Our annual look at those
individuals committed to creating
a better Central Iowa
Often times, you are simply too
oblivious - leading your life,
raising your kids, paying your
bills, trying to score - to notice,
or to actually care. Hopefully
you try to leave your mark, to
excel, to help make this tiny
corner of the world we share a
better place, to somehow make
a difference. But most of the
time, most of you, most everyone,
is looking out for number one,
which, in all actuality, is a
big part of what life's about:
Well, when Jerry Maguire said
we live in a cynical world, he
was right. Optimism is in short
supply these days, as are people
who are optimistic. And it snowballs
a little more everyday, gathering
up more and more of us, catching
people caught up in themselves
and their stuff and how they are
going to get a leg up on everyone
else, paying little attention
to the fact that scorched earth
and making one's mark are far
from being the same thing.
Important, of course, is the
man who writes the size of check
Ed McMahon carts around and gets
to stand at the 50-yard line and
see his name in lights and gets
plenty of ink for his good deeds
- the result of his hard work.
But more important is the individual
who does what he or she does simply
because they believe in it, because
they believe in themselves, because
maybe they just love kids, or
animals, or art, or what is right
so much, or because they believe
they can make a difference in
the lives of others or in the
community in which they live.
These individuals are, at times,
described with the same handful
of terms: fighters, dreamers,
tireless, giving, determined,
successful; while at other times
they are described as being vastly
different: quiet, eccentric, humble,
vivacious, outspoken, hopeful
of anonymity, rich and poor. However,
what each of those chosen here
has in common is the simple fact
that they have made the decision
to make an impact on the public
good with their ideas, actions
or both, leaving behind in their
wake a better Central Iowa.
Executive Director, GLBT Youth
in Iowa Schools Task Force
Brad Clark was just another kid
bound for law school when he became
unexpected front-page news his
senior year at Central College.
The student-body president,
Clark had already come out to
friends and family before returning
to school for his final year,
but when his sexual orientation
became public knowledge, he was
promptly expelled from his leadership
position in a campus Christian
organization and the entire college
plunged into a year-long debate
about homosexuality. And, suddenly,
having spent a year on trial for
his sexual identity, his acceptance
to the University of Iowa law
school took a back seat to a wider,
class-action mindset: "The
amount of hatred out there thrust
me onto that social activism road,"
Instead of further education
after his 2003 graduation, Clark
spent two years as the director
of the youth-focused Iowa Pride
Network and, earlier this year,
took on full-time responsibilities
for the more policy-centered GLBT
Youth in Iowa Schools Task Force.
The workload may be daunting,
but with state surveys showing
a "staggering" level
of harassment toward Iowa's LGBT
students and personal knowledge
that countless kids are suffering
a death by a thousand cuts every
day, Clark doesn't mind that his
job is far more than a simple
9-to-5. "It's the everyday
occurrences, when kids hear 'faggot'
and 'queer' 26 times a day,"
he says. "To go through the
everyday life of a gay or lesbian
kid, to be in their shoes, it's
But, with Clark at the helm,
the Task Force has become a powerful
voice for LGBT kids, steering
an emotional debate in a constructive
direction through regular forums,
training for school districts
and citizen groups, and evidence-based
advocacy for inclusive anti-discrimination
standards. Discount Republican
leadership and the religious right,
and the Task Force has earned
support from just about every
corner of the state - even organizing
a Governor's Conference on LGBT
Youth in February that will be
one of the first of its kind in
"It feels like for the
last two years, we've been in
elementary school PE and we're
picking sides," Clark says.
"Maybe three months ago,
we started playing dodgeball.
And its exciting, because I think
we're winning; if there are two
sides to the argument and we pick
the anti-bully, anti-harassment
side, then the only side left
is pro-bully, pro-harassment."
And the misguided opponents
who argue the Task Force is too
narrowly targeted have clearly
never met Clark. When he speaks
of school discrimination he doesn't
end the sentence at LGBT youth,
but continues that racial, religious
and gender minorities are also
victimized. He points out that
curriculums aren't just hetero-centric,
but also "whitewashed,"
shortchanging people of color
of the respect and dignity they
deserve. In fact, one would be
hard pressed to find a social
justice activist so humble in
his own privileges ("I, as
a white male, need to stand up
and advocate for racial justice
and gender equality") and
determined to wield his influence
to the widest benefit.
"People on the far right
that have been very successful
at dividing and conquering their
opponents" he says. "But
where I see the most growth is
where we concentrate on building
those relationships where there
are common oppressors in this
Sounds like the kind of commitment
that, even after he's played a
pivotal role in implementing systemic
changes needed in Iowa schools,
will make Clark worthy of front-page
coverage for years to come.
When I visited Chick Herbert's
office, an intern had taken it
over. That's the kind of architectural
firm Herbert Lewis Kruse Blunck
is, and it's part of the reason
for its astonishing success.
Driven by the credo "to
do common things uncommonly well,"
the company Herbert founded has
always professed democracy and
regional pride with understated
modesty. Their architects, even
interns, collaborate with each
other and with clients to an unusual
degree. Their staff is composed
of local talent, to an unheard-of
degree. They eschew specialization
(Herbert bristled when asked about
a Des Moines Register report to
the contrary) and disguise themselves
as a little regional company.
Their work, on the other hand,
puts them on the cosmopolitan
cutting edge of their profession.
In 2001, HLKB was named AIA
Firm of the Year. At that time,
only I.M. Pei's firm, Cesar Pelli's
firm, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill,
and Gensler had won the award.
They were nominated by no less
than Maya Lin, the legendary architect
of the Vietnam Memorial.
From the radical single level
of seating at the Civic Center
to the Meredith gateway, Des Moines
is a happier, smarter, more-neighborly
place because of Herbert's philosophy.
HLKB carries on this tradition
despite cookie-cutter trends favoring
more elitist design. For instance,
HLKB's new sports arena at the
University of Northern Iowa will
be radically synergistic, with
a single level of seating, glass-enclosed
observation decks, doors on three
sides and pedestrian connections
to the UNI Dome. In just the last
year, HLKB's credits lit Iowa
like Christmas lights: the Metro
Waste Authority, Drake's Pomerantz
Student Union, Grinnell's Crystal
Center, Cornell University's Kimmel
Theater, the Hoyt Sherman restoration
and the Roosevelt High School
Even Herbert might admit those
are common things done uncommonly
She is tireless. She is sharp-tongued.
She is determined. She has been
called every name in the book.
Those whose causes she helps back
have adored her. In short, Nan
Stillians is the ultimate activist,
Central Iowa's own Citizen Tom
Paine, the voice of the common
man. Howard Fast's novel was about
the type of action that keeps
people on the march for their
revolution. It is a theme that
is central in Stillian's life.
"I've always known democracy
is fragile," says Stillians,
an artist, former teacher and
Public Housing Board member amongst
many other things. "Yes,
all governments are flawed and
transitory and colored by those
in power, but we also must rejoice
in the heroic turns of events
- times when good people step
up and change the tide of events
must be remembered and celebrated,
however much they may be in the
minority." Case in point,
her battle to help save Des Moines'
While all of those she helped
did not win election to a board
she views as inept and corrupt,
true change was made when sacred
cows like Margaret Borgen found
themselves set out to pasture.
"When Nan believes in something
she is like a dog with a bone
and won't let go," says Suzette
Jensen, who has helped lead the
group Save Our Schools (SOS).
"She is fearless, appears
not to care what people think
of her, very intelligent and thrives
on challenging the status quo.
Take those ingredients, stir in
a computer with e-mail and you
have Nan in the midst of the issues
facing our community."
And when the battle for who would
control the future of the district
was at its zenith, the e-mail
inboxes of thousands were stuffed
with memos from Stillians, written
at all hours of the day and night,
encouraging individuals and groups
alike to not sit idly by, to march
for their revolution.
But other problems concern her,
too, she says, "Especially
the lack of conceptual intelligence
and power to articulate options
by our politicians who instead
make knee-jerk reactions and lame-brain
laws to pacify complaining constituents.
Hasty lawmaking in reaction to
hysteric fear is very depressing."
So what's next for Stillians?
Unanswered questions about the
Des Moines Water Works; environmental
issues: land-grabs, urban sprawl;
hasty annexation without solutions
to genuine problems; lack of adequate
research and respect in economic
development; and lack of urban
planning and incentives for rehabilitation.
"Alan Watts said: 'There
is no function in pessimism.'
I believe that," she says.
"No matter what, we must
help to make good men better and
have the nerve to name the rascals
in order to make a difference
in the direction of things."
Kathryn Dickel isn't just an
entrepreneur. She's also a filler
of needs, an advocate for other
entrepreneurs and friend to local
cultural organizations and entertainment
The 33-year-old Windsor Heights
resident is the co-founder of
IowaTix, a ticketing service;
Swaelu Media, a marketing and
Web-development company specializing
in non-profits; and the Iowa Entrepreneurs
Coalition, a support and networking
group for local small-business
But growing up in Des Moines,
Dickel didn't even know what "entrepreneur"
meant. It wasn't until she freelanced
with the Meredith Corporation
that she realized she loved having
control over her own business
and her own life. Swaelu Media
was started five years ago along
with Heather Hanson, who also
helped Dickel form IowaTix. The
two had been called in to consult
for Hoyt Sherman Place when it
was going through its restoration
drive. Hoyt Sherman expressed
a need for a ticketing service,
and IowaTix was born. The company
started with two clients, and
now has grown to provide ticketing
services for 40 across the state
And the growth has happened
fast. IowaTix moved into a new
home office in April, brought
on its first employee this past
year and is doing some strategic
growth planning for the future.
And in the process, Dickel and
Hanson are helping to grow the
Iowa Entrepreneurs Coalition,
where local small-business owners
can gather and trade ideas the
third Monday of every month.
"We've been through a lot
of the trials and tribulations,
and we felt the need to get entrepreneurs
together to advocate on behalf
of the business owner in Iowa
and also to feed off each other,
to do mentoring and things like
that," Dickel says.
And in a state and city that
seem to be closed for small business,
it's nice to know there are allies
like Dickel willing to offer a
Iowa Program Coordinator, American
Friends Service Committee
Kathleen McQuillen has never
been one to take the path of least
resistance. Quite the opposite.
The journey from her home in Buffalo,
N.Y., to her post at the American
Friends Service Committee in Des
Moines, has been a bumpy drive
toward economic justice, immigrants'
rights and a peace-centered foreign
policy. But McQuillen isn't into
cruise control, anyway.
"There's no reason to assume
life is easy," the consummate
activist says with a staunch smile.
"Our culture really encourages
us to escape from that which is
difficult, and yet, if you look
at the Bible, what part in there
was not difficult? What part of
Jesus' life was not difficult?
There's a desire to escape for
those of us who have options,
but we're called to stand in the
midst of chaos and try to make
Spurred to social activism by
the civil rights and anti-war
movements of the 1960s, McQuillen
was a cross-country traveler,
a VISTA volunteer, a factory worker
and union organizer, and an at-risk
youth social worker before she
settled into a leadership role
with the Quaker-affiliated AFSC
11 years ago. Over the course
of the past decade she's played
key role in the organization's
initiatives, but her leadership
is guided by an oft-repeated concept:
"everyone has a piece of
the truth and a different way
of expressing it."
So, whether it's facilitating
city forums or poetry readings,
McQuillen is motivated by a desire
to "broaden the circle"
and "provide space"
for others to contribute their
experiences towards a more just
society. Over the past year alone,
she's helped organize a visit
from Camp Casey activists (made
famous by Cindy Sheehan and her
marathon stay outside the president's
Crawford ranch), display downtown
the "Eyes Wide Open"
empty military boots during the
National Governors Association
Conference and collaborated with
local parents and the Des Moines
School District in getting hundreds
of high school kids' contact information
pulled from military recruiters
But, perhaps more important
than the public stands - like
the vigil McQuillen helped organize
in front of the Federal Building
when the American death toll in
Iraq exceeded 2,000 - McQuillen
has been instrumental in moving
the local anti-war debate past
the picket-sign slogans. Thanks
in part to McQuillen's efforts,
AFSC is not only raising awareness
in high schools and on street
corners, but also tirelessly deepening
the dialogue, whether it's a panel
discussion about the prospect
of a draft earlier this week or
an open brainstorming session
on their latest initiative - "de-funding"
the war - this weekend.
McQuillen is the first to admit
that, while AFSC is seeing more
public involvement in their efforts,
"it takes a long time to
get people to move, and successes
are hard to measure and very increment...
But I think the ideal is that
people themselves are moving forward
for a better structure,"
she adds. "I don't necessarily
expect that when my daughters
are my age, it will be perfect,
but I hope that they can take
comfort and strength in moving
toward that ideal."
Jeff and Jill Burkhart
Picket Fence Creamery
Jeff and Jill Burkhart are pioneers
in the modern world of agriculture,
producing hormone-free milk with
no antibiotics or other unnatural
chemicals, working in cooperation
with friendly cows who dine on
grass and enjoy the changing of
Most of America's milk these
days comes from cows that spend
their entire lives in confinement,
never getting the chance to see
the sunshine or smell the wind,
eating a scientifically balanced,
grain-based ration although cows
are naturally ruminants (remember,
four stomachs), treated with antibiotics
as a necessity because their lives
are so unhealthy. It's all about
maximizing production in the cost-per-unit
In the dairy industry, most
cows are good for just three lactation
cycles before they're sent for
slaughter because they're no longer
healthy enough for large-scale
production - in contrast with
the cows at Picket Fence, some
of which are still active working
girls at 12 and 14 years old.
"We have a moral responsibility
to support agriculture that is
animal-friendly," Jeff says.
People who buy Picket Fence
products generally say they're
looking for milk without added
growth hormones. The particularly
health-savvy consumers also want
the cows to be on grass, because
scientists are finding that grass-fed
cows produce CLA, conjugated linoleic
acid, an enzyme that's been proven
to help fight cancer.
For now, Picket Fence's customers
are mostly the trendsetters, concerned
about healthful and environmentally
friendly foods. "The masses
aren't into this yet, but they
will be," Jill predicts.
But bucking convention isn't
easy. The Burkharts work long
hours carving their niche, while
staying totally out of the commodity
market. Ag economics groups from
Iowa State University come to
study how they do it.
They sell their own products,
including ice cream, chemical-free
beef, and butter made right at
the creamery. Picket Fence also
markets chemical-free meats (pork,
buffalo, elk), wine, handmade
soaps and other products from
65 other Iowa families who are
trying to reinvent agriculture.
"For some of them,"
Jeff says, "We're the only
outlet they have."
Science teacher, Hiatt
Amos Hiatt Principal Toni Dann
explains Anthony Snyder's charisma
"We had a Picture Day event
last year and his class was not
available," she says. "They
were busy with an experiment.
That showed just how much his
students value their class time.
Think about how rare that is,
having students who would rather
not get out of class for a special
event. Tony has a knack for being
able to make eighth-graders feel
that science class is the most
important thing going on in their
lives. That is a gift."
Anthony Snyder's eighth-grade
science classes at Hiatt have
tested number one in the entire
school district. For perspective,
some of those same eighth-grade
classes tested last in the district
in reading and second from last
in math. As a result of his success,
all core subjects at Hiatt have
now adapted Snyder's radical methods.
The science teacher/ basketball
coach piloted "full-inclusion"
programs, insisting that everyone,
including special-needs students,
could best learn through simultaneous
exposure to the regular curriculum.
Snyder encourages co-teaching
and collaboration between students.
And his kids' test scores have
climbed every year.
"The interaction benefits
everyone because kids learn from
other kids," Dann says. "He
engages everyone in meaningful
activity, in hands-on lessons
that are relevant to their lives.
He recognizes that middle school
kids are very physical, that they
need to move around, to have hands-on
experiences. He just has a feel
for when that needs to happen.
That is so difficult with eighth-graders,
but he has an innate sense for
truly engaging all students. Even
parents get involved with his
"You can't walk into his
classroom without learning something
yourself. It has happened to me
every time for the three years
I have been here."
Neil D. Hamilton
Drake University law professor,
We Iowans like to think the quality
of food we produce and consume
is second to none. And we owe
a debt of gratitude to Neil Hamilton
for being able to do so.
Hamilton, a Drake University
law professor and director of
Drake's Agricultural Law Center
(the first of its kind in the
nation), has devoted his 25-year
career as a legal educator to
encouraging the development of
He has helped thousands of students,
farmers, consumers and officials
appreciate the role law plays
in shaping the future of local
and national food systems.
In 1996, he laid out a plan
to coalesce disparate parts of
alternative farming - from farmers'
markets to community farming to
organic farming - in an article
titled "Tending the Seeds
of the New Agriculture."
He followed that with books to
assist farmers, including "Farmers
Legal Guide to Production Contracts"
and "The Legal Guide to Direct
Farm Marketing" and by speaking
out for the need for alternative
marketing systems to help independent
farmers. He also assists groups
like 1,000 Friends of Iowa and
the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation.
His numerous newspaper articles
during the late '90s helped shape
public discourse on issues regarding
Iowa food and farming. In recognition
of his leadership, Gov. Vilsack
appointed him chair of the newly
created Iowa Food Policy Council
in 2000, which allowed Hamilton
to help create improved food policies
on a national level as he was
instrumental in efforts that secured
USDA support for food policy councils
in more than 12 states.
Perhaps the biggest honor bestowed
upon Hamilton, however, came in
October when he received the prestigious
Glynwood Harvest Innovator of
the Year Award from the Glynwood
Center in New York City. The non-profit
group recognized Hamilton for
his work in supporting regional
farming and assuring access to
fresh, healthy food.
What also impresses us about Hamilton
is that the native Iowan lives
the ideas and values he preaches.
He and his wife, Khanh, operate
Sunstead, a 10-acre garden farm
where they produce and market
vegetables that appear on many
menus in Des Moines. There, he
formed the Slow Food Des Moines
Convivium and has raised more
than $40,000 to develop the Greater
Des Moines Buy Fresh Local campaign.
CEO, Blank Park Zoo
Should Des Moines move its zoo?
Should it improve its existing
facilities? Should more animals
be added? Terry Rich hears the
questions everyday and says the
reason they are being asked with
such frequency is because the
zoo has problems.
"It's like driving a 1970
Chevy," Rich says. "We're
getting all we can out of it.
But it's going to break down soon."
The current zoo infrastructure
is 40 years old in spots, and
Rich says that in order to get
it where it needs to be, it will
take some big, exciting, new ways
of thinking (although a panda
is likely out of the question,
as they carry a $50 million price
tag when all is said and done),
as well as some building onto
those things the zoo already does
well. The retail location for
the zoo is a poor one, say local
leaders and many philanthropic
types - who have given the zoo
the financial push it needs to
be successful - say, while maintaining
that its location with regards
to nature is just the opposite.
Hence the big thinking, hence
Terry Rich, an idea guy.
Under Rich - who was heading
into retirement when Bob Ray called
looking for a entrepreneurial
spirit to run the zoo - more than
70,000 more people now pass through
the zoo's gates annually; net
income has swung approximately
$500,000 to the positive; operations
should cash flow this year; and
membership is up 1,000 - and it's
all been done with no new exhibits,
just guest animals (albino alligator),
(members drinking wine, hoping
animals will mate), a "hard-working,
dedicated" staff and the
persistent marketing of Rich.
"In the U.S., more people
attend zoos than attend professional
sports," Rich says. "The
investment in our zoo would sure
cost less than bringing the Yankees
to town, and we can build exhibits
that are world class and create
a super attraction that doesn't
include the egos of professional
There's just one snag. It all
takes money. Lots of it. Tons
of it. And while the $5 million
checks from the Blank family are
obviously the lifeblood of the
foundation, the community needs
to be buying into the need for
the importance of a first-rate
zoo, as well.
"Making sure donors and
taxpayers know we are good stewards
and can continue to build a great
quality-of-life attraction will
help us build the number one cultural
attraction in Iowa," Rich
says, pointing out that when a
community and its leaders get
behind something, the wave is
tough to stop. Thus Rich expects
the debate about who to partner
with, where to move to (if that's
what's decided is best) and how
to grow to heat up in the coming
"My goal is to be the lead
model on how a non-profit should
run. More like business and less
like a tax-supported entity, all
while improving the quality of
life for Iowa," he says.
It's this way of thinking that
helps Terry Rich make a huge difference,
while creating huge expectations
for a guy who has no trouble taking
In 1973, culinary gunslinger
Paul Trostel rode in from Colorado
convinced Des Moines was ready
for something beside steakhouses
and Italian joints. At Colorado
Feed & Grain, he introduced
cheese boards, quiche and an appetizer
menu that went beyond shrimp cocktails
and deep-fried food. Several restaurants
later, including the before-its-time
Rose's Cantina, he opened Greenbriar,
then on the prairie outskirts
of Johnston. It changed the way
Des Moines thought about first
plates, with Trostel's signature
mushrooms Boursin trailblazing.
A rodeo cowboy and rugby player,
Trostel's lifestyle flavored his
kitchens with a rare boldness
and defiant attitude. Alone among
the top independent restaurateurs
of Central Iowa, he has been willing
to fight the corporate chain restaurants
on their suburban range. In 1994,
he opened Chips in Ankeny, with
a family friendly, lower-priced
version of Greenbriar. This year,
after a few serious surgeries,
stock car wrecks and horseback
falls, Trostel and son Troy opened
the most exciting new joint in
years, Dish, a tapas cafe smack
dab in the middle of the West
Des Moines' franchise barons'
fiefdom. Designed by Todd Hotchkiss
(Suites of 800 Locust), its bronze,
wood and glass swank sets new
architectural and culinary bars
and early reports tab it "unlike
anything this town has ever seen."
The Trostels' kitchens keep
the fresh-and-local faith by allying
with Iowa farmers of distinction.
They make their own mozzarella
and dry-age steaks a minimum of
five weeks. In an era of ersatz
gimmicks, authentic cowboy treatments
punctuate their best dishes and
garner awards. In the last year,
Paul has been named Iowa Restaurateur
of the Year, Troy won Best Chef
in the Upper Midwest honors, and
Greenbriar is a finalist for the
nation's best beef menu.
Iowa Environmental Council
Susan Heathcote used to come
home from business trips and implore
her friends to undermine the meticulous
work she had just spent days completing
in jaw-dropping locations like
Alaska's North Slope.
Growing up in Stratford, Heathcote
passed countless hours canoeing
the Boone river, and went on to
graduate with a master's degree
in geology. But the lifelong environmentalist
found few opportunities to put
her professional skills to work
for Mother Earth and ended up
taking a job with Mobil Oil. The
constant moving and the desire
to return to family ties and quality
education, however spurred Heathcote
to sacrifice her career and come
back to Iowa in 1990.
"I went from a huge paycheck
and upwardly mobile professional
career to being a field tech in
drilling and sampling at gas station
sites," she says.
But the temporary demotion to
an environmental consultant keeping
track of underground storage tanks
paid off when, in late 1994, she
was a founding member of the Iowa
Environmental Council and, shortly
thereafter, took on a task so
overwhelming she admits now that
her partial ignorance was a blessing
in disguise. The job description?
Create a plan to improve the state's
atrocious water quality.
Over three years Heathcote kicked
her dogged work ethic and detail-oriented
analysis into overdrive and came
up with a set of specific goals
for the state's waters and a step-by-step
process to meet them. That was
in 1998. And the IEC and Heathcote
are still using that very document
to inform their pivotal advocacy
that, many would argue, is the
state's most respected voice for
And while pseudo scientists
and nay-saying environmentalists
are a dime a dozen, Heathcote
is a different breed of activist.
She's deeply committed to IEC's
positive agenda, which requires
mountains of tedious homework
to give citizens and policymakers
tangible options, instead of resorting
to empty, negative rhetoric. While
many draw a stubborn line in the
sand on environmental issues,
Heathcote readily acknowledges
that if you're working in politics
you have to give a little for
the greater good: "Some say
that's a compromise of our principles.
I say, as long as we're moving
in the right direction it's something
we should celebrate."
But don't mistake that willingness
to compromise as weakness. Though
she likely wouldn't use the word,
Heathcote has an acute bullshit
radar, and political spin - even
on the part of fellow environmentalists
- sets her off. "I'm a scientist;
I really am after the truth,"
she says. "What bothers me
the most in these heated discussions,
is when decision makers are given
false information, and I would
love to stand up and say, 'No,
you're wrong!' But it's not that
kind of format."
Of course, Heathcote's activism
isn't reserved to her presence
at those heated, behind-the-scenes
committees or the countless hours
diligently crunching the data
that gives reasoned solutions
to enviro-wary legislators. Outside
her IEC capacity, she was central
to the creation of the IOWATER
citizen water-monitoring program
that has become a model for the
nation, and she's become such
an avid participant in DNR's annual
Project AWARE that she's already
signed up for the next river clean-up
trip. Which isn't until August.
In the meantime, however, Heathcote
will continue to lead the environmental
pack as they paddle upstream to
improve Iowa's water.
"Sometimes it can be intimidating,"
she admits. "But one of the
things that has kept us from making
progress is, 'It's too big of
a problem. There's no way we can
accomplish it.' Overcoming that
acceptance of the status quo has
been a real challenge. But we
can do better than this, and if
we set some reasonable goals,
we can work towards them, we can
achieve a lot more than we think
Varsity Theatre owner
Bev Mahon refuses to play "crap"
in his theater. And that puts
his theater, the Varsity, in the
minority, as the chains continue
to appease Hollywood by force-feeding
its mind-numbing, "sure-hit,"
film-by-numbers crap to the masses
that continue to lap up these
films so long as their advertising
budgets outweigh the Sears Tower.
The Varsity, however, does not
succumb to showing what Mahon
refers to as "Hollywood blow-up
pictures," even though showing
these types of films would likely
make the Varsity financially secure,
instead of in constant feast-or-famine
mode, the condition that comes
with owning an independent theater.
"I try to get pictures
that both entertain and make people
think," Mahon says. "A
lot of people aren't ready to
think when they go to a theater,
but (we show) films with some
substance to them that can make
them think, and not those damn
pictures with buildings blowing
up or the Earth falling in."
The Varsity opened Christmas
Day, 1938. Mahon has been a half
owner since 1954 and a full owner
since 1975. In the '30s, '40s
and early '50s, the Varsity was
a third-run theater. But when
Mahon signed on, he decided he
wanted to do something different,
so slowly, through the years,
he experimented. Now he shows
documentaries, independent films,
foreign films and more, but he's
had to battle some ignorance along
the way to make it work.
"A lot of the foreign pictures
have subtitles, and we found a
lot of people had mental barriers
against those sometimes,"
Mahon says. "Sometimes a
guy'll come to the show and say,
'Gee, I have to come and read
through the whole movie? I came
to be entertained, not to read
through the whole damn show.'
It took a while to get over that,
and I'm not sure we're over that
And Mahon has never shied away
from hosting controversial films,
either, having shown both "Fahrenheit
9/11" and "The Passion
of the Christ" despite ignorance
in the form of threats - whether
it be to blow up the building
or simply to never patronize there
again. But it's the regulars,
the ones not afraid to see a film
they've never heard of, that have
kept the doors open to the Varsity.
"In other words, if you
haven't heard of it, but if it
plays here, it should still be
a good movie. We try hard. There's
an awful lot of crap in the marketplace
and you just have to step through
the whatever and avoid those."
Humanitarian, political activist
At the age of 76, Mary Campos'
boundless energy and unselfish
commitment to serving humanity
is a poignant reminder that it's
never too late to help improve
the quality of peoples' lives.
"I'm sincere in my dedication
to make the community better,"
she says. "I believe everyone
has a responsibility to do whatever
they can do."
Campos' statement is a self-evident
truth when you consider her overwhelming
body of work. For many years,
she has served on numerous boards
and councils, including the Des
Moines Human Rights Commission,
Council for International Understanding,
Hispanic Education Resource Center,
United Mexican-American Community
Center and Community Housing Education
In addition to her community
service, she is also politically
active. A civil service commissioner
since 1998, Campos was the first
co-chair of the Iowa Brown-Black
Presidential Forum, the nation's
only presidential forum that addresses
issues relative to African-American
and Hispanic Iowans. She also
served as the Hispanic representative
to the Iowa Democratic Party in
1983 and as co-chair of the Polk
County Democratic County Convention
in 1992 and has registered thousands
says Des Moines Police Sgt. Vince
Valdez. "She genuinely cares
about the welfare of Hispanics
in Des Moines and those who don't
have a voice. She's a real fighter."
For her efforts, Campos has
received a number of awards, including
induction into the Iowa Women's
Hall of Fame in 1995. Last month,
government officials from Mexico
presented her the prestigious
Ohtli Award for her work in assisting
Mexican immigrants. Next spring,
the United States Hispanic Leadership
Institute will present her a lifetime
But for all the accolades that
have been heaped upon Campos,
she says the greatest reward is
the satisfaction of knowing she
has made a difference in someone's
life and helping to stamp out
racism. Those fringe benefits
occur daily as she works part-time
as an E.S.L. tutor at Hubbell
Elementary School, serves as a
court-appointed interpreter for
the Polk County Jail Court on
weekends for Spanish-speaking
defendants and helps Spanish-speaking
families acclimate themselves
to life in Central Iowa.
"We need to find a way
to educate people to end racism,"
she says. "Racism has no
place in our society today."
Campos says she hopes her efforts
will motivate others to step up
and volunteer, too.
"It doesn't matter what
color your skin is," she
says. "You can do anything
if you make up your mind to do
Des Moines Art Center
Until last month, the Des Moines
Art Center had never promoted
a director from within its ranks.
That changed when head curator
Jeff Fleming moved up from interim
director. It was both a just reward
and a marvelously popular move.
Fleming's curatorial work has
raised the museum's profile. His
personal contacts with young stars
paid dividends for the DMAC as
one-person shows by John Currin,
Christian Jankowski and Ellen
Gallagher attracted international
renown. His upcoming shows with
Cecily Brown and Tom Sachs will
do the same. Fleming's exhibition
contributions reached out to a
larger community: "Magic
Markers: Objects of Transformation";
and "My Reality: Contemporary
Art and the Culture of Japanese
Animation" were young audience
builders, perhaps the most important
role of 21st century museums.
All these shows have been even
more remarkable because many other
museums have stopped creating
Fleming has personally curated
Iowa Artist shows and was a key
mover in securing one-person shows
for Iowa artists Anna Gaskell,
the late Ana Mendieta and Alex
Brown. That broke a long blockade
of Iowa artists and mended some
fences to the local artist community.
Fleming drove acquisitions that
have been ahead of the curve too,
including works by Richard Tuttle,
Tom Friedman, Bill Viola, Thomas
Struth, John Currin and Ellen
The popularity of Fleming's
promotion was observed with a
thunderous celebration at the
surprise announcement last month.
He reciprocates Des Moines' admiration,
and employee morale at the institution
has climbed Himalayan heights
since the early 1990s. The recent
museum makeover was a case in
point, with staff being given
dream jobs of re-hanging galleries
with the museum's vast resources.
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