Iowa City Love Letter

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(Pictured: the Old Capitol, the iconic centerpiece of the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City.)

Here’s another Off-Topic Tuesday piece. During the 1995-96 academic year, while I was working on my teaching certificate at the University of Iowa, I wrote a regular op-ed column for the student newspaper, the Daily Iowan. I found this piece in an ancient electronic file of drafts, but it’s not in my pile of clippings, so I’m not sure it ever ran. But it adequately captures how I felt about that place. 

Graceful exits are harder than they look. Rarely do we get to say everything we want to as eloquently as we wish to. More often, we simply vanish from the scene.

Not this time. This is my final column for the Daily Iowan, after a year-and-a-half of weekly and bi-monthly screeds. It also represents my farewell to Iowa City and the University of Iowa. I’ve been trolling through my mental snapshots of the place, and I have a few I’d like to share with you.

—First day of classes, January 1995. I roll down Dubuque Street from I-80 and the first thing I notice is the little sign that declares Iowa City a nuclear-free zone. I’ve heard this place is liberal, I thought, but this is pushing it. I’ve since realized that the declaration is more than just symbolic. Defense contracts go to major research universities, if the schools want them, and Iowa City is saying no. Although it’s often self-conscious and occasionally seems forced, Iowa City’s liberalism makes it a welcoming environment for everybody—except maybe staunch conservatives.

—One fine spring day that same semester, I’m sitting in a cramped classroom in MacBride Hall discussing game theory and how it can be related to disease prevention in urban areas of 19th century Europe. Instead of being desperately dull, the academic and theoretical nature of this abstract concept becomes quite a rush. Later, I walk out of MacBride and watch the fading afternoon sun kissing the other buildings, thinking about the class, suddenly overcome with amazement. I can’t believe I’m really here, I think. Thirty-five years old and back in college, and at a by-God Big Ten university at that.

—About a week after the end of my first semester, my wife and I are wandering around the campus picking up the term papers I wrote. One of them was for a professor I have found to be particularly demanding. I skim the paper, looking for comments. Nothing. I figure it must have been judged not worthy of comment. I reach the last page and there, at the bottom in the professor’s familiar handwriting, are the words “This is brilliant. You really should get a PhD in history.” The professor later went on leave and I never had the chance to thank her—so I hope she’s reading this now. Her words kept me going many times when I believed I was in over my head. . . .

—At the Daily Iowan, it has been my pleasure to be edited [by two op-ed page editors] whose graceful manipulations have greatly improved these columns on their way from my word processor to your newspaper. I’m a little less enamored of some of the work done by the paper’s copy editors, who have occasionally managed to turn my razor-sharp prose to butter-knife dull, but I figure they’ll probably cut this line anyway, so you’ll never get to read it. . . .

(The most teeth-grinding example of this was in a column about the supposed altruism of Nike. I wrote, “When Nike claims it’s doing good, you have to wonder who they’re doing it for.” The copy editor reflexively changed “good” to “well.” My reaction, when I saw it in print, was unprintable.)

I have no profound words with which to leave you, except to suggest (and it’s not an original thought of mine) that the act of writing a newspaper column is an act of supreme egotism. Imagine the nerve of presuming you’ll have 750 worthwhile words to say to 25,000 readers every week or two. I hope that my nerve hasn’t always exceeded my wisdom. And I hope that you and I will meet again in print one day, somewhere.

At the time I wrote this column, my life in, and my affection for, Iowa City was nowhere near over. In 1997, I got a job there, and the next year we bought the first house we ever owned. We’ve been gone over 16 years, and I still miss that town and our friends who live there.

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