Cover: People making a difference

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: survival.

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 wealthy-beyond-his-wildest-imagination 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.

Brad Clark
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," he says.

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 just horrific."

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 the nation.

"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 fight."

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.

Chick Herbert
HLKB architect

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 practice facility.

Even Herbert might admit those are common things done uncommonly well.

Nan Stillians
Vigorous volunteer

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' schools.

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

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 venues.

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 owners.

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 of Iowa.

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 hand.

Kathleen McQuillen
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 it better."

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 crosshairs.

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 the seasons.

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 business model.

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."

Anthony Snyder
Science teacher, Hiatt Elementary

Amos Hiatt Principal Toni Dann explains Anthony Snyder's charisma anecdotally.
"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 experiments.

"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, environmentalist

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 sustainable-agricultural systems. 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.

Terry Rich
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), think-outside-the-box-type events (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 players."

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 months.

"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 them on.

Paul Trostel

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.

Susan Heathcote
Research Director,
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 the environment.

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 we can."

Bev Mahon
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 completely."

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."

Mary Campos
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 Resources Board.

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 of voters.

"She's tireless," 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 achievement award.

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 it."

Jeff Fleming
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 original shows.

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 Gallagher.

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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