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A rich history

1 Jun


For an Iowa-loving guy like Joe Otto, there’s only one other place he’d like to live, and that’s North Carolina. Both states are friendly, he says. Both states have agricultural roots and plenty of opportunity for outdoor adventure. Sure, North Carolina has its mountains and seashore. But Iowa is home.

Though he’s lived in North Carolina for five years, Joe never misses an opportunity to sing the praises of Iowa to all of his friends. He’s a one-man public relations crusade for getting Iowa history back into the classroom, and he’s on a mission to boost Iowans’ pride in their state.

“I have a very strong sense of place,” Joe says. “People who live in the Midwest are ashamed of it. I want to fix that; I want to turn it around.”

Joe (’07 history) is completing his master’s degree at Appalachian State in Boone, N.C. After he finishes that degree, he’s planning to get a Ph.D. and then return to Iowa – his goal is to teach history at Iowa State.

“I want to go back and design an Iowa history curriculum that people would like to take and show them they don’t need to be ashamed of the Midwest,” he says. “It’s got a very rich history; you just have to go out and look for it.”

Joe’s master’s thesis even has an Iowa theme: the channelization of the South Skunk River.

“As a kid, I grew up in the country in Jasper County. My parents’ land touches the Skunk River, and I had a lot of contact with the river as a kid. So when I was thinking about a thesis topic it just kind of clicked.”   Joe plans to enjoy North Carolina as long as he lives there. He takes full advantage of the hiking, canoeing, and kayaking opportunities he has in the western part of the state.

“It’s going to be sad leaving this place,” he says. “It’s just so beautiful.”

Photo note: Joe enjoys outdoor activities at Julian Price Memorial Park on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The park offers hiking trails, plus an opportunity to fish, canoe, and camp.

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!

Next stops: Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia

9 Apr

We’re making final travel arrangements and appointments with alumni in our next three states. It’s getting harder and harder to decide which alumni to feature in each state, because you’re sending us so many great story ideas. I wish we could meet with every one of you! But since time and money won’t allow that, we’re doing our best to choose representative alumni from each state.

I should mention that when we go to Virginia, we’re focusing on just the southern and western portions of the state. We’ll do a separate trip to Washington, D.C., next year, so we hope to pick up a few more Virginians on that trip.

I hope you’ve noticed that we’ve had a lot more activity on our state pages lately. Especially in the three states we’re visiting next, we’ve seen a huge increase in postings. Check it out!

We don’t have too many photos being sent to us for the state photo galleries, however, so if you have photos of yourself, groups of alumni, family photos, or just pictures of your state, please send them our way and we’ll be happy to get them posted for you. I’m working right now on the photos that Jim and I took in Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. We’ll get those posted in their respective state photo galleries soon.