By Joe Sheller / Guest Column
The year I graduated from Muscatine High School, 1976, a Des Moines journalist had purchased a lemon of a car that became a recurring character in his newspaper columns.
Donald Kaul was driving a finicky Mercury Capri. He was so vexed by the car that he named it the “Hope Capri,” as it caused bad luck like the Hope Diamond did – but even if it was iffy as transportation, it provided miles of entertainment for readers of his column.
On Jan. 11 of this year, Kyle Munson reported in the Des Moines Register that Kaul has ended treatment for cancer and does not expect to survive the year. He had retired from writing, and the world already sorely misses his voice.
I can’t mourn his passing yet – that seems unseemly for someone still alive – but I can look fondly back on the era that Kaul represents to me. Yes, I know he moved on from the Register in the 1980s, returned again, and for a while wrote columns for The Gazette. He also was, for many years, a syndicated columnist living in Washington, D.C.
But I didn’t grow up reading Kaul, the Pulitzer-nominated, syndicated columnist from the nation’s capital. For me, he was “Over the Coffee,” the distinctive Iowa writer whose morning column in the Register brightened my day.
Through him, I met Clarence Pickard, an elderly gentleman wearing a pith helmet on what was then the Great Six-Day Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. I loved reading about plucky Clarence, especially the way Donald Kaul wrote about him in 1973. The one-time bike holiday Kaul planned with fellow Register journalist John Karras proved so popular that it was repeated each year, eventually becoming the Iowa tradition known as RAGBRAI.
Kaul, who wanted to be a big-time political columnist, wryly admits that “co-founder of RAGBRAI” is more likely to be the opening line of his obituary.
The news that Donald Kaul won’t be with us much longer is sad, of course, but he wasn’t a personal friend of mine. While my heart goes out to his family, I don’t really know them. But I bet I’m not alone among Iowans of my generation in feeling a sense of loss at the reminder of Kaul’s mortality.
Donald Kaul was, in my mind, a buddy of mine during the important formative years of my life. I grew up in Iowa in the 1970s. My family were reverse migrants, moving from California to Iowa in 1966. My parents were also both news hounds, and we usually subscribed to at least three daily newspapers: in Muscatine, we got the local paper, the afternoon Journal, as well as two morning papers, the Quad City Times and the Des Moines Register.
The best of the three was “the Newspaper Iowa Depends Upon.” The Register had Frank Miller cartoons, the Big Peach sports section, the most interesting editorials and, most of all, “Over the Coffee.”
I didn’t always agree with Donald Kaul. He hated “The Sound of Music,” one of my guilty movie pleasures. He could be prickly and contentious; he was an opinionated writer who didn’t pull his punches.
But he was also witty, managing to express bemusement as much as outrage. He was a columnist’s columnist, and I do credit him partly with my desire to one day join the ranks of ink-stained wretches known as journalists.
Iowa media won’t see another figure like Kaul. While there are good columnists toiling away today providing insightful and entertaining commentary – some of them right here in the Corridor – Kaul’s distinctive voice was an Iowa institution in the 1970s. Back then, newspapers were simply a bigger deal, especially the Des Moines Register. Sure, we saw breaking news on TV, but if you wanted to understand the world, you read about it on newsprint.
On Jan. 27, the 2018 route for RAGBRAI was announced at a big celebration in Des Moines. Many years after that first bicycle lark in 1973, the bikes keep rolling across Iowa in an ongoing circus Donald Kaul helped unleash without fully understanding what he was doing.
There certainly could be worse eulogies than “he co-founded RAGBRAI.” My life as a newspaper reader would not have been as rich as it was without Kaul’s words in it. He named his Capri “Hope.” My hope was always rewarded on Sundays in the 1970s when the Register arrived at our doorstep. You could always count on “Over the Coffee.”
Joe Sheller is an associate professor of communication and journalism at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.