who died in 2010 at 92, remains an unquestionable Iowa legend.

The origin story of Feller, who would’ve turned 101 years old Nov. 3, reads like something out of a Superman comic — except, of course, that Feller’s rise to fame occurred in 1936, a full two years before Superman debuted in Action Comics No. 1.

Feller wanted to be a shortstop. He copied the batting stance of Rogers Hornsby, the Hall of Fame St. Louis Cardinals second baseman.But an injury to one of his teammates forced Feller to take up pitching at 15. His catcher was often Nile Kinnick of Adel, another Dallas County kid with outstanding athletic talent who was about 4 months older than Feller. Kinnick would win the 1939 Heisman Trophy as halfback for the University of Iowa.

Within a year, pro scouts flocked to see his blazing fastball, which spun and moved like few had witnessed before.

Feller played in a national baseball tournament in Dayton, Ohio, when he was 16. Teams offered him contracts on the spot.

They were too late — an Iowan had already gotten Feller’s signature.

Cyril Slapnicka, a Cedar Rapids native, was a scout for the Cleveland Indians. He pitched 10 Major League games for the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates with the distinction of going seven years between Major League starts.

Slapnicka signed Feller for $1 and an autographed baseball. 

“I knew he was something special,” Slapnicka said, per the Cleveland Indians Encyclopedia published in 2004. “I didn’t know then that he was smart and had the heart of a lion, but I knew that I was looking at an arm the likes of which you see only once in a lifetime.”

Iowa was in the grips of the Great Depression at the time of Feller’s ascension to the majors.

Drought smothered Iowa’s farms. Dust storms drifted from the Great Plains and swirled across Iowa.

“The dust settled so thickly on the pastures that cows would not eat,” wrote author James Hearst.

Grasshoppers chewed the wood of farm tools and houses like a Biblical plague. Rain refused to fall. Cornfields withered.

“On the Fourth of July, the corn was as tall as the wheel on the cultivator,” J. Bruce Haddock told Iowa Public Television for a 1995 documentary. “And by a month later it was as though someone had pulled it back into the ground.”

Iowans needed someone to distract them from the misery that had plagued rural America since well before the 1929 Wall Street market crash.

Feller was that man.

Feller’s debut for Cleveland was inauspicious on July 29, 1936. He was 17 years, 8 months and 15 days old, to date the 17th-youngest player to make his major league debut.

He pitched a single inning of relief in Cleveland’s 9-5 loss at the Washington Senators. He struck out one and walked two.

Feller made his first start the next month, on Aug. 23. Veteran Danny Galehouse warmed up for the Indians in case young Feller struggled.

He did not.

Feller struck out 15 over 9 innings. He allowed six hits, one run and four walks en route to his first professional victory. Three weeks later, Feller fanned 17, tying the single-game record at the time, set by Dizzy Dean.

He complied a 5-4 record in 14 games as a rookie for the Indians, striking out 76 in 62 innings.

Sportswriters started using colorful phrases including “Bullet Bob,” “Rapid Robert” and “The Heater from Van Meter” to describe Feller.

A star had emerged.

Feller appeared on the cover of Time magazine in April 1937 before the season began. In his first start of the season on April 24, Feller hurt his arm throwing a curveball, a 4-3 loss to the St. Louis Browns.

Feller gave up all four runs in the first inning, but still managed to work six innings and strike out 11. He also faced his boyhood hero, Rogers Hornsby, the Browns’ player/manager.

Hornsby worked a walk in the first inning and scored a run. Feller got him out two more times, including a second-inning strikeout.

Feller spent most of April and May rehabbing his shoulder. He graduated from Van Meter High School that spring, and NBC Radio covered the event live.

Feller went on to strike out 150 in 148⅔ innings over 26 games that season with a 9-7 record. In 1938, he struck out 240 with 17 wins; still only 19 years old, he made the first of his eight All-Star appearances.

Feller was 21 years old, a man in full, when he pitched a no-hitter against the Chicago White Sox on Opening Day 1940. It remains the only Opening Day no-hitter in baseball history.

His season proved to be one of his best ever. Feller won the pitching triple crown by leading the league in wins (27), strikeouts (261) and earned-run average (2.61).

He struck out more than 240 batters a year between 1938 and 1941, was an all-star each year and finished in the top three of MVP voting 1939-1941.

But on Dec. 7, 1941, strikeouts became meaningless.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into World War II. Feller returned to Iowa to visit his terminally ill father.

Then he enlisted in the Navy, becoming the first professional athlete to do so. He inspired many of his fellow ballplayers to quickly follow suit.

“Bob once told me the most important thing he ever did was enlist in the Navy,” said Jerel Merical, who helped curate the Bob Feller Museum in Van Meter from 1995 to its closing in 2014.

Feller wanted to be a fighter pilot, but he failed the hearing test. He trained at the Norfolk base and served as a fitness instructor.

He requested posting aboard the USS Iowa, but nearly all servicemen from Iowa had asked to be placed on the ship named after their home state.

Feller didn’t make the cut.

Instead, he became a gun captain aboard the USS Alabama in 1943. Shortly before he left for combat, his father died of brain cancer.

The Alabama eventually led Feller to the Pacific Theater, where he and his shipmates fought in battles to capture Gilbert and Marshall Islands.

Feller also participated in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, which crippled the Japanese aircraft carrier abilities.

Feller was discharged from the service in August 1945, decorated with six campaign ribbons and eight battle stars.

Feller deflected any praise for his efforts in the war.

At a luncheon for civil leaders in Cleveland, the Plain-Dealer reported Feller said of his Naval service: “The real heroes didn’t come home.”

In 1946, his first full season back from the Navy, Feller won 26 games and struck out a career-high 348 — still the fourth highest tally in American League history.

Though the means for measuring pitch speeds were primitive, Feller was recorded throwing the fastest pitch in history clocked at 107.6 mph in 1948. In 1974, Houston Astro’s Nolan Ryan is said to have hit 108.1 mph, but both figures are disputed due to measuring irregularities.

In 1948, Feller played a small role in the final public appearance of Babe Ruth, the great slugger for the New York Yankees and masterful pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. On June 13, the Yankees retired Ruth’s No. 3. And Ruth, stricken with cancer, could barely stand.

Feller, who was warming up to start for the Indians, Feller’s teammate Eddie Robinson loaned Ruth Feller’s bat to lean on. Ruth died that August.

Feller and the Indians lost that day’s game, but went on to win the American League pennant and the World Series.

The Boston Braves’ hitters roughed up Feller in his two World Series starts. He lost both and allowed eight runs, half of the total scored by the Braves in the series.

Still, Cleveland its first World Series title since 1920 — and its last to date. It’s now the longest current drought by any team in the majors by 31 years.

During the victory parade in Cleveland, Feller was quoted as saying: “This is as good as being president.”

One of Feller’s teammates on the 1948 title-winning team was 41-year-old Satchel Paige, a longtime pitching star of the Negro Leagues who finally got a chance to play in the big leagues.

Feller knew Paige from way back. When Feller was 16, he pitched against Paige, then 29, in an exhibition game in Des Moines. Feller admired Paige’s pitching prowess, but he also noted the profitability of the 1930s-era barnstorming squads. 

In Feller’s era, ballplayers needed to have winter jobs to support their families. Although Feller was an unquestioned superstar, his career earnings amounted to about $500,000. 

By comparison, today’s average Major League salary is $4.4 million, and the league minimum is $555,000.

So Feller and Paige went on an offseason barnstorming tour in 1946. They played 36 games across the country, drawing about 250,000 fans and making history by being the first teams to travel between cities by plane.

The tour took place the winter before Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in April 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Indians made Larry Doby the first black player in the American league that July.

Feller was ambivalent about integration of the majors and the plight of black players in general. It “was their problem,” he once said of black players not being allowed to stay in the same hotels as whites.

Yet he wrote effusive praise of Paige in Sports Illustrated, arguing the Negro League star should be in the Hall of Fame.

By intent or otherwise, Feller helped puncture the color barrier erected by another Iowan, 19th-century star Cap Anson of the Chicago Cubs. Anson was one of the most popular and respected players of his era.

Anson refused to play against dark-skinned players and persuaded other clubs to follow suit and influencing minor leagues to stop signing black players.

Coincidentally, Robinson and Feller were inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame the same year: 1962.

Feller and Cleveland reached the World Series again in 1954, but he did not pitch and the Indians lost to the New York Giants. Feller went 13-3 that season, then went 4-8 over his final two years in Cleveland before retiring in 1956 at age 37.

He finished his career with a 266-162 record with 2,581 strikeouts. He’s one of only six players to throw more than two no-hitters, and his 12 one-hitters ties him with Nolan Ryan as the most in MLB history.

In retirement, he sold insurance and supplemented his income by appearing at card shows and other events where he sold his autograph.

Feller could be generous and prickly in the same motion. He chaffed if someone suggested pitching greats like Johnson or Ryan threw faster than Feller in his prime.

He became good friends with rival Ted Williams, the great Boston Red Sox hitter. Williams said he would start thinking about how to hit Feller three days before he faced him, more than any other pitcher he battled. Feller spoke highly of Williams’ play and his service in both World War II and the Korean War.

But close observers noticed a slight tension.

Feller “was still competitive,” said John Liepa, an Iowa baseball historian and retired Iowa State University and DMACC professor. “He would say great things about Williams or other players that appeared with him, but you could sense he still thought, ‘I could take you.’ That was just the essence of Bob Feller.”

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.

Meet the Iowan the world just learned helped raise the flag at Iwo Jima in World War II

By DANIEL P. FINNEY | Copyright The Des Moines Register

Six Marines raised the U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi to let enemies and allies alike know the island of Iwo Jima was won on Feb. 23, 1945.

Photographer Joe Rosenthal captured the image of the men raising the flagpole with the wind whipping the Stars and Stripes at its peak after a five-week battle for the island between U.S. and Japanese forces for the island in the Pacific theater of World War II.

The photograph became one of the most famous of the war, a symbol of the U.S. armed forces’ against-all-odds mentality.

Last week, the world learned that one of the Marines in that iconic image was an Iowan: Cpl. Harold “Pie” Keller of Brooklyn, Iowa.

“I was shocked when they contacted me to tell me one of those Marines was my dad,” said Kay Maurer, one of Keller’s three children, who lives in Clarence. “I knew my dad was there, but he never said anything about being in that picture. He rarely talked about the war at all.”

For 74 years, Keller had been misidentified as Cpl. Rene Gagon in the photograph until the Marines announced the correction earlier this month.

Amateur historian Brent Westemeyer, a Johnston man who works for Wells Fargo, worked with Marine archivists and others to identify the error.

“The Marines really dug into their archives and looked at some images that have never been published,” Westemeyer said. “We matched the creases in the fabric on his helmet, how many grenades he was carrying, his bandiliers and his camouflage pattern. It took a lot of digging, but we got it right.”

Keller’s correction marks the third change in the official identifications of the six men who held that flag. Cpl. Harlon Block was misidentified as Sgt. Hank Hansen until 1947. Cpl. Harold Schultz was misidentified as Hospital Corpsman John “Doc” Bradley until 2016.

The other men in the photo are Pfc. Franklin Sousley, Sgt. Michael Strank and Cpl. Ira Hayes.

Block, Strank and Sousley were killed in action while fighting to hold the island.

Maurer and Westemeyer, like the Marines, are quick to note that the while the identities of the men raising the flag is historically significant, the true meaning of the photograph is shared among all the fighting forces who endured one of the bloodiest and most horrific battles of World War II.

But Harold Keller is a man Iowans should know.

Keller was born in Brooklyn and, except for his war service, lived his entire life there. His father worked at a car dealership, and his mother worked at the grocery store.

Keller delivered the Register and the defunct afternoon paper, the Tribune, as a boy.

While a high school football player, Keller earned the nickname “Pie” because he ate too much pie before a game and threw up on the field in front of the crowd.

“The name stuck throughout his life,” Maurer said.

Keller worked as a telephone company linesman before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He enlisted Jan. 2, 1942, training at Camp Elliott in San Diego and in Honolulu.

Keller was assigned to Carlson’s Raiders, an elite amphibious Marine unit named for Evans Carlson, who developed tactics that became the basis for modern U.S. special forces operations.

In less than eight months, Keller went from an 18-year-old from an Iowa town of about 1,400 to landing at Guadalcanal at the beginning of the Allied offensive in the Pacific.

The battle lasted more than six months. Some 1,600 U.S. forces were killed, 4,200 were wounded, and several thousand died from tropical diseases. 

Keller fought at Midway Island and Bougainville.

At Bougainville, Keller engaged in a sniper duel with a Japanese soldier. A Japanese shot burned through Keller’s right shoulder.

“He was up a tree and I was looking for him — but he saw me first,” Keller told the Des Moines Tribune in 1944. “I had fired eight rounds and was firing again when he hit me. I never did see him.”

Keller dropped to the ground and laid low until the fighting paused. He was out of action for some time.

He took a furlough in 1944 and came back to marry Ruby O’Halloran, a county sales supervisor for the Register and Tribune. He was 22. She was 26. The couple exchanged vows at the Kirkwood Hotel in Hartwick.

Keller declined to talk in-depth about his war experiences in an interview with a Tribune reporter, but he offered this glimpse into his war experiences:

“You don’t think about it when you’re in it,” Keller said. “If you did, you’d probably be put in a straitjacket before long. Some of your experiences are so fantastic that people wouldn’t believe them, anyway. Usually, it sounds like a lot of baloney, although true.”

The worst of the war was yet to come for Keller. He landed on Iwo Jima at the base of Mount Suribachi. He was part of a 40-man platoon that earned 26 medals in 45 minutes — most of them Purple Hearts.

Iwo Jima was home to a pair of critical airfields. Capturing the island gave Allied forces key launching points for attacks on the main Japanese island.

But the campaign proved to be one of the fiercest and bloodiest in the Pacific Theater. Some 6,821 U.S. forces were killed and another 19,217 were wounded.

Estimates of Japanese casualties are as high as 18,400.

The battle proved especially difficult: U.S. forces gained ground during the day, but Japanese forces would escape through a network of tunnels and return to battle the same spot the following day.

Though Rosenthal’s Feb. 23, 1945, photo was emblematic of victory, it would not be until March 26 that the battle was declared won and the island safe for occupation.

Keller survived the war and returned home to his love, Ruby. The couple had three children — two boys and a girl.

Keller went back to work for the phone company for a while and then took a job at a local creamery. When the creamery closed, he worked at an electrical equipment firm.

Keller served as head of Brooklyn High School’s athletic boosters, chief of the city’s volunteer firefighters and was a beloved fellow about town. When the family built a new house, people from all over would stop by to help out, according to a 1950 Tribune story.

Keller died of a heart attack in 1979. He was 57.

He rarely spoke with family about the war, and when he did, it was in general terms, talking about a buddy or a military term.

Daughter Kay tried to draw out his stories over the years, to no avail.

“The Vietnam War was on TV every night, and I would try to use that as a springboard, but he wouldn’t budge,” Kay Maurer said.

An author once sent Keller a tape recorder and asked him to record his memories. He would do it late at night when the kids were in bed. Young Kay would try to listen. After a while, her father would press stop on the recorder.

“He’d say, ‘Katie, I know you’re there. Go on to bed,'” Maurer said. “He didn’t want me to hear. … I think he just wanted to put it all behind him. I think he just wanted to be ‘Pie’ Keller from Brooklyn, Iowa.”

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.

A dirty hit, a broken jaw and the day Drake and Oklahoma A&M changed college football forever

By DANIEL P. FINNEY | Copyright The Des Moines Register

Oct. 24, 2019

Seven minutes. Four blows. Six pictures. One broken jaw. And the Saturday that changed college football forever. It happened Oct. 20, 1951, in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

Drake University’s senior star back, Johnny Bright, came to Stillwater leading the nation in total offense, as he had done the previous two seasons. As a sophomore in 1949, he became the first African American player to play at A&M’s stadium. On this October day, he was a front-runner for the Heisman Trophy.

The Oklahoma A&M Aggies, later renamed the Oklahoma State Cowboys, held Bright in contempt. They were determined to keep the fleet-footed Bright — a power runner who was also the Bulldog’s best passer — from running all over the Aggies at home.

The Aggies’ defense targeted him.

Hard.

Hits knocked him unconscious three times in the first seven minutes of play. In today’s game, Bright would’ve been sidelined in a tent behind the team bench undergoing concussion protocols after the first hit.

But this was 1951. Helmets didn’t even have face masks.

Bright took a snap and handed off to fullback Gene Macomber. The play moved away from Bright.

A&M defensive lineman Wilbanks Smith, however, ignored the ball and zeroed in on Bright.

POW!

Smith’s forearm and elbow slammed into Bright’s face. Bright later said he heard a pop right away. His lower jaw was broken.

Bright refused to bow. A few plays later, he tossed a 61-yard touchdown pass. But the injury eventually forced him to leave the game. A&M won 27-14.

Bright finished with 75 total yards — 14 rushing and 61 passing. It was the first time in his collegiate career he finished with fewer than 100 yards.

The true injustice that had occurred that day, though, was not fully understood until Sunday morning, when the Des Moines Register landed on doorsteps across Iowa.

Television was in its infancy. Few games were broadcast, and there certainly were no instant replays from multiple angles. Des Moines radio stations picked up the A&M feed, whose announcers apparently noticed nothing unusual with the play.

“I was listening to the game on the radio and heard Johnny had to leave hurt,” recalled Bob Clark, a Roosevelt High School grade who attended Drake on a track scholarship and played football with Bright in 1949 and 1950. “That was unusual, because Johnny never wanted to come out of a game. But I didn’t think anything of it.”

Bright’s jaw was broken, but many sports fans found theirs hanging open when the Sunday Register’s sports section showed the world the play in vivid detail.

A series of six photographs taken by Register photographers Don Ultang and John Robinson showed A&M’s Smith punching Bright in the mouth, without regard to the direction of play.

There it was, in a series of six photos exposed: a blatant assault on one of college football’s greatest players.

The moment became known as the “Johnny Bright Incident.”

Bright grew up in a hardscrabble neighborhood on Hayden Street in Fort Wayne, Indiana, one of five sons to a single mother.

He was known for his genial, hard-working nature. He shoveled snow to make pocket change, but his athletic prowess made him a standout in the community.

Bright was an ace fast-pitch softball player for local club teams. At Central High School, Bright became a basketball star who twice led his team to semifinal appearances in the famed Indiana state tournaments.

He led Central to the city football title in 1945 and competed in five separate track and field events.

Yet despite his accomplishments, no Indiana school showed interest in him. Notre Dame did not allow black players.

Purdue showed no interest. Indiana University coaches reportedly said the team “already had enough black running backs,” per a posthumous profile of Bright in the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel.

Bright accepted a football scholarship to Michigan State, but an Indiana connection steered him toward Drake.

Nick Brenner, a Drake track coach from Indiana, kept tabs on the athletes in his home state. He wooed Bright to Drake on a track scholarship on the condition he could try out for football and basketball.

Bright earned a varsity letter in both track and basketball his sophomore year. He pole-vaulted 13 feet and landed a high jump of 6 feet, 2 inches.

Drake football coach Warren Gaer utilized Bright’s athleticism to the fullest on the gridiron.

Bright grew from a 5-10, 180-pound high-schooler into a muscular 6-foot, 215-pound man by his sophomore year at Drake.

“Johnny was the kind of runner who would just run right through a defender,” Clark, his old teammate, said. “He could do anything he wanted.”

Bright threw sidearm, but he hit his targets. His sophomore year, he ran for 975 yards and passed for another 975 to lead the nation in total offense.

Bright dropped track and basketball to focus on football. He repeated as total offense national leader again his junior year, running for 1,232 yards and throwing for 1,168 more.

Drake was 5-0 when the Bulldogs played in Stillwater on Oct. 20, 1951. Bright was again leading the country in total offense. But a conspiracy was brewing.

Macomber, the Drake fullback, stopped for a haircut in Stillwater before the game.

The chatter was that Bright shouldn’t expect to finish the game, Macomber said in a 1999 TNT documentary about the photographs taken by Ultang and Robinson.

The A&M student newspaper, the Daily O’Collegian, and the local newspaper, the News Press, both reported similar items that Bright would be targeted.

Ultang and Robinson heard the targeting talk, too. They set up their cameras atop the press box at Lewis Field, now T. Boone Pickens Stadium.

They almost didn’t catch the pivotal moment.

In those days, film needed to be developed, and there was no way to transmit them back to Des Moines.

Bright left the game, and Ultang and Robinson hustled to the airport to catch a plane back to Des Moines.

When they developed their film, Ultang alerted the editors.

The pictures, which eventually won a Pulitzer Prize, went atop the front page of the sports section showed a clear sucker-punch.

And even in the age before the instant outrage fueled by social media, the anger was powerful.

Newspapers across the country decried the assault as poor sportsmanship, along with strong racial overtones.

Readers filled the letters to the editor column. The Des Moines Tribune, the now-defunct afternoon paper, ran excerpts from editorials across the country condemning the play and calling out racism.

Register sports editor Sec Taylor suggested A&M retired Smith’s No. 72 “so that no other (A&M) athletes will be contaminated by the muckerism it represents. The jersey bearing the number should be fumigated.”

Some editorials called for the expulsion of Smith, who hit Bright, and the dismissal of the A&M coach, J.B. Whitworth, who was widely believed to have ordered the hit on Bright.

But no punishments were levied against A&M by the NCAA, the Missouri Valley Conference or internally by the institution.

Whitworth issued a written apology to Bright but denied ordering the illegal hit or any racial motivation.

Smith denied any racial motivation as recently as 2012 in a story by Kyle Fredrickson for O’Colly Media Group.

Drake officials were furious. The school withdrew from the MVC. Bradley followed suit, though both schools would later rejoin. Drake would not play football in the MVC again until 1971.

The next season, the NCAA instituted stricter rules regarding illegal blocking and required helmets with face guards, the beginning of a long journey with player safety in both college and pro football that continues to this day.

None of this helped Bright in 1951. His jaw was wired shut. Doctors removed a tooth so he could be fed by tube while his mandible healed.

He played only sparingly the remainder of the season.

The Chicago Bears commissioned two versions of a special helmet to better protect Bright’s broken jaw, but neither worked.

Bright finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting.

For Bright, there was no debate that racism cost him.

“There’s no way it couldn’t have been racially motivated,” Bright told the Register in 1980. “What I like about the whole deal now, and what I’m smug enough to say, is that getting a broken jaw has somehow made college athletics better. It made the NCAA take a hard look and clean up some things that were bad.”

The NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles drafted Bright with their first-round pick in 1952. But Gaer, the Drake coach, advised Bright that the money they were offering seemed low.

Gaer reportedly told Bright the Eagles offered him less money than they would a white player with similar skills, per the biography “Johnny Bright, Champion: A Mentor, Scholar and Educator,” by Warrick Lee Barrett.

Bright would later say he was wary of being the first African-American player for the Eagles.

“There was a tremendous influx of Southern players into the NFL at that time, and I didn’t know what kind of treatment I could expect,” Bright said.

Bright chose to play in Canada, signing first with the Calgary Stampeders as a linebacker and tailback. A nagging shoulder issue and contract issues led to Bright being dealt to the Edmonton Eskimos.

Bright became one of the greatest stars in CFL history. He led the Eskimos to three consecutive Grey Cup titles from 1954 through 1956.

Bright retired from football in 1961 and became a decorated teacher and coach in Edmonton. He became a Canadian citizen in 1962.

He married his sweetheart from Fort Wayne, and the couple raised a son and three daughters.

Bright so rarely discussed the incident that bears his name that his oldest daughter, Deaine, didn’t learn about it until someone gave her a book with the Pulitzer Prize-winning photos.

In 1983, Bright underwent surgery to correct a knee problem from his football days. He suffered a fatal heart attack during the operation. He was 53.

In 2005, a Drake basketball booster called David Maxwell, then Drake’s president. The Bulldogs were scheduled to play in a tournament where it was possible Drake could play Oklahoma State.

The booster thought they shouldn’t play the Cowboys unless the ugliness of the Johnny Bright incident was resolved.

Maxwell agreed. He called Oklahoma State President David Schmidly.

“I told him we could do this very quietly and I wasn’t looking for publicity, but I thought it was something we should resolve,” Maxwell recalled in a recent interview.

Schmidly was agreeable and wrote a Maxwell a letter formally apologizing for the assault, calling it “an ugly mark on Oklahoma State University and college football.”

The letter came 22 years after Bright’s death and 54 years after his jaw was broken, taking him out of the running for the Heisman.

In 2006, Drake officials named the field at the newly remodeled Drake Stadium in honor of Johnny Bright.

It’s tempting to see the story of Johnny Bright as a series of “what ifs.” What if he’d won the Heisman? What if he’d played in the NFL?

But Bright never spoke of it that way. He told the Register in 1970s that he was grateful his broken jaw led to a safer game.

His focus in later life was his students.

In 1982, a year before his death, Bright spoke to the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce. His topic was not the glory days of football, but the importance of education to communities. He emphasized the need for trust between students and teachers in order to achieve greatness.

“My personal goal has always been to be a champion,” Bright said. “We are all students and we are all teachers when we thirst for knowledge. … I want my kids to say our school is the best. More important, I want them to say, ‘I am the best.’ I want each of my kids to have self-respect.

“I want them to be champions.”

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 5 ‘mistakes’ by Iowan Ken Quinn ultimately made the World Food Prize world-class

By DANIEL P. FINNEY | Copyright The Des Moines Register

Oct. 14, 2019

Ken Quinn thought he blew it. In 1999, he retired from a distinguished career in the U.S. Foreign Service, including serving as ambassador to Cambodia. He moved from the Washington, D.C., suburbs back to Des Moines, where he had served as an aide to Gov. Bob Ray in the late 1970s, to become president of the World Food Prize.

The prize honors advances in the fight against global hunger. It was founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug, an Iowa plant scientist whose work is credited with saving a billion lives.

Borlaug envisioned the World Food Prize as the Nobel Peace Prize for agriculture. But Quinn inherited a small office in the Ruan II building in downtown Des Moines with a single staff member to answer the phones.

“And the phones weren’t ringing,” Quinn recalled in an interview in advance of this year’s World Food Prize events, set for Oct. 16 to 18 in Des Moines.

This is Quinn’s 20th and final year as president. He plans to retire at the end of the year.

But two decades ago, Quinn wasn’t sure what he’d gotten himself into.

“When I took over, the job was about 35 to 48 hours a year,” Quinn said. “I thought I had made a terrible mistake.”

He hadn’t.

There’s a bug in Quinn’s thinking: Whenever he thinks he’s made the worst mistake of his life, he is wrong, and Iowa, the nation and the world are better for it.

The first time Quinn thought he’d wrecked his life was in 1960, when he graduated from Loras College. He wanted to attend law school like his TV hero Perry Mason.

But Quinn had only enough money, about $15, to take the law boards or the graduate school exam. Even if he passed, he couldn’t afford tuition.

The Foreign Service exam was free. So he drove to Madison, Wisconsin, and took the daylong test.

He figured he had no shot.

“They only took the best of the best,” Quinn said. “Nobody would have bet very much on a kid who graduated from a small Iowa college.”

Quinn passed and joined the Foreign Service. He dreamed of work in an embassy, maybe in London, Paris or Vienna.

But this was 1968. Quinn was 26 years old and healthy. He was going to Vietnam.

“Oh no,” Quinn recalled thinking. “What have I gotten into?”

Quinn spent a year learning Vietnamese. He landed in the Mekong Delta region as a rural development officer. He helped farmers develop better agriculture methods and move their crops to market.

Quinn picked up two lessons that would serve him well decades later as World Food Prize president.

The first was the power of roads.

When a road between four villages Quinn served was finished, he noticed an immediate change to the quality of life. The road supported trucks, which allowed farmers to get their crops to market.

Families wore better clothes. Children stayed in school instead of working the rice paddies. People bought sheet metal for the roofs of their houses instead of using thatch.

“The Vietcong who hid in these villages started to disappear,” Quinn said. “Young people saw the economic growth and didn’t see a need to fight a war.”

The second lesson took longer to blossom. Villages along the new road started using a product called IR8, known as “miracle rice.”

The cross-bred rice allowed farmers to get two or three crops a year instead of one. It brought prosperity to people who otherwise starved in poverty.

The miracle rice was developed in the Philippines using processes discovered by Norman Borlaug, the Cresco native who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

Borlaug had developed wheat to make it more weather- and disease-resistant. It’s believed his work saved a billion people from starvation in Central America, India and Pakistan.

The “miracle rice” in Quinn’s district was a direct descendant of Borlaug’s work. And it was changing lives before Quinn’s eyes in Vietnam.

Quinn did not know it at the time, but he had already met Norman Borlaug.

Quinn still coveted an ambassadorship and a gilded embassy in Europe. He was due to rotate out of Vietnam.

Near the end of his first tour, he took a Time-Life photojournalist named Dick Swanson, a former Des Moines Register photographer, on a tour of the villages where he worked.

The pair were on a boat on the Mekong River. Quinn told Swanson he was eager for a new assignment. Swanson asked him why.

“He told me I was doing good in Vietnam,” Quinn recalled. “Maybe I got to Europe and ended up writing reports that nobody read, but I could make a real difference in Vietnam.”

Quinn wrote Washington the next day and told his superiors he wanted to stay.

In the months to come, Quinn felt that was a blunder. The state department put him in charge of one of the toughest districts in the country, which included an airport that had been partially overrun during the Tet Offensive.

He was the senior official. Both civilian and military personnel reported to him.

Quinn boarded a Huey helicopter with a South Vietnamese officer at dusk each night to monitor enemy encroachments.

With four other helicopters on their wing, including two gunships, they skimmed the treetops and looked for enemies.

The helicopter pilots needed approval from Quinn to fire on suspected enemies. Sometimes, Quinn said yes. Other times, he said no.

One night, a gunship commander spotted people in the fields. The commander suspected they were enemy fighters. He wanted to fire.

Quinn believed they were farmers harvesting rice. Quinn told the pilot of his helicopter to land. He would go talk to the people.

“If I was wrong, we would have been killed,” Quinn said. “But I knew these people.”

Quinn was right. They were farmers, not fighters.

“The thing I am most proud of during my time in Vietnam is that in my district, we did not have a single civilian casualty,” Quinn said.

The state department assigned Quinn to the Vietnam-Cambodian border as the U.S. involvement in Vietnam wound down.

There, he witnessed the horrific consequences of the brutal rule of dictator Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Pol Pot emptied Cambodian cities and forced people into work camps, torture and starvation. More than 2 million died.

Quinn was the first U.S. government official to document the atrocities.

He wrote a lengthy report to his superiors documenting the horrors for the first time, providing an eyewitness account that even the U.S. intelligence community and Western journalists had not uncovered.

“People were so emaciated, rail thin. They dropped where they were, unable to move. Children were all alone,” Quinn said.

Quinn remembered one boy covered in diarrhea and filth in a makeshift medical tent.

“The life drained out of him as I watched,” Quinn said.

After leaving Vietnam, Quinn returned to the U.S. to work at the State Department in Washington, D.C.

In 1974, communist forces overran Laos and 12,000 Tai Dam people fled to Thailand looking for asylum. Overwhelmed, Thailand sought help to resettle the displaced masses. Australia, Canada and France welcomed some of the refugees.

President Ford asked U.S. governors for help. Only one answered: Iowa’s Ray. The Tai Dam were a close-knit community and their resettlement success depended on keeping them together. About 1,500 came to Iowa.

Quinn accompanied a group and spoke at an event to thank Ray and Iowans for welcoming the refugees. After Quinn’s speech, Ray sidled up to Quinn and said, as Quinn recalls, “You would be a good guy to have around.”

Soon, Quinn took a sabbatical from the State Department to become an aide to Ray.

Again, Quinn thought he was making a mistake.

He loved Iowa and respected Ray, but his career was in the nation’s capital, not the state capital of Iowa. He wasn’t really sure what he would be doing for Ray. It turned out, he would play a central role in one of the greatest humanitarian efforts in the state’s history.

In 1979, Quinn joined Ray and several other U.S. governors on a visit to Indochina regions overrun by more than 30,000 Cambodian refugees. While the governors visited the camp, five people died.

Quinn recalled a girl so malnourished she heaved a bucket to a waterspout then collapsed, unable to turn the handle.

Ray took photos that later ran on the front page of the Register. Ray was so moved by the suffering he saw that he asked Quinn to come up with a way Iowa could help the refugees.

Quinn called Michael Gartner, then the editor of the Register. They met at the Des Moines Club.

“Ken had the germ of an idea, an outline, but he needed help getting the word out,” Gartner said in a recent interview. “I said we would cover it in the news columns, and the editorial page would back it.”

Quinn and Ray’s idea eventually became Iowa SHARES.

The governor asked Iowans to donate money to pay for supplies, food and doctors and nurses to help treat the suffering among Cambodian refugees. The Register editorial page ran a coupon every day during the Christmas shopping season.

Iowans donated nearly $1.7 million in today’s money to aid the region. On Christmas Eve 1979, a convoy of doctors, nurses, food and supplies rode into the refugee camps.

Quinn returned to the state department. President Bill Clinton finally gave Quinn his embassy job, appointing him U.S. ambassador to Cambodia in 1994.

Of course, there was no embassy. It was a house in a loosely guarded compound in the middle of a country with a volatile political climate.

As many as 20,000 soldiers of the Khmer Rouge still remained even though Pol Pot had been driven into hiding in the jungles. The nation was at civil war.

Quinn surely thought taking the post was a mistake on the day his family came under direct fire at their home. Rebels fired rockets at his house and riddled it with machine gun fire.

Only a small local police force was there to hold off the attack.

Quinn and his wife, Le Son, took their three children and threw them on the ground. Le Son covered them, and Quinn piled on.

“We prayed to God that the bullets would hit us before the children,” Quinn said.

The Quinns survived with only scrapes and bruises — but it was hardly the kind of embassy work Quinn had imagined when he took that Foreign Service exam in 1968.

Yet, as with every stop in his life, Quinn managed to do a lot of good. He ordered officials to rent every piece of road-building equipment they could find to start improving roads so farmers could get their crops to market and people could travel safely between villages.

Just like in Vietnam years before, the quality of life for the poorest in Cambodia began to improve.

The Khmer Rouge slowly faded.

Quinn was present when word reached Cambodian leaders that the last Khmer Rouge soldier surrendered in 1998. Mission accomplished, Quinn returned to Washington in 1999.

Sometime in 1999, Quinn came back to Des Moines to check on the house he bought while serving under Ray. He had rented the property ever since. He considered selling it.

Gartner, former U.S. Rep. Mike Blouin and Michael Reagen, a former Ray aide who was president of the Greater Des Moines Chamber of Commerce at the time, all suggested Quinn could raise the profile of the World Food Prize.

While Quinn was in town, John Ruan Sr. invited Quinn to a meeting.

Ruan Sr. had rescued the prize from failure after General Foods, its original sponsor, was bought by Kraft. Kraft execs had no interest in the food prize.

Ruan Sr. donated $10 million to endow the award and put his longtime associate, Herman Kilpper, in charge of running the foundation. Kilpper wanted to retire. Ruan Sr. wondered if Quinn would be interested in the job. Quinn had worked 32 years at the state department and was eligible to retire.

Quinn was uncertain.

“It wasn’t very clear to me what the job was or what I could bring to it,” Quinn said.

Ruan Sr. invited his son, John Ruan III, to meet Quinn. Immediately, the younger Ruan knew they had the right man.

“It doesn’t take long to learn how to like Ken Quinn,” Ruan III said.

Quinn didn’t turn the job down, but he took another assignment at the state department. Ruan III didn’t want to lose Quinn. On a business trip to Washington, Ruan III arranged for a dinner meeting at the Palm restaurant in D.C.

Ruan III laid out the challenge: The World Food Prize could be the Nobel Prize for agriculture. It would be Quinn’s job to raise it to that level.

Quinn went home to Le Son and told her he was retiring, and that they were headed back to Iowa.

Quinn soon discovered the enormity of his task. The World Food Prize was a small event attended by 50 or 60 people. The ceremonies were originally held in the lobby of the Ruan tower in downtown Des Moines. It was a black-tie affair, but it was a single day.

Quinn took a trip with Borlaug to Oslo, Norway, to observe the Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies. Borlaug had several times lobbied Nobel officials to create a prize for agriculture but failed due to the complexities of the prize rules and its endowment.

Quinn took in the pomp and circumstance and wondered how he could replicate it in Des Moines.

“Quinn is 50% intellectual and 50% P.T. Barnum,” Gartner said. “He knew how to sell something to people.”

Quinn used his connections in Washington to get the World Food Prize announced at the State Department. He moved the World Food Prize ceremony to the State Capitol to raise the spectacle and grandeur of the ceremony.

In 2006, the Des Moines Central Library moved from a dilapidated riverfront spot on Locust Street to a new building on Grand Avenue in the Western Gateway.

The old library drew little interest from buyers. The building faced demolition. Ruan III and Quinn toured it.

“Ken thought the building had good bones, but I wasn’t sure,” Ruan III said. “But Ken saw the potential.”

The original renovation estimate was $20 million, but it soon grew to $30 million.

Ruan III kicked in some. Former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, who went to Dowling Catholic High School and spent hours studying in the old library, fondly remembered the building. Quinn convinced him to send a $5 million earmark for the project.

“The thing about Ken is he really makes a connection with you,” Harkin said. “He cares. You want to help him do whatever he’s working on.”

Quinn convinced Gartner, then head of the Vision Iowa board, to give $5 million to the project, too.

It took 10 years of fundraising, but the old library became the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates, replete with paintings, sculptures, tapestries and stained-glass windows commemorating the fight against hunger.

Quinn finally got his gilded embassy.

Now, Quinn is 77 as he enters his final World Food Prize week. He still loves the work, especially the intellectual conversation, promoting Bourlag’s legacy, writing and giving speeches, but fundraising and administration are burdensome, he said.

Ruan III hired a search firm. They’re winnowing candidates now.

As for Quinn, a man who often thought he was bumbling through life: He’s become one of the most decorated Iowans in history.

He received the Iowa Award, the state’s highest civilian honor. He remains the only civilian to receive the Army Air Medal for his heroism in Vietnam.

The State Department gave him its Award for Heroism and Valor for his service in Cambodia and combat in Vietnam. He is the only three-time recipient of a State Department award for dissent — thoughtfully disagreeing with his bosses’ orders.

Under his leadership, the World Food Prize has grown to an attendance of more than 1,500 people. The prestige of the World Food Prize is internationally recognized.

“People outside the country definitely know Des Moines and Iowa for the World Food Prize,” Harkin said. “He truly made it the Nobel Prize for agriculture.”

As Quinn’s distinguished career in public service comes to a close, he reflects that “every time I thought I had really made the worst possible decision, it turned out to be the best experience.”

Quinn has no special plans for retirement, but given his track record, here’s hoping he makes a few more “mistakes.”

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 mom who lost son in Afghanistan copes by making masks to fight coronavirus spread

By DANIEL P. FINNEY | Copyright The Des Moines Register

April 24, 2020

The grief creeps up on Susie Ristau in the quiet moments.

And the quiet moments in her Cascade home come more often during the coronavirus pandemic.

Ristau was leading homeschooling for her four grandchildren in the mornings. By afternoon, she would feel anxious and depressed.

Her memories would drift to 2012, the day two U.S. Army officers came to tell her that her son, Michael Ristau, had been killed while serving in Afghanistan.

“It’s the kind of grief you never get over,” Ristau said. “It’s just your new normal.”

About a week into the pandemic, Ristau decided she was sick of sadness. She decided to use her grief as motivation.

She heard health officials’ edict that homemade masks might help slow the spread of COVID-19.

Ristau went on YouTube and found an easy pattern. She made her husband drag her sewing machine into the living room, so she could work while watching the grandkids do their school work.

She has lost track of how many masks she’s made. Ristau sews for nearly 12 hours a day.

Her masks have gone to the assisted living community in Cascade. She gave some to people in Dubuque and sent masks to California, Ohio and North Carolina.

As a Gold Star mom, the masks she sent to a National Guard unit in Pennsylvania especially pleased her.

“Keep my hands busy, keeps my mind from going where I don’t want it to go,” Ristau said.

Michael Ristau grew up in Rockford, Illinois. He struggled in school and found little interest in his classes.

Then he discovered the Lincoln’s Challenge Academy, a residential program offered by the Illinois National Guard in Rantoul, Illinois.

The five-month program puts students through rigorous coursework and physical training. Students accepted into the program need only bring toiletries and running shoes.

Participation and graduation from the academy don’t come with a requirement of enlistment in the military, but that’s what Michael had in mind when he brought the plan to his mother and father, Randy Ristau.

Randy Ristau served in the Army for several years. He counseled his son: The country was at war; choosing military life meant he would probably go to war.

Michael understood. His mother did not.

“Of course, I was proud of him and I wanted him to serve his country, but no mother wants to send their son to war,” Susie Ristau said.

Michael graduated from Lincoln’s Challenge program and enlisted in the Army at Rockford. He took basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, and was stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington.

The rest of the family moved to Cascade so Susie, an Iowa native, could be closer to relatives.

Michael thrived in Army life, his mother said, though he did betray some long-held family values.

“When he was around home, all he talked about was the Chicago Bears, because that was what he grew up with,” Susie Ristau said. “But we all said he was a closet Seattle Seahawks fan.”

Michael denied betraying his allegiance to the Windy City’s NFL team, but a social media post showing Michael in a Seahawks sweatshirt outed him to the rest of the family for good.

Michael visited his family in Cascade in November 2011.

By then, his younger sister had become a Seahawks fan, especially of quarterback Russell Wilson. Michael promised he would take her to a Seahawks game when he got back from Afghanistan.

The last time Susie spoke to her son, she was cross with him.

“Something bad always happens on Friday the 13th,” she recalls him saying. 

Susie got angry and upset with her son for teasing her about such a thing while he was in harm’s way. Randy spoke to his son and told him to call his mother back.

There are some things you don’t joke about, Randy told his son.

Michael apologized. Susie was still flustered.

Michael called his younger brother, Chris Powers, and arranged to send his bull riding equipment to Powers. He had purchased new gear before his deployment and intended to teach his brother how to ride when he returned.

On July 13, 2012, sometime around 2 p.m., Susie Ristau heard hard knocking on her door. She looked out a window and saw a green pickup truck parked in their driveway.

Just out of the shower, she dressed quickly and tied her hair in a towel.  

“There are two men from the Army here in their dress uniforms,” she remembers telling her husband. “You know what that means.”

He did. Randy, a union sprinkler fitter for Summit Fire Protection, raced home from Cedar Rapids.

Susie Ristau opened the door and saw the two Army officers. She got sick to her stomach and cried.

“He’s gone, isn’t he?” she recalls saying.

The officers, one a chaplain, helped her into the house and into a chair.

They had few details. Michael died when the vehicle he was in struck a roadside bomb. He was the only one killed.

Randy and Susie told their youngest, Halie.

“She was just 8 years old and her hero was gone,” Susie said.

The couple drove to Dubuque to tell their surviving son, Chris. The news hit hard and Chris, who was 21, had to spend some time at his parents’ house before he was settled.

Years passed and the new normal settled in. Halie watched Seahawks games on TV. She felt a painful pang that she would never be able to see a game with her brother.

Susie suggested Halie write a letter to Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll, telling him about her brother and his promise to take her to a game.

Weeks passed and the Ristaus heard nothing. Susie checked her Facebook inbox and found a previously unseen message from a Seahawks official.

They invited the whole family out to Seattle for a home game. The game was on Sept. 11, 2016, and the Seahawks marked the anniversary with a massive flag on the field.

The Ristaus sat behind the goal line in seats decorated in Army colors.

Last year, Halie finally met Russell Wilson at the NFL Pro Bowl, standing up for her brother in activities organized by Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, to honor the families of fallen veterans.

Almost 8 years have passed since Michael died in service to his country. The Ristaus cope however they can. Halie is 16 now, with a busy teenager’s schedule. Chris is 29 with four children of his own.

The pace of life, in a way, distracted from the sadness. The passage of time blunted the pain.

But then came coronavirus. Life sort of stopped. And for Susie, at least, the sadness started to stockpile.

“I had too much time on my mind,” she said. “I started to miss Michael more. I was in that depression stage. I needed to do something to keep Michael’s memory alive.” 

So she started to sew masks. Susie takes at-will donations for supplies but doesn’t solicit money. She burned up a sewing matching and replaced it on her own.

She has struggled with her own health problems. She survived breast cancer. She lives with fibromyalgia and some other chronic conditions.

Still, she sews. And while sewing, she thinks of Michael and knows exactly what he’d think.

“He’d think I was crazy and he would make fun of me,” Susie said. “Then he’d find a way to pitch in and help.”

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.

Ballet performance outside senior housing raises spirits of residents quarantined by COVID-19

By DANIEL P. FINNEY | Copyright The Des Moines Register

Wednesday night is “Balcony Night” at Summit House, a red brick senior community in the 2800 block of Grand Avenue.

The coronavirus edicts call for people to remain 6 feet apart to prevent the virus from spreading. It’s an especially important rule for elders who are the most vulnerable population.

So instead of gathering in each other’s apartments or various spots around the building, the residents have taken to standing on their balconies on Wednesdays and chit-chatting across the gap.

Jon and Elaine Lindgren decided to up the Balcony Night ante on Wednesday.

They cajoled their granddaughter, 17-year-old Lily Ungs, into performing a ballet routine in the parking lot.

Grandpa suggested the idea to granddaughter as a way for everyone to perk up from the doldrums of coronavirus quarantine.

Lily wasn’t sure she was up for it. Performing on an asphalt parking lot isn’t the same as a proper ballet stage.

“It’s for Grandpa and Grandma,” Ann Ungs remembered saying to her daughter.

“OK, I’ll do it,” Lily replied.

Lily caught dance fever from her older sister, Madeline.

The pair took dance lessons since they were tots and brought their parents and grandparents along with them to uncounted recitals and performances through the years.

“We’ve been to 20 years’ worth of ‘The Nutcracker’ performances,” Jon Lundgren said. “We like to think we have learned a little something about ballet, but that may be overstating it.”

Ballet “is life,” Lily said. “There’s just something about it that makes me so happy.”

Athletes might call the feeling “the zone.” A writer might get into “a groove.”

Lily has no single word for how she feels when her feet hit, her arms flow, her body twists, turns, leaps and lands with precision.

“All I know is that’s the greatest feeling in the world and I want to feel that way every time I dance even though I know it’s not possible,” Lily said.

Lily studied at the prestigious Ballet West Academy in Salt Lake City, Utah, until her school year, like so many others, was shortened by the coronavirus pandemic.

She is used to a schedule that has her dancing as much as six hours a day. Now, slowed like the world by this relentless virus, doldrums set in.

But Shakespeare said “All the world is a stage” and surely that must include a parking lot outside her grandparents’ apartment.

Shortly before 6:30 p.m., Lily warmed up. Using the backs of parked cars, she ran through her routine stretches.

She wore a white tutu, a silver tiara and pointe shoes — the special footwear for ballet performers that allows them to stand on their toes.

The Summit House residents gathered on their balconies. The folks from the other side of the building made their way over — doing their best to stay 6 feet away from their neighbors per coronavirus protocols.

The music played.

And Lily danced.

With scores of eyes upon her, she twirled and tapped across the rough surface.

She included “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from “The Nutcracker.”

For a few minutes on a Wednesday evening, a 17-year-old girl made dozens of people stuck in their homes for weeks due to a pandemic feel free and lively.

Maybe they felt a touch of what Lily feels on those days when her moves are perfect.

Lily, ever her own worst critic, told her mother she thought she was terrible. The audience disagreed. They showered her with raucous applause.

The rough surface wrecked her pointe shoes.

One of Lindgren’s neighbors yelled over at him: “Hey Grandpa, you owe her a new pair of shoes.”

“Worth every penny,” Lindgren said.

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.

An Iowa couple with COVID-19: She lives; he died

By DANIEL P. FINNEY | Copyright The Des Moines Register

Every day of their more than 50-year marriage, Gayle “Muggs” Isaac told his wife, Marcia Isaac, how much he loved her.

“He told me how much joy I brought into his life and how he couldn’t even imagine living a day without me,” Marcia Isaac said.

But he spent his last days sedated on a ventilator — quarantined in a hospital by the scourge of the pandemic. He died April 3 from complications related to COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. He was 71.

Now, Marcia, herself recovering from COVID-19 at age 70, must contemplate every ensuing day without hearing Muggs’ declaration of love.

“I see his chair over there and I think, ‘Well, maybe he’s just gone out for a little while,’” Marcia said. “Then I remember.”

The story of Muggs and Marcia Isaac is emblematic of how the global coronavirus pandemic has torn through Iowa families like a tornado, taking some lives and sparing others, even in the same house.

The couple had been enjoying themselves on a cruise. But on their drive home, what started as shared feelings of lethargy turned into fever and chest-rattling coughing for Muggs.

Here’s a look at this loving couple’s lives, and how a highly contagious virus ravaged their family.

Muggs picked up his nickname as a baby in Fairbury, Nebraska. Family lore says somebody handed baby Gayle to his mother and said, “Look at that mug.”

Somewhere along the line, an extra “g” was added to the moniker, and that’s how most friends and family knew him.

Marcia was introduced to Muggs on a blind date while the pair were in high school. He attended the now defunct-Des Moines Tech; she was an East High girl.

Marcia played in the school band, and one of her bandmates wanted to go out with a gal Muggs knew. The bandmate asked if Marcia would go out with Muggs on a double date.

“The first night we met was the night of my homecoming dance,” Marcia said. “I guess you could say it went pretty well.”Get the Coronavirus Watch newsletter in your inbox.

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The two were crazy about each other and married in 1969. She worked as a middle school band teacher in Des Moines. He worked in school finances and retired two years ago from his job with Newton schools.

The couple had two children and made their home on Des Moines’ east side.

The cruise was meant to be one of their many “happily ever after” moments.

Even on the ship, others noticed the couple’s coziness. Once, when Marcia was getting food from the buffet, another woman approached her. 

“Do you know how much your husband loves you?” Marcia recalled the woman saying. “Ever since you got up from the table, he hasn’t taken his eyes off you. Oh, to be loved like that!”

People had made observations like that about Muggs and Marcia their whole lives together. They were the kind of couple where their names were almost one word: MuggsandMarcia.

“We did everything together and went everywhere together,” Marcia said. “Where one of us was, the other one was right there or not too far behind.”

The cruise chugged along for its first two ports without problems, but by the time the ship reached Cartagena, Colombia, the country refused to let it dock.

That started a trend. Events planned at future stops were canceled, and eventually more ports refused entry to the ship.

“We just thought everyone was being pre-cautious,” Marcia said. “No one on the ship had coronavirus that we knew of.”

The ship navigated through the Panama Canal and eventually docked in San Diego on March 19.

Muggs and Marcia had planned to spend a couple of weeks in San Diego, but decided to rent a car and head home.

Both felt weary after the cruise. Marcia didn’t think much about it. She takes weekly allergy shots, but had not done so on the trip. Being far from her native environment, she figured her troubles stemmed from exposure to an unfamiliar allergen.

Muggs felt lethargic, too. Again, Marcia wasn’t too concerned. Travel wore them both out.

The real trouble started outside Edmond, Oklahoma. Muggs’ health deteriorated so much he could no longer drive.

Marcia practically had to carry him into the hotel. He developed a cough that repeated rapid-fire like a machine gun. A fever burned.

Muggs sprawled out in the car, beset by sweats, chills and that cough. The couple arrived home the evening of March 23.

Muggs collapsed into bed and barely moved. Marcia was also weak. She coughed, too, but it didn’t compare with Muggs’ chest convulsions.

Marcia worried that Muggs had suffered a stroke. His legs weren’t working right. He couldn’t stay awake. Other parts of his body weren’t working normally.

Finally, on March 26, Marcia took Muggs to the hospital. He tested positive for COVID-19. So did Marcia and their daughter, who lives with her.

Muggs’ temperature was 104 degrees. He could barely breathe. The hospital sent Marcia home. She was well enough to heal there, but she needed to leave the hospital, lest she risk infecting others.

Muggs called Marcia at home later that day. They were going to put him on a ventilator to help with his breathing. They would sedate him so he didn’t fight the machine.

One more time, Muggs told Marcia he loved her.

He never spoke another word.

His organs failed. He died about a week after he first arrived at the hospital. Muggs was overweight, and his extra girth complicated rescue efforts, Marcia said.

Marcia, still recovering from the virus, couldn’t go to the hospital. Her son, Jeremy, held a smartphone close to his dad so Marcia could say goodbye via videoconferencing to the unconscious Muggs.

“I couldn’t even be there with him in his final days,” Marcia said. “I couldn’t even say goodbye in person.”

Like so many families in this time of social distancing, Marcia and her family must wait until the pandemic passes before they can hold a proper celebration of Muggs’ life.

They will have a private viewing at Hamilton’s Funeral Home in Mitchellville, and Muggs will be buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Des Moines.

Marcia mostly has recovered. Her daughter, Heather, is also on the mend.

A month ago, Muggs and Marcia were enjoying tropical weather aboard a ship cruising the Caribbean. It was one of the many moments the couple expected to share in their retirement.

But COVID-19 killed Muggs and spared Marcia.

Marcia will rebound. She has her two children and seven grandchildren to love.

She’s frustrated by people who think that COVID-19 is a hoax and that the national calls for social distancing and other preventive measures are overblown.

“Tell that to my husband,” Marcia said. “This is the real deal, and people better take it seriously. I don’t want anyone else to feel the loss I’m feeling right now.”

Betty Lou and ‘House With the Magic Window’ entertained Iowans for 43 years on WOI-TV

By DANIEL P. FINNEY | Copyright The Des Moines Register

Jan. 29, 2019

You know that train platform in the Harry Potter books and movies — the one only those truly gifted with magic can see?

That’s what it felt like to spend a half hour with Betty Lou Varnum in “The House With the Magic Window.”

Oh, the adults would tell you that was just a TV set at WOI-TV, then in Ames and a part of Iowa State University, and that the gentle lion cub Gregory and chatty crocodile Catrina were just puppets.

But what do those muggles know?

“The House With the Magic Window” was set in an enchanted forest. Catrina started life as a witch, but when she scared too many children, she cast a spell and turned herself into a friendly croc.

Varnum was a tour guide for preschool age children who could always see the magic. She chatted with her puppet friends, who introduced “Felix the Cat” cartoons and the adventures of Hammy Hamster and his animal friends in the “Tales from the Riverbank.”

Betty Lou — no child called her Mrs. Varnum — didn’t perform magic tricks, but instead taught children arts and crafts. They were simple projects: a placemat made of woven strips of cut construction paper or decorating a tin can to turn it into a pencil and brush holder.

The mind boggles attempting to calculate how many bottles of paste and reams of colored construction paper precocious children begged parents to buy in an effort to replicate the projects she demonstrated onscreen.

The show aired on WOI from late December 1951 until March 1994, when ISU sold the station to a private company and Varnum’s contract was not renewed. Sounds like the work of Lord Voldemort.

But in those 43 years, Betty Lou greeted children cheerfully and calmly for a quiet half hour that was more relaxed than the frenetic pace of the popular “Duane and Floppy Show” on WHO-TV.

“The House With the Magic Window” debut on Christmas week 1955 and the real surprise gift was Betty Lou.

Betty Lou McVay was born in Chicago but raised in Platteville, Wisconsin. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in psychology and a minor in English. She attended a year of law school and taught in Wisconsin.

A friend knew Betty Lou dabbled in theater in college and suggested her for a TV-hosting gig at WOI. She observed the first few days of “The House With a Magic Window,” was on air by the third day and hosting by herself for the majority of the next 43 years.

Betty Lou married James “Red” Varnum, an Iowa broadcasting pioneer. The couple had three children, twins Kent and Kari and another daughter, Holly.

“I got to know a lot of people because people would come up and say, ‘Your mom is Betty Lou!’ or ‘Your dad is Red Varnum,’” said Kent Varnum, now an engineer in greater Boston.

Betty Lou is retired and living in Ames.

The shutters on the Magic Window have been pulled for almost 25 years, but for those of us lucky enough to spend time with Betty Lou, every crisp scissor cut into a piece of construction paper or the sound of cellophane tape snapping off a roller reminds us of the magic.

Daniel P. Finney, who grew up in Winterset and east Des Moines, is the Register’s storyteller. Suggest ideas at 515-284-8144 or dafinney@dmreg.com.

Whatever happened to ‘Machine Gun’ Molly Bolin, the Iowa prep who signed the first women’s pro contract?

By DANIEL P. FINNEY | Copyright The Des Moines Register

Jan. 9, 2020

Molly Van Benthuysen received polite applause for the baton twirling routine she performed at halftime of the Moravia High School girls’ basketball game in the winter of 1967.

But the fifth-grader really noticed the roar of the crowd when the Mohawkettes took the floor for the second half.

It seemed to young Molly as if all 700 souls in Moravia attended the game, every made shot brought the crowd to its feet, and each rebound and pass brought shouts of encouragement to the girls.

“When it was over, I knew I had to do this,” Molly Van Benthuysen, now Kazmer, said. “I had to play basketball.”

Molly Bolin grew up in a magical age when six-on-six girls’ basketball ruled Iowa winters. The 2019-20 season marks the 25th without the six-player game and a time when the last of its stars are reaching their mid-40s. 

Kazmer, now 62, is working to preserve the history of these early women’s pro pioneers.

When the game was at its peak, stars like Kazmer — her married name at the time was Molly Bolin — were household names. She would grow up to be one of the most prolific scorers in Iowa girls’ basketball, averaging nearly 55 points per game her senior year.

She eventually earned the name “Machine Gun” Molly Bolin. The nickname came from her rapid-fire jump shot that she could take and make from almost anywhere.

She signed the first contract for a pro league based in the United States, the Women’s Professional Basketball League, or WBL.

But pro basketball — with gyms devoid of fans, badly managed league finances and gender-based marketing — was a far cry from the hardcourt royalty she experienced in small-town Iowa.

The WPL folded after just three seasons. Kazmer endured a series of hardships, including a messy custody dispute over her first child.

All Molly, born Monna Lea, wanted to do was get out of the house.

She was the fifth of six children born to Wanda and Forrest Van Benthuysen.

Forrest Van Benthuysen was a pipeline worker, and the family went where his work was. The six children were born in four different states, and Molly came into the world in Ontario, Canada, in 1957.

The family settled in Moravia when Forrest Van Benthuysen got a job building the Lake Rathbun dam.

Money was tight. Four of the six kids were still at home. They worked at an aunt’s hog farm near Knoxville to earn money for school clothes.

They lived in a trailer near the railroad tracks abutting a church graveyard. They couldn’t afford to shop at the local grocery store, so they grew nearly all of their fruits and vegetables.

Kazmer’s father hunted game for meat.

Forrest Van Benthuysen started abusing alcohol after a truck crash. Sometimes he would fall down drunk in the middle of the day.

“People passed by and didn’t say a word,” Kazmer said.

His drunkenness mortified his wife. Kazmer said she felt ashamed.

Her father hit her mother, Kazmer said.

“One day, mom had enough and told him that if he did it again, he would never see her again,” Kazmer said. “He stopped. She stood up to him, but nobody got involved or helped us. Back then it wasn’t domestic abuse, it was ‘a family matter.’”

She sought refuge in 4-H, clarinet lessons and had a perfect attendance record at school. She took baton twirling lessons for 10 cents apiece.

“I would do anything to get out of the house,” she said. 

The baton twirling money proved well-spent when it brought her to her first six-on-six girls’ basketball game as a fifth-grader.

Six-on-six divided the court into two halves. Each team put out three forwards, who scored, and three guard, who defended.

Rules allowed only two dribbles before a pass. When one team scored, the referees handed the ball to the other team’s forwards at half court to handle possession change.

The game was fast-paced and combined scores often tallied 200 points or more. In a time before cable TV, the internet and telephones in our pockets, Iowans packed gyms.

“Iowa was in the forefront of involving Iowa girls in athletics,” said Gary Ross, basketball administrator for the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union. “It was what you did on a Tuesday or Friday night in the winter. It brought the community together.”

Molly Van Benthuysen wanted in on the action.

Kazmer’s next-door neighbor coached the junior high team. He had an outdoor hoop. He worked with her on shooting.

She hefted shots without regard for rain, snow, wind or heatwave. Molly shot.

She played against boys who took losing against a girl poorly. One regular opponent threw the ball as hard as he could down the street after every loss. Kazmer had to go get it.

Another boy twisted her arm behind her back so badly it injured her shoulder.

Still, she kept shooting.

The summer before she entered high school, her eighth-grade coach suggested Kazmer attend a summer camp run by Bob Spencer, then of the now-defunct Parsons College in Fairfield, to work on her basketball skills. The camp cost $75.

Money was still tight in the Van Benthuysen household. Kazmer ordered a greeting card sales kit from a magazine ad. She went door-to-door across Moravia and sold the cards for 50 cents or $1.

She raised $25, enough for the deposit. Her effort impressed Spencer, who allowed her to work off the remainder of the fee by serving food during mealtimes.

“Coach Spencer was the best coach I ever had,” she said. “He taught me about setting goals and discipline.”

She worked so hard in the camp, she got blisters on her feet, but the pain was Moravia’s gain.

Kazmer played only junior varsity as a freshman per coach’s edict. She joined the varsity team her sophomore year and played with another six-player legend: Fonda Dicks.

Dicks possessed a smooth jump shot that Kazmer sought to emulate. The pair combined to light up scoreboards.

Dicks scored 51 points and Kazmer added 32 in Moravia’s 103-90 loss to Colfax in January 1973. The rest of the team scored only seven.

Colfax denied Moravia a spot in the state tournament, ending the Mohawkettes’ season with a three-point loss in the regional final. Dicks scored 42; Kazmer had 23.

Moravia would never make the state tournament during Kazmer’s tenure, but the fans who filled the bleachers got a shooting display from Kazmer nearly every night.

She developed a 30-inch vertical leap. The hops pushed her 5-foot-9 frame above defenders and allowed her clear looks at the basket.

She scored 50 points 30 times in her high school career, including scoring 83 points against Leon in January 1975.

Missing the state tournament haunted her.

“Every time we lost, I was in a state of depression for weeks,” she said. “Every girl in the state wanted to make it to Des Moines for the state tournament.”

Kazmer eventually would make it to Des Moines, but as a college and pro star.

Title IX, the federal law that required schools to offer equal opportunities to men and women, went into effect in 1972, while Kazmer was in high school.

The NCAA didn’t sponsor women’s basketball until 1982.

But colleges played the traditional five-player game. Iowa’s six-on-six players struggled to get scholarship offers.

Kazmer chose Grand View College in Des Moines, now a university. The transition to the five-player game flummoxed her in her freshman year.

“I didn’t really know how to dribble down the court and make a layup,” she said.

Kazmer sat out her sophomore season, married her first husband and had her first child.

She returned to the court a year later and flourished. She learned to drive past defenders for layups as well as pop up for jump shots.

Kazmer averaged 24.6 points per game, including one 42-point performance.

She scored 1,000 points for Grand View in two seasons before graduating with an associate’s degree in telecommunication.

Kazmer played her first season at Grand View for Rod Lein. He left after her first year to start the women’s basketball program at Simpson College in Indianola. He invited Kazmer and other Vikings to join him. They declined.

But the next time Lein called, Kazmer listened.

Lein had been named coach of the Iowa Cornets, a women’s professional basketball team based in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids.

They wanted Kazmer to try out. She said yes.

Bill Byrne, a Columbus, Ohio, man, founded the Women’s Professional Basketball League, or WBL.

He previously oversaw player personnel for the Chicago Fire for the short-lived World Football League, and a men’s slow-pitch professional softball league.

Byrne believed the time had come for women’s pro basketball.

The WBL began with eight teams in 1978: Iowa Cornets, New Jersey Gems, Milwaukee Does, Chicago Hustle, Minnesota Fillies, Dayton Rockettes, New York Stars and Houston Angels.

The Cornets were owned by George Nissen, a gymnastics star from Cedar Rapids during the 1930s who won three NCAA titles for the Iowa Hawkeyes.

He invented the trampoline and promoted his own volleyball-style game called Spaceball.

Several top draftees — including Carol Blazejowski of Montclair State, Luisa Harris of Delta State and Soviet Union star Uljana Semjonova — bowed out of the league to retain amateur status then required to participate in the upcoming 1980 Olympic Games.

Molly Bolin, the girl who discovered basketball after baton twirling in fifth grade, became the first woman to sign a professional contract for a women’s basketball league based in the United States.

“I knew it was important, but I didn’t really think about how historic it was,” she said. “I just wanted to keep playing basketball and if I could get paid for it, that was great.”

Her first contract was for $6,000.

Kazmer and the Cornets were a success. She averaged 16.7 points per game her first season, still learning the five-player game. She surged for 53 points in one game and lead the Cornets to the league championship series against the Houston Angels.

The league was fraught with problems from the start. Paychecks bounced. Travel arrangements were shoddy.

The team bus — nicknamed “the Corn Dog,” and painted in team colors of green and gold — struggled to make it through snowstorms to get the players to games on time.

They slept four or six to a room on road trips to save money.

The Cornets played eight of its 16 home games in Des Moines and played others in Cedar Rapids and other communities, including Ottumwa, a half-hour drive from Kazmer’s hometown of Moravia.

To promote the Cornets, Nissen paid $1 million to finance a movie called, “Dribble,” also known as “Scoring,” a battle-of-the-sexes comedy that featured men’s and women’s teams squaring off in an Iowa gym.

Kazmer earned an extra $3,000 for a minor role in the film, which included “Pistol” Pete Maravich, the great Louisiana State and NBA star.

“It’s so terrible I don’t think they ever released it on video,” Kazmer said. “I got a copy from a friend whose relative was on a Navy ship. We watched and howled with laughter. It was so bad.”

Kazmer also became known for more than her basketball skills. Entering her second year in the league, the Cornets offered her a $500 raise.

She asked the team to pay for a photoshoot of her that would help promote the team. She could sell the posters and keep the profits.

The poster showed her in a sleeveless shirt and shorts. She sat on the ground in a pose that mimicked the famous 1970s swimsuit poster by Farrah Fawcett.

Another poster showed her in uniform with a satin jacket slung over her side and a basketball on her hip.

“I guess you could call them exploitative, but I don’t feel exploited because it was my idea,” she said. “I was an active participant.”

Kazmer cultivated her “blonde bombshell” sex appeal in hopes of drawing more fans to the game. It certainly drew more attention.

Some news reports referred to her as “Molly Dolly,” a handle she despised only because one of her sister’s names was Dolly.

An especially condescending profile in Sports Illustrated noted “that if beauty were a stat, Molly Bolin would be in the Hall of Fame.”

The posters were a success in the short term. They cost 50 cents to make and Kazmer sold them for $3. She sold out four printings. But they would be a problem for her later.

Kazmer picked up her most famous moniker from Washington Post reporter Thomas Boswell, who dubbed her “Machine Gun” Molly Bolin.

She scored with rat-ta-tat repetition and accuracy in the 1979-80 season. She averaged 32.8 points per game and scored 55 against Minnesota on March 2, 1980 — still a record for a player in an American women’s pro basketball game.

Kazmer scored 36 in the fourth and final game of the league finals, but again the Cornets fell short, this time to the New York Stars.

Financial troubles continued to plague the WBL. The Cornets folded after the 1979-80 season despite making the league finals both years. During a game in Chicago, the Minnesota team walked off the court in protest over unpaid salaries.

With the Cornets gone, Kazmer tried playing with the Ladies’ Professional Basketball Association. The league folded after a month. Kazmer caught on with one of the remaining WBL teams, the San Francisco Pioneers.

There she posed with a Thompson submachine gun on her thigh for a team promotion.

But the league was ultimately doomed by Cold War politics. Bill Byrne founded the league hoping the 1980 Olympics in Moscow would showcase the women’s game and inspire national interest.

President Jimmy Carter decided to boycott the games in protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

The league folded after the 1980-81 season.

“We were ahead of our time by about 15 years,” Kazmer said.

The strain of travel took a toll on her first marriage, and she and her husband divorced in 1982.

Her ex-husband wanted their child to stay with him full-time in Moravia. Kazmer wanted her son to be with her part-time in California.

Iowa courts awarded her ex-husband full custody. Attorneys for her ex-husband argued Kazmer’s travel schedule for work and the posing for glamour shots to promote the Iowa Cornets made her an unfit mother.

Ultimately, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in Kazmer’s favor. She won custody in 1983.

Kazmer kept playing ball wherever she could. She played on a team of all-stars that challenged the woman’s team preparing for the 1984 Olympic Games held in Los Angeles.

Molly played another season of pro ball with the Columbus Minks as part of the first incarnation of the Women’s American Basketball Association. 

She beat former Golden State Warriors star Rick Barry in a game of “horse.” She starred in a Spalding commercial and basketball training videos with Boston Celtics great Larry Bird.

But eventually, the opportunities ended.  

Kazmer worked as a home renovator and house painter. She earned her real estate license. She remarried and had two more children.

Basketball always stayed with her.

She was inducted into the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union Hall of Fame in 1986.

She worked with Fox Sports in 1995 in an effort to create a new women’s pro league. But the NBA soon founded the Woman’s National Basketball Association, which began play in summer 1997 and remains the longest-running women’s pro basketball league.

Kazmer and the rest of the WBL were inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame as trailblazers. Kazmer continues to try to preserve the history of the WBL through her organization, Legends of the Ball.

“We didn’t last long, but what we did was important,” she said. “We need to collect the game tapes and radio broadcasts and photos. We need to remember who came first.”

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.

Over 25 years into her softball career, an Iowa legend will play for Italian national team at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo

By DANIEL P. FINNEY | Copyright The Des Moines Register

Sept. 2, 2019

Italy.

Lisa Birocci liked the thought of Italy. The Italian national softball team approached her about joining in 2003.

The Des Moines Lincoln High School alumna, one of the most dominant softball pitchers in Iowa history, is one-quarter Italian on her father’s side.

Her grandpa Libero Birocci immigrated to the U.S. as a child to escape Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime.

But Lisa, now Lisa Birocci Banse, wasn’t ready. She had just finished her sophomore season at the University of Iowa and had two more years as a Hawkeye.

The idea of Italy lingered.

“Italy stayed in my brain for the rest of college,” Lisa said. “I wanted to go to Italy.”

She did, playing professionally and for the Italian national team, winning championships and league titles just as she did for the Railsplitters and Hawkeyes.

Lisa earned dual citizenship and became as proud of Italy as America.

And come next summer, Lisa, at age 36, will take the field with her Italian national teammates and compete for softball gold in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“Every athlete wants to compete at the highest level of their sport, but I don’t think I ever dreamed I would be in the Olympics or even playing softball as long as I have,” she said.

Lisa decided she wanted to be a pitcher at age 10. Her father, Paul Birocci, sat on a bucket to save wear on his knees and put the catcher’s mitt in the center of the strike zone.

Lisa was long-legged with long arms like her tall, lanky father. She hurled a softball and it hissed.

But in those early days, the ball missed the mitt as often as it landed. Paul chased softballs that sailed over his head or careened left or right.

And he learned to twist his body in a hurry to protect himself when one bounced in the dirt.

Eventually control came. And heads in the Iowa softball world started to turn.

Lisa and her younger sister, Kristin, were both star softball players. Kristin went on to pitch and play outfield for Drake University.

Summer weekends often saw the Birocci family load one vehicle with Lisa and her mother, Linda, headed one direction and Kristin in the truck with Paul headed the opposite way. But the girls logged time in both vehicles with both parents.

“We chased those girls around the country,” Linda Birocci said. “We love every minute of it. Those are some of my best memories of the girls growing up.”

Lisa learned to keep softball in perspective early in her career. One of her teammates on the South Des Moines Junior Team, Diana Vivone, died in a car crash at age 11.

Diana’s father, Pete Vivone, kept coaching. After a frustrating loss, Lisa slumped on the bleachers in tears. Pete took Lisa for a walk.

“Look around you, Lisa,” Pete told her. “The grass is still green. The sky is still blue. The clouds are out and it’s a beautiful day. There are worse things that can happen in life than losing a softball game.”

Pete “doesn’t mention Diana,” wrote former Register reporter Ken Fuson, who observed the moment. “He doesn’t have to.”

That team, led by Lisa’s rocket arm, won the junior state championship title in Grinnell in 1995. The team gathered around Vivone’s grave and dedicated the title to her.

Lisa’s perspective is every bit as good as her fastball.

“All of my memories about playing softball aren’t about games, they’re about the things around softball,” she said.

Of course, she remembers winning championships. But it’s the hugs and high-fives, the silly made-up cheers and the fast food restaurants, the time they got one of the parents to dye his white hair green, and time with her dad.

When Lisa was still a youth player, she typically traveled with her father.

Paul Birocci coached hundreds of south-side girls in softball and basketball. He taught high school social studies for 35 years.

Lisa remembers trying to keep her father awake behind the wheel driving home at night after long days in the hot sun.

“I slept a lot,” Lisa said, “but my dad and I talked a lot, too. We would always be looking for a place to stop and eat, take a break or go to the bathroom. I feel so fortunate to have all that time with my dad to just talk.”

Paul Birocci died in 2014 of a rare neuromuscular disease.

“I think about my dad every day,” Lisa said. “I have so many reminders, some pleasant, some excruciatingly painful, that life is worth experiencing, sharing and loving.”

After an outstanding youth career, rumors floated that Lisa — who lived in Lincoln’s boundaries but was also Catholic — would play for Dowling Catholic in West Des Moines.

“Lisa is the only phone call I ever made as a coach at Lincoln,” said Roger Roland, who coached the Railsplitters for 25 years.

Roland called Lisa’s parents. He started to extol the virtues of Lincoln, but Paul Birocci stopped him.

“He said, ‘Well, Roger, thanks for your phone call, but we’ve already decided where we’re going to school. We’re going to be a Railsplitter,’” Roland recalled. “My heart about came out of my chest.”

Lisa led Lincoln to two state titles in 1999 and 2001. The 1999 title was the first state championship won by the Lincoln girls in any sport.

“It’s like I’m living my own dream,” pitcher Lisa said after Lincoln won its second softball title in 2001.

She struck out 1,837 batters — third in Iowa history at the time — and compiled a 143-29 win-loss record during her prep career.

Legendary Iowa softball coach Gayle Blevins recruited Lisa to the Hawkeyes.

There she continued blowing away hitters, striking out 946 in her career, winning 90 games and leading Iowa to the Big Ten regular season and conference tournament championships in 2003.

Lisa met Hawkeye shot-putter and discus thrower Andy Banse one day in the weight room. It was an end-of-the-summer workout for athletes. He said he was going to kick her rear end in the workout, Lisa remembers.

“I laughed, noticed his gorgeous blue eyes and walked away quickly,” Lisa said.

Both were dating other people at the time, but when they met up after breakups months later, they immediately went on a date.

“When we finally started dating for real, there was never any doubt in either of our minds that what we had was for real,” Lisa said. The two eventually married and have two children, Luca, 7, and Bianca, 5.

Lisa also had a similar certainty about where she was going after she graduated from Iowa in 2005: Italy. 

Lisa earned her dual citizenship and played on the 2005 Italian national team that finished first at the European Championships in Prague.

She played for pro teams and the national team again in 2006 and 2009.

She also served as pitching coach for Penn State University for three seasons and now teaches lessons at Frozen Ropes, a baseball and softball academy in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

This Italian pride runs deep for Lisa. She passed along her dual citizenship to her children. Husband Andy, an assistant athletic director at Penn State, is a few pieces of paperwork from earning his dual citizenship.

Olympic rules stipulate a foreign-born player may play for a country’s national team if they can prove they are at least a quarter directly related to a native-born citizen.

For Lisa, that was her grandfather on her father’s side, Libero Birocci. Lisa didn’t really know him. He died of cancer when she was a toddler. But when she tells Italians his name, they know something about him.

Lisa’s family is from northern Italy. They resisted the fascist regime that arose in the 1930s under Benito Mussolini who allied with Adolf Hitler in Germany to form the European Axis.

One of the ways families resisted the oppression was the way they named their children.

“In Italian, Libero means ‘free,’” Lisa said. “My grandfather’s name was an act of resistance.”

Lisa has taken her parents and family all over Italy. On one visit, they rented a small rental car. They parked it on the street. Thieves stole the car overnight.

So, Lisa took them on a walking tour all over Rome. By the end of the day, they had walked for miles. Paul’s feet were so sore he wasn’t sure he could walk the next day.

“We laughed about that for years,” Lisa said.

Lisa returned to the field as a pitcher and hitter in 2016 to play for her longtime friend and coach, Enrico Obletter. She helped a club team win the national championship.

The Italian national team came calling again. The team wanted Lisa’s help to make the Olympics. A regime of yoga, pilates and weight and cardiovascular training keeps her competitive at 36, an age when most elite athletes are relegated to the sidelines. 

“Yoga has taught me to listen to my body,” Lisa said. “Something might be off on one side and I’m compensating for it on the other. Sometimes I need to take a day off. I’ve learned how to rest.”

Yet come summer 2020, Lisa Birocci Banse, the south Des Moines girl with a whip for an arm, will push the sun into the sky one more time and try to win gold for the nation of her ancestors and in the process generate another few dozen scrapbooks worth of memories for her family.

Her mom, Linda, is already planning for Tokyo. Andy and the kids will be there, too, though the children needed a little convincing.

“The kids were like, ‘Great, Mom is going to make us watch more boring softball,’” Lisa said. “But I told them about Tokyo Disney and then they were totally into it.”

Lisa hits more than she pitches these days.

But who knows?

Maybe the coach will call her in for some relief.

She can toe the rubber and whip that arm, sending that softball hissing through the strike zone, popping the catcher’s mitt — just like she first did all those years ago with her father on the fields of south Des Moines.

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.