Celebrating the land between two rivers

John Langhorne/Tree Full of Owls

Steven Bloom recently wrote an article that ran on the Atlantic magazine’s web site titled “Observations from 20 Years of Iowa Life.” It paints a less-than-flattering picture of Iowa. This article is an invitation to Mr. Bloom.

Mr. Bloom, this is not a rejoinder, my colleague, Molly, nailed that task. Instead, may I introduce you to Iowa, the land between two rivers. It is bounded by the Mississippi and Missouri on the east and west, and two great states, Minnesota and Missouri, to the north and south; you can actually view the east-west boundaries in satellite photos.

When I saw your article, I asked some colleagues what they loved about Iowa.  There isn’t enough space to list them all in this article, but here are the highlights:

•The “Iowa nice” people
• beautiful farm-dotted landscapes from prairie to bluffs to river valleys
• the incredible work ethic
• if you are positive and willing to work you can make an incredible impact
• our progressive nature and the richness of our diversity
• the lush green trees and gently rolling hills, striking autumn colors, trees glistening with freshly-fallen snow
• no one pays to educate their children at private schools because the public schools are outstanding
•  a top ranked state with respect to providing affordable health-care services to all its residents and was a leader in providing health care to all children in the state
• many young folks who leave Iowa for a few years after college return to Iowa when they have children
• the people of Iowa – open, generous, considerate, optimistic and trustworthy
• Iowa’s small towns are remarkably wonderful incubators. They produce children who are well rounded, possess self-confidence and have the courage to venture out in the world (hence many of them leave the state)
• Iowans have well-calibrated B.S. detectors
• Iowa is the quintessential “pay as you go state.” We aren’t going bankrupt with over-mortgaged, under-water homes
• I would simply say the best thing about Iowa when it is all boiled down is the people and their general compassion, honesty and sincerity.

My social director and I came to the University of Iowa in 1974 and fell deeply love with this state. We consider ourselves naturalized Iowans and intend to leave our ashes here in the deep, dark, rich soil.

Iowa joined the union in 1846 just in time for the Civil War where, I am informed, it had the highest proportional casualties. Iowa is older than Italy. It has made many remarkable contributions. My favorite, which I share often, is that two Iowans were responsible for saving more lives in the 20th century than anyone else in the world.  These two remarkable men were Herbert Hoover, an engineer and great friend of Harry Truman, and Norman Borlaug, an agronomist. Check out their work by visiting institutions celebrating their lives in Des Moines and West Branch.

An Iowa historian helped me understand why I am so much more comfortable here than in Montana, where I was raised. The land was settled by farm families and the first thing they did after getting started was to build a church and a school. The sense of community and the tie to the land runs deep in this state.

The same historian showed pictures of Iowa farm life in the late 19th century as he was playing traditional, mostly religious, tunes from that time. This and the ensuing discussion of how Iowa values were formed was an enlightening and moving experience.

Iowa is the second-largest agricultural producer in the U.S. and with its Midwestern neighbors could easily feed the world.  Farming has become a hi- and bio-tech business. One of my favorite Iowa experiences was riding in the cab of a John Deere combine cutting beans. It was like being in the cockpit of a 747 (and about as high).

Iowa has 99 counties, each about 30 miles by 30 miles so a farmer could rig his wagon, go into the county seat, do his business and be home by sunset. The story about why we don’t have 100 is an amusing one. We have the only county in the U.S. named “fat pig,” in Spanish no less. Our grid of excellent roads with more bridges than any other state is thanks to the need for a farm-to-market transportation system.

Mr. Bloom, stop some time in a county seat – they are usually arranged around a town square, find a small family restaurant and have some fine food and good conversation. Begin by asking about planting, corn prices, land prices, harvesting or that perennial Iowa favorite, the weather. Start with these questions and you will soon be welcomed to an interesting conversation.

Economically, Iowa is a highly diversified state. Our two Fortune 500 companies are in avionics and finance. Iowa has a remarkable bottom-to-top educational system beginning with an excellent elementary and secondary public educational system.  With two world class universities, a wide array of fine private colleges, a community college system that has hit the sweet spot in education and one of the best teachers’ colleges in the country. Many people come to Iowa from across the world to obtain a fine education. We invite them to stay or return to their homelands with a fine picture of America.

Iowa is also a role model for good governance. Government here is responsive, honest and works for and with the people. We have a robust two-party system and a high tolerance for the views of others. Our caucus makes candidates visit with average Americans and hear about their concerns face-to-face.

Mr. Bloom, I hope you will spend some time getting to know the two things that make Iowa a fine place to live: The land and the people. When you return to Iowa, give me a call. We can have lunch at the internationally known Hamburg Inn and I can suggest a plan for you to learn about this remarkable place in the American breadbasket between two rivers.

John Langhorne is with Langhorne Associates. He can be reached at www.langhorneassociates.com. His new book, Beyond Luck: Practical Steps to Navigate the Path from Manager to Leader, is available at www.beyondluck.net.