Celebrating Rekha Basu's career

...the end of an era at The Des Moines Register

The video above shows Rekha’s son, Romen Borsellino, closing the speaking part of a party attended by about 125 community leaders, former bosses, and a columnist colleague. Thanks to Mary Riche, Chuck Offenburger, Thomas Tormey, Dennis Ryerson, Bob Leonard, and Mary Helen Grace for shooting the video and providing photos.

Rekha Basu’s final column as a Des Moines Register employee is filed today. It is an elegant summary of her 30-year career as an advocate for justice.

Rekha signing off.

Since the opinion writer announced her retirement, the reaction has been strong. Progressives are bereft, while her antagonists are cheering. Friends are throwing her parties. Lots of parties. Sure, she’s an advocate for social justice. ‘Social’ is also the operative word to describe her personal life.

Friends, leaders, legislators, journalists, human rights activists, and members of the growing Asian-American community populated the event for Rekha in the home of Roxanne Conlin. It was a magical evening on multiple levels.

Roxanne’s house is so large that the kittens she fostered for the Animal Rescue League and the hundreds of teddy bears on display during the holidays have their own room. Not the same room, to be clear. They each have their own rooms.

As the party instigator, I opened the speaking part by acknowledging Roxanne was the perfect host for the occasion for many reasons, primarily because of her passionate commitment to justice through her law practice. And because we were gathered together to celebrate Rekha, a fierce advocate for justice through the printed word.

The common thread in the room is a shared appreciation for the need to right wrongs and call out injustice.

Walking into the Conlin home, especially during Christmas, is a spectacular sight. A grand, dual staircase is made for big parties and big talk. It is opulent and astounding, from the numerous collections on display to the teddy bears that line that stairway and throughout the house.

The magic of the evening was found more in what was represented in the community gathered. The people present. Rekha gave voice to so many in Iowa, from immigrants to members of the LGBTQ community, people of color, and women. The appreciation for the richness of diversity was on full display, a testament to our friend, Rekha, and all who came to celebrate.

Both Roxanne and Rekha have made their careers fighting for ‘the little guy.’

“Guess which is more profitable,” I joked as folks looked wide-eyed at the mansion and its appointments. Who has sterling silver forks and glass goblets for 150, and was eager to cater a big event for Rekha Basu? Roxanne Conlin.

Ako Abdul Samad lives and breathes social justice issues; as the founder of Creative Visions and as a member of the Iowa House, representing the otherwise underrepresented. He was the first to speak about Rekha’s impactful career, thanking her for having real conversations, standing up regardless of the cost, and asking all in the room to continue to have these real conversations. While Roxanne advocates through the legal system, and Rekha does so in print, Ako is on the frontlines in the battles wrought by systemic racism and income inequality.

When he took the microphone to speak, Ako laughed, saying, “Roxanne’s cats have a bigger room than I do, and they have an elevator.”

Ako Abdul Samad, photo by Chuck Offenburger

Next was Dennis Ryerson, The Register’s editorial page editor, who met Rekha at an editorial writers’ conference and convinced her to come to Iowa. Dennis listed the editorial writing staff (four white men) then and thought adding Rekha might ‘mix it up.’ Did it ever!

Another former boss of Rekha’s was Randy Evans, who talked about what a good reporter she is and how that skill informed her opinions.

State Senator Pam Jochum shared how some of Rekha’s writing helped shape legislation and how the columnist’s personal losses helped her cope with her own.

Kimberly Graham, Polk County attorney-elect, had worried that she might cry when giving her remarks before the party. Rekha, she said, fortified her beliefs and empowered her to run for office.

Des Moines Register editor, Carol Hunter, said no one was ever really Rekha’s boss.

“If Rekha set her mind to something, it was best to just get out of her way and let her work, which would inevitably be terrific,” said Hunter. She mentioned specific columns, and the change they brought.

Former Des Moines Register Dennis Ryerson, former publisher Mary Stier, and current editor Carol Hunter. Photo by Mary Helen Grace

When I first saw Rekha come into The Register’s newsroom in 1991, I had two reactions. How do you pronounce her name (RAKE-ah, not Wreck-uh), and how do we get her to stay in Iowa? I made the latter a personal mission.

Ironically, as Rekha established her Iowa roots and was joined by her husband, Rob Borsellino, and their eldest son, Raj, I upended my life and moved to Annapolis, MD, then Chicago, returning just three years ago. Throughout the decades, Rekha remained my person, and I was one of hers.

Living elsewhere (in Rekha’s case, around the world) gives us an appreciation for Iowa, even though progressive voices are needed now more than ever here.

Photo by Robert Leonard

Before others spoke on Friday night, I asked those in the room to close their eyes and think about a column Rekha wrote that taught them something or had them care about someone or an issue they hadn’t known about before. Heads nodded. Some smiled.

This is Rekha’s legacy. She caused some of us to be more vocal, bold, and angry. She taught us that ‘Iowa Nice’ doesn’t happen to everyone in our beloved state, and we must take on injustice when we see it.

In her remarks, Rekha told us she had her own experiences of being an other - too American by Indian standards and too Indian for some Americans - she brought the empathy for others we needed to read.

Her column will be missed, but as her son Romen said, his mom will still have opinions.

Iowa Writers’ Collaborative member Robert Leonard writes about Rekha’s departure.


Monday Zoom

Our Monday Zoom lunch guest is author Beth Howard. Here’s another Robert Leonard column about the author: Ambassador of Pie. Paid subscribers will receive a link to join this session. Proceeds fund the Okoboji Writers’ Retreat scholarship fund.

By the way, Rekha Basu will be teaching about opinion writing during the third annual Okoboji Writers’ Retreat: www.okobojiwritersretreat.com Come!

Please explore this week’s commentary by other members of the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative:

Thanks for reading! Here are the members of the Iowa Writers Collaborative, in alphabetical order. Please check them out and consider becoming a free or paid subscriber. To receive an invitation to the monthly “Office Lounge” Zoom meetings, you need to be a paying subscriber to at least one of our newsletters. Please also consider supporting the great news source the Iowa Capital Dispatch which shares some of our work. Thanks for subscribing!

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