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The Sparkle Lady

1 Jun

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It’s impolite to ask a lady’s age, and Shirley Whipple Koenen isn’t about to tell you hers. But she jokes that you can, more or less, figure it out when she reveals that she and her husband, Leonard, had been married 50 years as of November 2011.

They celebrated the milestone by buying an RV and taking their grown children and their families on a Disney Dream cruise.

“Is that not cool?” she asks, smiling broadly. “I have a lot of people who want me to adopt them.”

Shirley grew up in Hampton, Iowa, where she was the high school homecoming queen. She spent two years in New York after high school – as a “guidette” for NBC Studios and a receptionist for Jack Paar, an early host of The Tonight Show.

“I hate to tell people that, because it dates me,” Shirley laughs.

She returned to the Midwest, married Leonard, her high school sweetheart, and had four daughters.

College came later. Much later. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, and attended Iowa State for a 1989 master’s in counseling at the same time one of her daughters was enrolled.

As a professional counselor, Shirley adopted the persona of “The Sparkle Lady” – “Feathers and sparkles are my thing,” she says – and her career allowed her to counsel children, teens, couples, and parents for 20 years in California. She also taught summer workshops at Iowa State, training other counselors to use puppets and a sense of humor in their work.

At the peak of her career, she had 150 puppets, all with names and individual personalities. She’s given away most of them over the years, but the few remaining ones travelled with the Koenens when they moved from their home in Bakersfield, Calif., to Bella Vista, Ark., in 2009.

They chose Bella Vista not so much for its seven golf courses as for its cultural attractions and healthy mix of people.

“Don’t put me in a 55-and-older [retirement community],” Shirley says. “I like having children around. My kids say I’ve never grown up.”

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So many stories to tell

16 Nov

I’m back in Ames with 3,067 miles on the rental car and dozens of stories to tell. Our maiden VISIONS Across America trip was a huge success.

After driving south for two days, Jim and I photographed and interviewed four alumni in Austin, Texas, all with wonderful, diverse careers and interests. (Austin is a great city, by the way.) I completely overbooked our appointments, but the stars must have been aligned because we managed to see everyone and still get to our Iowa State party that night ON TIME. The party was hosted by Mark and Kristin Gibson. Mark is a 1982 metallurgical engineering, and Kristin also attended Iowa State. Both of their kids are ISU students: Meredith is a senior in chemical engineering, and Spencer is a freshman in engineering.

Mark and Kristin were amazing hosts, opening their home up to local alumni and serving up a table full of yummy food — including cardinal and gold chips shipped by a friend from Ames! Austin ISU Club members are extremely active, with gamewatches every weekend during football season, and it was great to get to meet some of them.

Not only did the Gibsons host the party, but they also graciously allowed Jim and me to spend the night in their home, took us out to dinner, and fed us breakfast the next morning. Now that’s what I call hospitality! I feel like I have a dozen new friends in Austin.

The morning we left Austin, we drove to Houston to meet with Richard Schmidgall, a 1983 aerospace engineering graduate who works as the contracting officer’s technical rep for the Orion project at NASA/Johnson Space Center (formerly with the Space Shuttle). We were allowed into the coveted Building 9 — the building with the full-sized mock-ups of the Space Shuttle, Orion, parts of the Space Station, and other simulators. Astronauts actually train on this equipment, so it was a real thrill to see it. Richard will be featured in the VISIONS Across America issue of the magazine, so I don’t want to give away too much about him…you’ll just have to wait.

Later that evening we arranged an Iowa State party with the help of Brian Banker (’08 aerospace engineering). Brian is a liquid propulsion systems engineer at NASA, and he serves on the Alumni Association’s Young Alumni Council. He posted an invite in the JSC daily newsletter and we sent out a few emails, but I didn’t expect the great turnout that we had at Boondoggles, a bar and restaurant about five minutes from the space center. At least 20 Iowa State alumni who work for NASA turned out for the party. (Note to self: Bring name tags and write down all the names of  people Jim photographs…I did a lousy job. But, in my defense, I was busy meeting everyone.) It was a very good time, and Iowa State is extremely well represented at NASA.

Our travel pace slowed down a bit after we left Houston. We spent a full day getting to New Orleans, La., our second “official” state. There we met Ann Schexnyder, a Louisiana native who came to Iowa State in the 1980s for a degree in art and design. Ann will be featured in the magazine. She gave us a fascinating tour of her home and her neighborhood in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward. Of course, no visit to New Orleans is complete without experiencing the French Quarter; we walked through the streets with Ann and ate a delicious meal of gumbo, rice and beans, and local seafood at the Gumbo Shop.

One of the nicest surprises of this trip was how much I enjoyed our next stop: Oklahoma City. Our mission there was to interview and photograph Leslie Baker, the director of marketing for the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, for the magazine. Leslie is a 1986 ag journalism graduate. We spent all afternoon and early evening with her. What a great museum! I expected history and artifacts, which it has in abundance, but the museum also features incredible Western art.

I wish we could have spent more time in this wonderful city. We walked the grounds of the botanical gardens and visited the Oklahoma City National Memorial, but there was so much more to see. The city’s tourist map lists 85 attractions, including the Bricktown entertainment district and several other museums.

Our final state on this trip was Arkansas. We met Shirley Koenen in Bella Vista. Shirley received her master’s in counseling degree from Iowa State in 1989 — the same year her daughter graduated from ISU — and spent much of her career in California. She and her husband, Leonard, recently retired to Arkansas, and they’re celebrating their 50th anniversary later this month. Shirley was full of energy and kept us entertained all afternoon. She has had a fascinating career.

So…four states down and 46 to go. I’ll be posting stories about the alumni we met in Austin soon, so check back often!