Category Archives: Mount Mercy

Brief Memories of a ‘Lovely Man’


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.


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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March: The interesting transition to spring


Frosty hillside at MMU campus, riding up Mercy Drive Friday, March 2.

Iowa in March: To start the month, we’ve had a string of sunny, warm days. Well, “warm” is situational—scraping car windows was necessary this morning as temperatures were in the mid 20s.

But as I biked by the Rockwell-Collins pond on C Avenue Friday morning, the ice surface has become again liquid, and two ducks were swimming. I hope they are there this weekend when I take my youngest grandson for a bike ride. He loves seeing the ducks.

March is a roller coast month. We’ve started high on the hill, but could easily swoop down. Despite warm sunshine here, it’s winter in other parts of this hemisphere—my oldest daughter in England is dealing with snow in a UK city with no snow removal equipment, because such weather is so rare there. A Nor’easter is pounding parts of the U.S.

We haven’t had the high school basketball tourneys yet, complete with their traditional tournament blizzards.

Yet, it’s still nice to see more sunshine and feel more warmth. The dominant outdoor color is a drab brown, but birds are getting busy and noisy. Change is clearly in the air. By month’s end, we should be enjoying the green outdoors.

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ICMA Day 2: American Heroes


Art Cullen, Iowa´s most recent Pulitzer winner.

Art Cullen certainly cuts a dashing figure for an old man—and I can say that as a man of approximately the same vintage.

The editor of “The Storm Lake Times,” Cullen won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing last year, and spoke to the INA and ICMA conventions Friday. He won the prize for a series of editorials hat attacked Buena Vista County, of which Storm Lake is the county seat, for secrecy in a legal fight with the Des Moines Water Works over nitrate pollution.

As Cullen says, it´s pretty self evident that Iowa´s waters are badly polluted, but it takes some courage for a small-town journalist in Iowa to point out that unpleasant reality. In that place, it´s a gutsy thing to do.

Cullen represents a pure view of what a journalist is and does. He and his brother John, who publish the paper, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, although Art noted he handles more of the afflicting. “I am the bad cop, he is the good one,” he said.


Art Cullen.

Bravo for Art and his little paper. But even with a Pulitzer Prize, he notes his readers care more about whether he has spelled their daughter´s name correctly. And he says the challenge for the Times is to figure out how to appeal to a growing Hispanic population in the paper´s market, or it will be game over in five years.

I hope he manages it. He´s a heroic journalist, and I wish him the continued success he deserves. Watch for his book, coming out this fall.


MMU Times Editor Connor Mahan listens to Art Cullen speak.

A somewhat different brand of courage was on display in the morning, when Jim Olson, a retired CIA spy from Iowa, entertained the INA and ICMA crowd with his tales from his exciting careen. Olson noted that spying is an important service to the country, and one that will always be needed. But, in response to a question at the end, he also noted that our current president is doing a great disservice by attacking the intelligence agencies because he doesn´t like some of the information they are finding.

Sure, the memo, but that´s fake vindication from a lying party. I would dearly love to hear what Art Cullen says about that.

The new motto of “The Washington Post” is that “democracy dies in darkness.” In their own ways, I suppose, both Olson and Cullen worked to dispel darkness, but I do have some fondness for Cullen´s way of serving the country. It is easy to honor a public servant like Olson, but there is the complication that not everything our government did or does is honorable. Of course, not all journalists are honorable, either, but the way Art does it, journalism is.

We finished the ICMA convention with ice cream. Instead of attending a final session, I offered students with me a chance to go tour the Iowa Capitol. Which we did, and we had a great time.

It felt like a fitting end to our ICMA experience. Now, it is time to get back to work, to again start comforting and afflicting, each in our own way aiding democracy.


As Art Cullen speaks, Brian Steffen of ICMA and Simpson College, covers the event on Twitter.

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Fairy Tales and Poignant Memories: ICMA Day 1


MMU Times Editor Connor Mahan and Managing Editor Madelyn Orton at ICMA conference.

We had some great presentations on the first day of the Iowa College Media Association Convention in Des Moines. The most memorable moment came after the ICMA awards ceremony, when the state media’s association annual Eighmey Award, for a person in Iowa who has aided college media, went to Pat Pisarik of Loras College in Dubuque.

The award was voted on before Oct. 30 of last year, when sadly and unexpectedly, Pat passed away. His family was there to receive his honor. And ICMA renamed it’s “student journalist of the year award” as the “Pat Pisarik Student Journalist of the Year.”

It was a touching event, and his family received a standing ovation from the association.


Son of Pat Pisarik at ICMA ceremony.

Earlier, Tim Harrower, a national icon in the world of newspapers who wrote the classic text on design and also a popular text on reporting, gave ICMA’s keynote address.

Using a fairy tale theme, Harrower retold stories such as “Chicken Little” to be entertaining fables about modern journalism (Chicken Little ends up working for a conglomerate that produces fried chicken and finds “another way to serve readers.”).

In his version of the “Fox and the Grapes,” the fox gets angry that too many grapes lean left, so Fox plants his own vineyard where all of the grapes lean right.

Yes, I loved it. A keynote address full of the kind of “dad jokes” that make my wife and children chuckle or groan, but it was also full of insight and wisdom.


Hand of Tim Harrower.


Tim Harrower.

Harrower had us all raise our hands and swear never to lie lest we be eaten by wolves. In today’s world of social media alternative facts, it’s more important than ever that journalists be truth tellers, even if the audience seems to be struggling to distinguish truth from Fake News of the kind perpetrated by Foxes and fake presidents.

At one point, Harrower gave advice to students on how to land a job. He noted that he was in a position to hire for the largest paper in Oregon, and he confessed he never cared about GPA nor even which school an applicant came from. There are two keys to landing a media job, he says: “10 great clips and a pleasant personality.”

“I’ve talked with a lot of talented geniuses that I would not hire because I didn’t want to have lunch with them,” he said.

As a professor, I would hasten to add that grades matter to some employers, and certainly have some impact on scholarships and recognition, so don’t totally relax too much, students. But the importance of grades really is whether they are symptom of learning—if they show that you got out of each experience what you could. Because, frankly, Harrower is right—they may be part of some employer’s screening of applications, but for the most part, they don’t really matter in terms of getting a job.

It’s more than journalism. For PR, graphic design, technical writing, TV, radio—any form of professional communication, remember his advice. The “clips” may be a photo gallery or web site or audio stories or a demo “tape” (we really have to work on updating that language, even “clips” these days are usually PDFs), but you land that first job with a smile and conversation and 10 great samples of what you can do.

And samples from student media, the MMU Times, and an internship or internships, always mean way more than any class work.

So what do you with the advice? Mr. Harrower offered further words.

“When a good story comes along, jump on it with both feet,” he said, adding that you report the heck out of it and produce a great story, great pictures, an online video, etc.

“That gives you one,” he noted, going on to repeat that you need to do it nine more times.

For me, the great disappointment of the day was that MMU did not win any ICMA awards. I need to find out what happened—I’m hoping there was not a glitch with our entries, but I am suspicious, because we’ve never been totally skunked in the past and there were good stories and materials in our contest entries. In particular, the winning front page displayed at the contest was, in my very biased opinion, not better then the page we had entered. Assuming we were in the running for awards, that there was not glitch, however, the take away is that we need to up our game, especially online.

Earlier in the afternoon, we participated in a media tour, and chose to go to the Register’s downtown newsroom. I had been there before, but it was worth seeing their Star Trek like control area and the banks of desks with a window view of the Capitol’s golden dome. The students who were with me really enjoyed it.

And one of our tour guides was Kyle Munson, whose “Kyle Munson’s Iowa” is one of the highlights of The Des Moines Register. I got to take a picture of him perched on a chair in a hallway to speak to an ICMA crowd. It was a totally fan boy moment, and I loved it.

All in all, day one would have been better with a few awards for Times staff writers, but it was still a day with many outstanding events. I’m glad we came, and I have just one thought about the contest: 10 great clips—we need to produce multiple, better stories. Students, they can get you a job, and, it is to be hoped, they can get your newspaper some prizes.


Connor and Maddie listen at ICMA.

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Sisters are Doing it for Themselves



MMU President Laurie Hamen speaks about Sister Shari Sutherland Dec. 12, 2017, in atrium of Busse Library.

When you think of a Catholic nun, what picture comes to your mind? A “penguin outfit” and a strict disciplinarian like from “Blues Brothers?” Or is it something cute but out of place in the modern world like a sister from “Sister Act?”

aa01We had a reception today at Mount Mercy for a complex, intelligent woman who has left her mark on the university. Sister Shari Sutherland is retiring at the end of the year as VP of mission and ministry.

MMU President Laurie Hamen told a little story about Sr. Shari. The then newly minted leader of MMU was to travel with her to Omaha to be presented to a Sisters of Mercy leadership group, and thus got in a car with Sister Shari on a cold winter morning. As they started off, however, they saw someone dressed in scrubs out in the cold. Sister Shari directed Laurie to stop the car and asked, “Where are you going, friend?”

The stranger was headed to HyVee, but didn’t have any money. Sister Shari gave them some of her own, and someone got a ride to the grocery store before a new university president and nun left town.

Of course, when you think of the story, your heart is warmed by the goodness it displays. Then again, it’s also a story of quick decision making, taking risks, facing life with courage and swift action. How typical of a Sister.

I recently read an article that, sadly, as I wrote this I could not find again. But it was a reflection of how the Christian view of Mary, mother of Jesus, is sometimes flawed because we seem to think of her as meek and passive. But in the Gospel, when an angel comes to tell Mary she’ll have a baby, she doesn’t just say, “sure,” she first asks some pointed questions. And when she says “OK, God, we’ll do this,” she says it on her own, without consulting anybody. Sort of like a Sister.

Sisters are doing it for themselves. I’m not sure why Sister Shari’s retirement made me think of Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox, but it did. And while I didn’t find the most recent article on Mary that I was thinking of, I did appreciate this similar essay by Father James Martin in Slate.

Sister Shari was an encouraging presence at MMU and also a force to be reckoned with. She has spunk, intelligence, humor and backbone. I felt honored that I rang with her when there was a bell choir and occasionally was blessed by her during Mercy Week ceremonies. She was an early supporter of the idea of a Fall Faculty Series, and one of the hidden movers and shakers that helped that effort take off.


Photo from event celebrating Sister Shari’s 50th anniversary in Sisters of Mercy.

There was another theme at the retirement reception, too. It doesn’t end here. The mission of the Sisters of Mercy is carried on by those of us who attempt to understand the spirit of Mercy, and who work and teach at a Mercy University.

Sister Shari, you were part of the gas in the tank at MMU. Your smile and grace and humor and strength will be sorely missed. On the other hand, if the baton gets passed, the next runner must run. The university, like the dude, abides. And the best way to honor you Sister Shari, I suppose, is to keep the faith, light the fire, work the mission, teach the students and carry on.

Before that, however, let me pause and say thanks for the help you gave me and all of us at MMU in ways big and small.

And, also, a song that makes me think of both Mary and of you, Sister Shari:


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Wanting Something to Rot in the Ground


Danny Mishek, president of SelfEco.

I saw a cool product today. and I wish it was readily available each spring.

Danny Mishek, president of SelfEco, a company in Stillwater, Minnesota, gave the annual Barbara A. Knapp lecture at Mount Mercy University. In his speech, he told about how his company makes two product lines: plastic eating utensils and plastic plant pots. The hook is that both product lines are produced mostly from corn stalks and roots—they are plant-based, biodegradable plastics.

And the pots, which rot away in the ground, also have fertilizer embedded into their structure.


SelfEco seed-starting pots. Danny Mishek gave them to me. Now I have to figure out what seeds I want to start next year ….

I want them. I want all the plants I buy for my garden next spring to come in them. May the idea grow and spread. Mishek said 4.2 billion garden pots are sold annually, with only 2 percent recycled. His pots don’t need to be either tossed or recycled—you simply plant the plant, which feasts on the fertilizer at its roots as the pot decomposes.

“If something is going into a landfill, it’s a missed opportunity,” Mishek said.

He showed pictures of forks, plates and champagne flutes his company also produces, with the idea that these are again put in a compost pile rather than tossed or recycled.

It was, to me, a pretty inspiring speech. Of course, as a gardener, the idea of not having to de-pot my flowers immediately appealed to me, but Mishek’s company is doing something important that can help solve a big environmental problem.

I enjoyed the presentation, even if it included a rather famously debunked quote that is often attributed to Gandhi: “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you WIN!”

I’m not sure what made me google for a source, but those words just didn’t sound like Gandhi, to me. In fact, they did not come from him. PolitiFact and have both dealt with the quote—PolitiFact checked into it when Donald Trump tweeted that quote during the campaign last year.


Dr. Tracy Tunwall, fauclty chair, introduces the speaker.

As usual, you can’t trust a Trump tweet. Then again, Polifact notes that both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton referenced the same words and falsely attributed them to Gahndi. And, although not really from Gandhi at all, the words reflect a nice thought that did fit the speech well.

Anyway, that’s all an aside. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing Mishek speak, and thought he peppered his remarks with good advice for students. For instance, he noted to students that they would all be judged—it’s inevitable. That should motivate you to do good things so that “they will judge you for being awesome.”

He also noted that making choices is a key in life. “You only have so much energy. You can’t put 25 hours into a day,” he said.

Nice words. You can’t put 25 hours into a day. Probably, as it nears midnight, that means it’s time for me to go to bed. I won’t try to put more hours into this day. But after the speech, when I thanked Mr. Mishak for his interesting words, he gave me a sample package of pots.

I may not put more hours into a day—but I’m looking forward next spring for finding reasons to put these pots in the ground!

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Filed under Flowers, Garden, Mount Mercy, Science

#RadicalModeratesUnite! Protest 101

Dr. Taylor Houston

Dr. Taylor Houston, assistant professor of sociology at Mount Mercy University.

I’m not sure I’m cut out for this protest business. Sure, I marched for science. I am also the proud brother of sisters, many of who sport “those” pink hats. And yet, I don’t want to divide the world into “us” and “them.” That may be a necessary step, however, if I aspire to run a successful “movement” to enact social change.

And I do. I’m so concerned about the doughnut shape of our current politics—about the hollowing out of the middle and our migration into like-minded, competing, hostile camps farther on the left and right that I want to close the cap, bridge the divide, put the hole back in the doughnut.

I want a middle, darn it. I don’t want to act so surprised that former President Bush has some intelligent things to say. I don’t want to associate with folks who find the Obamas—surely one of the strongest, healthiest, most traditional and respectable nuclear families to inhabit the White House since, I don’t know, ever—so objectionable on a personal level that only invective can describe them.

I want to be able to respect a President, Democrat or Republican. The present President has exempted himself from that instinct, by the way, due to gross incompetence, rampant narcissism, corrosive ignorance and pervasive use of racist dog whistles—I can only respect a Republican who wants to serve America and serve as president to all of her citizens. If the last nine months have taught us anything, it’s that, left or right, GOP or Democrats, we should acknowledge that the crazy old man who temporary resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is not that President. He needs the apprentice treatment—to be told “you’re fired”—ASAP.


2017 Fall Faculty Series Logo by MMU.

Yeah, I know, I’m deviating from my core message. Trump bashing is not helpful while I am trying to say “up the middle!” I say it because there will be a U.S beyond the Trump era, and I do want an America where there is a hint of compromise and competence among our political elites.

#Makepoliticsworkagain. #ItsnotthenewsthatsfakeDon.

Anyway, Dr. Taylor Houston, assistant professor of sociology, gave an interesting talk tonight at Mount Mercy University Oct. 24 as part of our 2017 Fall Faculty Series. His speech was called: “Protest 101: How to be an Effective Activist.”

He noted early that he wasn’t really going to give any complete recipe, but rather some sociological perspective on what makes movement successful, and some advice for would-be activists. I can’t fault the content of what he said—he seemed to base his remarks clearly on good social science—but some aspects of his talk were disconcerting.

For example, to have a successful social change movement, it’s very helpful early on to define an enemy, so you can court cohesion among “your” allies by having a “them” to attack.


Bah, humbug. I wish it weren’t so—more divisiveness seems to be just what we don’t need—but as a communication tactic, I have to concede the advice is completely valid.

Other points Dr. Houston made included:

  • Watch for your WUNC. “The strength of a movement is determined by its WUNC,” Houston noted. That is, a movement needs to have Worthiness (from the point of view of the people who support it), Unity, Numbers and Commitment. Those interplay in interesting ways, he noted. For example, “numbers” doesn’t have to be a majority—the TEA Party movement has successfully reshaped the Republican Party with relatively small numbers, but enough commitment and key strength in primary races to make its mark. WUNC. Get some. A lot, actually.
  • Start local. If you want media attention, you’re more likely to get it from local journalists. If you want to influence conditions in Cedar Rapids, Mayor Ron Corbett is a much easier to influence than President Tangerine Hair Nightmare (sorry, slipping again. Mr. Drumpf does that to me).
  • protest2

    Man at the speech handed me this. An invite! I’m invited to protest!

    Send an invite. The most important step to get fellow travelers to sign on to your movement is to do something and ask others who are like minded to join in. “People who care the most are the most likely to get involved,” Houston noted. “Those mostly likely to be involved are those who have been asked.”

Houston had much more to say—about framing a message, for example. About how starting a movement is a lot easier than actually accomplishing a goal—and we seem to excel at making noise but fall short at knowing what to do next.

So, what movements do I want to start? As I noted, I’m ready for some radical compromisers. For people who are willing to “make it work.”

And, secondly, I still want to start the Pollinator Garden Movement at MMU.

Join me, friends. Let’s try to talk and find common ground. And let’s also grab our rakes and plant some Milkweed seeds!


Went for a bike ride around Cedar Lake before tonight’s speech. And saw this. Milkweed! We need more of it. So say “us.” Not “them.” Darn them, anyhow.

OK, as I said, I don’t see this protest thing as coming naturally to me. Still, I found Dr. Houston’s talk fascinating, especially when he complimented the crowd for filling Betty Cherry on “the start of winter.”

Oh, you poor southern sociologist, from the Texas city of your family name. Winter is coming.

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