Connecting with your community through a weekly column
August 1, 2015
By Peter W. Wagner
President | Iowa Information Inc.
ne of the best pieces of advice offered me when my wife, Connie, and I started The N’West Iowa REVIEW came from the editor of the newspaper where we printed: “You need to write a weekly column,” he told me, “You need to let your readers know who you are and what you believe.”
That was easy for him to say. He was a college educated, experienced wordsmith. I was just an advertising salesman with a dream. For the first months we published the paper, I’d carefully count each word as I wrote, much like a student required to write a 300-word theme. I hardly ever produced more than 12 inches of printed copy.
I strongly believe newspapers are the first writers of local history. I accept that we are the watchdogs of government. I further believe we need to feature strong statements regarding local and state leadership, as well as challenges to our personal and corporate freedom.
I began my column-writing experience attempting to appear wise and knowledgeable. But I was inexperienced in the processes of local government and clueless regarding the worthiness of local and state politicians. Absent of great ideas to expound upon, I wrote about the one thing I knew, my day-to-day experiences.
I wrote about picking strawberries with my wife and two sons, the boys participating in Cub Scouts, attending our first Orange City Tulip Festival and all the stages of our sons’ growing years, including their weddings and the births of our four grandchildren. By rough count, I’ve probably written more than 2,200 original columns for The REVIEW and the Sheldon Mail-Sun, the weekly we purchased later.
LETTERS TO MY GRANDCHILDEN
Then early this spring, while passing another major milestone in life, I started to think about how little I knew about my grandparents and even my parents. All of them are long deceased and there is nobody to share their stories with me, my son or especially my grandchildren. The result was a decision to write one year of columns entitled “Letters to my grandchildren.”
When I first mentioned the idea to Connie, who also writes a regular column for The REVIEW, she suggested I might run out of ideas long before the year was over. But I’ve now completed four months, and the subject list just grows longer.
I attempt to vary the columns by jumping between generations and different members of Connie’s and my families each week. One time I’ll share a story about my wife’s mother and father and the next about our two sons. It is especially important that I share stories about Jeff and Jay growing up. Jay, my younger son, died six years ago from brain cancer. I wanted his daughter, Zoey, and son, Kiernan, as well as his nephew, Sam, and niece, Katie—all now in high school—to have many memories of him.
During these months, the subjects have varied from when the four of us, Connie, Jeff, Jay and I, all worked at The REVIEW, to the time when my father set fire to his family’s barn. Here are some excerpts from three of the columns.
A life-changing experience: “When your grandma and I married and moved to Sibley, we discovered the community didn’t have an Episcopal Church. With Jeff already born and Jay on the way, we simply spent the majority of Sunday mornings playing with the boys.
“But Jay changed that just weeks before his first birthday. We don’t know what exactly caused it, but he had a seizure and then went into a coma.
“We rushed him to the Sibley hospital, but our doctor said he needed to go to Sioux Falls and see a specialist.
“It was a cold, dark winter night made even worse by near blizzard conditions. Jay made the entire 60-mile trip wrapped tightly in a blanket, never moving or making a sound.
“All the way I kept bargaining with God. ‘Make Jay well,’ I repeated over and over, ‘and I’ll make sure my family attends church every Sunday.’
“When we got to the Sioux Falls hospital, nurses rushed Jay to an emergency room, unwrapped the blankets and he looked up at them and giggled. He lay there, kicking his legs and waving his arms like he’d never been ill.
“The next Sunday, Grandma, the boys and I were, as promised, in church.”
Vacationing at our Okoboji lake house: “Like all Okoboji residents, our condo years eventually turned to a full-fledged house along the shores of Emerson Bay. It had four bedrooms and two baths and a huge front room. Our entire family spent the first Christmas we owned it there around an evergreen decorated entirely with lake life ornaments. It was also the year everyone got ice skates for Christmas, and we spent Christmas afternoon skating on the lake in front of the house.”
Great-grandfather’s barn fire: “My father, your great-grandfather Han Herman Wagner, was a first-generation German who grew up on the family farm just north of Bridgewater, SD.
“Harm, or ‘Wags’ as he preferred to be called, was a natural mechanic. I believe he completed high school, but my only proof is a tiny photo of him standing in his BHS track uniform in front of the two-story school building.
“One classic tale about Great-Grandpa Harm is about how he burnt the family’s barn to the ground.
“His mother and father had driven into town, and my father, along with his brother, Bill, and two sisters, Anne and Hertha, were playing firemen.
“One by one, they’d take turns lighting the hay against the barn on fire and shout ‘fire, fire’ as loud as they could. That would be the signal for the other three to come running with buckets of water to put out the fire.”
When the yearlong series is complete, I plan to turn the columns into a book with appropriate photos and print them on our company’s digital press. Along with the four grandchildren, I hope to give copies to my deceased older brother’s grandchildren because many of the stories are their history, too.
And what about my subscribers, forced to read this obviously self-serving material? I’ve heard no complaints and many compliments. One lady at church mentioned that she was enjoying learning so much about our lives. “It made her feel like she was one of us.” © Peter Wagner 2015
Peter W. Wagner is founder and publisher of the award winning N’West Iowa REVIEW and 13 additional publications. He is often called “The Idea Man” and will be a presenter at the New York Press Association fall meeting in September and North Dakota meeting in October. You can contact him regarding his programs “100 Ideas for Fun and Profit,” “Seven Steps to Selling Success” or “Minding Your p’s and q’s” by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling his cell 712-348-3550.