Mixing In Around Town

Paul Engle. Photo Credit – Wikipedia

One election cycle I volunteered on the arrangements committee for the Democratic County Convention. The chairperson passed around a sign-up sheet. When it came to me, I noticed the previous signature was Iris DeMent. I looked to my right and the diminutive singer-songwriter was there, paying attention to the agenda. That’s how things work in Iowa City: the famous among us appear frequently, without apparent structure. I resisted going fan girl over DeMent because she obviously came to help organize the convention. I then turned my attention to the speaker as well

One day I was walking east on Jefferson Street near the Pentacrest. Coming toward me on the sidewalk was an older gent in an overcoat. Once he got closer, I saw it was James A. Van Allen, who discovered the radiation belts that bear his name. He must have come from work at the physics and astronomy department housed in what today is called Van Allen Hall. It was just another day in the county seat.

When I had classes in the English Philosophy Building, chances were I’d run into an author. I saw William Styron there. I believe John Irving as well. One of my undergraduate teachers was David Morrell, who wrote the book First Blood. He was proud of the novel then and had sold the film rights. He officed in EPB as a faculty member for sixteen years.

I ran into Donald Justice once at the UPS Store. He was shipping some books to his new home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He didn’t want to carry them on the airplane. I didn’t know him, but he was instantly recognizable because of who he was.

When Louise Nevelson donated the sculpture Voyage to the University of Iowa, I stopped by the Lindquist Center to have a look soon after it was installed. The artist happened to be there inspecting the sculpture in its new space. She approved.

Political figures passed through Iowa City when the state held first in the nation precinct caucuses from 1972 until 2020. Politicians could be found at the grocer, the hardware store, or at just about any public space. It was hard to avoid them. When John Edwards was running for president, he stayed at the hotel on the pedestrian mall and roamed the area, speaking with locals. He’d been cheating on his wife at the time, and the hotel room might have been intolerable with such a thing hanging over him during his presidential campaign.

Soon after the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was signed into law, President Barack Obama gave a speech at the Field House. His motorcade then made an unannounced stop at Prairie Lights Bookstore. The visit gained him a lot of publicity. It was another day in the life of Iowa City.

There were countless arranged events, but that’s par for the course at a state university. I met Hal Holbrook, Tillie Olsen, and others too numerous to count. Vance Bourjaily, Paul Engle, Christopher Merrill, and others connected with the Writers Workshop were a constant presence. Perhaps my favorite event was hearing Saul Bellow read from Something to Remember Me By in Macbride Hall.

 James Laughlin, the founding publisher of New Directions, and publisher of William Carlos Williams, held an event at the Lindquist Center. He recalled one of his last meetings with Williams’ spouse, Flossie, before she died.

I never felt too special by these associations. It was more that I was cognizant of living in a society where famous people did too. In Iowa City, there aren’t that many places to be, so we encountered each other.

This is the Iowa City I came to know as I began graduate school in 1979.

~ Excerpt from a work in progress

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