10 walks in a lifetime with my progressive mom
Bugs Bunny broke the news.
Not the cartoon, but this wonderful plastic transistor radio shaped like the silly rabbit. No trick for this kid. That radio worked. For ball games. Bee Gees songs, maybe a Gerald Ford comment here and there — whatever was happening in 1975, when I was 6 years old, living in Indianola, Iowa.
My grandfather was still alive, running the newspaper in west-central Iowa, The Carroll Daily Times Herald, so we hadn’t joined the family firm yet. That would come four years later after his death.
But on this fall night, adults gathered early in the evening at our home near the Simpson College campus where my father taught music theory and organ.
Mom and dad dispatched me upstairs, to the company of Bugs (which they had forgotten I had) — and the local AM station.
My mother, Ann Wilson, 82, now the former publisher of The Times Herald, a pioneering and barrier-shattering newspaperwoman, found herself in a three-candidate race for two seats on the Indianola Community School Board.
As a grade-schooler, I thought the world might crash into Jupiter if mom lost this campaign. How can anyone vote against my mom?
I laid nervously in bed as the school-board-election results arrived. Mom, then 34, earned one of those school board seats that night. Bugs no doubt smiled as I jumped around on the mattress.
That memory races back this Mother's Day as it was part of a lifelong journey as an understudy to the foundation of our family — a public-minded mom who expanded our worlds, our minds — a woman drawn to the good fights, from advocating referendums for new schools locally, to presidential races — one in which she would play a consequential role — to a grueling effort to keep our local paper family owned and independent.
It's hard to distill a lifetime of inspiration into a column, but there are moments that leap to the forefront.
So here it goes: 10 formative walks I had with my progressive mom over the years.
A Swaddled Arrival
They were painting the house in Indianola in August of 1969 — a groovy green in keeping with the era. A call came to my parents from the Hillcrest Family Services' adoption agency in Cedar Rapids.
My teen birth mom had made the call — and the handoff at Mercy Medical Center. I was cribbed at the adoption agency — awaiting parents, this life. Bob and Ann Burns (my mom's married name) would become parents with a two-hour drive to the state's second-largest city, Cedar Rapids, from the Des Moines suburb of Indianola. home of Simpson College.
They shared values, a love of education, an openness and an estimable network of friends, as well as a progressive Protestant faith, a brother's-keeper outlook on the world more than a "Prosperity Gospel" and its endless juggling of fear and seeking of favor, a cheap bargaining for Heaven so easily preached today.
As they climbed down from the painting ladders and stored the brushes, this union of kindred spirits made so much sense.
Later, we would learn, painfully, and with a lifetime of heartbreak, that the marriage was built on a lie — my father's fiction. He was a closeted gay man.
But this was a good day. Then, and, with perspective of time, now. Mom walked from that agency in late August of 1969 with a swaddled newborn in her arms. I had entered a politically minded newspaper family. I was home, even before I knew it.
The Vietnam War
My mom's father, James W. Wilson, seemed out of central-casting for a newspaperman in the early 20th century. Hat titled sideways, cigarettes moving from hand to mouth. His was a life of strong views and thick black ink — and you had to navigate plumes of smoke to get to him behind that metal desk in the newspaper, feet from the press room at The Carroll Daily Times Herald (he could run the press, sell ads and write). I would inhabit his office a half century after he died.
A dedicated Republican, James W. Wilson served as 1964 GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater's Iowa campaign chairman. There's a deeply reported book on that presidential race, "Suite 3505," that in places features my grandfather. He attended Republican national conventions and thought Gov. Bob Ray too liberal. And don't get him going on FDR.
But mom had different views. Early on.
So in 1970 I entered the world of politics — stroller-bound. Mom, a 29-year-old professor's wife, pushed me four blocks south from our home to the Simpson College campus for a protest of the Vietnam War.
"It didn't seem to me that we should be fighting that war," mom said to me earlier this week. "I am basically against war, wanting to settle disputes in other ways. It was on the campus. I was against the war. I went."
As we would soon learn, the war would intersect with our lives in so many ways.
An Instantaneous Bond
In January of 1972 our family would grow again.
Another Cedar Rapids-to-Indianola connection.
This time for my brother, Tom.
We received word of his pending adoption from Hillcrest, the same agency that placed me.
I think I kind of liked being an only child. On the drive to the adoption agency, my mom recalls me saying, over and over, "No David. No David. No David."
"Your father, of course, thought you were smarter than you are Doug, so he believed you were opposed to the name," mom said. "But, really, you just basked in the attention as the only child."
Right or wrong, pure motivation or toddler anxiety, they went with my advice. No David.
My younger brother is named Tom.
"So mom," I asked, at age 53, and for the first time in my life. "You weren't evolving into our mother, over 9 months, as most moms do with pregnancies. The phone rang, and we were sort of just there in days. How long does it take for an adopted baby to go from being a stranger in a crib to your child?"
"It's instantaneous, Doug," mom said.
Vietnam Comes to Indianola, Iowa
This column is about my mom. But if pressed to name the single-most influential person in my life, it would be my sister — Jane (Burns) Nguyen, a Vietnam War orphan who was evacuated from Saigon in April of 1975.
Jane arrived in Chicago as part of Operation Babylift. The four of us — mom, dad, Tom and myself — were there. News broke at 5 a.m. that a C-5 military cargo plane crashed in rice paddy outside of Saigon, killing 78 children and 50 adults.
We did not find out until noon that Jane, 6 months old at the time of her adoption, was not on the plane. She was O'Hare bound.
"I was excited to finally get her," mom said. "We had been in the process for months. The last part of our wait was very trying. There were plane crashes with babies from Vietnam."
Our home in Indianola had always been filled with diversity. Now we had Jane (who today writes The Asian Iowan column as a member of the Iowa Writers' Collaborative).
"Children in Vietnam needed homes, new schools, safety, so much," mom said. "It filled many bills."
My animated and witty sister brought so much joy to our home, and for me, the presence of a little sister who does not look like me, shaped an approach to life in which I did not have to act or adjust to people of different backgrounds — one of the reasons, I'm sure, for the diversity of friends and colleagues in my life.
"I think it meant we had many good experiences that others didn't — like helping to settle five young men from Vietnam," mom said. "We had some exposure to the war from the Vietnamese perspective. I think we all grew in many ways by having a child who was not white. We saw bad responses, we saw good responses, and we learned how to deal."
The Obama March
Over a hill, half a mile from one of Iowa's largest political gatherings in the fall of 2007 on the hot-air balloon grounds east of Indianola, then Sen. Barack Obama held a pre-event rally.
I recall being at the main venue of the Harkin Steak Fry — the annual Democratic rally organized by U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, an elected official my mother campaigned for during his 40-year career.
The supporters of other presidential candidates that cycle wondered where all the Obama people were at the main event inside the gates.
Soon we would hear. And see.
In some of the more brilliant choreography I've seen in Iowa politics, Obama's campaign organized the rally, then had a few thousand of his supporters march up the gravel road to the balloon fields — the chants of "fired up, ready to go" slowly building on the approach — a blend of Selma and The Iowa Caucuses that felt historic in the moment.
I ran down to get photos of the developing Obama march. There was mom, an early Obama supporter, six rows deep, with one of the largest smiles I'd seen stretch across her generally radiant, welcoming face.
"It was exciting to see so many supporting a man of color," mom said. "It made me think that perhaps we were taking this step forward with race relations. Just the energy in the group was contagious. I had never been in a political gathering where people were so excited, and I'd been in many."
Far From Heaven, Close To Home
This is the walk I hesitate to write about — and I never have. But our journey is not complete, not honest, without it.
In 2002, mom and I went to the movie "Far From Heaven" at the Varsity Theater on the Drake University campus.
In the film, actor Dennis Quaid plays a closeted gay man who is tortured by his dual existence. He has quick, secretive sexual encounters with other men, and takes out his frustrations on his family, in ways one can empathize with — and in episodes challenging to forgive.
Julianne Moore, in a remarkable role, plays the wife — and it was like watching my mom on the Big Screen as she sat next to me in the theater. We were both motionless, still, leaving our popcorn untouched.
Julianne Moore captured the confusion, shame and pain of the experience — one my mom and I know well as we learned of my father's homosexuality, which led, of course, to my parents’ divorce in the early 1980s, when I was 13,, the detonation of our family — and questions that will for a lifetime, remain unanswered.
Mom and I walked from the Varsity after that movie to the parking lot of the Drake Diner, where we had eaten. We didn't talk at all during that walk. Or cry. We just walked. Which is how we handled my father's Big Lie. We just lived.
"We both had experienced much of what we saw in the movie," mom said. "It was shocking in some ways and comforting in others to know that others had gone through what we had gone through."
The Daily Times Herald, the newspaper my mom and I helmed, supported gay rights and same-sex marriage in the late 1990s and early 2000s — at a time when even Democrats — Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — were opposed to gay unions.
Even though we endured the pain of being a supporting cast in my closeted gay father's masquerade-ball life, we realized if the culture, the laws, accepted people for who they are, then it is, first, the right thing for those people, but it would also protect others, prevent many of them from going through what we did.
"I finally came to the conclusion that gay people were born as they are and that we all have a right to love," mom said.
Going To Court For The Truth
In 2016, a police officer in Carroll began a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl whom he met while on-duty, and the girl later moved into his Carroll house before she graduated from high school the next year.
We published a story in the Carroll Times Herald bringing this episode to light.
Our newspaper faced a libel suit. We ultimately prevailed as a District Court judge dismissed the claim.
But it took a toll. As the owners of the newspaper, my mom and I had several walks across Court Street from the newspaper to the Courthouse where we were defendants in the long-running civil case.
"I felt strongly we should run it because those things should not be happening in our town with people who were supposedly sworn to protect us," mom said. "Even though it was legal, girls of that age shouldn't be subjected to a police officer subjecting them to that."
One of Iowa's best reporters, Jared Strong, now with Iowa Capital Dispatch, reported the story. We had 100 percent confidence in him.
Yes, Jared had the byline — and I mounted the public defense of the story, but my mother is the one who made the call to roll the presses that day after I laid out all the options.
"Doug, we have no business standing anywhere near a printing press if we don't run this story," mom said the day before we published. "Now go hit 'send' on that story. This is why we do what we do, why we are here. The community deserves to know what we know."
In 2013, we traveled to Washington, D.C. for President Barack Obama's second inauguration. We were the first newspaper in Iowa to endorse Obama for the presidency — penning the backing early in the 2008 Iowa Caucuses.
Mom and I walked miles that inauguration day.
But the part that jumps to mind for me is the early-morning Metro (DC subway) ride from near our hotel in Alexandria, Virginia, a Washington, D.C. suburb, to the Capitol.
The packed train car was diverse. And there was my mom, talking with supporters of Obama from around the nation.
"There were so many gracious, warm African-American women who wanted to share with me what they had done, and they wanted to know what we had done in Iowa," mom said. "The warmth and acceptance of people on that train had for us was overwhelming. There was no malice that day, Doug. It was full of harmony and hope. Those things were there."
93 Years Of Family Ownership Over
On Dec. 1, 2022, three generations and 93 years of family ownership of the Carroll Times Herald ended. It was like being at your own funeral and parole simultaneously — the death of what bound our family, defined us, but a release from a prison of unsolvable problems in a challenged industry during a cultural tornado watch for democracy, truth and even reality itself.
We fought for years to keep the paper open —stubbornly refusing to lay off reporters and taking on more debt, dumping more of our own retirement money into the paper, than we should, and experiencing an array of health problems — all the while building side businesses and ventures to fund the paper and leading the effort to develop the non-profit Western Iowa Journalism Foundation, which continues to provide funds for several newspapers.
We walked slowly that day, mom and I, across Court Street to sign the sale agreement of the newspaper in the Carroll Public Library, a new public facility our newspaper championed for the better part of a decade. We desperately did not want to sell but had exhausted all options. We signed the arrangement at the nearby library so the deal would be done before we walked back to the paper and informed staff.
"It was extremely hard because I had known nothing but our family newspaper," mom said. "I knew how hard my parents had worked to make that successful, and how hard you and I had worked to take it to the next step."
2013 Newspaper Of The Year
In 2013 there were nearly 300 newspapers in Iowa. Mom and I had worked for years to build an aggressive, talented newsroom — and a newspaper U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack would describe as the best rural newspaper in the United States.
When the totals of reporting and writing and advertising and public-service award were announced at the annual state newspaper banquet, the Carroll Daily Times Herald emerged as the No. 1 paper in the state. The esteemed executive director of the Iowa Newspaper Association, Susan Patterson Plank, called out the winner of the Newspaper Of The Year honor in the downtown Marriott. Mom and I walked to collect the award that belongs to our full staff — and indeed the communities in our coverage area that trusted us to tell their stories.
"I thought of so many people involved with the newspaper, but mostly my father as he would have been so proud," mom said.
Yes he is.
Happy Mother’s Day.
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Barry Piatt: Piatt on Politics: Behind the Curtains, Washington, D.C.
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