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Happy endings

1 Jun


Tom Fitzgerald knew he would be a writer.

But sometimes a career path does not move forward in a linear way. Sometimes it zigs and zags and meanders and does not dash a straight to the finish line.

Tom’s career has been like that. A native of upstate New York, Tom went to Clarkson College in Potsdam, N.Y., where he majored in math and minored in physics. “I knew that was not the right program for me,” he says. But he stuck it out for four years. He then briefly pursued law school, another mistake.

“I was looking for direction,” Tom says. He went back to Clarkson and got a master’s degree in industrial administration.

Over the years, he’s been a door-to-door salesman, a vocational counselor, a stockbroker, the assistant to the president of a large health-care corporation, a lobbyist, and a corporate manager. He was a Navy SEAL during the Vietnam conflict, swam distances longer than the English Channel, and ran the Boston Marathon three times.

But – “I knew I wanted to write. I loved story, loved language, loved the whole dynamic of storytelling. I loved being on the receiving end, too: My brother told campfire ghost stories, and it was magic for me.”

He came to Iowa State – along with a wife and three small sons – and earned a master of arts in English in 1974.

By this time, Tom had already written his first book, Chocolate Charlie. He found Iowa State to be a welcoming environment; he found a mentor and studied under many “fine teachers,” whose names he still remembers. He blossomed. He wrote half a novel for his thesis.

He became a technical writer, using both his English skills and his math/physics background. Plus, the job allowed him to do his own writing on the side.

Tom has now written four novels, including his most recent, Poor Richard’s Lament, that asks the question, “What if Ben Franklin came back?” Critics have called it “a grand and gorgeous book” and “an astonishing feat of imagination.”

He says he has 50 or 60 plots just waiting to be written. “I could go for nine lifetimes,” he says.

A couple of Cyclones in the smallest U.S. state

23 Jan


Listening to Sam and Kylie (Stemple) Pfile describe their lives in Rhode Island is something akin to hearing the story of the blind men and the elephant.

“I like the day trips,” Kylie says happily. “In two-and-a-half hours you can go to six states.”

“You’ve got to get used to being out here,” Sam counters. “The driving is awful.”

“You’re so close to so many things,” Kylie says. “I like the outdoor activities… the cities, the food, the history.”

“The people here are really different,” Sam says. “Most of our friends are from the Midwest.”

Sam clearly misses the Midwest.

But they both agree that they moved to the East Coast to see what it was like. Kylie (’03 art & design) grew up in Council Bluffs, Iowa; Sam (’01 ag business) was born in Mason City, Iowa, but grew up in Illinois. They met at Iowa State when Sam transferred from a junior college.

“I did a college visit, and after five minutes on campus I said, ‘I’m coming here,’” Sam says.

“We lived on the same floor in Larch Hall,” Kylie says.

They married in 2004 and moved to Colorado, Minnesota, and Massachusetts for Sam’s job as a food safety inspector for the USDA. (“I’m known as The Iowa State Guy at all the plants,” Sam says.) They moved to Rhode Island in 2008. Sam still works for the USDA; Kylie does sales and product design for AVID Products. They have a dog named Gus, whom Sam refers to as “the most spoiled beagle ever in recorded history.”

Sam, you will not be surprised to learn, is eager to move back to the Midwest someday. Kylie is in no particular hurry.

“There’s a misconception by people I meet here that we left Iowa because it was dull and that there was nothing to do and we just wanted to get out,” Kylie says. “But it’s not true. We were just curious about what’s out here.”

Jim and I spent the day with Sam and Kylie (and Gus, who doesn’t seem so much spoiled as just really happy) at their Riverside, R.I., home (not far from Providence) last October. The couple has the distinction of having completed all 50 states on the Wall of Alumni and Friends at the ISU Alumni Center when they purchased a wall plaque after meeting ISUAA president Jeff Johnson at the ISU vs. UConn game in the fall 2011. Rhode Island is the smallest U.S. state, the state with the fewest ISU alumni, and, until they purchased the plaque, the only state not represented on the wall.

Thanks, guys!

New England

16 Oct

Welcome to Vermont! And Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. Jim and I were greeted with warm Iowa State welcomes everywhere we traveled in New England these past two weeks. We met a total of 16 alumni in 13 days, and I’ll be sharing some of their stories in the coming weeks right here on the blog. Others will be featured in the special VISIONS Across America issue in spring 2014.

For years I’ve been joking that I am the weather fairy, because every time we schedule a photo shoot for VISIONS magazine, even if the weather forecast is horrible, even if the day begins wet and dreary, by the time we do the photo shoot the skies clear and we have a beautiful day.

Well, something has happened to my luck, because on this trip we had rain on four days of scheduled outdoor photos. Jim made three of them work; the last one we moved inside.

On day one, we started out with Jess Phelps in the rain (above), and it rained all day. Jess is a 2004 history/economics/international agriculture/ag business grad – yes, you read that right. He had four majors. He also got a law degree from Drake University in 2007. Jess manages a historic preservation team for Historic New England, the nation’s oldest and largest regional heritage organization. He lives in Boston but travels throughout the area.

From Massachusetts we traveled to Maine to meet with Susan Chadima and Michael Steitzer (pictured above). Susan graduated from Iowa State in 1976 with a degree in zoology and followed up with a 1979 DVM. She’s a veterinarian, owner, and founder of Androscoggin Animal Hospital in Topsham. Her husband Michael has a 1975 bachelor’s degree in architecture and a 1983 master of architecture. He’s an architect and owner of a small firm called MSA Architects in Topsham. After scouting for a photo location all morning in the rain, wind, and gloom, Jim and I met Michael and Susan for lunch on Bailey Island, and the weather cleared up just in time for the photo shoot.

By this time I was in love with the Maine coast (it’s been nearly 25 years since I visited this area), and our meeting with Dave Mills (right) on Little Deer Isle only solidified those feelings. Dave (’55 industrial administration; MS ’57 psychology) lives in a lovely, secluded home on an idyllic island with his wife and two dogs. A psychologist for many years, Dave is now mostly retired from his career, though he still works with clients one or two days a week.

During our photo shoot on the rocky coast, I asked Dave what Maine residents call themselves (“Mainers?” I wondered). He replied without missing a beat: “Maniacs.”

From Maine, Jim and I traveled to New Hampshire to meet with Ken Rancourt (’72 meteorology), director of summit operations emeritus at the Mount Washington Observatory.

Ken drove us in his weather van 6,288 feet up the Mount Washington Auto Road to the observatory, where meteorologists have documented the world’s worst weather. The weather we experienced there on Oct. 4 was not the “worst” by a long shot, but it was bad enough for this Midwestern editor: chilly, breezy, foggy, and steadily raining. Ken led us to the top of the observatory, a climb that involved twisty metal steps and a wet, slippery ladder; he and Jim seemed to enjoy the inclement conditions during the photo shoot (that’s Ken and me below in the fog), but I was miserable and required a towel for my hair after it was over. Brrrrrr.

This morning I read on (the website for the Mount Washington Observatory) that in the days since our visit, the mountain conditions have deteriorated rapidly, with “raging winds, blowing snow, and rime ice coating virtually everything.” Yikes.

The next day, after we warmed up and dried off, we headed north into rural Vermont to meet one of Iowa State’s most interesting alumni, Tom Twetten, at his home in Craftsbury Common (right). As a student, Tom was a campus leader, and his 1957 psychology degree led him to a long and storied career with the CIA. He left the agency in 1995 and retired to Vermont, where he is an antiquarian book dealer and artistic book binder.

The trees in Vermont were spectacular at this point, so we took Tom’s advice and drove up and around through Smuggler’s Notch to our overnight town of Stowe, where we encountered the worst leaf-peeping traffic jam of our two weeks in New England. (Seriously, it was nuts.)

The next morning we headed west to meet Matthew Hake – you guessed it – in the rain. Matthew (’84 civil engineering) is the division administrator for the Vermont Division Office of the Federal Highway Administration. He’s lived in several states, but so far Vermont has proved to be the most challenging. The aftermath of Hurricane Irene in August 2011 caused flooding and mayhem in the state, closing roads and destroying bridges. Matthew lives with his wife and four children (including Haley, a recent Iowa State grad) in St. George (above).

St. George is not far from Burlington, and we had three good reasons to go there next: do laundry, see the town, and try to grab a quick cup of coffee with ISU friends Shane and Lauren Jacobson.

It was raining hard, so first we hunkered down at the laundromat (travel is so luxurious!) Three loads and 82 quarters later, it was still raining, so we walked through Church Street Marketplace with about a thousand other people, all toting umbrellas. (We were there on a Saturday, and the town was hopping, albeit soggily.)

Later in the afternoon, we met with Shane (’03 communication studies, ’08 master of education) and Lauren (’02 psychology). Shane is currently the vice president and COO of the University of Vermont Foundation. I met him when he worked at Iowa State – first in the Admissions Office, then with us at the Alumni Association, then for the ISU Foundation – before moving to Vermont. Lauren has a 2005 law degree from Drake University. We met them for coffee and dessert in a funky little market (above), and by the time we left, the rain had finally cleared.

We drove through the Green Mountains to our final Vermont destination: Woodstock. There we met Donna Wishman Miles (’81 craft design) at her home, where she raises children (two sons) and chickens, makes one-of-a-kind quilts, grows pumpkins, and sells eggs. She also has “a few” other jobs. She fed Jim and me chocolate muffins and good coffee (right). Her husband, David Miles (MA ’81 history) is the director of interpretation and education at Billings Farm & Museum in Woodstock. (That’s him above teaching little kids how to build a split-rail fence.) We spent an exhilarating day with them and enjoyed the (finally) sunny weather.

I was sad to leave Woodstock. It’s a wonderful area. But we were on the move, heading to southern New Hampshire to meet with John Hagen (’84 business administration). John is head of HR for a global IT company and lives in tiny Amherst. He also travels, competes in triathons, and enjoys other outdoor activities available in New England. We recognized him immediately…he may be the only person in Amherst with an ISU baseball cap (left).

Later that day we saw more Iowa State colors at the home of Sam and Kylie Pfile in Riverside, R.I. Not only were they both wearing ISU clothing, they also had an Iowa State flag flying on their front porch, and their dog, Gus, was sporting a cute Cyclone collar (below). We felt right at home.

Sam (’01 ag business) is a consumer safety inspector for the USDA, and Kylie (’03 art & design) works for AVID Products in sales and design. Rhode Island has the smallest number of Iowa State alumni (121), but Sam and Kylie represent the Cyclone faithful very well.

The next morning we were treated to a delightful breakfast at the home of Tom Fitzgerald (MS ’74 English) and his wife, Laurie. Tom (above in his home office) is a technical writer and author of Poor Richard’s Lament and several other books. Both Tom and Laurie grew up in the northeast, and they live in a seaside cottage in North Kingstown, R.I., that has been in Laurie’s family for three generations.

After visiting Rhode Island, we headed back into Massachusetts and – wouldn’t you know it? – more rain and gloom. We had hoped to photograph Angela Hyatt (’91 architecture) outdoors in front of one of her building projects, but after two hours of playing the wait-and-see-what-the-weather-will-do game, we gave up and photographed her in her office at Schwartz/Silver Architects Inc. in Boston (above). It ended up being a great setting, with huge windows overlooking Boston’s Chinatown area.

I can’t wait to tell you more about these alumni, so check back often. Meanwhile, we’re less than four weeks out from our next trip: California, Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico.