des moines, Iowa, life, Media, mental health

Dead mentors leave clues as to when I feel like a real teacher

I knew my days in newspapers were almost over when I wrote the obituaries for Ken Fuson and Robert D. Woodward on the same day.

Ken was the best writer any of us at the Register have ever known. He may have been the best writer in the history of the Register.

He was a good, kind friend, whose faith rescued him from the evils of gambling addiction.

I think of Ken often, especially when I spill something on my shirt.

Ken always said he couldn’t get through a day without spilling food on his shirt. The same foible afflicts me.

I have lunch with Randy Evans, likely the best Iowa newsman anyone will ever know. I spilled some salad dressing on my shirt.

He saw it.

We both pointed to the sky.

“Kenny’s with us,” we said.

Woodward was the best teacher I ever had. He taught journalism at Drake University.

When he died, it hurt as bad as when my own father died, though I had not talked to Woodward for some time.

I called Lee Ann Colacioppo, one of Woodward’s students, like me, and one of my former editors.

We had both cried some that day.

She told me Woodward was the one person that she still actively tried to please with every decision she made as an editor.

That’s how good of a teacher Woodward was.

His lessons stayed in your head decades after you left his classroom.

I can’t tell you how many opening paragraphs I’ve re-written because of Woodward’s “it is” rule.

“There are 470,000 words in the English language,” Woodward said. “Surely you can find two that are better than ‘it’ and ‘is’ to begin a story.”

I wrote those obituaries in January 2020. I lost my job in May that year due to corporate cutbacks and the pandemic.

They tell you it isn’t personal. It sure feels that way.

My last two or three years in journalism stunk. The company had fallen in love with algorithms and metrics.

Stories that got clicks and shares were good, regardless of the topic. Stories that didn’t weren’t.

I tried to light up that metrics board. Sometimes I did. But I didn’t more often than I did, and it worked on my gut and my brain.

Only now do I realize that them cutting me loose was a blessing. I could finally lay down my notebook and pencil after 27 years. My fight was over.

I am a middle school teacher in Des Moines now.

I start work on Aug. 11.

I don’t know when I will feel like a real teacher.

I feel like an imposter at present. I had moments during student teaching in the western suburbs when I was close to being something that approximated a teacher if you squinted in the right light.

But soon I will have 150 sixth graders reading and writing.

I think the day I tell a student the number of words in the English language and how good an idea it is to use ones different than “it is” to begin a story, I will know Woodward is with me.

And I might just feel like a teacher then, too.

By the way, I’m not going anywhere.

I will still stack paragraphs on my blog.

I will still podcast with my buddy Memphis Paul.

I’ll still be doing some writing for the Marion County Express.

Fundraising will drop back to just once a year, to cover the expenses of the website.

You can kick the newsman out of the newsman, but you really can’t stop a writer from writing.

I will be a teacher.

I’m already a writer.

All that’s left is to keep moving forward.

Daniel P. Finney writes columns for the Marion County Express.

Daniel P. Finney wrote for newspapers for 27 years before being laid off in 2020. He teaches middle school English now. He writes columns and podcasts for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating $10 a month to help him cover the expenses of this site.
Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311.
Zelle: newsmanone@gmail.com.
Venmo@newsmanone.
PayPalpaypal.me/paragraphstacker.

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des moines, Iowa, life, Media, People, Pop Culture

Will Drake Jethro’s ever reopen? Its biggest fan’s heart says ‘yes,’ but all visible signs point to ‘no’

The black-and-white Instagram post shows chairs turn up on tables and neon lights look hot white in the otherwise darkened bar.

The caption reads: “Closing time at #Jethro’s 1.0, the original and my favorite. They say they’ll be back by March after a remodel. I miss it already. Until Jethro’s 2.0.”

I posted the picture on Dec. 9, 2021.

March came and with it the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

Jethro’s remained dark.

The Drake Relays came at the end of April.

The parking lot was filled with cars, but the doors to my favorite restaurant and watering hole remained locked.

The state track meet ran this weekend. Again, the parking lot was filled. Again, Jethro’s remained closed.

Student teaching kept me in the northwest corner of the metro since January, but I still live in the Drake University neighborhood, as I have for all but two of the 18 years since I moved back to the city from St. Louis.

Jethro’s BBQ opened in 2008 and was an instant treasure to the neighborhood.

It brought a bright spot to the then-dismal Forest Avenue side of Drake’s campus.

With all the development on University Avenue around campus, it’s hard to remember that a dozen years ago, Mars Café, China Place, and Jimmy John’s were the pillars of off-campus life.

That’s not a knock on any of those establishments. I’ve eaten many roast beef sandwiches from Jimmy John’s and gotten takeout from China Place.

I’ve sat for our sipping a cup of coffee at Mars and trying to look important and writerly hunched over my laptop.

But Jethro’s was my place. I got to know the staff so well I knew their schedules.

When I was a columnist for the local newspaper, I picked up a lot of story ideas at Jethro’s just listening to what people talked about at the bar.

I don’t drink much, but I gulped down iced tea over boneless wings, burgers, brisket, ham, jalapeno cream corn, and macaroni and cheese.

I got to know my fellow customers, first by their faces and then by names.

I often closed the restaurant, staying late to talk to my favorite bartenders or managers.

I became friends with Bruce Gerleman, Jethro’s owner.

Jethro’s became a franchise. The original at Drake spawned one in Johnston, Ankeny, Altoona, West Des Moines, Waukee, Ames, and a southside store in the old Orlando’s Pizza building.

It irked Bruce when I called that one Jethlandos.

I ran into Bruce some months back, around the holidays I think, out at the Waukee restaurant. We chatted.

I asked him about the Drake store. He said big things were coming.

Bruce always says that. He’s not lying. He’s just positive that way. He’s a real estate man and restaurant mogul.

In his mind, big things are always coming.

This doesn’t seem true for the Drake Jethro’s.

I don’t know if Drake Jethro’s will ever reopen.

Bruce said it would.

I don’t share his rosy assessment.

To be fair, I haven’t peeked in the windows. I don’t know if renovations are underway.

The truth is I’m afraid to look because I worry the answer is no.

They’ve done a good job keeping the lot clean. The bit of grass by the restaurant is mowed. Weeds aren’t poking up through the cracks in the lot.

But it’s been so long.

People’s habits change so quickly.

David Halberstam, one of America’s greatest journalists, wrote a book about the 1949 American League pennant race.

He described what it was like for a rookie to take the place of an established star.

The first year, they say the new kid isn’t as good as the old star.

The second year, they say the new kid is all right, but he’s not the old star.

In the third year, they say “What old star?”

Twenty-first-century life moves faster than baseball in 1949.

I fear the Drake Jethro’s has faded from people’s memory.

There are new restaurants along University Avenue. The old guitar show is now a burger joint. There’s a variety of diverse new cuisines across from Old Main.

Mars, China Place, and Jimmy John’s are still open.

Forest has gotten more crowded. Casey’s opened a convenience store without gas across the street from Jethro’s.

There’s a Mexican restaurant on the site of a former Taco Bell-KFC where the lot is filled with cars only — unlike Drake Jethro’s — people can go inside and eat a meal.

Maybe it’s ridiculous to put up this fuss for the restaurant.

There are plenty of Jethro’s in town. And I occasionally get my fix at them.

But it’s not the same. My people have all scattered to different locations. I miss them as much as the food.

The regulars are regulars somewhere else.

I know this is silly, but one night I got takeout from the Jethro’s in West Des Moines. I drove to the Drake Jethro’s lot.

I turned off the car, put on the radio, and rolled down the windows.

I ate and thought about the old days. I could see all the TVs were gone.

The Christmas wreaths were still on the roof and the Christmas lights lit up at dusk.

The neon signs still glowed. A few had burned out. I saw the Ruthie beer sign that always begged Bruce to give me one. I’m a fan of local pop culture and things that light up.

I finished my food. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this felt like visiting a grave.

I drove away before a cop came by and asked what I was doing loitering in the parking lot of a closed restaurant.

If it was up to me, Drake Jethro’s would return.

But it isn’t.

All I can hope is that Drake Jethro’s was.

And it might be again.


Daniel P. Finney wrote for newspapers for 27 years before being laid off in 2020. He teaches middle school English now. He writes columns and podcasts for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating $10 a month to help him cover the expenses of this site.
Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311.
Zelle: newsmanone@gmail.com.
Venmo@newsmanone.
PayPalpaypal.me/paragraphstacker.

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des moines, humor, Iowa, life, Media, TV

Bumper stickers: Irritating free speech or secret coded messages to members of lost Gen X tribe

Bumper stickers covered the rear end of the smallish SUV in front of me.

The owner of the car, or one of their kids, really wanted me to know some things about them.

They wanted me to know that people from all religions could get along with the sticker that read “Coexist” using a variety of religious iconography.

They wanted me to know who they voted for in the last two elections.

They wanted me to know where they went to college.

They also wanted me to know someone they loved had died, including what year they were born and what year they died, and that they had dedicated their rear window to the memory of this person.

I knew more about this person than I really wanted to, especially for someone who was just in front of me in traffic.

I believe in unfettered free speech, even when it’s annoying or inconvenient.

I could do without the bumper stickers, but that space belonged to the car’s owner.

I used to own a car in which I placed one sticker inside the car on the passenger side above the glove box.

It read “War is over (If you want it),” a quote from a John Lennon song I loved.

The sticker stayed with the car when I traded it on my current wheels. I imagine someone peeled it off with a razor blade.

I typically don’t put identifying things on my vehicles.

In my old job as a newspaper reporter, I didn’t want to call attention to my car.

There were a lot of people who might take their frustrations out on my vehicle if they couldn’t find me.

I didn’t even have a Drake University license plate holder; there’s no place I’m prouder to be associated with than Drake.

I’m not a newspaper reporter anymore, and, to modify a line from Mark Twain, I shall try to do right and be good so God will not make one again.

So, I allow myself one bumper sticker.

It reads “WKRP 1530 AM, Cincinnati’s No. 1 Rock Station.”

This is a secret code. Only people from my tribe will understand it. My tribe is the Lost People of Gen X. We had a moment about 30 years ago. Now people just complain about Millennials, Gen Z, and other made-up things to divide us against one another.

I don’t really have a tribe. I just have a small group of people with the same shared cultural experience.

I just finished student teaching. I referenced “WKRP.” Neither the youngsters nor the teachers I worked for knew what it meant.

That’s fine.

It’s not for them.

The sticker is for people who remember when there were three channels plus PBS.

The sticker is for people who worried that if they missed an episode of their favorite show, they might never see it again.

The sticker is for people who spend a summer wondering who shot J.R., sobbed when Hawkeye took the last chopper out of the 4077th and saw B.J.’s “Goodbye” written in rocks on the ground, and stayed up way past bedtime to watch David Letterman smash things — including a Mr. T doll — in an 800-pound drill press.

I’ve had the sticker on my bumper for some years now.

People acknowledged exactly twice.

Once, I parked outside a UPS store. On the way out, a lady stopped me and asked if it was my car.

Who wants to know? I asked.

She thought the “WKRP” bumper sticker was hilarious.

She’s right. It is.

The second came the other night when I was sitting at the ice cream shop near my apartment.

The show owner leaned on my window and asked me about the sticker.

The ice cream shop used to sell Maytag appliances. The shop owner got to know Gordon Jump, who played the bored Maytag repairman in commercials.

The gag was Maytag machines, made in Newton, were so reliable they never broke down and the dullest job in the world was Maytag repairman.

Maytag ran that campaign for decades, until Whirlpool bought them out, and did away with the Maytag brand — and scores of jobs in Newton.

Jump also played Mr. Carlson on “WKRP in Cincinnati,” the show which my bumper sticker references.

The ice cream shop owner reported Gordon was a gentleman, the type of guy you could invite to church with you.

The previous actor, though, had a foul mouth and you had to be careful with him, the ice cream shop man said.

I had a pleasant talk with the ice cream shop owner. We both agreed that the Thanksgiving episode of “WKRP” was one of the funniest things we ever saw on TV.

The ice cream shop guy gets it.

He’s part of the tribe.

If you don’t get it, that’s OK. It wasn’t for you.

Daniel P. Finney writes columns for the Marion County Express.


Daniel P. Finney wrote for newspapers for 27 years before being laid off in 2020. He teaches middle school English now. He writes columns and podcasts for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating $10 a month to help him cover the expenses of this site.
Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311.
Zelle: newsmanone@gmail.com.
Venmo@newsmanone.
PayPalpaypal.me/paragraphstacker.

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