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Ken Fuson — 1956-2020

1/3/2020

Here’s a one-paragraph, one-sentence, 293-word essay Ken Fuson wrote for The Des Moines Register on a warm spring day in 1995:

Here’s how Iowa celebrates a 70-degree day in the middle of March: By washing the car and scooping the loop and taking a walk; by daydreaming in school and playing hooky at work and shutting off the furnace at home; by skate-boarding and flying kites and digging through closets for baseball gloves; by riding that new bike you got for Christmas and drawing hopscotch boxes in chalk on the sidewalk and not caring if the kids lost their mittens again; by looking for robins and noticing swimsuits on department store mannequins and shooting hoops in the park; by sticking the ice scraper in the trunk and the antifreeze in the garage and leaving the car parked outside overnight; by cleaning the barbecue and stuffing the parka in storage and just standing outside and letting that friendly sun kiss your face; by wondering where you’re going to go on summer vacation and getting reacquainted with neighbors on the front porch and telling the boys that yes! yes! they can run outside and play without a jacket; by holding hands with a lover and jogging in shorts and picking up the extra branches in the yard; by eating an ice cream cone outside and (if you’re a farmer or gardener) feeling that first twinge that says it’s time to plant and (if you’re a high school senior) feeling that first twinge that says it’s time to leave; by wondering if in all of history there has ever been a day so glorious and concluding that there hasn’t and being afraid to even stop and take a breath (or begin a new paragraph) for fear that winter would return, leaving Wednesday in our memory as nothing more than a sweet and too-short dream.

Ken Fuson could write. He was one of the half-dozen or so best writers ever to go through the Register newsroom. Maybe one of the best two or three. Maybe the best.

He grew up in Granger in the 1960s, and his dream was to become a reporter at The Register. “I learned to read with the Register’s comic pages. My love of sports was shaped by Maury White, Buck Turnbull, Ron Maly and Chuck Burdick. My sense of humor was honed by Frank Miller and Donald Kaul,” he wrote in a farewell note to the staff when he left in 1996 after his first stint there.

He joined the paper in 1981, when he was 25 years old, and he stayed, the first time, for 15 years, collecting friends and awards. “If somebody would have told me in high school that some day I would not only work with Larry Fruhling but also call him a friend, I would have kissed them on the lips. Actually, in high school, I would have kissed anybody on the lips.”

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If he didn’t fall in love with Fruhling, he fell in love with The Register. “It taught me that I was something special,” he wrote. “I was an Iowan. I wasn’t just a fat kid in a small dumpy town where you couldn’t even buy a comic book.”

He could report on meetings or arrests or accidents and always find the telling detail, the apt quote. But it was the long stories where he excelled. Like a war correspondent, he would embed himself in a town or a school to capture emotions as well as facts. “Emotional facts,” he called them. As The Register declined under Gannett’s ownership, he left for the Baltimore Sun, then a great newspaper, where in 1998 he wrote a 16,000-word story following the hopes and dreams of high-school students trying out for the school musical, “West Side Story.” The story — almost half as long as a novel — ran in six parts and filled 17 pages of newsprint. It was spellbinding. “It is a masterful story about teenagers coming of age in the complicated 1990s,” a journalism magazine said. The story itself could have been turned into a musical. He was at his best.

Yet all the time — in the early 1990s at The Register and during his three years in Baltimore — Fuson was dealing with an addiction that was upending his life: He was hooked on horses. He didn’t sit at slot machines, he didn’t play table games, he didn’t bet on sports. He didn’t hang out in bars. But he couldn’t stay away from racetracks.

He had himself banned from Prairie Meadows in 1996, but that just prompted him to drive to Nebraska’s tracks. In Baltimore, he couldn’t stay away from the Maryland tracks. He lost everything — not only his shirt, but his marriage and a chunk, at least, of his career. It took years, but he rebounded — he gave much credit to religion in general and the Lutheran Church of Hope in particular, and his friends and bosses and addiction experts never gave up — and he came back to The Register for another productive eight years, leaving for good in 2008.  As newspapers cut back, he never became cynical. (Though he came close. He formulated Fuson’s Law — “Newspapers stop being a business and become a noble calling at the precise moment that you put in for overtime.”)

Along the way, he started teaching writing at workshops, where he had almost a cult following. His clips were his credentials, and they were better than any doctorate. He wrote a book or two. He did some public-relations writing for Simpson College, and he mended any relationships that the horses had trampled upon. He also worked hard and often successfully to help others addicted to one thing or another.

But a few months ago, his body started falling apart. Ultimately, his liver failed — ironically, he rarely drank — and over the holidays he was taken to the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, hoping to qualify for a transplant. He had been there just a few days when, on Jan. 3, he died. He was 63 years old.

He was a great writer. It’s too bad he wasn’t around to write his own obituary. It might have started this way, with a story about his early days at The Register: 

“I remember my first week [at the paper], standing next to Frank Miller at the urinals, telling the great cartoonist how wonderful he was and what an honor it was to meet him and how he was just the best and just going on and on. Frank looked over in that slouching imperial manner of his and said, ‘You’re peeing all over your shoes.’ ” ♦

— Michael Gartner

12 Comments

  1. Michael, what a wonderful remembrance. The ending is perfect. All deaths are tragic, but Ken’s at 63 is especially so.

  2. That was Ken! I was his English teacher for three years in high school, and his friend forever since. I have scrapbooks filled with his letters and clippings from the Columbia, Missouri paper, the Register, and the Sun. He was a teacher’s dream and I never lost contact with him.sometimes a student comes along who makes a teacher feel like a success. Ken was that student for me. Teachers aren’t supposed to outlive students.

  3. To hear of the loss of Ken Fuson and former Drake journalism professor Bob Woodward in the same day is heartbreaking. I had the pleasure of knowing both — taught by Woodward, worked along side Fuson. At least I know that I am joined by countless other journalism students, journalists and readers as I mourn their passing. God bless them both.

    • Mike Marturello
      January 10, 2020 5:57 am

      Just reading this piece on Ken Fuson and saw your comment and thought, Karen, she’s still about! Hope all is well for you. I think of you every now and then.

  4. I remember all those mentioned as a young Register carrier in Muscatine, getting up at 0 dark thirty hours in the winter (read 0430) and reading the paper by street light at the corner of Main and Lucas before dropping the Vetter’s paper in their special box so their dog wouldn’t get it, thanks to Register I got to go to the Iowa State Fair in 1956 as a reward for getting the most “starts” that spring.i spent most of my profit on Topps baseball cards and Pepsi at Gordon’s Mkt., and 50 cents a week in a savings. Sweet bird of youth.

  5. Becky Rosenberger
    January 5, 2020 2:52 am

    This. Tribute makes me wish I would have known this man !
    He and Eric Hanson are Iowa treasures !

  6. Michael P Scott
    January 5, 2020 10:43 pm

    Typical Michael Gartner essay: as brilliant as the subject he is writing about.
    Do I ever miss the Register under his direction.
    But, the once respectable Indianapolis Star is even worse than what’s left of the Register. And that’s what I’m stuck with now.

    Michael P Scott
    Also a graduate of Cornelia Hurlbut’s studio.

  7. Louise Swartzwalder
    January 6, 2020 8:50 am

    Michael,
    That is a perfect Des Moines Register story. I will add it to my collection. I have used many reminders of the Register’s golden days, in a column I write, McZena Muse. I have been editor at two Ohio newspapers since leaving Washington, D. C. after John’s death. I have a farm — a great place — its own kind of inspiration. I tell everyone all my friends are in Iowa, or Washington. It’s hard to get away from times that molded you.
    I am writing a book, which I have mentioned in a Facebook post. (I don’t like Facebook, but I use it. It’s unfortunately the main way most people communicate).
    The book is about faith — how people don’t talk about it much while searching for glory. Ken Fuson would have been a perfect person to talk to for this effort. I started this after losing Larry Fruhling and Don Kaul — two great friends. Also, I lost John Hyde. I never talked to any of them about what they really believed — spiritually. That is a great shame.
    So now I am trying to write about all of this.
    I knew many great people in Washington — Jim and Deba Leach, Mike McCurry (of Bill Clinton fame), John Glenn.
    I have talked to Mike McCurry about his beliefs — he now teaches at the Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington.
    I believe in this project. If there is anything you would like to contribute, I welcome your input.
    Be well.
    Louise Swartzwalder (takomakit@yahoo.com)

  8. Ken Fuson was truly a great writer. For years, his were the first stories I would seek when the Register was delivered. When the Indianola boys basketball team won the state tournament in 2001, the same year that former Indianola and U of I player Chris Street was inducted into the Iowa High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame and eight years after Chris’ u timely death, I suggested to Ken that he could write a very moving story about this connection – you could sense Chris’ spirit in Vets Ayditorium that night – and we agreed it could even become a movie. He talked about the possibility of this for several years. Although that story didn’t end up being written, the many that did have touched so many lives and created so much inspiration that Ken’s legacy is truly remarkable. Thank you, Michael, for reminding us of that.

    • Linda Hemmerick Hunt
      January 10, 2020 9:28 pm

      Susan, I certainly appreciate your comments and memories. Michael Gartner’s memoir of Ken is, as usual, poignant and spot on.

  9. Joy Critchett Schacht
    January 10, 2020 7:16 am

    I too worked at The Register during the start of the
    Glory years in the 1950’s. At first, I was awestruck by some of
    of the writers and editors, but then learned they
    were just people who were very gifted.

    Every morning Frank Miller would gather up his
    cronies( (I was lucky enough to be among them),
    and we would spend at least half an hour at coffee
    at the nearby Bishop’s Cafeteria (now long gone, but
    an Iowa treasure).

    Frank was the only luminary at coffee, but he was
    the humblest among us. He was so funny, and so
    warm and so loving with all of his friends.

    Years later my mom and I were at a library association
    meeting luncheon, and Frank was there as the speaker.
    He spotted me, said, “hi,” and promptly dashed off a
    cartoon about me and my days at The Register. It is framed
    and in a prominent spot in my home.

    I knew Carl Gartner, David and Michael Gartner’s dad, who
    edited the Sunday magazine. There was Maury White, another
    buddy of mine, the columnist Miller (first name escapes me),
    the scary head copy editor, Frank Eyerlly (editor) and the publsiher..

    I was a writer, proofreader and coordinator of the Sunday
    women’a pages section under Russ Schoch, who revamped
    the women’s Society pages into a women’s section. Later he
    went to a think tank in the East.

    Sec Taylor (oirner revered spoirts editor)–a stadium in Des Moines is named in his honor)for him–would
    come to the Sports Dept, and dictate his letters to me. One letter in particular I remember was to President
    Eisenhower, who has just had a heart attack. Sec felt very close to Ike,because he also had suffered a
    heart attack, and he wanted Ike to know how to survive such an event. After dictating the letter, he
    admonished me that there could be no mistakes or erasures in the letter. I started typing, and then
    restarted about 10 times before reaching perfection.

  10. I, too, was a Register carrier in Ft. Dodge in the early 50s. Actually saved $300 over a couple years that I later used to pay for one quarter at Iowa State. Yes, in those days you could with hard work, while living at home with minimal expenses, pick yourself up and make something out of yourself without ending up with a tremendous pile of debt. The fantastic experience of being a newspaper carrier is no longer available to the kids today. Too bad.

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