Thirty-Four Years and Counting

  • Posted on Sep 10, 2012

Back in February of 1978, I was finishing graduate work at the University of Iowa.  My dissertation was a hard clump of academic prose that no one except faculty advisors and committee members would ever read. 

But I had much more to say.           

I just couldn’t say it in academic prose.  Show me an academic writer who writes for non-academic readers and I’ll show you a rare bird indeed.    

I wrote three short essays that said stuff I wanted to say, in my own voice.  It sounded a lot like The Des Moines Register’s Donald Kaul, but it was still me.  And I submitted one of them to Dave Westphal, editor of the Cedar Falls Record. 

To my delight and surprise, he liked it and said “more.”  He agree to publish one a week in the Record for awhile, just to gauge reader response. 

Thirty-four years and some two thousand “short essays” (columns, in journalese) later, I’m still writing. 

Free-lance journalists live in fear of a change of editors—since they get published literally at the whim of every editor who runs an editorial page.  My next Record editor, Mark Mittelstadt, also liked what I was writing, as did the editor after him, Rae Riebe.   So I was writing along, happily getting ideas out, thinking through local and national events as only writers must, for five years and three editors at the Cedar Falls Record

Then in 1983, the Waterloo Daily Courier, heretofore a rival paper in Black Hawk County, bought the Record and shut it down.  Well, not quite.  They kept a “Record Page” on which they printed Cedar Falls news, and for awhile, my column. The new Courier Editor, Saul Shapiro, decided to keep me on as a Courier columnist, that I’m grateful for that. Good call, Saul.   

Unlike the Record editors, Saul was demanding.  He offered advice, spiked an occasional column—meaning he wouldn’t print it—and generally made sure I at least tried to “bulletproof” everything I wrote.  “Bulletproof” was his metaphor for writing about a subject so that readers couldn’t immediately shoot holes in it.  That advice made me a better writer and columnist.   

So I kept writing, and still write for the Courier Sunday editorial page once a month under editor Nancy Newhoff.

Over the years readers have asked when I was going to publish a collection.  They remember a few and wanted to re-read them, and even talked about them—“That one about the Finchford flood.”  Or “That Sturgis Falls Days parade critique.”  Or “I’d like to read your graduation addresses,” and “how about that Christmas column Baby Jesse—when Jesus was born a girl.”  Those were columns that stirred more than a few Cedar Valley readers to respond.  Oh yes, and there was Elaine Jacquith.  And the Lab School closing column—in 2002.  

These days, a paper publication is prohibitively expensive.  It makes sense to “publish” a collection online.  I believe the name “Cedar Valley Chronicles” works well, since I’ve chronicled personalities, events, controversies, catastrophes, and everyday life in the Cedar Valley since Jimmy Carter was president.  

Also I’m going to write regular blogs about my book, Brother’s Blood: A Heartland Cain and Abel and my CD of James Hearst poems set to music,

Landscape Iowa; 16 James Hearst Poems, Sung.  I’m performing those songs/poems regularly all around Iowa and have recently added a new song as well, which I’ll perform as part of a blog.  And I regularly discuss Brother’s Blood in public, and have recently corresponded with two readers who are intimately connected with that crime. I will write about them shortly.   

Every day I’ll try to add ten more old columns to this site until I reach a quota or run out of columns, whichever comes first.  So if you don’t find something you want to read, check back in ten days for a hundred more.

A hearty thanks to Saul Shapiro for his ongoing support, and for this most excellent introduction to the “Cedar Valley Chronicles.”     


CEDAR VALLEY CHRONICLES

INTRODUCTION

SAUL SHAPIRO

APRIL, 2012

Scott Cawelti has been a fixture in Cedar Valley newspapers for more than 30 years — first at the Cedar Falls Record and, upon its demise in 1983, at its sister paper, the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.

As the newly installed editor of the Courier, I solicited Scott’s column, which had developed quite a following in Cedar Falls. Some of my colleagues, though, were wary that he was too liberal for a newspaper where the recently retired “Iron Duke” was a fixture as a front-page commentator.

That column with its allusion to the English lord who vanquished Napoleon at Waterloo also saddled the paper with a 19th century political outlook. To broaden the Courier’s audience, a statement had to be made that it wouldn’t be so doctrinaire in its commentary. And better to do it with an outspoken local voice rather than a syndicated columnist.

Most columnists are quite predictable. Read them a few times, and you can tell where they are headed with rare surprises. They exist to reinforce the views of their devoted readers, who expect the newspaper to be “balanced” by ideologues on both sides of the political spectrum.

I think what most delighted Scott’s followers and annoyed his detractors was that he took paths that weren’t so predictable — often through allusions or metaphors that made his columns fresh. Indeed, his unique style and wry humor seemed like catnip to critics who couldn’t resist his writing, even if his views were anathema to them.

Consequently, even before the advent of the Internet, Cawelti’s columns went “viral” in the Cedar Valley. For every letter taking him to task, he had loyal legions ready to defend him. No matter, he thrived on the feedback generated.

As our friendship evolved, I would somewhat kiddingly ask Scott when his Wednesday deadline drew near for the Sunday column whether it would be safe to answer my phone come Monday.  Indeed, his annual reinvention of the Christmas story was not necessarily a gift for someone desiring holiday tranquility, rather than hostility.

That said, the role of a columnist is to be thought provoking, to take tacks that shed a different light on an issue or possibly cause a reader to reevaluate a position. At the very least, it should bring clarity to a particular perspective, whether you buy into the commentator’s worldview or not.

Scott’s work does just that. Enjoy this collection of his writings.

 

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“Even before the advent of the Internet, Cawelti’s columns went 'viral' in the Cedar Valley… the role of a columnist is to be thought provoking, to take tacks that shed a different light on an issue or possibly cause a reader to reevaluate a position. At the very least, it should bring clarity to a particular perspective, whether you buy into the commentator’s worldview or not.

Scott's work does just that.  Enjoy this collection of his writing.”

-Saul Shapiro, Former Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier Editor
Read Shapiro's entire introduction.

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