Category Archives: History

Brief Memories of a ‘Lovely Man’


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I was biking through Noeldridge Park March 4, and noticed a few memorial trees that were decorated in memory of the departed they represent. Image from one of those memorial trees.

My wife pointed it out to me in the newspaper. There among the obituaries—Robert Keith McMaster. Bob McMaster has exited the planet, and we’re poorer for it. A long-time faculty member at Mount Mercy College, he had moved on from teaching philosophy by the time I obtained a teaching position at the college in 2001.

Bob was, by then, the director of faculty development. He checked on me during that first year of my teaching career, serving as an important mentor.

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Another decoration in a Noelridge memorial tree.

By the time I met him, the Parkinson ’s disease he lived with had advanced to the point where speech was not easy for him. It could be a challenge for him to be understood. But, he was a bright and funny man, and enjoyed contact with others. He always displayed genuine caring and concern for the faculty members he worked hard to aid.

In those days, Lundy was “the commons.” There was a pool table there, and at times a few of the old faculty members would gather on a Thursday or Friday to shoot some. McMaster was one of the leaders of that pool club, and invited me to be a part of it. He had an easy way of making someone new feel at home and part of “the gang.”

About 10 years ago, Bob retired from what had become Mount Mercy University. But in the years since, especially at parties for retiring faculty members, he’d be back, and it was always good to see him.

I have a sister who teaches at Kirkwood, but before that was an IT specialist at Mount Mercy when IT and the library were located in Lundy. When I posted a link to Bob McMaster’s obituary, she noted: “He was a really lovely man. What a loss.” Well said. The flag on campus flew at half staff in February after the tragic shooting in Florida, but it seems a fitting image for this post, too:

 

It’s sad to say goodbye, but I am glad I got to work with Bob McMaster, at least briefly near the end of his career. His passing does feel like a monumental event, like an era in Mount Mercy’s history is marked by his departure.

The world has shifted and the Atlases who carried it in the past are letting others pick up the burden. May we bear it well, but I don’t think many of us will bear it with as good a heart as Bob McMaster did.

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Pope Francis and His Call for “Mercyfying” Hearts


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Dr. Matthew Ashley, University of Notre Dame, speaks at Mount Mercy University’s Chapel of Mercy.

As Dr. Matthew Ashley, theology professor at the University of Notre Dame, noted, Pope Francis, a man of peace, has done some violence to the language.

One of the Pope’s favorite words is “Mercy,” and he has called upon Christians to work for “Mercyfying” hearts. “It doesn’t work any better as a gerund in Spanish than it does in English,” Ashley said.

But the idea is important. Mercy, Ashley noted, can be sort of condescendingly granted, as when a professor grudgingly looks the other way when a student has a lame excuse for a late paper. He contrasts this with the way Jesus treated St. Peter.

“Peter was not the brightest bulb in the package,” Ashley said. “He made lots of mistakes.” But, he also accepted God with an open heart, and that gave him the steadfast faith that made Jesus declare him the rock on which the church would be built. The mercy extended to Peter included a call to action. “Jesus was ‘mercifying’ him,” Ashley said. The mercy was not condescending, but rather empowering. And our world desperately needs more such mercy.

“Mercy is probably the one word that characterizes Pope Francis’ papacy,” Ashley said. His presentation, “Pope Francis and the Message of Peace,” was Sept. 19, 2017, in the Chapel of Mercy. I think around 90 people attended the event, which was both the keynote speech for Mercy Week, which celebrates MMU’s Sisters of Mercy heritage, and was part of our Fall Faculty Series, “Divided We Fall: Finding Common Ground in a Fractured Age.”

Ashley did take one minor, but well-paced, jab at President Trump, noting his threat to annihilate North Korea clearly falls outside of what Catholic teaching would call a “just war.”

The presentation was laced with quotes from Pope Francis, and it couldn’t have been a starker contrast between the leader of the Catholic Church and the President of the United States. Trump delights in cheap insults like “rocket man” while he dangerously plays with unthinkable violence. Pope Francis insists in seeing connections between violence between people and violence to the Earth and condemning violence in all its forms.

When Trump jokes, it is with inappropriate and violent memes. When Francis jokes, it makes you think.

Anyway, the speech tonight was the second one in the Chapel of Mercy for the fall series. One week ago, writer Tim Wise spoke on “The Great White Hoax: Racism, Divide-and-Conquer, and the Politics of Trumpism.” He speech, as well as being in the fall series, was part of English Program’s Visiting Writer series.

Wise said that Trump must be understood as fitting in to a long narrative in America, of the powerful invocation of ancient racial fears that have always infected our politics. He noted that in American politics, “nostalgia is a sacrament,” although the memory is often not clear.

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2017 Fall Faculty Series Logo by MMU.

Of the two speakers, Wise drew a much larger crowd and was much more animated. Still, I appreciate the thoughtfulness of Ashley’s presentation tonight.

One thread that unites them, I suppose, is that both speeches are part of Mount Mercy’s ongoing mission to have provocative and revealing public conversations on matters that concern us all. That, to me, is vital to who we are, and a key reason we recently started having these fall series

Ashley concluded his speech by noting “the university” is a key institution that should help the culture by imagining and working towards “another possible world.”

Taken together, the two contrasting evenings felt like highlights of this fall’s series—but the series continues and there is plenty of good material yet to come. Stay tuned and check MMU’s web site—Dr. David Klope, associate professor of communication, is up next in the series on Monday.

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Sober Optimists Erected Government Guardrails


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Dr. Richard Barrett, assistant professor of political science, speaks Aug. 29 at Mount Mercy.

The 2017 Fall Faculty Series is underway! Called “Divided We Fall: Finding Common Ground in a Fractured Age,” this year’s Mount Mercy University series started Tuesday night with an introductory presentation by Dr. Richard Barrett, assistant professor of political science.

Barrett surveyed key points about our democratic republic—including that the founders were fairly sober about what they were doing. They recognized democracy is a fragile form of government, subject to the potential of internal divisions tearing the experiment apart.

So they introduced balanced powers between branches of government, and a complex federal system that balances interests between states.

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2017 Fall Faculty Series Logo by MMU.

It is, Barrett noted, far from perfect. But perfection and the pursuit of the perfect ideal is dangerous in politics, which must be a messy business of give-and-take. So the United States was not so much designed to be the ideal, but rather to avoid the dangers of democracy. In effect, we were designed to be OK when we are divided. The founders aimed to put guardrails on our national political roadway.

“Democracy is fragile,” he noted. “Our government was designed to minimize the chance of bad outcomes.”

Of course, at various time in our history, we’ve come close to a bad outcome. A Civil War that consumed 600,000 lives (in a country of 30 million—imagine a war consuming 6 million lives today to be of the same scale) was one of those times.

And the Civil War is worth noting today, Barrett said, because our level of political division is again almost at that level.

A chilling thought, indeed. But he did offer some hope. The key, he said, is for us to commit to continued communication with those who disagree with us.

And he made, I think, an excellent point. We need people to express disagreement with us—whoever “we” are. Without vigorous opposition, any political viewpoint can become blind dogma whose rationale is forgotten. It is the need to defend our ideas in debate that keeps us in touch with the reasons why we have a particular point of view.

In that spirit, I thought the questions at the end were a highlight of the event. The start, I hope, of an ongoing, engaging conversation.

The series had an interesting start. Betty Cherry Heritage Hall was packed for the session—there were 72 chairs, and a handful of people standing in back, so the crowd was around 80 people. It was encouraging that they were a mix of young and old. I saw a high school senior I know there, along with many university students, faculty members and people from the community. There seemed to be a lot of elderly in the crowd—which, honestly, doesn’t surprise me too much, since I think older members of our citizenry are often the most politically engaged.

Maybe it takes a lifetime to learn that politics matters.

Anyway, I enjoyed the first session—and enjoyed seeing English Professor Dr. Joy Ochs start it off as the new series coordinator.

I hope you can join us for future sessions. I speak next week about “Fake News and the Free Press.” For more information see the MMU web site.

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The Bottom Line? It’s Complicated, but Good


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Dr. Amyan Amer, associate professor of economics at Mount Mercy University, speaking Nov. 15 on the economics of immigration.

So, is immigration a net plus or minus for our economy?

It depends on who you ask and what you’re asking about. There is no single, simple answer.

“It’s complicated,” said Dr. Ayman Amer, associate professor of economics, who spoke Nov. 15, 2016 as part of the Mount Mercy University series on immigration. “You can’t just say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ ‘Yes’ or ‘no’ to what?”

Still, after an extensive analysis of the many winners and losers, both in the U.S.A. and other countries, I think Ayman reached a conclusion about this country.

“GDP is my proof,” he said near the end of the presentation. “Two hundred years of GDP growth.” The U.S.A. has become the richest nation in the world partly due to the dreams, desires, energies and aspirations of her immigrant peoples.

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Two faces in the audience.

And, Ayman said, it makes a big difference where you start and stop your analysis. For example, if you are talking about immigrants themselves, their net economic impact seems to be either a wash or slightly positive. There are many who benefit and many who do not—for example, because of how taxes work and what the different levels of government pay for, the immigration population is a net plus to the federal government, but a drag on the state and local fiscal picture.

That’s the tax question, not net economic impact. As Ayman said, most analysis seem to indicate that immigrants themselves don’t have a huge economic impact one way or another—but that’s ignoring an important reality.

image-of-logo-colorYou also need to consider the next generation. The children of immigrants are parented by driven, motivated people who came across the world to make a new home and a better life—for their children. Those children tend to inherit their parent’s drive to work hard and succeed—and that first American generation is more educated than their parents or the population as whole, less likely to use social services than their parents or the population as a whole.

If you expand the analysis beyond the immigrants themselves to that first American generation raised by immigrations, it’s much harder to argue that America isn’t much richer due to the “teeming masses” that have been welcomed to these shores.

I felt that Ayman gave a very careful, balanced analysis. But he finished with poetic lines that cre carved in the base of the Statue of Liberty and an image of that statue. It was a fitting way to end. The bottom line may be complicated, but I think it’s still accurate to say that the U.S.A. has greatly benefited, and continues to benefit, from immigration. They don’t come here to take our jobs, they come here to build lives, and that life-building process grows our economy, and our culture.

And that’s to our benefit. As we argue over the right balance in our immigration policies, that’s a key point to keep in mind.

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Dr. Amer answers questions–final slide was fitting, showed Statue of Liberty. He noted that immigration is more than an economics question, and is important from an ethical point of view. An immigration from Egypt himself, Dr. Ayman Amer is an example of how this country benefits from immigration.

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The Rhetoric of an Immigrant Building


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Dr. David Klope speaks.

The Mother Mosque, the oldest standing mosque in North America, was built in Cedar Rapids in 1934, used as a house of worship until the early 1970s, and then fell into disrepair until it was renovated as a historic building in the 1990s.

And, according to Dr. David Klope, the building “speaks” to Cedar Rapids. That is, the associate professor of communication at Mount Mercy University made the case Nov. 1, 2016, buildings can be thought of as a medium of communication that send messages.

For example, he noted the new African American Museum in Washington, D.C, communicates by its design and location that it represents an important and integral part of the American experience.

The mosque is in a quiet, modest residential neighborhood south of the Cedar River. The way it is designed and located, Klope said, communicates that Muslims are long time neighbors in Cedar Rapids, part of the immigrant quilt that built Iowa’s second city, an integral and accepted part of the fabric of our community.

image-of-logo-colorThe presentation tonight, part of the MMU Fall Faculty Series on immigration, was attended by about 40 people—a good turnout for a Tuesday night. It also brought the first reporters to one of our series events—which is a bit of a surprise to me. The Gazette, KCRG, KWWL, KGAN, WMT, Mediacom—they all have had material about our series, but primarily small announcements of upcoming events, or, in the case of The Gazette, guest columns by speakers. Here is a link to Dr. Klope’s column.

While I’m grateful that the fall series has generated some local media buzz, I’m a bit taken aback that the first journalists to attend a series event are from Japan. Julia Masuda, from Yokohama, and Akihiro Yamamoto, an NTV production coordinator from Japan but based in New York, were at the forum tonight. I don’t know for sure what story they are working on—they actually were speaking with Taha Tawil of the Mother Mosque when they learned of the MMU event—but there you have it. Journalists have arrived. I guess I just assumed when that happened, they might be from KCRG or The Gazette before they were form Yokohama.

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Akihiro Yamamoto, a production manager, listens. Two journalists attended the presentation tonight–both from Japan.

Anyway, I found Dr. Klope’s presentation to be engaging and interesting. I had not thought of the way a building itself is the convener of messages, but I think he makes a valid case. His rhetoric sold me.

But the best line of the night, I think, was from Imam Taha Tawil of the Mother Mosque, who spoke after Dr. Klope finished. Tawil recounted a bit of his personal journey from Jerusalem to Cedar Rapids, and reviewed, as did Dr. Klope, some of the history of the Mother Mosque. He also invited all of us to call him someday and tour the Mother Mosque, something I hope to do soon.

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Taha Tawil, Imam of The Mother Mosque.

Anyway, Tawil finished the night with some thoughts about American Muslims and politics. He noted that Muslims in America are a diverse group whose members have more political opinions than “the colors of the rainbow.” And he noted that it’s a terrible error to paint all Muslims with the same brush—to say, for example, that ISIS, which he condemned, is somehow representative of one of the world’s largest religions.

“It’s like saying the mafia represents Catholics,” he said.

Yeah, that was it. Valid rhetoric, I think.

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Vang: A Great Play You May Have Missed


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Photo of nature hike I took today at Indian Creek Nature Center. Seems to fit mood of Vang.

There were seven of us in the audience for the play Vang at Mount Mercy University tonight, and it’s a shame because I think what the seven of us experienced will stick with us for a while.

Vang is a Hmong word for “garden” or “farm.” As you probably recall, the Hmong were a southeast Asian people, a minority in Laos, many of whom sided with the Americans in the Vietnam War. When Communists took over South Vietnam and Laos, many Hmong fled and eventually made their way to the United States.

In a happier time when Iowa’s Republican governor declared the state a haven for refugees, some Hmong settled here, and a community centered in Des Moines sprang up that included a couple who ran both a tailor shop and a small farm.

The play Vang actually recounts four immigrant couple’s stories: Toua and A Vang, a Hmong couple from Des Moines; Joseph and Haime Malual, Sudanese immigrants—he was a PhD student at Iowa State when the play was written; Beni and Ramona Chavez, Mexican immigrants and farmers from Marshalltown; and finally Jan and Dorine Boelen, Dutch dairy farmers who basically moved farming operations form The Netherlands to Iowa.

The play was a collaboration between poet and writer Mary Swander, who interviewed the people depicted and wove their stories into the play script; and Dennis Chamberlin, a Pulitzer-prize winning photographer who shot images of the people Swander interviewed.

The play is presented by an actress and actor who at first depicted Swander and Chamberlin, and then, in turn, each couple, as images of the “real” people are projected onto a screen. Each couple whose story is told has a poignant tale, often including harrowing adventures to get to the U.S. (although the Dutch couple basically had money from their farm in Europe and didn’t have the problems on the journey that the others shared). It was interesting to not only hear the immigrants’ stories, but also a bit of the back story of how Swander and Chamberlin struggled to find subjects for the project.

It was also interesting how similar and how different the immigrants’ stories were. One similarity: the people from Somalia, Laos and Mexico all were a bit shocked by Iowa’s winters. Joseph Malual, the Somali man, is quoted as saying, “How can people live here?” as his reaction to his winter-time arrival in Iowa—but when Iowa turned green in the spring, he realized how life here is possible.

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Prairie grass near Indian Creek Nature Center.

Like the Germans and Irish and Scots and English and others who settled here in the 19th century—and the Native Americans who lived off of this land before that—the new immigrants all seemed to have a visceral, positive reaction to the black, fertile soil of this place. Iowa—whatever else you can say about this unpretentious, rather dull patch of the United States, there is something about the earth of the Earth here—what grows here surprises you and seduces you and makes you want, like a prairie rose, to send down deep roots.

image-of-logo-colorOr at least that’s what I was left feeling after seeing Vang.

The Fall Faculty Series this year has included several Saturday events, and so far, I would have to say that innovation has not exactly been successful. While many parts of the series have been popular, getting MMU students or faculty to show up to a Saturday event seems dicey.

We don’t yet have a University social climate that supports weekend events, or so it seems to me.

And that’s a shame. Vang was grand. I wish you had been there.

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The Roots of the Extreme Immigration Debate


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Dr. Norma Linda Gonzalez-Mattingly, associate professor of education, speaks about the immigration election.

It was a little depressing to hear recent U.S. history. As part of a presentation tonight entitled “The Immigration Election: How Has Immigration Become a Hot Topic & How Has It Been Discussed,” Dr. Norma Linda Gonzalez-Mattingly, associate professor of education, recapped some past election cycles.

Presidents who promised immigration reform included Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton, George Bush and Barack Obama. Presidents who delivered immigration reform? Well, all of the previously mentioned resorted to changes in immigration policy via executive order because Congress failed to act.

And today, in 2016, we have two candidates who both promise changes to U.S. immigration policy. Don’t hold your breath.

For one thing, one of those candidates, Donald Trump, is running his campaign like a reality TV star. He makes broad, evocative statements that are good sound bites and, usually, both unsound policy and reflective of an odd alt-right “reality” that isn’t real at all.

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Well, at least there were lemon bars.

Thus, Trump promises a wall (it won’t be built) that Mexico will pay for (no way, hombre). And if Trump did somehow get the magic southern wall with the best technology built, how well would it work? It wouldn’t, but that’s beside the point. The point is to score TV ratings and inflame the passions of his base—and on both of those points, if not on any sound public policy, Mr. Trump is very good.

He calls Mexican immigrants rapists and drug dealers. He says all incoming Muslims should be banned. He wants “extreme vetting,” whatever that is.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, talks like she lives in the real world, and has an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, immigration plan. But can President Clinton II get it through Congress?

The first President Clinton couldn’t. Granted, the Nasty Woman running today has some advantages over The Bill—she was a Senator and has some resulting connections that Bill Clinton never had. I’m betting President Clinton II would have a better chance than President Trump of actually doing something on immigration, but I would also bet that the odds against her accomplishing anything on this issue are also pretty steep.

And that’s partly what I talked about tonight. I was the other half of the show. Dr. Gonzalez-Mattingly ended her remarks by sharing a compelling anecdote from her hometown of Brownsville, Texas, in which she and her mother accidentally ended up harboring an illegal immigration girl that they found wandering the streets as they exited a store. They ended up taking the girl to their local Catholic parish, and aren’t sure how the story ended.

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Me, photographed with my camera by Dr. Joy Ochs, English professor and chair of the MMU faculty.

Then, Dr. Gonzalez-Mattingly talked movingly about her experience of voting this year. She didn’t need it, but she felt compelled to take her birth certificate with her. She was worried about the rhetoric this year, and how she would be treated.

She is Hispanic, and looks it. She is also a fourth generation American citizen, which, if that’s the standard you use to measure these things, makes her more American than I am (third generation—grandparents on my father’s side were immigrants).

The election this year has taken many twists and turns, but the odd and extreme rhetoric that has characterized the campaign mostly comes from one source—Donald Trump.

His followers think he is a refreshing breath of fresh air, willing to speak the truth. Most reputable fact check sites, on the other hand, find him to be consistently and wildly off base. The best way to understand what Trump says? You know he lies because his lips are moving.

But, while Trump has warped our political discourse, on the other hand it was President Nixon who began an organized attack on mainstream media and who also laid the groundwork for the “Southern man” strategy that has benefited the GOP for two generations. To some extent, the Trump candidacy is the illogical outcome of that trend going to its extreme. And possibly ending, if Trump goes down in flames—as seems likely, but we won’t know until after Nov. 8.

And Trump may be the most extreme example of egregious nonsense on the immigration issue, but it was Rep. Steve King, who it pains me to admit is a Republican from Iowa, who in 2013 said the U.S. is in danger from Mexican immigrants who have calves like “cantaloupes” from hauling heavy loads of Mary Jane through the arid Arizona badlands.

King was crazy and still is. But his remark showed the kind of rhetoric that the most deplorable of Republicans were getting into three years ago. And so today, we now have Trump.

God helps us. The American people will express their will in less than two weeks. It was painful for me tonight to read Trumps convoluted, inarticulate and borderline racist words when talking about his rhetoric.

America, I have a favor to ask. Please don’t make me do that for four more years.

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