We knew Donald Kaul had prostate cancer and it spread to his bones. He’d been ill for a number of years but after this diagnosis, the prognosis was not good — we expected him to die this year and he did on July 22, just as the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, which he co-founded with John Karras, was getting started.
I’ve never ridden on RAGBRAI, but made a few long runs on the bicycle I bought after graduate school. I even made a century ride through the countryside near Iowa City and discovered what glycogen depletion is. Kaul played a role in Iowa’s bicycle culture. His influence was more than that.
After returning from the military I found a paucity of intellectually engaged people in my home town. Not that there weren’t like-minded men and women, just not very many of them. I began to follow Kaul more than I had.
My first paid work was delivering newspapers for the Des Moines Register while in grade school. That was around 1965 which was when Kaul began writing Over the Coffee full time. The Register didn’t sell many papers in Davenport and my paper route involved a lot of walking with very few deliveries. I recall one of my customers talking about Kaul when I collected — his column was somewhat controversial. I moved on to the Times-Democrat which sold a lot more papers. When I began high school in 1966 I had to give up my paper route. There was apparently a rule.
Despite this history, I was not an avid newspaper reader. I certainly didn’t read every column Kaul wrote. He was a placeholder for the idea that we could do better in life than work for a wage, hit the bars, sleep it off, and wake up to do it again. I wanted something else from my life in Davenport and Kaul created an option.
“Donald Kaul is at least five different columnists, which is a pretty spectacular bargain for his readers,” Vance Bourjaily wrote in the forward to How to Light a Water Heater and Other War Stories: A Random Collection of Essays.
Bourjaily famously moved from the East Coast to work at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He lived in the country and named his place Red Bird Farm. He wrote about men and horses and going to the dentist: things that resonate if one lives around here. Bourjaily captured the essence of Kaul.
“It is one of the pleasures of following Kaul’s column in the Register most days, as most of Iowa does,” he wrote, “that one can never be sure which of the five columnists the paper boy will bring this morning.”
Since Bourjaily died in 2010, I won’t have to break the news “most of Iowa” didn’t have home deliveries of the Register, ever. Some of those who did detested Kaul’s columns, and cancelled their subscription over it. Nonetheless, I like to think the inflated picture Bourjaily drew of Kaul as representative of what I hoped would be… even if it wasn’t.
I keep copies of some of Kaul’s books close by. If I need a lift, or inspiration, I read one of his columns. He was part of the development of my pursuit of intellectual interests. He may have prevented me from staying on in my home town to become another shoppie. Thank God for Donald Kaul, although that’s pretty ironic given his atheism.
If only I could write so well.
Donald Kaul has gone home and we’ll miss him.