Discover more from Julie Gammack's Iowa Potluck
...DeWitt surprised me
DeWitt is a paradox. Like life. Like Iowa.
After my 24-hour visit, I left with dread and optimism.
It's a charming, relatively affluent town situated between Dubuque and Davenport.
Dewitt is growing in population and has a pleasant downtown. Kids were on bikes, and it felt like one of those communities that could capture the hearts of families looking to settle into a 'good' 'safe' place.
In October, pumpkins have replaced the tomatoes offered at farm stands along Highway 30. The fall leaves haven't dropped, although early morning frost is covering our car windshields.
DeWitt is located on the state's eastern side, 45 minutes north of Davenport and an hour south of Dubuque. According to Wikipedia: DeWitt is a city in Clinton County, Iowa. The population was 5,215 at the time of the 2020 census, representing a 9.2% increase over 2000, making it the fastest-growing city in Clinton County.
These are 'good problems to have,' but there are challenges: affordable housing is one as property values rise. Still, someone relocating from Silicon Valley to raise a family would be shocked by what they can buy for $200-$400,000. Of course, they aren't flocking from California, but more likely, the Quad Cities. So, prices seem high if you live there.
Dianne Prichard hosted me in her DeWitt home. I had announced in my column that I wanted to visit towns around the state for a listening tour with folks gathered in living rooms and dining rooms for an old-fashioned potluck.
"Pick me, pick me," she wrote. How could I not?
My request of Dianne was that she invite 12 people she considers 'influencers' in town, and it would be up to her to decide what that meant. Although politics touches all of our lives, and we are in the final stretch of a mid-term election, this was not intended to be a partisan event but rather an opportunity to learn about what folks in smaller communities around the state think. In small towns, many people do not want to talk publicly about politics. Everyone in our group, however, intends to vote.
Things have changed around my home state of Iowa, and I wonder why. I think we've retired the title 'Iowa Nice' for now, anyway, and I don't know if we can bring it back.
I am under no illusion that one can get a town's entire history and story in a few hours, but it can capture a moment in time. And that's what we did.
By 'paradox,' I mean one thing can be true while something contradictory can be going on.
DeWitt is attractive for many reasons.
There's a restored Opera House I'd love to explore on a return trip. Diane still has a key because she and her family once managed the place for years. It's a theater and community gathering place where Lions Club members hold do-it-yourself shows, and for $5, theater-goers can see slide shows of members' vacation trips. Really. That's a thing, and folks come from far and wide.
Next door is a thriving antiques and collectibles store, Emma Rae’s, in a former True Value store with about 120 vendors. Tracy Nissen runs it. Her father’s hobby turned into a healthy family business.
Dianne opened her home to us, and we gathered around her dining room table. I'd supplied a questionnaire in advance as thought-starters for our conversation, and we jumped on in.
Rita Hart was with us for the first part of the evening. She had to chair another group later, so she couldn’t stay. Hart once represented the area in the Iowa Senate. She was picked by the Democratic candidate for governor, Fred Hubbell, as his running mate for Lt. Governor, in 2018. They didn’t win. In the last election cycle, she ran for congress and came within six votes of defeating Marianette Miller-Meeks. This cycle, Christina Bohannan, is running against Miller-Meeks, in what is called a tight race.
Hart and her husband, Paul, farm 20 miles west of DeWitt near Big Rock and also operate his family's farm north of Wheatland. She was an educator before running for office and continues participating in community activities.
Others around the table are listed below. We had a small business owner, the head of the local chamber, educators, and leaders of nonprofit groups.
A selected group like this can reflect the host as much as a town—Dianne Prichard hand-picked our group.
Dianne Prichard is a giver. A doer. A get-stuff-done kind of person. She taught in the high school for years and, after retirement, got caught up in what she called 'the Holy Spirit thing' and became a minister. She's a writer and passionate about lots of things. Diane still mentors her 'kids' (students), who are all grown up and, in their ways, trying to make the world and their town better.
DeWitt is their home. Crowds swell the local park during the 4th of July. They like it, and they plan to stay.
So, let's talk about the challenges. What are they?
Sweet little DeWitt, Iowa, is not immune from the divisions we see nationally. Dianne, looking back, thinks it started in 2014. Not that it didn't exist before, but that's when racism and bullies became emboldened and out of the closet. It’s hard to have a civil high school sports game in a place that once exemplified sportsman-like conduct.
When did we move from the state of Iowa Cares to Who Cares? Or, I don’t care, do you?
One potlucker called it the Fox News effect.
And, it's easy to post hateful things on Facebook, where conversations used to take place in real time. Rita Hart finally got off Facebook.
As someone in the public eye, Hart constantly faced anger from various places. After she'd been a public official, she was chairing a meeting when a man confronted the group, spitting out the word 'Democrats' as if it was a blasphemous swear word.
"Do you have a question?" She asked him, and he calmed down.
There was a plan in the works for a demonstration outside Hart’s home to take place the same week as the insurrection in Washington, D.C.
A local county Republican acquaintance got wind of it and warned Hart.
The media was notified, and the parade organizers backed down.
Imagine. Rita Hart, who represented the people in her district when she served in the Iowa Senate, was almost harassed and threatened in the same week as an attempted coup in the nation's Capitol.
A coincidence? I think not.
I have heard the words' impending Civil War' three times in separate conversations this past week. I dismissed it each time as fear-mongering.
I don't anymore.
Our group in DeWitt that night included educators, who, one by one, told of the intimidation they now face. One teacher had an entire class show up wearing MAGA hats. Another found herself in trouble when she gave her students an assignment to write an argument from the opposite point-of-view they held to learn analytical thinking skills. Another told of someone who speculated there might be pressure on teaching about Black musicians in a music history class.
This is in Iowa. This week. In the beautiful, idyllic town of DeWitt.
I asked if the abortion issue would bring more women to the polls.
There was silence. It's not easy talking about hot-button issues in a small town where one might not know everyone around the table. An attendee said she was afraid to put up a candidate’s yard sign different from her neighbors because she was sure they'd never speak to her again.
Others fear retaliation in other ways.
"I wish these so-called pro-life people believed in life after birth," said one. She had been a social worker before her position was eliminated. "Most people have no idea the needs many kids have."
Heads nodded around the table. The woman to my left grew up in the foster care system, where she endured beatings and broken bones and was locked in a closet at times. She finally aged out of the system and now helps people in need of emergency services.
Others around Dianne's table have taken in foster children, and some are adoptive parents. Their stories of a dysfunctional, underfunded system were horrific. And that was discussed before we talked about sex trafficking. Girls suddenly stop coming to school and remain missing.
One of our guests last night worked with a variety of people in need of assistance. She said a girl escaped a trafficker in a nearby city and came to her for help. The girl said she had been kept locked in a dog crate but was able to run away.
Until Tuesday night in DeWitt, I read about sex trafficking with a disconnected concern. No more. I want answers.
How many arrests are being made for traffickers? How many convictions? What sentences are being served?
In central Iowa, we are still talking about Johnny Gosch, a young newspaper carrier from West Des Moines who disappeared from his route early one morning 40 years ago. The anniversary of his disappearance garnered a lot of local press attention recently.
Today, is it commonplace for kids to disappear? Is this the new normal?
Are we that numb?
Is it 'woke' to care? Why, yes, it is. And that word was used as a pejorative by the governor of Iowa in the debate this week. Governor Reynolds is ‘proud of’ all kinds of things, especially the budget surplus of cash she is hoarding. Thanks to federal aid designed to address income interruptions from Covid, there is well over $1 BILLION available.
What could that surplus do to address foster care, school funding, and the Iowa courts system? Puhleeeeeze, do not say you are pro-baby when you are sitting on a pile of cash that could help save children. Reynolds said it’s fine if a 10-year-old rape victim is required to carry a fetus to term. You don’t believe anyone could be that insensitive? Watch the only debate the candidates for governor held this week. She had the gall to claim Deidre DeJear has an extreme position on abortion because the Democrat believes women should have the freedom to make decisions for themselves and leave the government out of it.
Back to sex trafficking.
Issues like these aren't just a DeWitt problem, I fear. They are in more places imaginable throughout Iowa and the nation. I’ll include links below about sex trafficking in Iowa, but I believe there is much more to this story that needs to be told.
Perhaps the difference is a town the size of DeWitt, with an engaged citizenry, has the opportunity to change the outcome.
I didn't sleep much that night.
Neither did Dianne. We met for coffee the following day before I headed home.
The good news - we both agree - is that the group assembled around her table the night before wants to get together again. And keep meeting. Some had met each other for the first time but saw how these conversations matter. Maybe it helps not to think you're alone.
So many have become resigned to the shit-storm swirling around us; it's much easier to go inward. Especially those of us who live in comfortable, relatively carefree bubbles.
There's a term for this, and it's called living in a mood of resignation. And in that mood, there doesn't seem to be hope.
A wise mentor once said: "Everything begins in a conversation."
So, let's keep talking.
Here are a few links to stories and columns about sex trafficking:
Human-Trafficking lawsuit against Iowa College, Clark Kauffman, Iowa Capital Dispatch
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