Down by the river

1 Jun


Jane Cornelius Steele has had an eclectic career.

The 1974 family environment graduate has worked in international education, physical therapy, health communications, and therapeutic horseback riding. She once drove a truck for Linn County Extension and taught home repair. She’s lived in Bolivia, Honduras, Sri Lanka, and Washington, D.C. She has a prolific backyard garden and raises chickens.

Longtime friend Gary Kirby says Jane is an “earth-loving, tree-hugging, organic recycler.”

Jane lives in Verona, Va., four hours from the ocean, half an hour from Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Mountains surround her home, and a river demarcates the edge of her property line.

“I told a real estate agent, ‘Let me know if something comes up on the river,’” she said. “And there had to be room for a garden.”

Jane’s one-acre lot has plenty of space to grow snow peas, spinach, arugula, strawberries, tomatoes, eggplant, and potatoes (though, sadly, no corn) and house four laying hens named Ruby, Alberta, Henrietta, and Eggbert.

The chickens were Gary’s idea.

“Gary is impulsive,” Jane explains. “I think things out, look at my budget. He sees baby chicks in the feed store and just buys them.”

Jane grew up in Hudson, a small town near Waterloo, Iowa, and after living all over the world her only concern about moving to rural western Virginia was its potential lack of culture.

“I was concerned about the culture, but there’s so much going on here I can’t get to it all,” she says. The area, it turns out, is a hub for theatre, music, food, and art – a perfect place for Jane to pursue a career or two and, maybe someday, retire.

Lady of the house

1 Jun


Beneath her broad smile and charming Southern exterior lies a determined, tough-as-nails, singularly focused woman.

The third of five children in a single-parent home, Leola Adams was just 15 years old when her mother died at age 41. During a family meeting after her mother’s death, Leola’s eldest brother declared himself the man of the house, and Leola, the oldest girl, quickly proclaimed herself the lady of the house. From that moment on, she took responsibility for her two younger sisters, the youngest of whom was just 8 years old.

With the help of nearby aunts and uncles, all five children stayed together on the family farm in Ruffin, S.C. Leola drove a school bus and worked at the county conservation office to help pay household expenses while she attended high school. She graduated with top honors.

“My mother was extremely serious about education,” Leola said. Her mother led study sessions with the children each night; when she started attending school, Leola was so far ahead of her first-grade classmates that the teacher enlisted Leola’s help to assist the other students. Her mother also taught the importance of family, responsibility, and money management.

“Our mother taught us the difference between needs and wants,” Leola said. “She also taught us that if one person had a dollar, everybody had 20 cents. I was running a household at 15.”

Despite weighty responsibilities at home, Leola attended South Carolina State University in Orangeburg. When she was a senior, she asked her professors which schools had the best home economics education graduate program in the country. Each professor had a slightly different list, but they all started their lists with “Iowa State University.”

“When the fifth person said ‘Iowa State,’ thank you very much, I said, ‘That’s where I’m going,’” Leola remembers.

She attended Iowa State with a vengeance, blazing through the two-year master’s program in just one year (1970), returning later to complete her Ph.D. in just two years, finishing in 1975.

Leola was focused, determined, and, yes, in a hurry. She had responsibilities back home.

“I had to get back,” she said. Her youngest sister was still in her early teens.

Leola returned to South Carolina State and worked there, first as a faculty member, later as department head for family and consumer sciences, and ultimately as dean of the School of Applied Professional Sciences. She retired in 2008 and was named the school’s first female dean emeritus in 2011.

Her mother would have been extremely proud.

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.

Life is a journey

1 Jun

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Ike Harris grew up on a soybean and cotton farm near West Memphis, Ark., the son of parents whose schooling ended in the primary grades. His mother wanted the best for her children and insisted they attend a good-quality high school. Ike and a few of his cousins were the first African Americans to attend the formerly all-white school during the desegregation era of the 1960s.

Ike was a “tall, skinny lineman” on his high school football team. He caught the eye of a coach at Iowa State – the only Div. I school to recruit him. Ike came to Iowa State, working harder than he ever dreamed of working, both as an athlete and as a student.

“I was a ghost at Iowa State,” he remembers. “I focused on football and academics and nothing else.”

But it was at Iowa State where he met his life partner: Independence, Iowa, native Charlene Kruempel (’75 textiles and clothing), and it was at Iowa State where he was prepared for a lifetime of success.

After graduation in 1974 with a degree in accounting, Ike played professional football for seven years with the St. Louis Cardinals and New Orleans Saints. He then put his business degree to work at Supervalu and Peat Marwick (now KPMG) before joining the BellSouth Corporation in Atlanta. He eventually became president and CEO of the company. In 2005 he was named one of 75 most powerful African Americans in corporate America by Black Enterprise Magazine.

Ike retired in 2007. He and Charlene now live in Palm Coast, Fla., where life is a little slower.

His life would be easy to summarize with a list of accolades, awards, and achievements. But in reality, he says, it’s not about the success; it’s about the journey. As he sits on his back patio overlooking Florida’s intracoastal waterway, he strokes the fur of a small, white dog on his lap as he reflects on what has been a truly wonderful life.

“The proudest I’ve ever been was the day my son was born,” he said. “I thought I’d never equal that, but then our daughter was born.”

“If I look back at Iowa State, I think about what I achieved in this order: I found a lifelong partner. I received an educational foundation that allowed me to compete with anyone, anywhere. And I had an opportunity to play sports after graduation.”

Ike says he and Charlene, now married 40 years, “have a blast” at anything they do together. They’re always active: exercising, playing golf, traveling, biking, hiking.

“When I think about fun,” he says. “Charlene’s in the middle of it.”

From the ground up

1 Jun


Michael Studier was in the right place at the right time.

A recent Iowa State graduate, he was applying for a job at a golf course north of Atlanta when he spotted earth-moving equipment nearby. He asked if the course was expanding.

“They said, ‘That’s a new course being built,’” he says.

That course was Capital City Club Crabapple in Woodstock, Ga.

Mike got in on the ground floor of the project, hired as assistant golf course superintendent in 2001. He was promoted to superintendent in 2004.

Crabapple is one of three courses making up the Capital City Club, an exclusive, private club chartered in 1883. The original club is located in downtown Atlanta; the Brookhaven/Country Club is in north Atlanta. At 600 acres, Crabapple is the largest of the three courses; it hosted a PGA event in 2003.

Mike grew up in Dubuque, Iowa, where he worked for the Meadows Golf Club. He attended Iowa State, graduating in 2001 with a bachelor’s degree in horticulture. During his time at Iowa State, Mike interned at the Old Overton Golf Club in Alabama and the Peachtree Golf Club in Atlanta.

“That got me here,” Mike says of his internship in Atlanta. “I wanted to work for the best club possible. There are high expectations here because [members] are paying so much. We have a very high maintenance budget, so there are no excuses.”

Mike hires and supervises a crew of 30 maintenance workers. He oversees the budget, which includes $1 million worth of maintenance equipment. His team is charged with the overall condition of the golf course: all the grasses, plants, trees, and other aspects of the grounds. It’s not an easy job; Mike gets to work at 6 a.m. during the summer – and a leisurely 6:30 a.m. during the off-season. He works long hours, nights, and weekends.

But this is a job he sees himself doing for a long time.

“I love working outside. I’m probably outside 75 percent of the time from April through October.”

Horses, of course

1 Jun


Kentucky is horse country: horses for racing, for showing, for sport, for pleasure. So it’s only natural that Scott Kendall (’84 DVM), an equine veterinarian who hails from Iowa City, Iowa, would choose to settle in the Kentucky Bluegrass Region, often called the horse capital of the world.

Scott is a veterinarian at Woodford Equine Hospital in Versailles, Ky., not far from the city of Lexington. Horse farms abound in the region. Scott describes himself as an “ambulatory” vet, meaning he travels from horse farm to horse farm within a 50-mile radius, aiding in the breeding, foaling, and other health maintenance of thoroughbred horses.

It’s a big job.

“It ends up being more of a lifestyle than a job,” Scott says. “You start early every day. It’s seven days a week…people expect you to be available 24/7.”

And horse breeding is big business: The state of Kentucky produces around 33 percent of all thoroughbred foals born annually in North America. More than 75 percent of Kentucky Derby winners are Kentucky bred, and eight of 11 Triple Crown winners were bred in the state. Top horses have sold for up to $16 million at public auction.

Even when Scott takes off his “doctor” hat, he’s still surrounded by horses. He and his wife, Elise, own a 90-acre horse farm in Paris, Ky., just north of Lexington. They currently have about 20 horses of varying breeds.

And in his spare time?

“I enjoy going to races,” he says. “It’s a big deal in Kentucky.”

Connecting the dots

1 Jun


The path that Andrea Vogt-Lytal (’95 journalism) took to become an intelligence analyst for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency had about as many twists and turns as the bits of data she regularly analyzes to help identify major drug criminals in Memphis.

Fact No. 1: At Iowa State, Andrea makes a beeline to the study abroad program table at orientation before her freshman year at Iowa State. She chooses to study for a semester in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

Fact No. 2: Although Andrea is a journalism major, she has an epiphany during her Intro to Anthropology class and decides to focus her studies in that area. She conducts research in Mexico.

Fact No. 3: Graduate studies again take Andrea to Mexico. But driving back from her father’s funeral, one day she realizes she isn’t happy doing anthropology.

“I realized I have a little bit more of an activist in me than a theorist, you know?” she said. So she applied for a job at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City and got a position as an intelligence group assistant for the Drug Enforcement Agency.

“I started in March 2000,” she said. “By July of 2000, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to be an intelligence analyst.”

Which brings us to Fact No. 4, when suddenly, all the pieces come together. Andrea realized that her journalism background allowed her to excel in writing reports, researching information, and “interviewing bad guys” – all aspects of her new-found career choice. Plus, her extensive experiences in Mexico, Spanish language skills, and understand of the Hispanic culture were a great asset in her new field of work.

“For the first time, it all came together: the journalism; the anthropology; the cultural, historical, geographical knowledge of Mexico; and the Spanish all rolled into one.”

Andrea was hired as an intelligence analyst and spent three years at DEA headquarters in Washington, D.C. In 2005, she moved to Thailand and in 2008 went to work in Memphis at the DEA Memphis Resident Office.

There she spends her days “connecting the dots:” following data leads that the agency hopes will result in the takedown of high-level drug organizations. She follows crumbs of information brought to her by investigators: Maybe a first name or nickname, possibly a physical description or a car license, sometimes a phone number.

“We call these ‘identifiers,’” Andrea explains, “these bits of biographical data. Back in the [DEA] Academy, they said the agents have their gun as their weapon and we have our laptops.”

These cases are not petty misdemeanors. Her office tracks organizations bringing up to 1,000 pounds of marijuana or multiple kilograms of cocaine into the area at a time, netting hundreds of thousands of dollars. Once an investigation ends in an arrest, Andrea assists with search warrants and post-arrest interviews.

“I really like that part,” she says. “But being the tough girl, that is so not me. I’m the one looking at these guys, going, ‘You know, you made so much money you should have just channeled this energy for good, not for evil.’ It just baffles me. It’s not how I was raised, so it’s hard to get inside that world.”

Postscript: In 2014, Andrea will become a DEA intelligence research specialist in Istanbul, Turkey.


Brain man

1 Jun


It’s possible that the smartest thing Ken Sufka ever did was crash his eighteen-wheeler on the Pennsylvania Turkpike. Because that action set off a series of serendipitous events that have allowed Ken to live a happy and fulfilling life.

Here’s what happened: Ken was an over-the-road truck driver, happy just to see North America, when that accident persuaded him to quit his job. Left with few alternatives – “I didn’t know what to do, other than I didn’t want to do THAT,” Ken says – he chose to follow in his siblings’ footsteps and enroll at Iowa State University, but he had “no intention of graduating.”

A month into his classwork, he says, he realized that college was not for him and was ready to drop out. Ken called his boss to see if he could get his old job back. His boss said no way. If Ken dropped out of school, he’d never hire him. But if Ken would stay in school, he’d hire him during school breaks, a move that would motivate Ken to stay in school and also help him pay for college.

The next serendipitous event occurred when Ken enrolled in Ron Peters’ Psych 310 Brain and Behavior class at Iowa State. Despite earning a “D” on the first test, Ken was “totally wowed” by the topic and also by Prof. Peters’ teaching mastery. In that class, Ken found his direction. He also found his passion.

“From that moment on, it wasn’t about a bachelor’s degree, not about a master’s degree. It was about becoming a university-level professor,” Ken says.

Ken had a 4.0 every semester after that. He earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1986, followed by a master’s in ’88 and Ph.D. in ’90. He joined the University of Mississippi psychology faculty in 1992, and more than 20 years later he’s loving every minute of it.

“I have a great life because I’m passionate about it,” Ken says. “I love teaching. I love research. I’m happy, and I’m blessed, and I’m the luckiest person around.”

Ken’s passions include a number of diverse research projects – ranging from psychopharmeutical studies on stress, anxiety, and depression to the effects of cancer pain to student learning. (His book, The A Game, was published in 2011.) Ken professes his love for teaching; he routinely teaches introductory psychology to classes that range from 100 to 500 students, and he teaches a “brain class” just like Prof. Peters.

Ken lives on a secluded acreage in Oxford, Miss., where he has built a wood shop, greenhouse, barn, and chicken house in addition to renovating and adding on to his log cabin home. He builds furniture, raises free-range chickens, and rides a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. He recently married a woman, Stevi, with whom he’d been close friends, and the couple has partial custody of her three children.

“Ten years ago I came to terms with what brings me peace and happiness,” he says. “I do things that are soul-nurturing.”

Surviving Katrina

1 Jun


When we met Ann Schexnyder at her pink shotgun house in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward in November 2011, it had been six years since Hurricane Katrina.

Yet she was still living without electricity. She was living without a furnace and air conditioning. She still didn’t have hot water.

In fact, she didn’t even have an official occupancy permit to be living in her home, which, following the devastating flood caused by Katrina, had once been filled with three feet of water.

Ann’s story is both unique and similar to every homeowner’s experience in the Lower 9th: The hurricane and flood were just the beginning. The years post-Katrina were the real nightmare.

Ann chose to move to her neighborhood in 2002 for its history and affordability. Her 19-by-100-foot home was built in two stages: one in the 1850s and one in 1910. The back, older half of the house used to be a social club.

That she’s living in her house – after being completely displaced for nine months and living in a FEMA trailer in the backyard for three years – is a testament to Ann’s strength and tenacity.

She had to fight with her insurance company, which for six months insisted she had no homeowners’ insurance. She had to fight with governmental agencies. She got ripped off by unscrupulous contractors.

But she’s rebuilding, little by little. She heads up community meetings. She chases thieves out of her neighborhood.

“Guys would drive by with trailers full of [stolen] doors. I called the cops, but it was like screaming in the dark,” she said of the first two or three years after the flood. “I became [a self-appointed] safety officer. I walked down the streets with a hammer in my hand, [asking these guys], ‘Who are you and what are you doing here?’”

Hurricanes are nothing new to Ann (’85 art & design), who grew up in Louisiana. She also grew up in a house without air conditioning, which helps her deal with her current situation.

“I can tolerate being miserable,” she said. “I’m not bothered by things that bother other people.”

Still, it’s been a battle.

“If it happens again, I’m not doing it,” she told us in November 2011. “It’s not that I couldn’t. I just wouldn’t.”

Postscript: Despite the fact that she still needs to install gutters and finish the floors, Ann now describes her house as “definitely livable.” Some of the work was completed by the crew of “American Horror Story: Coven” after Ann’s home was featured on that television show. “Now that I can see an end to the renovation, I will finally be able to put Katrina behind me,” she says.

In Carver’s footsteps

1 Jun


Jacquelyn Jackson is a Southern girl at heart. Born and raised in Alabama, she attended Tuskegee University for her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. But then she was lured north by Iowa State University.

“I was on a panel at a plant biotech workshop, and some Iowa State professors were here,” Jackie says. “Afterwards, they came up to me and gave me brochures and information about Iowa State.”

Jackie was still an undergraduate at the time, and she quickly forgot all about the encounter until she completed her master’s degree and began to look for a school to attend for her doctorate.

“When I started thinking about colleges, those Iowa State brochures came back up, and I looked at them. They were so inviting that I thought, you know what? I’m going to try Iowa State.”

Jackie spent six years in Ames working toward her 2008 Ph.D. in plant genetics.

She says that attending the same university as George Washington Carver, who became famous for his scientific research at Tuskegee, was unintentional, though she is well aware that she is following in his footsteps with her focus on genetically engineered sweet potato and peanut plants.

“Carver was a true genius,” she says. “And I can count on my hand how many people I would put in that category.”

Today Jackie is a research assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at Tuskegee University. Her current project involves cloning disease-resistant sweet potatoes in an effort to boost the root vegetable’s nutritional quality. One of her goals is to increase the amino acids to benefit third-world cultures that don’t have access to animal protein.

“We at Tuskegee still continue Carver’s tradition to work on those two crops – sweet potato and peanut. I guess you could you say Carver has done much of the work for us. If he were here today, it would be amazing what he could have done if he had the technology and the tools that we have. And when you look how complex sweet potato’s genome is, it’s just amazing he did what he did.”

Photo note: Standing in front of the George Washington Carver Museum at Tuskegee University, Jackie holds a sweet potato plant growing in tissue culture, part of a breeding line called W154.