Archive | May, 2012

An Iowa Stater in Kentucky’s bluegrass region

29 May

We picked the best week of the year to be in Kentucky: Derby Week.

If a little kid’s year revolves around Christmas or summer vacation, a Kentuckian’s year revolves around Derby.

Like: You can’t wear white until after Derby. Or: You can plant tomatoes after Derby.

Julie Hunsinger Mink (’82 psychology, ’88 statistics) rarely goes to horseracing’s most famous event, the Kentucky Derby, held annually the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs in Louisville. (“I don’t like big crowds,” she says.) But she thoroughly embraces the weeks-long festivities filled with parties, fireworks, and fancy hats.

As for horse racing, Julie much prefers Keeneland, an older, more genteel racetrack in Lexington. Races are held at Keeneland for three weeks each spring and three weeks each fall. And, like Churchill Downs, spectators get dressed up and wear big hats.

“Getting dressed up is part of the fun,” Julie says. “You can’t wear the same hat twice.”

Julie was born in Lexington, but her family moved frequently for her father’s mining career. She lived in Iowa from 1977 to 1988, 10 years of which were spent in Ames. Twenty years ago she moved back to Kentucky to work at Investors Heritage Life Insurance Company in Frankfort, where she is currently the vice president and chief actuary.

Frankfort is the capital of Kentucky and home to two capitol buildings – an old one built in 1830 and a “new” capitol built in 1910. (Julie explained that there was a dispute between Louisville and Lexington over which city should be Kentucky’s capital – and somehow Frankfort was chosen.) Frankfort’s other claim to fame is a scenic cemetery built on a bluff overlooking the town and containing the grave of Daniel Boone.

During our visit to central Kentucky with Julie as our tour guide, we learned that bourbon can only be called bourbon if it’s produced in Kentucky. To illustrate, she took us to the Four Roses bourbon distillery in Lawrenceburg, Ky., where we tasted three different bourbon “recipes” (for research purposes only, of course.)

Although Julie calls Kentucky home – she lives in Lawrenceburg with her husband, Dick, and son, Shane — she still keeps in touch with her friends from Iowa State, reuniting with a large group every couple of years in different parts of the country.

“My Iowa State friends are the best friends ever,” she says. “They’re the people I have known the longest. They’ve known me at my best and at my worst.” This summer, they’re all headed for Ames.

“I couldn’t be prouder of the fact that I’m an Iowa State graduate,” she says. “We’re few and far between in Kentucky.”

North Carolina, by design

23 May

When Jeanne Mercer-Ballard was in second grade, her teacher asked the students in her class to write down on a piece of paper what they wanted to be when they grew up. Jeanne wrote:




Well, OK, so she’s not a stunt woman.

Jeanne did grow up to be an interior design professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., where she teaches classes in visual literacy and environmentally sensitive design. She’s also worked as an interior designer in Chicago, Kansas City, and Charlotte, N.C.

She lives with her husband, their two young children, and a dog in a passive solar home on 10 acres in rural Zionville, an area surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s the proximity to the mountains and outdoor activities that attracted her to the area.

“I remember the first time I came to Boone,” she said. “I was here for the weekend, and it was a cool July night. I got out of the car and just started skipping. I loved the climate.”

Jeanne (’89 interior design) is originally from Nebraska City, Neb. She and her family enjoy hiking and just generally “being outside, getting muddy.”

It’s a big country

10 May

As we were driving along on our latest VISIONS Across America trip (to Kentucky, North Carolina, and Virginia), Jim observed, “It’s a big honking country.” Actually, he may not have said “honking;” I cleaned up the quote a bit because this is a family-friendly blog. But I agree: This is a BIG country. We drove 2,700 miles last week, much of it off the interstate highway system, so we were in the car for a very, very long time.

It’s worth it, though. This project just keeps showing me more and more that Iowa State alumni are doing amazing things, many in their own quiet way.

Our first state was Kentucky, and, yes, we were there during Derby week but we didn’t attend a race. We did meet with two alumni who are involved with horses: Julie Hunsinger Mink (’82 psychology, ’88 statistics), who loves to go to the races, and Scott Kendall (’84 DVM), an equine veterinarian. Both live near the Lexington area, which may be the most beautiful part of the state. Those horse farms are absolutely stunning.

Julie is the chief actuary for Investors Heritage Life in Frankfort. She took us on a tour of central Kentucky, from the Keeneland race track to the Four Roses bourbon distillery (above) to the historic capital of Frankfort. (I promise, we just had a sip of that bourbon. I am not a big fan.)

As you can imagine, Scott (shown at left with his vet clinic on wheels) is very busy tending to horses in the area, plus he and his wife Elise have a horse farm of their own. Scott is a veterinarian at the Woodford Equine Hospital in Versailles, Ky.

We left Kentucky and took a winding road to Boone, N.C. (Mapquest suggested we take Interstate 75, but Jim prefers the “scenic route.”) I will admit it was quite beautiful, and we went through a lot of cool little towns.

In Boone we met with Joe Otto, a 2007 history grad who is in graduate school at Appalachian State University. Boone is an awesome place, and we had a great time with Joe, learning about his area of study and hiking at the Julian Price Memorial Park, a short drive down the Blue Ridge Parkway. Just as I am not a big fan of Kentucky bourbon, I am not a big fan of falling into a creek. So thanks, Joe, for keeping me on my feet the whole way.

Coincidentally, our next alum visit was also in Boone: Jeanne Mercer-Ballard (’89 interior design), an interior design professor at Appalachian State. Jeanne lives in a passive solar home on 10 acres in nearby Zionville. We met with her on a busy day: all of her design students were displaying their final projects on campus.

More long and winding roads took us next to Staunton, Va., another very cool town, and nearby Verona, home of alumna Jane Cornelius Steele (’74 family environment). Jane’s story caught my attention when she wrote that, “I’m nestled in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia … living on a river and raising chickens.” Jane made us a delicious breakfast (so much better than the continental breakfasts we’d been eating in our hotels), and we got to meet the chickens. Jane has had a multifaceted career in physical therapy and health communications.

We couldn’t be so close to Shenandoah National Park without stopping by after our work was done. Unfortunately, the park was socked in with dense fog. Or maybe it’s actually fortunate, because if it wouldn’t have been foggy we might still be there.

Welcome to…

5 May

Jim and I are putting some serious miles on the rental car. Yesterday we were in four states. We started our day in Kentucky, crossed briefly into Virginia and Tennessee, and ended up in North Carolina. I had a bit of a scare at the Tennessee state line because the area right in front of the welcome sign where we had our photo taken was thick with poison ivy. I was wearing sandals. After I tromped through it, Jim mentioned the poison ivy. Great timing! I scrubbed my feet and hoped for the best – and didn’t end up breaking out.

So far we’ve met with four alumni; tomorrow we meet a fifth. Right now we’re in Staunton, Va. We’re having a great trip, meeting some really interesting folks, and enjoying this truly spectacular part of the United States.

I’ll write more when I get back to Ames and post Jim’s pictures!