Sunday, May 29, 2016


Tornado season in the US is officially underway, and parts of "tornado alley" have already confronted several of these monstrous storms. Iowa is part of the "alley," although most of the state does not usually host tornadoes.
Stereoscopic image of 1882 Grinnell tornado wreckage
(W. R. Cross Collection, Black Hills State University, via Digital Library of South Dakota)
Nevertheless, Grinnell has occasionally been the target of tornadoes, most famously in 1882 when a cyclone destroyed most of the college and the residential area north of downtown, killing 39 in town and perhaps 100 across the state. That storm gave rise to a mythic rebuilding that helped define the history of both college and town.

Considerably less momentous was the tornado that blew through central Iowa in September, 1978, but it merits our attention, another illustration of how the present can allow us to overlook a different past. Tornadoes are not common in the northern hemisphere in September—certainly there have been tornadoes in that month, and occasionally, as in 2004, there are many such storms across the plains. Typically, however, September is quiet. Yet it was on September 16, 1978 that an F-3 storm blew across parts of Marshall, Jasper and Poweshiek Counties, killing 6 and injuring more than 40 persons.
It was Saturday night and darkness had already fallen on Grinnell when, around 9 PM, a severe thunderstorm brought heavy rain to the area. Some folk had settled into their rooms at Motel Grinnell, adjacent to Iowa route 146 and US Interstate 80; about 100 guests were having late dinners at the Silhouette Restaurant nearby; some motorists had gotten off I-80 to wait out the storm, and attendants at the four gas stations nearby  were indoors, perhaps mesmerized by the blinding downpour.

There was no tornado warning—no siren, no radio alert—for the storm (at that time opening its jaws about a half-mile wide) that first touched down somewhere north of Baxter, then swept southeast, destroying property near Laurel where it killed a 34-year-old man and his 6-year-old daughter. The twister then prowled further southeast in the darkness, dropping down to earth close to the intersection of IA-146 and Interstate 80, three miles south of Grinnell. Only about 1000 feet wide at this point, the powerful currents chewed up everything in sight for about five miles.
Map of 1978 Tornado by Dave Silk (Des Moines Register Sep 18, 1978, p 9A)
Phillips 66 Service Station at its 1964 opening (Grinnell Herald-Register July 13, 1964, p. 6)
Newspaper accounts from survivors in Grinnell point out how surprising was the storm's arrival. The Des Moines Register quoted Brent Cooper, then just 17 years old and minding the store at Rick's Phillips 66 service station. "I looked outside and the rain was going around instead of down," Cooper said. "I heard a roar and then ducked behind the air compressor in the back room." David Hume, 21 and attendant at the nearby Skelly service station, had it worse: "I was standing in front of the plate glass window when it just exploded. I was knocked clear over the counter." Leon Blankenfeld, 17, was on duty at the Standard service station in the same area, and reported that, although he never saw the funnel, he knew it was a tornado when he couldn't get the door to the station closed. "I hid under a desk in the middle of the room and stayed there till it was over," he said. Marc Guthrie, another teenager (16), worked at Pester Derby. He recalled that the lights at the station first flickered, then disappeared as power lines went down. "I just remember covering my ears because it was so loud. I fell to the floor and everything blew over me." When he got up, "there was nothing left of where I had been when it struck. I couldn't believe it." Bob Cafcules, owner of the Silhouette Restaurant, told reporters that he had had the TV on, and just as "The Love Boat" came to a close, the television issued a storm warning, but there was little time to absorb this news as the tornado was already upon them. When he and his wife realized what was happening, they "screamed at patrons that a tornado was coming. 'The customers hit the deck just like tenpins,' he said." His wife saw "the windows in the restaurant 'bulge in and out' and glass flying all over."
Skelly Station at its 1964 opening (Grinnell Herald-Register May 18, 1964)

No one died at any of these establishments, which was a genuine miracle, as Dave Winters told the Des Moines Register reporter: "All there was was a very large rumble...and then I saw [the tornado] drop down on this [east] side of 146. It hit the Pester Derby station—just poof and it was gone." Cafcules seconded this assessment when he told reporters that "All that's left of the Pester Derby station is a slab of concrete."
Aerial photo of the damage: Pester Derby service station (left) and Skelly service station (right)
(Cedar Rapids Gazette Sep 18, 1978)
If no one in the motel, restaurants or service stations died, the occupants of two automobiles in the area were not so lucky. Bonnie June Thompson Maldonado, 58 years of age and a resident of nearby Newton, was found dead in her overturned station wagon on the frontage road adjacent to IA 146. The Des Moines Register reported that Maldonado was discovered "with a length of 2x4-inch lumber piercing her body."
Entry for Bonnie (Thompson) Maldonado in 1937 Newton High School Newtonian 
Another car carried the Lothar Rau family, returning to their New Hampshire home from a vacation in Vancouver, British Columbia. To escape the downpour, Rau left the interstate—and drove straight into the tornado. His wife, Rosemary Rau, 26, was found dead within the crushed automobile, and bodies of two of the couple's children—Belinda Ann, 7, and Alexander Byron, 4—were found nearby, sucked from the car and tossed by the twister. Another daughter, Melanie, 6, somehow survived, as did a friend of the children, Heather Pulminsano, 3, who was traveling with the Rau family.

Wrecked Toyota of the Rau Family (Grinnell Herald-Register Sep 21, 1978)
At first, it seemed that Lothar Rau, 28 years old, driver of the car and father to the children, was lost; many volunteers searched for the man, ranging far from the impact site both Saturday nite and for much of Sunday. Some drained a nearby lagoon, while others walked the several acres of farmland nearby. Overhead, an Iowa National Guard helicopter and an airplane of the Iowa State Patrol examined a wider area—all this without finding any trace of the missing man. For a time searchers even wondered whether Rau had been in the car when the tornado struck.
Cedar Rapids Gazette Sep 19, 1978
Then on Monday the unexpected happened: Rau was found among the hospitalized in Iowa City. Apparently when first discovered Saturday night, Rau had been incoherent, so that, when he was taken to the Grinnell hospital, officials understood him to say that his name was "Alberto Phonito," and had tagged him accordingly. Hospital records subsequently identified him by this name, so it was only on Monday when a nurse in Iowa City heard the man say—and spell—his correct name that the mistake was corrected.

As gratifying as this late development was, the many volunteers who converged on Grinnell to help clear out the flotsam of the storm confronted an eerily changed world. The motel seems to have escaped with the least damage, about half its rooms ruined when the storm pulled off portions of the roof. The Pester Derby and Skelly gas stations were both total losses, and the nearby Phillips 66 station, also home to a rental office for U-Haul, was badly damaged, and all 15 of the U-Haul trailers and 11 U-Haul trucks were lost, several twisted beyond recognition.
Aerial view of damage (Grinnell Herald-Register Sep 21, 1978)
Of course, the tornado changed more than the physical space; people's lives also changed. Families of the dead suffered the most immediate pain; those who were near and dear would never forget their encounter with the 1978 tornado and the lives that the twister stole.

The impact upon those who lived through the trauma was not so great, but neither was it trivial. The teenagers who were working at the service stations moved ahead in life, graduating from high school. Indeed, the 1979 Grinnell high school yearbook even featured the tornado on several pages, helping mark the graduates' timeline. Later these young people could pursue new dreams, although not without unknown risks. Leon Blankenfeld, for example, who had experienced the tornado from within the Standard service station, graduated from Grinnell High School in 1979, then went on to graduate from the University of Northern Iowa in 1983 before obtaining a graduate degree in engineering at the University of Iowa. Half a lifetime after surviving the Grinnell tornado, he was working for 3M in the Twin Cities, with little reason to call to mind his encounter with near death in 1978. Then, during an August, 1996 visit to a friend in northern Illinois, he fell victim to kidnap and murder, cruelly canceling out his earlier escape from the tornado.
Leon Blankenfeld, 1979 Grinnellian
Jerry Switzer, who owned and managed Motel Grinnell, rebuilt the facility and resumed business. Another ordeal awaited him, however, and cut short the story his life was writing: Jerry, just 47 years of age, died of cancer in 1984.

Reports of the tornado include frequent quotations from the operator of the Silhouette Restaurant, William Cafcules. Born in Chicago in 1915, Cafcules made a career out of operating night clubs and restaurants in the Chicago area and later in Wisconsin and northern Illinois. He and his wife had only moved to Grinnell in 1977—the year before the twister struck—to run the Silhouette. Whether because of the storm or other factors, by 1986 Cafcules had had enough—he retired and sold the business. He died in Grinnell in early December, 1997, perhaps never having had reason to recall that stormy September night that had ruined his business.

Among the injured, the future brought many different fates. Extant records indicate that some of the youngest victims quickly left the encounter with the cyclone behind them. Young Eddie Breeden, for example, just 15 years old and living with his parents on route 3 where his father ran Grinnell Feed and Grain, graduated from Grinnell High School in 1981 and stayed around Grinnell for a time. By 1994, however, the US Public Records Index places him in Woodbury, Tennessee.
Eddie Breeden, 1981 Grinnellian
Another young man among the injured was Scott Latcham, who graduated from Grinnell High School in 1982. He later lived for a time in Des Moines, but by 1999 was back in Grinnell, living on Chatterton Street. So far as the bare-bones records can tell, the '78 tornado was long forgotten.
Scott Latcham, 1982 Grinnellian
Catherine McCallum, who at the time of the tornado had only recently marked her 76th birthday, lived almost twenty more years before her death, January 6, 1997. Born in Monroe, Iowa, where she was finally put to rest, Eliza Catherine Stafford McCallum had grown up in Nebraska where she married and with her first husband farmed. The couple later moved to Iowa and in 1941 to Grinnell, where they divorced. In 1944 Catherine married again, and over the years worked at the Grinnell Shoe Factory, the Longhorn, and other Grinnell restaurants. At the time of the tornado she lived at 715 Pearl Street, and had been a widow already for twenty years. Her obituary did not mention the 1978 tornado, which seems to have caused hardly a ripple in her life story.

It was different with the Rau family that the tornado had decimated. Six-year-old Melanie lost her mother and two siblings; what did she think about this, and how did she deal with the loss? The sources mention her name only sporadically. Her father abandoned their Alstead, New Hampshire home sometime after the accident. Who could blame him? Born in Germany in 1949, Lothar Rau apparently entered the United States as a child, although I was not able to confirm his immigration or its date. Military records report that Rau did a four-year stint (1969-1973) in the Army, suffering a serious injury in Japan in 1971. According to his mother-in-law, who was interviewed at the time of the tornado, "part of [Rau's] skull had to be replaced with a plastic plate...and that was replaced [later] by a metal plate." Even before the tornado, therefore, Lothar Rau had plenty to deal with. But the deaths of his wife and two children along with the injuries that both he and his daughter sustained in Grinnell surely added a heavy load.

How did he cope? Perhaps the move to Florida was part of the recovery. Records show that he was living in Lake Park, Florida no later than 1993, and in 1995 he remarried, taking Wanda Joan Plank as his bride. But by 2009 he was dead, buried in the South Florida National Cemetery in Lake Worth. Only 60 years old at the time of his death, Rau took to his grave several traumas, including, of course, the Grinnell tornado.
Someone driving south today from Grinnell on IA 146 toward US Interstate 80 will see a very different world from the one blown away by the 1978 tornado. The entire scene breathes a sense of normalcy that gives no hint of the devastation—physical and personal—that was visited upon this spot of land in September, 1978.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

When Polio Came to Grinnell...

Apparently polio viruses have long plagued human populations, but no major outbreaks were recorded in the U.S. until the late nineteenth century. Increasing urbanization seems to have aided the spread of the virus, and during the twentieth century poliomyelitis became one of the country's most feared illnesses. The development of successful vaccines in the 1950s led to the eradication of polio in the United States, and a gradual elimination of the disease across most of the world (although the virus today remains endemic in northern Nigeria and along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border).

Before this victory, however, polio proved to be a potent infection. In 1952 alone, according to official data, more than 60,000 American children were infected and more than 3000 of them died from the disease. In the absence of any effective drugs (prior to the discovery of the polio vaccine), treatment often relied upon iron lungs—a mechanism intended to assist victims whose phrenic nerves had been compromised by the disease. Sometimes constructed to house multiple patients, only the heads and necks of the victims protruding, iron lungs constitute one of the enduring images of an age now happily visible only in America's rear-view mirror.
1937 photo of unidentified iron lung facility
Like other posts in this blog, the story of polio reminds us that "things were not always the way they are now." In the absence of the disease around us, we sometimes forget that not so long ago polio prevailed even in Grinnell, Iowa, periodically bringing fear—and death—in its wake. In 1952, for example, when polio outbreaks were recorded all across the country, Grinnell had to face up to the grim consequences of the disease.
Late summer seems to have been the most fertile time for transmission of the polio virus, with announcement of new infections often beginning around Labor Day. In 1952 the first Grinnell case was identified in the August 28 edition of the Grinnell Herald-Register, which reported that Joe Pinder, 20-month-old son of the paper's publishers (Al and Dorothy Pinder), was Grinnell's first polio victim that year. Young Joe was taken immediately to Blank Memorial Hospital in Des Moines where he was described as in "good" condition; within a couple of days he was transferred to a "post-polio ward."

The next issue of the newspaper—Labor Day, September 1, 1952—carried news of the town's second case, this time affecting Karla Mae Kingsley, eleven-year-old daughter of Rev. & Mrs. C. E. Kingsley (Rev. Kingsley was pastor of First Baptist Church). Like the young Joe Pinder, Karla was immediately sent to Blank Hospital and confined to the polio isolation ward. The newspaper also carried word of other county residents who had contracted the disease, including two girls from Brooklyn who were sent to Iowa City hospitals.
Karla Kingsley, 1959 Grinnellian
Thursday brought news of yet another case: 19-month-old Michael Chase, second son of Rowland and Josephine Chase, who lived at 1411 West Street. Mrs. Chase accompanied her son to the hospital in Des Moines, and elected to stay there with her boy. The next issue of the newspaper, September 8, reported the sad news that Mrs. Chase herself had contracted polio, and had been sent to Iowa Lutheran hospital, where her condition was described as "satisfactory"; little Michael remained in the isolation ward at Blank. Meanwhile, Karla Kingsley was freed from isolation, and Joe Pinder was moved to Iowa Lutheran to relieve crowding from polio patients at Blank.
Grinnell Herald-Register, September 11, 1952, p. 1
By the time the next issue of the semi-weekly newspaper appeared—September 11—Mrs. Chase was dead, having succumbed to polio the day after her illness was first reported and only four days after she fell ill.  Thirty-four years of age at the time of her death, Josephine Chase left behind a husband and two youngsters—Christopher (3 1/2 yrs.) and Michael, who was released from Blank Hospital's polio ward the same day his mother died (but who immediately contracted pneumonia).

By the middle of September, the Herald-Register had quite a lot of polio news to report. Two more cases in town had been confirmed, both affecting teenagers: Joel Prescott, 13, and Jimmy Urfer, 16. Prescott  and his mother went to Blank Memorial while Urfer and his mother went to Iowa Lutheran. The newspaper also reported on a Newton boy who had been diagnosed with polio in Grinnell before being sent to Des Moines.
Joel Prescott, 1957 Grinnellian

James Urfer, 1954 Grinnellian
The rest of the news on September 15 was more encouraging. Karla Kingsley had been released from the hospital and sent home where she was "under a schedule of hot baths, exercises and rest at home." Her parents advised friends who wanted to visit to restrict their calls to the hour between 3 and 4 PM so as not to interfere with the therapy regime.  Michael Chase, the toddler whose mother had died a few days before, was now reported free of the oxygen tent into which he'd been put when pneumonia presented. Joe Pinder, the first case that the newspaper reported, was "improving slowly," according to doctors.

Thursday's edition of the Herald-Register had more good news: Joel Prescott, hospitalized a few days earlier, had been released to his parents at home where he was confined to bed for a week and urged to follow doctors' advice to "take it easy." Like Karla Kingsley, Joel was to have "hot baths, exercises and plenty of rest." Jimmy Urfer remained in the isolation ward at Iowa Lutheran, but doctors described his condition as "good." The only down note in this week's report was mention of another new case in Brooklyn: five-year-old Larry Andes was taken to Iowa City because of a polio diagnosis.

The fourth week of the polio outbreak brought news, both good and bad. On the bright side, the newspaper reported that teenager Jimmy Urfer had been moved from the isolation ward at Iowa Lutheran, and was getting along "just fine." Even better, the 19-month-old toddler, Michael Chase, was released from the hospital and sent home. Like others, the little boy was receiving lots of rest and therapy, his grandmother from New Jersey having elected to remain with the Chase family to pick up the slack caused by the death of Michael's mother.

Less happy was the report that Thomas Armstrong, a 26-year-old who was a student at Drake University, had been admitted to the Des Moines Veterans hospital because of polio. According to his parents, the young man's eyes and legs were affected by the disease and he was "quite ill" and kept in the isolation ward.
Thomas Armstrong, 1944 Grinnellian
As September crawled to a close and temperatures cooled, polio news in the Herald-Register gradually occupied less newsprint. On the 25th, the paper identified yet another victim—a 21-year-old nurse, Carolyn Jackson—who was taken to Iowa City with what doctors described as a "mild case" of polio. The several cases from Brooklyn all yielded good news: the two girls who had been hospitalized earlier in the month were released, and five-year-old Larry Andes, whose right leg had suffered an attack from polio, was freed from the isolation ward.

The newspaper's last September issue carried alarming reports of still more cases of infection. A 25-year-old woman—Mrs. Raymond Vogt—who lived on a farm four miles east of Grinnell had been hospitalized several days earlier, but was only diagnosed with polio the day before the newspaper was published. She was sent to Iowa Lutheran on Sunday and immediately installed in the isolation ward. The previous day still another youngster, John O'Connor (six years old), was sent to Iowa City with what doctors described as a "light" case of polio, and was reported to be "feeling fine."
Gail Vogt (Grinnell Herald Register May 1, 2003)
With the arrival of October, polio began to disappear from the Grinnell newspaper. An early killing frost, reported in the first issue of the month, may have undermined the virus's potency; at any rate, notice of new infections was rare. But reports on those who had contracted the disease earlier sometimes interrupted the apparent calm. The headline on the front page of the October 2nd issue of the Herald-Register carried the alarming news that Mrs. Vogt's condition had slipped to "critical," and doctors had put her on a ventilator. More happily, the newspaper announced that both Jimmy Urfer and John O'Connor had been released from hospital and sent home. Urfer was said to feel "fine," hoping to get back to school soon, even though he felt a "slight weakness in [his] left leg." Doctors prescribed "Exercises, warm baths and possibly other [undefined] therapy," just as doctors had done for previous Grinnell victims of the disease. O'Connor's circumstances were not reported.

Only one new case cast a shadow over the newspaper's October reporting: on October 30 the Herald-Register announced that 15-year-old Eugene Kaisand had been diagnosed with polio and sent to Blank Memorial in Des Moines.
The Herald-Register had little else to say about polio beyond the reports of infection. Occasionally the paper provided guidelines for  how the public might deal with the virus, but these articles were understandably anodyne; after all, there was no cure for the disease, and the exact means of transmission was not clearly understood. This uncertainty seems to have prompted some to propose that the schools close so as to prevent further spread of the illness, but a September 18 article reported that the city physician, the state board of health, and the superintendent of schools all agreed to keep the schools open. As the city official pointed out, "There is no quarantine prescribed for polio and spraying or fumigation [is] not recommended." The Grinnell school nurse, Mrs. George Coop, who had just taken the job the previous year, was enjoined to study each case and keep "a check on the polio situation."
Grinnell Herald-Register August 30, 1951
The next week's paper urged "precautionary measures rather than hysteria as the way to deal with a polio situation like Grinnell's." The article attributed these words to Mrs. Coop, the school nurse who had apparently collected them from a recent conference in Ames on preventable diseases. The precautions, however, were few and vague. The first was to "reduce the number of contacts you make daily," which might well have been unnecessary advice if there were any hysteria. The second piece of advice had been wrung from numerous other public health campaigns: "keep hands as clean as possible." After this, the suggestions grew even vaguer: children were urged to eat breakfast; everyone was advised to "avoid over-fatigue" and get relaxation as well as sleep.  If, after following all this advice, one still presented symptoms, the instructions counseled people to call a physician as soon as possible.

The newspaper also reported on homey efforts to support "the polio fund." One issue told of a "song and dance show" put on by three girls, who ranged in age from 7 to 11; convened on the back porch of the David Johnson house at 935 Spring Street, the event netted $5 from a "free-will offering" that went to the March of Dimes. A few days earlier three other girls charged children a nickel or a penny to attend their "song and dance recital," which also included an acrobatic dancer. Their show gathered $1 for polio.

In other respects, however, the newspaper told of life pursuing its usual courses: parishioners of St. Mary's Catholic church celebrated twenty-five years in their building and bid fond farewell to their priest; Grinnell High School announced cast selections for the autumn production of "Arsenic and Old Lace"; a new cafe opened on State Street; a man was hired to teach typing at the High School; the Herald-Register conducted a contest aimed at increasing subscriptions; the new sewage disposal plant west of town offered tours; and the city water softener went on the blitz.

Against this backdrop of normalcy, the Herald-Register also reported on the visit of Republican presidential candidate, Dwight David Eisenhower, whose whistle-stop campaign brought him to Grinnell early afternoon, September 18. Merchants excitedly prepared and advertised "Welcome, Ike!" specials, intended to capitalize upon the crowds expected for the 15-minute stop in Grinnell. All stores would close from 1 to 2 PM so that everyone could assemble near the tracks on Broad Street when the candidate's train stopped at 1:25 PM.

Presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower speaks to a crowd from a train stopped at Broad St.
(Grinnell Herald-Register Sep 22, 1952)
Once September had passed, news of polio also passed from the pages of the town newspaper. Next summer would bring more illness, more anxiety, and more news coverage, but until large numbers of children could benefit from the vaccines then still being developed, polio remained a latent threat and unwelcome visitor to town.

For those who in 1952 had come face to face with the virus, however, life was never the same. Those whose cases had been mild and from which they quickly recovered, endured long-lasting, often minor consequences—weakness in a limb, perhaps, or some other reminder of polio. Families whose encounter was more serious had equally serious consequences with which to contend. Mrs. Raymond Vogt, whom I had the pleasure to meet many years after her bout with polio, was left crippled, and confined to a wheelchair for the next several decades. The family of Mrs. Rowland Chase had other battles to fight. Happily, young Michael Chase seems to have recovered from his encounter, but he and his brother lost a mother whom they probably never could recall; their father lost his wife.

Other consequences, less visible but perhaps no less important, accompanied the survivors and their families. Had their friends and neighbors come to help when the dreaded disease appeared, or had fear driven apart friendships formed in easier times? Had school chums shunned those children who had contracted the disease once they had recovered and returned to school? Had high school romances hit the rocks when interrupted by polio's attack?

Answers to none of these questions appear in the public record, so I investigated the oral histories taken from twenty Grinnell seniors in 1992. There was only one mention of polio--a mistake about childhood shots; not even Dr. Parish gave voice to the polio plague and what it meant to Grinnell.  Probably for these folk, no less than for the rest of us, introduction of effective vaccines allowed memories of the struggle to disappear. Consequently, sixty-four years after the 1952 polio outbreak, in a time when no one contracts polio here, we can only wonder how Grinnell dealt with the unwelcome visitor. 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Grinnell in 20th-Century Fiction

Some of you will know that I enjoy reading mysteries and police procedurals. In many ways, the investigations of police and private eyes call to mind the research behind historical study, so my interest in these books is not hard to understand. Because there is a surprisingly large number of these books out there, I find myself sometimes discovering authors whose work I had never before known about. One such discovery was Stuart Kaminsky (1934-2009), who taught film studies at Northwestern University and Florida State University. Along with screenplays and academic studies devoted to film, Kaminsky published numerous mysteries, including one series that starred a Russian policeman, Porfiry Rostnikov—in fact, that's how I first encountered Kaminsky, having received a recommendation from a Russian historian friend. Kaminsky created another series based on a Florida private investigator, Lew Fonesca, and yet another that focused upon a Hollywood investigator, Toby Peters.
The Telegraph December 2, 2009

What brings me to talk about Stuart Kaminsky on this blog? Well, this winter, while reading The Last Dark Place, a 2004 entry in yet another series that Kaminsky authored (this one centered on a Chicago police detective, Abe Lieberman), I was surprised to encounter a reference to Grinnell. Interviewing Tony Imperioli, a suspect, Detective Lieberman asks,
"They go to college, your kids?"
"Boys graduated. Tony Junior's a lawyer. Gene's a computer something. Adrienne, she is studying literature at Grinnell. Ever heard of it?"  
"Good school," said Lieberman.
"They say."
I wondered whether this was a one-off thing, but soon found two more references in books from the Lew Fonesca series. In Denial (2005) one reads about someone who wore "an extra-large gray Grinnell College T-shirt," and in Midnight Pass (2003) the reader meets a girl who just graduated from high school "and is going to go to Grinnell." Devil on My Doorstep (1998), one of the Rockford Files, introduces someone who wears a "sweat suit with GRINNELL COLLEGE in green letters"; turns out that he "taught at Grinnell for more than twenty-five years."

OK—one reference, maybe even two references, could be an accident—a mention by a neighbor or something overheard on an airplane. But Kaminsky clearly thought of Grinnell in a more focused way that did not seem accidental. What did Stuart Kaminsky have to do with Grinnell and how did the name keep popping up in his fiction?

Sounded like an interesting question, and, always game for a search, I began the quest. Searching college sources seemed the best bet, so I ran searches through the college special collections archive, thinking that maybe Stuart might have attended Grinnell.  No luck, so I searched the college website (did he visit to give a lecture?), catalogs (might he have taught here?)—but I could find no reference to Stuart Kaminsky—none!

Not long ago the entire set of the college newspaper, the Scarlet and Black, was made available and searchable on-line, so ran "Stuart Kaminsky" through it—again with no luck. Now I was pretty certain that he had never been a student, had never visited to give a lecture or teach a course. But a second thought occurred to me: might he have had a child or sibling attend Grinnell? I knew from reading some on-line biographies that he had had several children from three marriages, so I searched the S&B another time, using only the family name. And there I found reference to a certain Lucy Kaminsky. In a September, 1999 article about the opening of a McDonald's restaurant in Grinnell, the newspaper took several quotes from Lucy Kaminsky, identifying her as a first-year college student who was also a McDonald's enthusiast.
Scarlet and Black September 3, 1999
Could Lucy be related to Stuart Kaminsky? His New York Times obituary mentions that Kaminsky was survived by a daughter named Lucy, one of three children from his first marriage, so I searched the college alumni database. Sure enough, there was a Lucy Kaminsky, here identified as a philosophy major from the class of 2000. Colleagues in the college's Philosophy department confirmed for me that Lucy had been a philosophy major and had graduated in 2000. But so far as memory served, neither had ever heard from her any mention of Stuart Kaminsky.

Well?  What the heck? I sent her an email, explaining how I had come across references to Grinnell in the works of Stuart Kaminsky, and asking whether, perchance, she was his daughter? No reply. Too bad. I am pretty well-persuaded that Lucy, who was attending Grinnell when that name first shows up in Kaminsky's mysteries, was indeed the source of the references that reverberated through Kaminsky mysteries for several years after she left college. Confirmation, however, will have to await some other evidence.
The whole experience got me thinking about whether Grinnell might have featured in other works of fiction. Grinnellians often talk about Prominent Among the Mourners, a roman a clef that allegedly uses Grinnell College as its backdrop and college professors and town residents as models for the plot. But that wasn't what I was looking for: I wanted to find works of fiction that use Grinnell—straight out!

Into this quandary stepped Dorrie Lalonde, who oversees the local history collection at Drake Community Library. Did I know, she asked, about Robert Heinlein's 1951 sci-fi novel Puppet Masters? I did not, so Dorrie explained to me that in this book Grinnell, Iowa plays host to the landing of the first space ship of aliens. Naturally, I immediately sought out a copy of the book, looking forward to imagining Grinnell infested with aliens whom the novel characterizes as "slugs."
Book cover of original edition (1951)
In fact, Grinnell makes only a brief appearance early in the plot; the development of the story wanders far and wide, but makes no further use of our jewel of the prairie once the "slugs" have landed. Still, how in the world did 1950s Grinnell end up having a part in this other-wordly plot? So far as I can tell, Robert Anson Heinlein (1907-1988) never visited Grinnell, never lived in Grinnell, and therefore never had any direct contact with Grinnell.

However, when I reapplied the methodology outlined above, I learned that a certain J. Clare Heinlein (1912-2000) had attended Grinnell College, graduating with the class of 1934. Clare, as he preferred to be called, was a younger brother to Robert, the fifth of seven children born to Rex and Bam (Lyle) Heinlein. Raised in Kansas City, like his brother, Clare attended Central High School there (as his brother had), then Kansas City Junior College for two years before entering Grinnell College in the fall of 1932. A philosophy major (political science minor) who lived in Dibble Hall both his junior and senior years, Heinlein was apparently a very good student, if not deeply involved in campus activities. Just prior to graduation, he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and Clare's college yearbook entry mentions his participation in Merrill Debate his junior year. Although Clare went on to a very successful life that included law school, service in the U.S. Army, and culminated at the University of Cincinnati where he taught political science for more than thirty years, for a short time he served as his brother's agent, and perhaps in that role suggested Grinnell as a landing site for the puppet masters.
J. Clare Heinlein (1934 Grinnell College Cyclone)
As it happens, however, Heinlein was not the first to plant Grinnell in a science fiction plot. Ray Bradbury's 1950 novel, The Martian Chronicles, also references Grinnell. A chapter titled "April 2000: The Third Expedition" (first published as a short story in 1948) describes a space ship landing on Mars, though the world that greeted the space travelers was far from the usual understanding of the Red Planet.
"The rocket landed on a lawn of green grass. Outside, upon this lawn, stood an iron deer. Further up on the green stood a tall brown Victorian house...all covered with scrolls and rococo, its windows made of blue and pink and yellow and green colored glass. Upon the porch were hairy geraniums and an old porch swing which was hooked into the porch ceiling and which now swung back and forth...At the summit of the house was a cupola with diamond leaded-glass windows and a dunce-cap roof!...Around the rocker in four directions spread the little town, green and motionless in the Martian spring. There were white houses and red brick ones, and tall elm trees blowing in the wind, and tall maples and horse chestnuts. And church steeples with golden bells silent in them."
The three crewmen debate whether to get out of their space ship and explore, but Captain Black opposed the move. When Lustig, the navigator, objects, noting that "it's a good, quiet green town a lot like the old-fashioned one I was born in," Black asks when he was born. "Nineteen-fifty, sir." Black then asks the same of Hinkston, the archeologist on-board. "Nineteen fifty-five, sir. Grinnell, Iowa. And this looks like home to me."
Book cover for the first edition of Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles (1950)
When the men finally venture out, they meet a woman who tells them that they have actually arrived not on Mars, but at "Green Bluff, Illinois" (apparently a reference to Bradbury's childhood home in Waugekan, Illinois). Furthermore, the woman reports that the year is nineteen twenty-six, providing the crew with the realization that, rather than a trip into outer space, they have traveled backward in time, neatly complicating all their understandings.
Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) (
A few years after The Martian Chronicles Bradbury found another occasion to insert Grinnell into his fiction. Dandelion Wine (1st published in 1957), usually thought to be at least partly autobiographical, includes a small segment about Douglas Spaulding, who was felled by a terrible fever in the middle of a hot summer. His parents placed his cot outside, hoping that the overnight cooling might somehow help the boy. Into this moonlit, summer night "down the street...came the horse pulling the wagon and the wagon riding the lean body of Mr. Jonas...." who talks to the feverish boy, telling him that he is leaving for him two bottles which he should "drink with [his] nose. Tilt the bottles, uncork them, and let what is in them go right down into your head."

Jonas then reads the label on the first bottle:
"Green Dusk for Dreaming Brand Pure Northern Air...Derived from the atmosphere of the white Arctic in the spring of 1900, and mixed with the wind from the upper Hudson Valley in the month of April, 1910, and containing particles of dust seen shining in the sunset of one day in the meadows around Grinnell, Iowa, when a cool air rose to be captured from a lake and a little creek and a natural spring."
Of course, Douglas revives, reminding us that here, as in The Martian Chronicles, Bradbury associates Grinnell with the bucolic world, with healthful and calming forces. But where did he get this idea? How did he come to know of Grinnell?

I admit that I have no answer to this question, although I have searched the usual sources. I could find no reference to Bradbury or his immediate family, nor could I find any mention of his most trusted friends and colleagues—people like Charles Addams, Ray Harryhausen, and Gene Roddenberry.

At this point, therefore, I am stumped, and have no idea how Bradbury came to know of Grinnell, Iowa, so I would be eager to hear from any readers who have ideas about the source of this borrowing. Likewise, if you know of more occasions in which Grinnell makes at least a token appearance in works of fiction, do please let me know!

Friday, May 6, 2016

Iowa's Most Famous Grinnell

In truth, I am not sure who is the most famous Iowan accused of treason, but Fred Kaltenbach (1895-1945) must surely appear on the list of candidates. Born into a German immigrant family in Dubuque, Iowa, where his father was a butcher, Kaltenbach grew up in Waterloo, and enrolled in Grinnell College in 1915. He graduated in 1920 from what is today's University of Northern Iowa, and after several years in unrelated work, began teaching high school in the late 1920s, first in Manchester, then in Dubuque. During summers he earned an MA from the University of Chicago, then spent time in early 1930s-Germany, there beginning study for his doctorate in history and acquiring a taste for the Nazi cause. When he exercised some of this enthusiasm in Dubuque after his return in 1935, Kaltenbach lost his teaching job, and decided to return to Germany where in 1939 he received his doctorate. At about the same time he gained a spot in Goebbels's propaganda machine, hosting a series of short-wave radio programs aimed first at keeping America out of the war, then at undermining American support for the war. In 1943 the U.S. government officially charged him and eight others with treason, but Kaltenbach never returned to the United States and never stood trial. Captured by the Soviets in Berlin in the last days of the war, Kaltenbach disappeared but was later reported to have died in Soviet custody, allowing the Americans finally to drop all charges against him.
Grinnell College 1917 Cyclone
As with so many subjects I have reported on this blog, I knew nothing about Kaltenbach until someone brought him to my attention. So when Steve Budd asked me about him, my curiosity was immediately aroused. From my first investigations, I found Kaltenbach's story fascinating. As some readers of this blog may know, quite a bit has been written about Fred Kaltenbach. Gerry Peterson, for instance, provides a wonderful overview of the family and Fred's own story. Several books are devoted to Americans who, like Kaltenbach, worked for German wartime propaganda, but Clayton Laurie has published an excellent study that concentrates upon Kaltenbach. Closer to Grinnell, David Hammer published a shorter version in Grinnell Magazine (spring 1991). Presenting little about Kaltenbach's experience at Grinnell, Hammer assumed that Grinnell was influential (but not guilty). I was unsatisfied with this explanation. What had happened to the young man at Grinnell?
As most studies point out, Fred Kaltenbach's earliest encounter with Germany came before he set eyes on Grinnell: summer, 1914 he and his younger brother Adolph (later known as Gustave or Gus) bicycled around Germany, and thus learned something about German public opinion on the eve of World War I. Indeed, hostilities interrupted the boys' trip, catching the two in Munich. The brothers were detained by the Germans (who took them for spies), before finally being allowed to leave for home in December, 1914. Although this experience might have shaken some, even at this early point Fred expressed obvious sympathy for his parents' natal country. About his 1914 visit to Germany, Fred later recalled, "I was swept by a powerful emotion and something inside me said 'I am going home.'" From his bicycle trip, Fred revealed how deeply he was caught up in a romantic vision of Germany. The Webster City Freeman reported in its November 3, 1914 edition that Fred had written his parents, expressing the wish "to join the German dragoons and have an opportunity to win the iron cross," as his German uncle apparently did.
Webster City Freeman November 3, 1914
The dream of the iron cross did not materialize, however, and soon the Kaltenbach boys were back in Iowa, their German adventure no more than a memory. Autumn, 1915 Fred enrolled at Grinnell College where he declared a double major in economics and political science. Before the north campus (men's) dormitories were built, Fred lived in Allbee House (1315 Park, now demolished); the 1917 campus directory has him living in the new dormitories, assigned to "Building 3," later named in honor of trustee Charles Rawson, father of Harry Rawson, the Des Moines architect responsible for planning the dormitories on both north and south campus.
Grinnell College 1918 Cyclone does not identify anyone, but Kaltenbach could be second row, middle
Grinnell College 1919 Cyclone
Having arrived at Grinnell, Kaltenbach continued to savor that 1914 trip through Germany, and several times revived memories of the adventure in public.  The Scarlet and Black reported that in early fall 1916—when Kaltenbach was beginning his second year at Grinnell and two years after he'd been in Germany—he delivered a speech to the campus Forum society, there recounting the story of his 1914 bicycle trip; a few months later (as the January 20, 1917 Scarlet & Black reported) he exhibited in the front windows of Bates's drug store in downtown Grinnell a collection of items that he and his brother had gathered in Germany during the war's first days. A more detailed account of the exhibition appeared in the Ottumwa Courier, enumerating the considerable breadth of items—including even some barbed wire—the boys had collected in Germany. No doubt over dinner or when relaxing with friends Fred found other occasions for remembering Germany, but these instances of public remembrance prove that, long after having returned home, Kaltenbach nourished an emotional attachment to his parents' home country. Not only did he continue to think and talk about it, but Fred kept close at hand an array of objects that memorialized the adventure.
Ottumwa Courier February 3, 1917
Of course other activities also claimed the young man's attention. Records indicate that Kaltenbach played intramural baseball, and that he was a member and (in 1917) president of the Republican Club. But clearly Fred was most interested in and most successful in oratory and debate. Here again one finds evidence of a special affection for things German, because when, as a junior Kaltenbach won third place in the 1918 Hyde Prize in Oratory, his subject was Alsace-Lorraine, one of the touch-stones of Franco-German hostilities that had given rise to the world war.
Scarlet and Black May 18, 1918
Kaltenbach's German self-identification shows through even more clearly in the short biography printed in the college yearbook. Reporting his participation in YMCA, the Debating Union, the Forum Society and other organizations, the 1919 yearbook (but produced in 1918, highlighting that year's juniors) provided a German version of his given name—"Friedrich" (rather than Frederick, as it appears elsewhere)—and indicated a very German nickname—"Fritz." Whether Kaltenbach himself authored the information or not, the names employed are suggestive of the young man's German identification and the extent to which classmates were aware of and recognized his preferences: his speeches were about Germany and his room in Rawson (where he lived his second year) must have been full of German memorabilia like that exhibited in the downtown drugstore. Almost certainly, therefore, there were many more occasions when "Fritz" reminded friends of Germany and his affection for that country, even if these moments did not make it into the printed record.
Grinnell College 1919 Cyclone
As America grew more anxious about the European war, the college began to reflect some of this preoccupation. By early 1918 the campus boasted three companies of student soldiers (so-called cadets), all regularly practicing military exercises on college grounds. The 1919 Cyclone profiled each of the three groups and published a photograph of Kaltenbach, identified there as 1st Lieutenant of Company C. Newspaper reports complimented the leadership qualities of the student officers, and reported that they had the same authority over student soldiers as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army had over his soldiers. At last, it seems, Kaltenbach's youthful urge to military glory was within reach.
Grinnell College 1919 Cyclone
So enamored with his training had the young man become that Kaltenbach left school after his third year, and in June 1918 enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was promptly commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the coastal artillery, but the war ended before Kaltenbach could see action overseas, thus frustrating some of those romantic aspirations. In the spring of 1919 he was demobilized, and, rather than return to Grinnell, he soon thereafter enrolled at Iowa State Teachers College from which he graduated in 1920.

Why not return to Grinnell and finish there? Apparently he did not choose the teachers college in order to become a teacher, since, although he did later take a position teaching high school in Manchester, Kaltenbach spent the first seven years after graduation as an appraiser for farm mortgage bankers in Waterloo. Teachers college was no doubt less expensive than Grinnell and closer to home, but the decision not to return to Grinnell still begs an explanation. Might Germany's humiliating loss in World War I have made Fritz leery of returning to Grinnell where he was known for his German interests?
Grinnell Herald-Register July 12, 1945
In the years after he left college, Kaltenbach's name rarely surfaced in Grinnell. How many Iowans listened to his short-wave broadcasts is unknown, but some in Grinnell, where in 1915 German-born residents made up the second-largest group of immigrants, might well have tuned in. Kaltenbach's occasional on-air references to Ottumwa or Waterloo apparently caught the attention of listeners (some of whom wrote to the government, offering help in identifying the broadcaster), but apparently during the whole of his Nazi broadcast career Kaltenbach never once mentioned the town of Grinnell or Grinnell College. A short article in the July 12, 1945 Grinnell Herald-Register reported that Kaltenbach—here called "Lord Hee-Haw" (as British authorities had christened the Iowan radio voice) had been arrested by Soviet troops. The article's sub-title identified Kaltenbach as a "former Grinnell College student," and briefly summarized his biography, an indication perhaps that most Grinnell readers were not familiar with the man.

In view of his truncated career at the College and the apparent unfamiliarity of Grinnellians with the man, did Grinnell make a difference in Kaltenbach's life story? Without doubt numerous forces—including his parents' origins—played their parts in making "Lord Hee-Haw" the man he became, but Grinnell definitely contributed significantly. Although Kaltenbach gave voice to an emotional connection with his parents' homeland even before he came to Grinnell, at college that affection matured and gained rational articulation, practiced on the oratorical and debate stage. So Germanophilic did Fred become that even fellow-students recognized him as "Fritz." This emotional commitment grew harder with his collegiate research, and found expression in his interest in Alsace-Lorraine and his concern with self-determination in the lands the Nazis later reclaimed. Moreover, the romantic appeal of military glory, already evident when as a teenager in Germany he wished to earn the iron cross, also received a boost at Grinnell from participation in Company C and the leadership role he exercised there.

In short, the Grinnell record indicates that, long before the butcher's son reached Hitler's Germany, he had already erected a mental shrine to Germany. Burnished and refined during his years at Grinnell, Fred Kaltenbach's devotion later found a generous reception in the Nazi propaganda establishment from which his voice reached around the globe and back into the Iowa heartland.