A Governor For All Seasons

A Governor For All Seasons

I have read books on leadership, have participated in a mentor/leadership class, and have been interested in the evolving nature of leadership.

In my own opinion, what we view as leadership today need to be revamped. A large number of elected officials and those who aspire to run for public office have become obsessed with being a “celebrity” first, public servant second, or third, or fourth, depending on what they feel is a bigger priority.

These days, leadership is not about analyzing and understanding all angles of an issue or topic.  It’s all about who shouts the loudest, and gets the biggest attention. Regardless of political affiliation, there are some good leaders and there are some bad leaders, and there are a certain group of leaders that will make anyone stop and go “That is one hell of a leader.”

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Robert D. Ray served as Iowa’s popular governor from 1969 through 1983.

Robert D. Ray was one of those individuals in the latter group.  A last of the breed of leaders who didn’t let politics, ego, agenda, or personal preferences get in the way of serving the public and evolving with the times.  Ray, who passed away on Sunday at age 89, served as Iowa’s 38th governor from 1969 to 1983.

One book I’ve read currently was “Leading Quietly” by Joseph L. Badaracco Jr. Leading quietly in a noisy world is a tough job. Bob Ray was a quiet leader and an introvert that (surprise!) “did his job”  without pretense.  Ray listened, looked at  situations from all angles, and then brought in key players to come up with a decision or resolution. Ray was successful because he surrounded himself with a staff and individuals who were well-versed in areas that Ray struggled in.

How many lawmakers do you know would have a weekly meeting with the opposing party?  Ray, as a Republican, did that with the Democrats during his 14 years as governor.

I have yet to hear any Democrats or Republicans doing that today.

How many leaders would say “That’s a good idea” to something that is opposite of what her or his political base believed in?  Ray did that. No one else on both sides of the aisle have been willing to do that, no thanks to our obsession to partisanship.

The point I’m making is this: you have to reach out, even to those who may disagree with you. You may never know if someone thinks that your idea is a good idea. Most people today have way too much ego and pride not to swallow it when they agree with something that is not well received within your own base or “tribe”. We are too scared to speak up, for fear of being ostracized by the groups, parties, or bases that support us.

Governor Ray had little time to bunker up and hunker down with stalling on legislation and playing games. He had a job to do: run the daily operations of the state and provide the best service to the citizens through transparency and accountability.

His first term was rocky. Many felt that he was a genial man, but not a strong leader. As time move forward, Ray gained more confidence as governor.

Beyond opening the doors for the Tai Dam community to come to Iowa after the end of the Vietnam War, the bottle bill, and how he handled and allowed the Wadena rock festival to take place in 1970, did you know about the various changes and creations that was done under Governor Ray’s tenure? (courtesy of KCCI-TV)

  • Reformed Iowa’s tax code.
  • Changed the way K-12 education was paid for, having the state pick up a larger portion of the tab.- Made food and prescriptions nontaxable.
  • Created the Iowa Department of Transportation, which became a model for other states.
  • Created the first Energy Policy Council in response to the energy crisis of the 1970s.
  • Gave rise to the Commission of the Status of Women.-
  • Created the Iowa Ombudsman’s Office, where people could turn to if they had problems with state government.
  • Helped form Iowa Public Television.
  • Helped form the Iowa community college system by expanding on the accomplishments of his predecessors.
  • In 1972, he grounded 95 planes and 1,625 vehicles assigned to the Iowa Air and Army National guards until the federal government paid for the damages sustained after two military plane crashed and destroyed the homes of two Iowa farmers.
  • Was approached several times to be either a Vice President or a Cabinet member. He turned those opportunities down. He was a low-key guy, who never wanted the limelight.

Ray’s approach was simple.

Ray once said that his approach to governing was simple: leave politics out of the decision-making process.

“I used to tell the staff, whenever we would talk about something like that, that you don’t start talking about politics at all,” Ray told The Associated Press during an interview in November 2011. “Let’s just decide what the right thing to do is, and then we’ll decide how to promote it.” 

Excerpt from Politico, July 8, 2018

Most millennials and Gen Xers would do a double take and say “There’s no way in hell a Republican would do all of this?” Bob Ray did. You know why?  Ray understood that Iowa had to evolve and get up to speed with the modern era.

HaroldHughes
Harold Hughes served as Governor and U.S. Senator. A recovering alcoholic, he left politics to go into religion and helping those who were recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. 

His predecessor, Harold Hughes, had the same view as well about pulling Iowa forward into the modern age. Hughes, a Democrat, and Ray, a Republican, ushered in a new era for Iowa for which it has been unmatched to this very day.  Hughes was instrumental in one of the most controversial topics in Iowa at that time: the “liquor by the drink” battle.

Ray would have not been elected governor in 1968, had he not survived a plane crash near Mason City while campaigning during the primaries. At that time, Ray was in third place in the primary. His campaign received a huge boost when Des Moines radio deejay Frosty Mitchell joined the campaign and singer Marilyn Maye, a Des Moines native, changed a few lyrics to the song “Step to the Rear” and it became “Let the Leader Lead the Way” a staple of the Ray campaigns.

As he served as governor, Ray reorganized several departments, created the Iowa Department of Transportation, and was accessible to everyone: lawmakers, media, citizens, visitors. During his final week as governor, the media threw a party for him in the press conference room. The media lauded and criticized him during his tenure, but he showed no hostility towards them. They had a job to do, much like he did.

During his fifth term, Ray knew the landscape was changing. The economy was down, the farm crisis was looming, and making painful budget cuts were among other things he had to deal with.  There were strong speculation that Ray would seek a sixth term in 1982. A “Ray watch” percolated, to which the Des Moines Register was convinced in December 1981 that Ray will run again.

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Governor Bob Ray (left) announcing his intention not to seek a sixth term as governor at a press conference in Des Moines. Listening to the governor are from left: his wife Billie, and daughters Vicki and LuAnn. February 18, 1982.

Four days after Valentine’s Day, February 18, 1982, Governor Ray dropped a bombshell during his weekly press conference.  Flanked by his wife Billie and their daughters, Ray calmly said he will not run for a sixth term.

That sent the political world into a tizzy. State and national GOP leaders pleaded with him to run again. Democrats were floored. Everyone assumed that Ray would run again.

Except for Bob and Billie.  They knew it was time to move on. It was time. He never got the chance to know his neighbors, his time was consumed by the job, and he wanted to start a new career.

“In many respects the governor’s job is a lonely job. Most of the time you’re with people, you’re at events, you have a schedule that’s full, and people wonder why anyone could be that lonely. But it does get lonely. You don’t spend time with good friends, you don’t go out for dinner, you don’t go to movies, you don’t do the things that you would do normally in life, cultivate friends.”

-Bob Ray, from “Governor: An Oral Biography of Robert D. Ray” by Jon Bowermaster

After leaving office in January 1983, Ray left to become President and CEO of Life Investors (now AGEON USA). The Rays moved back to Des Moines where he assumed a similar position with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Iowa (now Wellmark). He served in other positions in Des Moines, notably completing the term as Mayor of Des Moines after the death of Arthur Blank, interim President of Drake University his alma mater, and served of many boards.

Bob Ray owned or co-owned several radio stations. One of them included WMT-AM in Cedar Rapids, one of the legendary stations in Iowa. Mitchell got Ray, who was then a trial lawyer in Des Moines, to be his color analyst for Iowa football games on radio for several years in the 50’s and 60’s.

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Governor Ray on the phone in 1979. (Des Moines Register)

He picked up photography and publish a book. There are two books, one about his career, and his efforts to bring the Vietnamese community to Iowa, where other states, Democrats and Republicans, were hesitant to do it. Sometimes, when you are a person with thoughtful convictions, you are mostly alone in that journey.

He preferred McDonald’s to a fancy upscale restaurant. I would stop at the Grand Avenue McDonald’s for breakfast various times. His wife Billie and him would sit by themselves, or have their kids and grandchildren with them.  Occasionally, someone would stop by and say hello to the Rays.

Running for public office and being elected to serve is a lonely job as Ray noted. There are a few people I know who aspire to run for public office. It may be exciting, but it does come at a cost. You’re so busy with committee meetings, debates, passing bills, running a department, and on and on. You are expected to be in the limelight, answering tough questions, answering to constituents and fellow lawmakers.

You don’t have a life to go home to. You lose touch with friends, neighbors move and new ones move in. Personally, that is what keeps me from politics.  The constant grind, the shouting, the egos, the lack of sensibility these days. I’m not wired for a political life. Similar to Ray, I am a quiet person who prefers to process information, analyze it, and bring stakeholders together to find a solution.

Some will say that politics is not for quiet leaders.  Bob Ray proved that to be false, but in the long run, you have to know when it is time to walk away and reclaim your life. Politics can chew you up and spit you out. Anyone can love politics…but politics does not love anyone back. 

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Bob Ray, at his inauguration in 1969. 

The usual crying call of “we need leaders like (fill in the name) again” quickly filled the airspace after Ray’s death. Sadly, those calls will go away until Election Day, come right back up, and then go away again.

Truth to be told, there will never be another Harold Hughes or a Bob Ray to grace our presence again.

Ever.

Their leadership and humility doesn’t fit into the puzzle of today’s fractious world. The recent news of public officials calling citizens to harass other public officials, constant backlash via social media, and the public discontent leads to a probable conclusion:  maybe it isn’t really the politicians that have caused most of this mess.

Maybe it’s us, citizens, who need to do a smarter job of electing better candidates who are willing to serve…and not be mesmerized by wannabe political celebrities trying to climb up the career ladder.  We, the citizens, have become more partisan and dismissive of different views. We prefer to cast off those who may slightly disagree with us than ask “how do you see this issue?” and understand their views.

The view of the citizens are reflected in the views of the elected officials we put into office. George Carlin bluntly put it this way about the public and how we behave with regards to politics in this clip.

I will offer one advice for aspiring leaders, whether in business, politics, or where ever you are at:  “The toes you step on while climbing the corporate or political ladder may be attached to the ass you’ll have to kiss on the way down.”

Be humble, be respectful, don’t talk and listen, understand the topics from all sides, and have key people around you to make decisions.  And, don’t burn your bridges. You may them before they need you. That is what a leader does.

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It was once said that people didn’t ask “who is the Governor of this state?” They would ask “Who is the ‘GovernorRay’ of this state?”

That said a lot about Governor Ray to a generation of Iowans.

In conclusion, the legacy and the life of Bob Ray is multi-fold and vast. It wasn’t always sunshine and flowers as we are prone to paint the narrative.  There was struggles and achievements, situations that were sticky, unpopular decisions, and butting heads with lawmakers and department heads.

Robert D. Ray was a quiet leader who navigated and guided Iowa through an important chapter in the state’s history. An individual who was revered and admired for his leadership, civility, and humility. A governor who wanted his citizens to be proud to be from Iowa, not be embarrassed about being from a place where agriculture and large urban areas can exist.

A decent man who was open to everyone and everything that interested him.

A Governor For All Seasons.

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A Tiger’s Roar: Pat Mitchell (1939-2015)

A Tiger’s Roar: Pat Mitchell (1939-2015)
Dean Smith coached Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Rasheed Wallace, Larry Brown, and Kenny "The Jet" Smith. (Courtesy: WUNC)
Dean Smith coached Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Rasheed Wallace, Larry Brown, and Kenny “The Jet” Smith. (Courtesy: WUNC)

Dean Smith, the legendary University of North Carolina basketball coach, passed away Saturday evening at age 83. The recurring theme over the past several days is not about Smith’s won-loss records and being one of the best college basketball coaches ever. It was about Smith the individual: principled, graceful, teacher, and a father figure. Dean Smith lived a full life.

Mentioning Smith gives me an opportunity to tell you about another individual, who passed away last Wednesday. Similar to Smith, he too was principled, graceful, teacher, and he was one of the best coaches in Iowa.


Pat Mitchell was the head football coach at Cedar Falls for so long, I thought he was the only coach the Tigers ever had.

For a long time, I never thought there was anyone before him (Ed Lyons) and I swore that there would be no one after him (Brad Remmert).

Pat Mitchell taught and coached at Cedar Falls High for 47 years, 24 trips to the post-season, and 39 playoff wins. (Courier archives)
Pat Mitchell taught and coached at Cedar Falls High for 47 years, 24 trips to the post-season, and 39 playoff wins. (Courier archives)

From 1967 to 2014, no one was identified with Tigers football more than Coach Mitch, who died on February 4th after an extended battle with cancer.  If there was anyone else who knew how to use the UNI-Dome to his team’s advantage, Mitch was the master of it. Playing the Tigers in the UNI-Dome was a house of horrors for opponents far and wide.

Mitch’s teams played smart, strong, and fast. If you dug yourself a hole against CF, good luck trying to crawl out of that hole…you were cooked. That’s what happens when you face a guy who is 4th all time in wins (344-138-2) in Iowa prep football.

But Mitchell was more than a coach…he was an iconic figure in the annuls of Cedar Valley sports, particularly in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area. He coached against Reggie Roby, Kerry Burt, Jerry Moses, Chris Klieman, Tim Dwight, and many others who have become stars and legends in Iowa prep football.

Mitch is on the list of local coaches, that if you just mention their last name or nickname, people knew who you were talking about: Dick Marcussen and Dan List at CF, Howard Vernon, Steve McGraw, and Dave Natvig at East Waterloo, and George Dutcher, Bob Siddens, and Glenn Strobridge at West Waterloo.

The players Mitch coached, I either watched or played against: Terrence Freeney, Chris Nuss, Jason Hamrock, Mike Flagg, Matt Purdy, Barkley Hill, and Gabe Hurley, among so many.

But it was the rivalries…oh those rivalries. When East, West, CF, and Columbus got together on a Friday night, it wasn’t a football game…it was a battle royale. The heydays of the old Big 8 Conference was a special time: iconic coaches, outstanding players, and the stadiums that were rocking. There was pride on the line…and a city championship to be won.

There are three program defining games, in my view, that made Mitchell and the Tigers’ the formidable powerhouse that they are now. Incidentally, all three was against a city rival, East Waterloo.

In 1971, the Tigers were leading East 24-13, late in the 4th quarter at UNI’s old Latham Field. Behind talented Tiger quarterback Bill Salmon, CF jumped out to a big lead. But, the Trojans rallied with two touchdowns in the last 5 minutes of the contest for a 25-24 win. East went on to win their 6th straight mythical Class 4A state title.

That loss set up the second defining moment in 1972 when CF pulled off a 10-9 upset win over East. That win was all the momentum they needed to qualify for the playoffs, which was instituted that year by the IAHSAA.

Jeremiah Longnecker and Pat Mitchell with a celebratory hug after the Tigers' 15-14 win over Linn-Mar to win the 1986 Class 4A state title. (Courier archives)
Jeremiah Longnecker and Pat Mitchell with a celebratory hug after the Tigers’ 15-14 win over Linn-Mar to win the 1986 Class 4A state title. (Courier archives)

The third program-defining game was the 1st round playoff game against East in 1986. In the regular season, the Trojans pancaked the Tigers, 49-14. In the rematch at the UNI-Dome, CF stymied East and stunned the favorite to win the 4A title with a 12-6 win. It was the Tigers who went on to win a state title that year, defeating Linn-Mar, 15-14.

The Tigers would repeat that effort again in 1987, by losing to East in the regular season and beating the Trojans in the 1st round again, but fell short to Dowling Catholic, 21-3 in the semifinals.

The 1986 title was the only one Pat Mitchell would win. Mitchell and the Tigers came close several times, finishing as runner-ups 4 times (’82, ’99, ’05, ’08).

No one had a bad thing to say about Coach Mitch. Why should they? Being a coach is not about play calls, touchdowns, and championships. It’s about people. His players loved and respected him. Cedar Falls rallied behind the Tigers, all due to Mitchell’s personality: positive, delightful, tenacious, and never giving up.

It never dawn on me that one day Mitch would finally hang it up. For the last ten years, Brad Remmert and him were co-coaches and the Tigers continued the high level of success in Class 4A. Mitchell made the decision to retire before the start of the 2014 season.

In December, my brother-in-law was inducted into our high school’s basketball ring of honor. During the ceremony, I was mentally looking back how those moments and the people I was fortunate to watch, read, and listen, as well as played against, have shaped my view of respecting history and traditions. Yes, I am biased towards my alma mater, East High, but it would be foolish to not include a guy like Pat Mitchell, a rival, in being such an important figure in our community, with regards to sports.

Mitch’s passing feels like an end of an era for me. It’s hard to imagine one person, being at one school for nearly your entire life (I recently turned 39. Mitchell was at CF for 47 years). It was a little hard this past fall to not to see a highlight of Mitch on the sidelines. It was because I, and so many of us from the Cedar Valley, were so used to it.

The roar of the greatest Tiger in Cedar Falls High School history is now silent.

Pat Mitchell lived a full life and people will remember the person that Mitch was. The wins and losses are secondary.

As it should be.

“March Madness” Finally Comes to Des Moines

“March Madness” Finally Comes to Des Moines
The 2013 NCAA Wrestling Championships at Wells Fargo Arena . Hosting this proved that Des Moines was ready to host any major sporting event.
The 2013 NCAA Wrestling Championships at Wells Fargo Arena . Hosting this proved that Des Moines was ready to host any major sporting event.

Remember when Wells Fargo Arena and the Iowa Events Center opened in 2005?

Remember when people complained about paying $6 for a beer at Wells Fargo?

Remember when the Polk County Board of Supervisors had that ridiculous iron-clad contract to put an AHL team inside Wells Fargo?

Remember when people expected Wells Fargo and Des Moines to land a NCAA men’s tournament game right away?

Funny how we forget those moments. People stop complaining about the price of beer. It’s cheaper than venues like Solider Field and Yankee Stadium.

After the first fiasco of having an AHL team, the Board of Supervisors finally got it right by having the right owners and an affiliate that was in the region (Minnesota Wild).

And all that talk about never getting to host March Madness?  That debate ended today.

NCAA2016_DesMoines_logo

This morning, the NCAA has announced that Des Moines was selected as one of eight cities to host the first and second round games for the 2016 Division I men’s basketball tournament…aka March Madness.

Yes…our city. How about that?

See what patience and proving doubters wrong can do?

Des Moines was ready for this moment to come. It took a few “no’s”, but here it is.

This is why the IAHSAA and the IGHSAU moved their tournament dates up a few weeks early, much to their displeasure.

This is why Des Moines was willing to host the NCAA Track and Field Championships, the women’s basketball early and regional rounds, Iowa State hosting the volleyball regionals, and the coup d’etat, the NCAA wrestling championships in 2013.

And not to mention, Des Moines has hosted the AAU Junior Olympics the last few years as well.

This is why after listening to what they needed to do to improve their chances at hosting the men’s tournament, Des Moines, quietly and patiently, worked diligently to put as many of the pieces together. A new hotel will be built next to the Events Center complex in the next two years.

So that excuse of not having a hotel on site can no longer be used as an excuse by the NCAA or anyone else.

This news even surprised WHO-TV’s Andy Fales, who thought Des Moines was going to miss out, yet again:

…after the announcement:

The more you doubt a person or something, the more they can prove you wrong.

The credit goes to the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau and others like Iowa State, Drake, and sports fans. We earned this. We proved that anything can happen…patience is a virtue.

Is hosting a major national sports event still a “useless folly”, Mike Draper?  I didn’t think so. The CVB just got scoreboard.

That also goes for those who will continue to find ways to player-hate on Des Moines. You can quietly exit stage left.

The haters are not going to ruin this day for sports fans. We’ve waited for a long time for this to happen. When 2016 arrives, it’ll be 44 years since March Madness was held in an Iowa venue (Hilton Coliseum hosted the 1972 Midwest regionals).

There are a few other things I want to add about the news (for one, it’s long overdue for the NCAA to find new cities to host tournaments), but for today, it’s a good day to see that the work towards getting March Madness paid off.

“There’s No Use Complaining…It’s Here”: A Guide to District Football Part 1

“There’s No Use Complaining…It’s Here”:  A Guide to District Football Part 1
Starting tonight, all of the classes, from 8-man to Class 4A will be playing district football. All other sports will remain in conferences.
Starting tonight, all of the classes, from 8-man to Class 4A will be playing district football. All other sports will remain in conferences.

It was going to happen. The question was “when”, “how”, and “who”?

No matter how much kicking-and-screaming there was from the eastern side of the state, they were going to be corralled with the west and finally be under one system, with the rest of everyone else.

Now, it’s here. It’s time to get acquainted.

Iowa Class 4A football…meet district football. 

There’s no use continuing to complain about it…from the eastern side of the state to the scribes in Sioux City who’s still think that it’s a CIML conspiracy. It’s time for a new era…and some things to understand about district football as we open the curtain to the 2014 Iowa prep football season.

If you want a short history of how we’ve gotten here, you can go here from a 2011 blog post. The same problems back then are the same problems now: travel, costs, and enrollment numbers, which many fans tend to dismiss the latter, but at this point, it’s become a big factor.

The constant chatter since the formation of the 4A districts in February have been over two pressing questions: how can a team with a losing record qualify for the playoffs, and how does the IAHSAA determine who gets into the post-season.

Well…let’s answer them the best we way we can. Nothing’s perfect, you know.

Q: How did Mason City get into the playoffs with an 1-8 and 2-7 records? That makes no sense.

A: That’s simple. Your district record > overall record. Yep, your district record trumps your overall record.

It’s crazy, but follow me here. In states that have district football (Missouri for one), how you finish in your district usually determines if you get in the playoffs. In the case for 4A, the top four teams in each of the 8 districts advances to the playoffs. If you win even one district game, and those below you don’t, you have a chance to play beyond Week 9…as long as you are in the top 4 in your district.

In the case of Mason City, this is how they got in with sub .500 records. In 2012, they finished 4th in their division with a 1-3 record (1-8 overall). Des Moines Hoover finished last with an 0-4 division record (1-8 overall. A win over a non-division team). Remember, the top 4 in each division (nowdistricts) advances. Ft. Dodge and Council Bluffs Lincoln advanced with 2-3 division records, 3-6 overall.

Ft. Dodge and Sioux City have done division football for the past two seasons. The test run is over for them. District football is waiting for them. (Sioux City Journal)

Everyone in eastern Iowa were irate about it, but when you look at the 2012 playoff field, Waterloo West (3-6), Cedar Rapids Kennedy (4-5), Burlington (3-6), and Iowa City High (4-5) got in with sub-.500 records from the east side. Ottumwa (2-3, 4-5 overall) also got in. Eight sub-.500 teams (4 from each side of the state) got in.

Not good enough?

2013: Mason City finished 2-7 overall, 2-3 in division. Hoover finished 4-5 overall, and 2-3 in division. Mason City defeated Hoover head-to-head, thus the Mohawks had the tie-breaker and ended up 3rd in their division, Hoover in 4th.

Both teams, along with Des Moines East (1-4 division, 2-7 overall), Ankeny and Sioux City North (both 4-5) qualified. Over on the east, Waterloo West, Dubuque Hempstead, Clinton, and Davenport Assumption had 4-5 records…and made the playoffs.

It’s not that district football “helped” bad teams get in…it was expanding the post-season field from 16 to 32 that was the real culprit in allowing teams with losing records get in. So, if you’re going to whine about Mason City, the same could be said for Burlington for a 3-6 record in conference play.

It’s all a wash.

In the next post, we’ll answer the question about the uneven split of Class 4A and why there’s 46 schools and not 48.

Flight 232: 25 Years Later

Flight 232: 25 Years Later
Skyline of Sioux City, Iowa. (Sioux City Journal)

I took my first plane trip in 1984, flying from Waterloo, Iowa (ALO) to Dallas. All I recall is that we flew on Ozark Airlines (it was acquired by TWA in 1986). It’s weird that I remember a lot of things as a kid, but a plane ride was something I vaguely remember. To this day, it was the last time I flew, not by choice, but there was never a need to fly anywhere. My family were car drivers. We drove everywhere.

My mom was a frequent flyer, as her job at John Deere took her to places like Cleveland, New York, Sweden, and most recently to Russia.

There is a sense of irony as I write this, on the heels of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 reportedly being shot down and crashing in Ukraine on Thursday. I say irony because Saturday marks the 25th anniversary of United Airlines flight 232 crashing at the Sioux Gateway Airport in Sioux City, Iowa. One hundred twelve passengers perished in that crash. Miraculously, 184 survived.

It was tragedy…and a miracle, all at once.

The first time I remember hearing and watching a news report about a plane crash was Delta flight 191 that went down when it hit a microburst as it was landing at the Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport (DFW) in August 2, 1985. The eerie part was that DFW was our destination from Waterloo, with a short stop in Springfield, Illinois a year earlier.

When CNN broke in with a bulletin that Delta 191 went down, I was in the den with the television on. I was mesmerized and spellbound watching the coverage. I never thought planes would go down. As a 9-year old, I thought planes could never crash. Delta 191 changed that perception for me that afternoon.

The Des Moines Register headline from July 20, 1989 of United Flight 232 crashing in Sioux City. (The Des Moines Register archives)

Thursday, July 19, 1989 was a typical hot July day. My sister and I had a babysitter during the summer. Around 3:30 pm, our babysitter left. Mom wasn’t going to be home until 4:30. No big deal. My sister was somewhere in the house, I was in the den (again) with the television on. About 3:45, KCRG-TV interrupted programming to report that an airplane was in distress and flying around Sioux City. United 232 was en route from Denver to Chicago. As the DC-10 plane flew over the Nebraska/Iowa border at 37,000 feet, its tail-mounted engine blew out, causing a hydraulic failure and plane lost all flight controls.

I didn’t quite understand what all of the plane lingo meant (what little kid didn’t?), but it was clear: 232 was in trouble.

Big trouble.

I rushed into the bathroom, where we had a radio at, and flipped between WMT, WHO, and KWLO radio trying to find more information. Internet wouldn’t come until a decade later. I bolted back into the den, and changed the channel to KWWL-TV. They were able to get a feed from sister station KTIV-TV in Sioux City and anchor Dave Nixon. Several weeks earlier, Sioux Gateway Airport (SUX) had a crash drill. Everyone went through what to do should a plane crash or an emergency landing was to be attempted.

As 232 was flying around northwest Iowa, airport officials and emergency crews preparing for the emergency landing. This time…it was real, not a drill.  Flight captain Al Haynes, co-pilot Dudley Dvorak, along with DC-10 instructor Dennis Fitch, who was a passenger, did all they could to keep the plane upright as it was heading toward the airport.

About 3:55, KTIV switched over from the studio to the airport.

I was going to see a plane make an emergency landing…or crash…

…in front of my eyes.

The camera panned to the right as the plane was descending quickly towards the runway. The time was 4:00pm. The plane’s right wing tilted as the belly hit the runway. The plane flipped and exploded in a ball of fire.

I stood there. It was all I could do. The image of 232 cartwheeling into a ball of fire and debris flying all over Runway 22 became a permanent fixture in Iowans forever.

But, that wasn’t the only image all of us would remember. .One by one, survivors were coming out of the field, staggered, bloodied, and dazed. Responders rushed to the wreckage to walk, carry, and pull survivors away from the area. When everyone was accounted for, 111 died in the crash. One died a month later from injuries sustained in the crash.

Dennis Nielsen is shown carrying 3-year-old Spencer Bailey in this famous July 19, 1989, photograph taken following the crash of Flight 232 in Sioux City. Nielsen was an Iowa Air National Guard lieutenant colonel at the time this photo was taken by then-Journal photographer Gary Anderson. (Sioux City Journal archives)

The miracle, or the shock that reverberated across the nation:  184 people survived. There was no way that many passengers survived a crash of such magnitude.

The crash of 232 changed the lives of the passengers and the crew. It also changed the lives of the residents in Siouxland and Iowans. If not for Haynes, Dvorak, and Fitch, the fatalities could have been worse. If not for the quick action of the responders, the survivors would not continue to show their appreciation for the care and support. A sizable number of them are returning to Sioux City today to reunite with the crew and the responders, as they mark this anniversary…this 25th anniversary that remains of the most unforgettable event in state and aviation history.

Time after time, Iowans have shown resolve and banded together in times of crisis and tragedy.  There is something about Flight 232 that was different. It wasn’t the volunteers who were there to help. It was an entire region that converged together in Sioux City that muggy afternoon of July 19, 1989.

It was a day I saw a plane crash in front of eyes for the first time.

And it is the one that is etched in my memory for eternity.

Every Night Was “The Tonight Show” in Ames: Johnny Orr (1927-2013)

Johnny Orr walking out with Fred Hoiberg to a raucous crowd prior to the Cyclones’ game against Michigan in November. (David Purdy/Getty Images North America)

If there was one lasting image, albeit a fitting one, this picture above said it best. Before the tip-off of Iowa State’s game versus Michigan, head coach Fred Hoiberg surprised many by walking out of the tunnel…with Johnny Orr by his side. For 14 seasons, Orr walked out of that same tunnel, pumps his fist to the melody of “The Tonight Show” and Cyclones fans went wild.

On that Sunday afternoon last month, everything became full circle for Johnny. The two teams he coached faced each other, one of his star players patrolling the sidelines, and the television analyst that prompted Johnny to utter the infamous and hilarious “..and we kicked your ass!” line to him, Dick Vitale, was on hand to call his first game ever at Hilton Coliseum.

How ironic it was. The stars were aligned that afternoon.

And how bittersweet it is this morning.

Johnny Orr left us this morning at age 86.

Orr was more than the man and the architect of making Iowa State a formidable foe in the Big 8 and now Big 12 Conference. Johnny was more than the face of Cyclones Country and an endearing and wildly popular icon, 19 years after he retired as head coach.

Johnny Orr, to me, is part of a special group of unforgettable individuals that we were damn blessed and lucky to have. He was a character…with character, quick to turn a scowl at a ref to glee after a big play, and even when fans of the opposing team couldn’t stand him, they couldn’t help but to privately smile and fall for his charms.

Johnny (43) as a star player for the Taylorville (IL) Tornadoes. He led Taylorville to the first undefeated season in Illinois prep basketball history. MGoBlog has a great feature on Johnny here. (MGoBlog)

Johnny started his coaching career at Dubuque Senior in the 50’s, where he took two squads to the state tournament. Before that, he played for the Waterloo Hawks, who then became the St. Louis (and now Atlanta) Hawks in the early days of the NBA. Johnny had already planted the seeds of his lore here in Iowa. After a few stops at Wisconsin (as an assistant), and UMass (as head coach), he landed in Ann Arbor. Michigan wasn’t just a football school. The Wolverines had great tradition in basketball as well (Cazzie Russell, Rudy Tomjanovich, etc).

Johnny took the Wolverines to 2 NIT appearances, a first-round NCAA trip, two Elite Eight appearances, and finishing as runner-ups to national champion Indiana in 1976. Indiana remains the last team to go undefeated and win a title. Orr is the winningest coach in Michigan basketball history with 209 wins.

Think about this: Orr was the winningest and longest-serving coach at two schools in two power conferences: the Big 10 and the Big 8 (12).

Iowa State athletic director Lou McCullough was looking for anyone to coach the Cyclones.

Anyone.

He got in touch with Johnny to ask him a few questions about possible candidates. The next thing McCullough knew, Johnny showed interest in the job. Former Des Moines Register sports columnist Marc Hansen picks up the story here.

After a few lean years and patience (which in today’s college sports world, no one seems to have when it comes to building, or rebuilding, programs), Johnny kept his recruiting connection to Detroit by bringing in some guys named Grayer and Stevens, took a chance on a skinny guard named Hornacek, and assembled a few more players, and Ames no longer became an easy place to grab a win and dinner take out from the Hickory House.

Picture of the 1984-85 Cyclones men’s basketball team. (Visions: Iowa State Alum Magazine)

When the Cyclones made the NCAA tournament in 1985, it was euphoria. But, Johnny had a few more tricks up his sleeve. The Cyclones faced Michigan, his old team in the first round of the 1986 NCAA tournament. I think you know the outcome of that game. One of the biggest wins in school history at that point. That wasn’t enough for the Cardinal and Gold.

The Lafester Rhodes game, where former Hawkeyes assistant coach Gary Close and Orr nearly came to blows at the end of the game; Kansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri visiting Hilton; and Big Monday. The Iowa Hawkeyes were no longer the biggest show in the state. With Johnny and the Cyclones, every night was “The Tonight Show” in Ames.

I saw Johnny in person only once. It was several years ago at a golf outing to benefit the American Diabetes Association, in which I currently serve on the board for. Per my nature, when I see VIPs like Johnny, Tom Harkin, or someone like Barry Griswell and Keith Murphy, I give them their space. I don’t need to walk up to them and chat them up or get an autograph. Observing and watching them from afar is enough for me.

I am reminded of a quote that was written in May that rings ever so true today.

It’s going to take a while to wrap my mind around the fact Jim Zabel has died, even though he was 91 years old.

That was written by Cedar Rapids Gazette’s Mike Hlas in May, after Jim Zabel’s passing. It’s going to take a while for all of us to wrap our minds around the fact that two of the most iconic faces of Iowa sports are now silent. There is also something to add: the era of colorful, charismatic and personable coaches are nearing an end.

Today, we are inundated with “coach-speak”, CEO-like processes and mindset in sports, branding is everything, and the influx of constant interaction and media. Back then, coaches like Johnny, Knight, Wimp Sanderson, and even Bill Raftery were the same people off the court as they were on it, for the most part. For good (Orr) and for bad (Knight).

Orr’s passing today is symbolic, along with Zabel’s passing in May: a special era of unforgettable  individuals who gave this state an identity and a sense of pride in our teams, will forever live in memory.

“The Tonight Show” theme was and will always be Johnny Orr’s intro as he walked out on the court. In the second-to-last Tonight Show for Johnny Carson, Bette Midler was Carson’s last guest. She performed two songs, which were Carson’s favorite. “One More For My Baby” and “I’ll Be Seeing You” were the selections.

As we pay tribute and remember Johnny Orr on this, the final day of 2013, a melancholy and bittersweet happy trails for a coach, already successful and revered, who took a chance on a school that had no consistent winning tradition or culture, and turned it into a place so special and endearing, a Kansas Jayhawk fan can openly admit, with trepidation, that there’s something about Hilton Magic that makes Iowa State one of the toughest places to play…ever.

Farewell, Johnny.

Seeking Attention…For All of the Wrong Reasons

I’ve stopped trying to figure out Alex Rodriguez. All I know is he keeps shooting himself in the foot. it’s so bad, even the when he fires the gun, the blanks are hitting him in the foot. (NY Sports Kings)

Alex Rodriguez is a piece of work. Or he is just as confusing to understand, because no one knows what’s he thinking of, doing next, or why he’s doing what he does.

I think I have the appropriate song for him. The Beatles summed A-Rod up with this one.

I think it’s perfect.

Listen to ESPN’s Chris Singleton‘s thoughts on Rodriguez as he spoke to Yahoo Sports Radio and KLAA‘s Travis Rodgers on Thursday. Go to the 5:27 mark. I think you find Singleton’s observation very interesting about A-Rod’s personality.

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Well, I guess everyone wants to say something about Steve King. I have some advice for you, if you want to accept it or not.

Stop talking about him. Seriously, stop. And yes, you can ignore him. You have no excuses. You have a mute button, a remote control, and a mouse. You can change the channel or click to another link.

The more you talk about him, the more attention he gets. That’s what he wants, and you’re helping him as his unofficial PR hacks.

I ignore him. Plain and simple. And no, don’t offer excuses on why his comments merit attention. Remember Joe McCarthy? How did McCarthy get silenced? People stop listening and talking about him, when he went overboard in his zeal to paint everyone and their momma a Communist.

Josef Stalin thought that was insane.

I wonder why some people will never get the message. Then again, I’m not a Democrat or a Republican.

No one gives a damn what an Independent thinks anyway.

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Anthony Weiner.  No further comment.

He’s got some serious issues. Pervert.