Thursday, September 15, 2005

Storyteller Offenburger Cranks Out a 502-Page Gem on Bernie Saggau

If anyone can put together 502 pages of the written word and make everything sing, it's Chuck Offenburger.

Everybody in our state knows Offenburger. He's the former "Iowa Boy" columnist at the Des Moines Register, and he has become a well-known author. He's a tremendous feature writer, but in my opinion even a better reporter.

He's a guy I'd trust to handle any reporting assignment on any subject.

Offenburger's newest finished project is a soft-cover book titled "Bernie Saggau & the Iowa Boys." It's subtitled, "The Centennial History of the Iowa High School Athletic Association."

Among his earlier books are: "Iowa Boy: Ten Years of Columns by Chuck Offenburger," "Babe: An Iowa Legend," "Ah, You Iowans! At Home, At Work, At Play, At War!" "Don't Look Back.....we aren't going that way! The Bill Krause Story" and "E. Wayne Cooley and the Iowa Girl: A celebration of the nation's best high school girls sports program."

"Now I'm deep into another book project that's just as much fun--'Gary Thompson: All-American'--coming during the basketball season," Offenburger said.

The Iowa High School Athletic Association says the Saggau book is "the most comprehensive history of boys' high school athletics in the reads like a storybook of sports vignettes and an encyclopedia of information about the Iowa High School Athletic Association. The book highlights the programs and events that have helped build the association as one of the most admired sports programs in the U.S.

"The purpose of this book is to pay tribute to the life and career of Bernie Saggau--a man who devoted much of his professional carer to the development of the association. As Chuck Offenburger recalls Saggau's 37 years as executive director, readers are treated to some amazing stories about athletes, coaches, referees, administrators, media and fans who have come to realize that there may be no better place to be a high school athlete than in Iowa....."

As expected, Offenburger has been on the go since the book has been out.

"We've got the book off to a good start," he told me. "The Iowa Farm Bureau sponsored our launch of it on Sunday, Aug. 14, at the Iowa State Fair with Bernie and I both there, and we had a great start.

"It's hitting the bookstores now. Also, the IHSAA is donating a hardbound copy to every library in the state -- high schools' and public -- which is a real nice touch.

"I went to Waterloo [recently] and did KWWL-TV's 10:30 p.m. "SportsPlus" show with Chris Kolkhorst, then did radio the next morning on KWAY in Waverly with Dave Michaels and Kelly Neff, then spoke at the Downtown Rotary Club in Waterloo [sold 40 books as fast as I could sign them afterward] and then signed books for two hours at Barnes & Noble in Waterloo late in the afternoon.

"Earlier, I've done 'Talk of Iowa' with Rob Dillard on WOI-AM, 'Two Guys
Named Jim' with you know who [Jim Zabel and Jim Walden] on WHO, 'The Big Show' with Ken Root on WHO, the morning show with Jim Field on KJAN in Atlantic.

"There's starting to be a lot of press reaction as people are getting their
review copies read. Several columnists have used it as a jumping off point
to tell some great stories about their own athletic careers or about
athletes in their areas.....The Register hasn't reviewed it yet, but they've cited it several times -- especially my list of the 25 greatest Iowa high school boy athletes of the past 100 years.

"As far as my adventures in writing it, take a good read of the preface. I
pretty well tell the story there. Of course, I love the Robert James Waller
story there, and Waller has been great to work with subsequently, too.
You'll notice he gave us a quote to use in the promo, and he almost never
does that."

In the preface, Offenburger writes, "It's amazing how quickly phone calls are returned, if you leave word that you want to talk to somebody about their high school sports experience.

"My favorite story about that involves Robert James Waller, the internationally-known author of 'Bridges of Madison County' and other books. Many will remember that Waller was a professor of business at the University of Northern Iowa when 'Bridges' was published in 1992 and quickly became one of the biggest successes in book publishing history.

"Despite the proven popularity of the book, many in the media--including some colleagues of mine at the Des Moines Register--made fun of the story and of Waller. It was unseemly, they wrote, that a business professor, a good thinker and a serious writer would win such fame and financial reward for what they characterized as a shallow love story.

"He was the target of some real cheap shots, even in the Register, the newspaper that had launched him as a writer in the 1980s when it began publishing his essays on a wide variety of topics. Waller thereafter began refusing interview requests from Register reporters and columnists, a policy he has basically followed ever since.

"Several times over the years, I attempted to reach him, usually through our mutual friend, J.R. Ackley of Marble Rock, Ia. I would point out that I had known Waller 15 years before he ever became famous, and that I'd never written anything critical about him--before or after 'Bridges.' In fact, I wrote favorably about his UNI career, about his visionary thinking about Iowa's future and even about how he conceived the idea for 'Bridges' and put the story together.

"But he'd never talk to me, although he generally would later send me word that it was 'nothing personal against you.' He'd just been so personally wounded by the Register's scorn that he did not want to talk to anybody who was writing for the paper--or had written for it, as became clear after I left it in 1998. I still occasionally sought interviews with him, unsuccessfully.

"There were two things about Waller that made me want to try once again to talk to him, for this book. First I remembered being told years ago about what an outstanding basketball player he was at little Rockford High School in north central Iowa, where he graduated in 1957. He had one of the finest jump shots ever, people said, and he went on to use it both for the University of Iowa Hawkeyes and ultimately for the Panthers of what today is the University of Northern Iowa. Second, I had pulled out my copy of his essay 'Jump Shots,' which was originally published in the Register. It is one of the finest sports stories I've ever read anywhere. Actually, it's a story about the pursuit of excellence. Waller tells it through the metaphor of how he developed his jump shot back home in Rockford, where it took him and why he eventually decided to walk away from it. I wanted to ask if he'd help arrange permission from the book publisher that now owns the essay, for it to be published in this book.

"So on Sunday evening, May 23, 2004, I got back in touch with J.R. Ackley and told him I'd really appreciate him contacting Waller in Texas about a possible interview. 'Tell him about this book and that I want to talk to him about his basketball experience in high school at Rockford,' I told him, 'and ask how I can get permission to use 'Jump Shots' in this book.' Ackley was polite as ever. 'Oh, Chuck, I'll get in touch with him, but you know how he is on this stuff,' he said. 'He's never said 'yes' yet, so I doubt he will now. But I will ask him.'

"Just before 8 a.m. the next morning, May 24, 2004, I was out front of our house, putting up our American flag to start another day. Suddenly, my wife Carla opened the front door and, with a special urgency, yelled, 'You better get in here right now!' What was the matter? 'Nothing's wrong! Robert James Waller is on the phone for you! Get in here!'

"He could not have been more congenial as he talked at length about basketball and other sports in his Rockford boyhood, about his college sports experiences and about his evolving view of sports since then. It told me a lot about Waller that he not only knew where his old Rockford High basketball coach Paul Filter is today, but said that he talks to him frequently. In fact, he gave me the coach's phone number, encouraging me to call him. And in several follow-up conversations and messages, Waller indeed helped arrange permission for 'Jump Shots' to appear here [in the book]."

Offenburger was kind enough to mention me a couple of times in his book.

On Pages 375 and 376, while talking about the late Nile Kinnick--the University of Iowa's only Heisman Trophy winner--he writes:

"Among the most insightful resources about him in his college and young adult years is a 2003 book 'Tales from the Iowa Sidelines' by retired Des Moines Register sportswriter Ron Maly. He portrays Kinnick as a brilliant and complex young man.

"Maly notes that Kinnick was raised in the Christian Science Church, a faith with pacifist leanings, although not as much as the Quakers. While Kinnick was not particularly active in the church while at Iowa, old college friends told Maly he did follow the news closely and was concerned about the threat of war. But, then, nearly all college men were worried. They knew who would be fighting the war if indeed the U.S. was drawn into it.

"Many people can quote Kinnick's speech when he accepted the Heisman Trophy in New York City in late 1939--two years before World War II began--especially his concluding thought:'.....I thank God I was warring on the gridirons of the Midwest and not on the battlefields of Europe. I can speak confidently and positively that the players of this country would much more, much rather struggle and fight to win the Heisman award than the Croix de Guerre.'

"His speech is generally regarded as one of the best ever given during the Heisman ceremonies. When you look back on it with an understanding of Kinnick's religious tradition, knowledge of his concern about the war and then think about his death in military service three years later, it makes the dramatic conclusion to his speech all the more powerful and poignant.

"'Some people back then might have branded him an isolationist,'" Maly told me. 'I think some of those guys who covered his speech--some of those New Yorek guys--wrote that Kinnick may have had isolationist views.' Maly said from what he learned in his research and interviews, 'I don't feel Kinnick wanted to go into the military, but he felt he had to.'

"During the U.S. presidential campaign in 1940, Kinnick--then apparently a law student at the University of Iowa--went to Iowa Falls when Republican candidate Wendell Willkie was making an appearance aboard a whistle-stop campaign on a train. Maly leawrned from former Des Moines Register political writer George Mills that Kinnick introduced Willkie to the crowd that day. Willkie had been an isolationist, but by the time the Republicans nominated him, he had started to broaden his view. And two years later, after he had been defeated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, he was fully supporting the war effort and stood with Roosevelt in advocating continued international involvement when and if peace resumed.....

"'He captured the imagination of an entire nation,' Maly wrote in the introduction to his book. 'In my conversation with those who knew him, played with him and played against him, I am convinced Kinnick was destined for greatness beyond the football field. He remains the most dynamic player in the 113-year history of football at the university....."

On Page 388, Offenburger writes about Jack Dittmer, who became a standout athlete at Iowa after playing at Elkader High School.

"'Despite his light weight, Dittmer never backed away from a collision on the football field,' wrote Ron Maly in a story in 1988 when Dittmer was inducted into the Des Moines Register's Iowa Sports Hall of Fame. 'Following a rare Iowa victory over Ohio State in 1948, Dittmer was asked about a run-in with the Buckeyes' 220-pound Joe Wisler. Although Wisler had steamrolled him, Dittmer said: 'Did you see me take him on? I wonder if he's out of the hospital yet.'"

Offenburger, who does his writing at what he calls "Simple Serenity Farm" in Greene County, Ia., is scheduling more book signings. He has one Saturday from 10:30 a.m.t o 12:30 p.m. at Barnes & Noble in Jordan Creek Mall in West Des Moines.

"Just me, no Bernie that day," he said.

Also coming up:

Sunday, Sept. 25 -- Greene County Arts Council's Fall Festival, old Pleasant Hill Church southeast of Jefferson, 12 to 5 p.m., with Bernie joining Offenburger from 2 to 4 p.m.

A weeknight September 27, 28 or 29, not yet set -- "Bernie Saggau Chicken Fried Steak Night" at Cronk's Cafe in his hometown of Denison. Anybody who
wants to join us can eat what's been Bernie's favorite meal at Cronk's since
his high school years, then we'll tell a few stories and sign books.

In September or October, on a date and time to be determined -- The Public Library in the northwest Iowa community of Lytton, the hometown of Bernie's
successor Rick Wulkow. "Bernie, Rick and I will all be there to tell
stories, reminisce and sign books."

"More at book stores as the holiday season approaches," Offenburger said. "The easiest way to get the book is on the IHSAA site on the Internet, and
this is a bit of a tricky address so note it carefully:


From a central Iowa man who has his ear to the door:

"I just heard today that Iowa State may have a new athletic director named by the end of the weekend. I heard three names as possibilities, all of which surprised me.

"One is Steve Burgason [remember him from his basketball-playing days?], Keith Tribble [executive director of the Orange Bowl and a 'diversity' candidate], and the biggest surprise.....DAN McCARNEY.

"My source is pretty good, but not the same one who tipped me off on Bobby Elliott [being the next director]. Would Coach Mac move 'up' and hire Bobby to be the next head coach?

"Sometimes these things sound more like soap operas than sports."

[RON MALY'S COMMENTS: With all the success McCarney is having now, I can't believe he's ready to hang it up as Iowa State's football coach. But I could sure see him wanting to be in a position--and athletic director is certainly one of those positions--where he can control the football operation. Burgason lettered as an Iowa State basketball player in 1974, 1975, 1977 and 1978.]


This e-mail is from Sandy Madden:


"Correct me if I'm wrong, but I was a little dismayed at a comment that [Iowa coach] Kirk Ferentz made--'We were not ready for this.' Far be it for me to question his reasoning behind that, but I would think you should be ready for anything that is handed to you on game day. But either that was an embarrassment to the Hawkeye teams and fans, or they are overrated. I was just sick about it. That comment didn't help. This game is always the game of the year, and we fans are bewildered and embarrassed. It might be a long season for the Hawks! Thanks for your time."

Sandy Madden

[RON MALY'S COMMENTS: Sandy is referring, of course, to the Hawkeyes' 23-3 loss last Saturday at Iowa State. Even though Iowa was thoroughly outplayed and lots of Hawkeye fans are saying that Ferentz was outcoached by Iowa State's Dan McCarney, the season certainly isn't over. Iowa will snap back Saturday to beat a good Northern Iowa team and still has a chance to finish 8-3 or 7-4. Overrated? Yes. But that's what a last-second victory in the Capital One Bowl will do!]


Here's another e-mail about the mailbox that was stolen from the Hawkeye fan living in Cyclone Country:


"How about us Cyclone fans living here in Hawkeye you think that's a piece of cake? Hawk fans can be nasty too...And who says it had to be a Cy fan, huh? Maybe a Hawk fan just admired their mailbox and flag. There's probably about as many Hawk fans in Boone as Cyclone."

Teri Johnson

[RON MALY'S COMMENTS: I agree, all fans--Cyclone, Hawkeye, Bulldog, Panther, Buckeye, Wolverine, you name 'em, can be nasty. But Sandy Madden and her husband are no doubt still wondering what happened to their Hawkeye mailbox].


An Iowan identified as "The Old Sod Guy" sent this e-mail after I wrote that officials at the University of Iowa plan to replace the sad-looking field at Kinnick Stadium with new sod following Saturday's game:

"I've laid a bunch of sod in my lifetime, and I doubt like hell that it'll take root in that short a time. I predict that it will be reduced to running crawlers."

[RON MALY'S COMMENTS: The folks at Iowa say the new field will be ready when the Hawkeyes play their homecoming game Oct. 1 against Illinois. We'll see].


The column I wrote recently about the local paper relying on coverage from newspapers in such cities as Sioux City and Council Bluffs when Des Moines and suburban Des Moines teams play football games there brought this e-mail from a guy who has been around the news business a long time:

"Terrific observations about the Register's sports non-coverage. Reminds me of the Frank Eyerly days. As you may remember, he didn't know [or care] a damn thing about sports, so Bobby Price and/or Leighton Housh had to go to Eyerly and explain why it was necessary to cover, say, a far-away game that featured an Iowa team. It's outrageous that important local events aren't covered by Register staffers."

[RON MALY'S COMMENTS: Bob Price was a longtime and very good sports news editor at the Register, Leighton Housh was the under-appreciated executive sports editor who worked under Sec Taylor and managed the department both during Sec's life and after he died. Frank Eyerly was the paper's managing editor, and didn't know a football from a badminton racquet. It's a good thing the paper had guys like Price and Housh or the sports department in those days or it wouldn't have been called the "world's greatest." Man, how times have changed. Now some of the high school games don't even get covered!]


Another e-mailer who has the handle "I'm No Expert"--but definitely comes across as an expert--covers the waterfront with these thoughts:

"Lotsa good stuff in your column this week, from [Ralph] Gross to Wayne Morgan. I think the idea of a Reader Advisory Board stinks. A newspaper is not a democracy. Bully that he was, Frank Eyerly, for example, put out a damn good newspaper. Even such a mild-mannered guy as Chuck Reynolds needed no committee to advise him on news judgment. Newspaper editors need to be strong leaders--dictators, if you please. Creating an advisory board to second-guess them only weakens their authority; an editor should be responsible to only the publisher.

"I agree that the Hawkeyes' defeat last Saturday is not the end of the world, but I am concerned about [Drew] Tate. Time may prove him to be a fine quarterback, but he also has benefited from a lot of luck. That final play of last year's season was dramatic as hell, but it also was mighty lucky. Further, Tate has shown that he can scramble to complete passes. Knowing this from last year, other teams will be prepared for Tate this season. Guys like Fran Tarkenton aside, most scramblers don't fare well over the long haul. I just hope Tate isn't overrated. But I'm no expert."

[RON MALY'S COMMENTS: Ralph Gross is the Des Moines man who ripped the local paper a new asshole in the Columbia Journalism Review as he wound up his term on the paper's reader advisory board. Wayne Morgan is the Iowa State basketball coach who is winning lots of games, but some Cyclone fans evidently are questioning his bench coaching. Drew Tate, of course, is the Iowa quarterback who tried to make a tackle early in the loss to Iowa State and left the game with a concussion. Tate's performance in the Capital One Bowl last January got him on some early Heisman Trophy watch lists and he was voted the preseason offensive player of the year in the Big Ten. "I'm No Expert" is correct when he says Tate has been lucky at times as a Hawkeye. But I still think he can be pretty good. All of us can take another look at him after the Ohio State [Sept. 24] and Michigan [Oct. 22] games].


Gordy Scoles of Bennettsville, S.C., sent this e-mail:


"Just read your article regarding the coverage of high school football by the
Register. I've included three paragraphs I used in my book, 'Best In The
Land: The First Half-Century of Nashua High School Football,' which further
illustrate the point you made in your article. 'Ron Maly, who covered high
school sports for the Des Moines Register, cautioned about the hazards of
prejudging Iowa high school football, and how prejudgment of the approaching
1960 season manifested itself clearly in two teams: Mason City and Nashua. On
the one hand, Mason City loomed, as a team with the potential to be one of the
best in the state, and on the other, Nashua was a team whose glory days were
seen as maybe soon ending.' Your article from August, 1960, accurately
predicted our season and you even quoted a rival coach who said, "They may
win the Corn Bowl Conference again, but it doesn't seem to me they'll be as
strong as they have been. They could lose a few this time." We were 5-3
after going 23-1-3 the previous three seasons. But our records weren't the
point: you and the Register regularly covered the big schools and the small
schools in the old days. I'm sure we complained that not enough was being
written about us when Jack North had us ranked No. 1 among small schools in
1959. We'd really have something to gripe about today. Thanks for the article."

Gordy Scoles

[RON MALY'S COMMENTS: Good hearing from you again, Gordy. The best of luck on your new book].


A Des Moines-area woman writes about the popular Sunday night show "Sound Off" on WHO-TV:


"I like SOUND OFF and I usually watch it, but I get very tired of Andy Fales portraying an angry, pouty guy. He seems like a nice person, but I wish he would use a different "shtick." Even his comments with Keith during the show seem to give the appearance that he is unhappy or sullen. I realize that his attitude may be contrived for the show, but I usually brush my teeth during WHAT'S BUGGING ANDY!"

[RON MALY'S COMMENTS: Actually, Andy Fales is a very nice guy. Heck, so is Keith Murphy. But at least "Des Moines-Area Woman" has clean teeth, and Fales and Murphy should be happy about that].


Bud Appleby of Des Moines, in an e-mail titled "The New Register Editor," sends this from an article in 2000:

"The Idaho Statesman has a curious definition of 'fact checking.' The business editor of the Gannett-owned daily, Jim Bartimo, resigned when he was told that a story he had worked on about Micron Technologies, the area's largest employer, had to be sent for pre-publication 'review'... to Micron Technologies. As the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz reported, (1/17/00) the Statesman described letting the subject of a news report review it before it runs as 'good journalism,' and the possibility of a journalistic conflict 'laughable.' Interestingly, in following up on that story, Kurtz learned that the Idaho Statesman's previous business editor says he was fired from the paper for writing too critical a lead on a story guessed it, Micron Technologies. Kurtz's February 7 article noted that the Statesman reporter covering Micron is married to a Micron employee. None of this is a problem for Statesman editor Carolyn Washburn, who says, "It's not that it has anything to do with their being the biggest employer. What we write can affect a lot of people in this community. It can affect the stock price."

[RON MALY'S COMMENTS: Carolyn Washburn, who was named editor of the local paper a couple of weeks ago, was executive editor of the Idaho Statesman in Boise since 1999. I wished her good luck a while back, and I'll say it again now. As they say in the big offices at Gannett, she'll need it in this town. Good luck, I mean].

Vol. 4, No. 376
Sept. 15, 2005