Writer: Barbara Dietrich Boose
Silverware is clinking and conversations buzzing as Lorenzo Sandoval calls for the attention of some 70 people in the Embassy Club: “This is your five-minute warning. Then we’ll start our program!”
Tonight’s guest speaker is Mike Glover, longtime Associated Press political reporter and now senior correspondent for the Iowa Daily Democrat. His audience shuffles about, shifting chairs from their tables to face the rostrum with practiced choreography—practiced over the past 126 years by this group and its predecessors in the Prairie Club.
In 1890, a local pastor and a Drake University English professor assembled 21 men—a physician, two educators, two newspaper editors, three businessmen, six lawyers and seven clergy—for an inaugural meeting at the home of Albert Cummins (later Iowa’s governor and then a U.S. senator) to hear Frederick Lehmann’s presentation of “Socialism a la Bellamy.” Since then, Prairie Club members have met regularly, taking turns giving and listening to their scholarly presentations.
“It’s interesting to know what topics people talked about back then in this small town, which Des Moines was,” says Isobel Osius, a retired Meredith Corp. editorial researcher.
Aspects of the Prairie Club have changed over the years, but one element has persisted. “When you give a presentation, you educate yourself, and in listening to others’ presentations, you expand your knowledge,” says Des Moines attorney Lyle Simpson. “It charges your batteries.”
Simpson and late members Lew McNurlen, a Drake professor, and David Hurd, retired Principal Financial CEO, pushed for perhaps the biggest change to the club: the addition of women in the mid-1980s. Betty Grandquist was among the first four women invited to join.
“They thought they should bring in four at a time, so we would feel at ease,” she says. “But we were all used to being in the workforce, so we weren’t intimidated at all.”
Nor was she intimidated by being the first female member to present to the group, which she did on Euripedes’ play “Medea.” Grandquist credits a grade school teacher who required her students to regularly speak extemporaneously. Other members readily admit to feeling terrified by their turn to present, but they all agree the experience is worthwhile.
“It’s so stimulating. The presentations are on so many different subjects,” Grandquist says. “They introduce you to aspects of the human condition you weren’t familiar with.”
Presentations can’t relate to members’ jobs or be personal in nature. “One of the club’s continuing charms for me is that the papers are required to be outside of the speaker’s profession or usual field of knowledge,” says member Dave Witke, a retired editor for The Des Moines Register. Speakers have to tackle topics about which they’re unfamiliar, he adds, then “research it, study it, reach conclusions about it. In other words, we constantly have to learn something new and challenging.”
Second rule: The title of the presentation, which is announced to members one month in advance, should be comfortably ambiguous. That stems from the club’s early-day practice of specificity, which allowed motivated members the chance to research the topic and then mercilessly grill the presenter—to the degree that some presenters never returned.
“Now we present a title that’s a teaser to get people guessing,” says Trudy Holman Hurd, a Prairie Club member since 2002. For example, a paper titled “On a Wing and a Prayer” by member Jan Kaiser, a retired marketing director of the Des Moines Public Library, focused on the migration of monarch butterflies; a presentation titled “Frick and Frack” by her husband, attorney Steve Kaiser, traversed Iowa’s history from being a “piece of molten lava” to the proposed Bakken pipeline. The Rev. William Cotton once presented “Defying Gravity” on humor and aging.
When it comes to the presentations themselves, though, there are few rules. Joseph Jones, executive director of the Harkin Institute for Public Policy and Citizen Engagement at Drake University and a Prairie Club member for the past two years, read from his paper, which explored the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and related struggles over water rights; others use audio and visual aids, props and even human aids. During David Hurd’s last presentation, on cranes, member Judy Conlin donned a crane suit—borrowed from the Baraboo, Wisconsin-based International Crane Foundation—to demonstrate how humans are working to influence crane behavior to promote survival of the species.
“We lost David Hurd, who was a great leader … in that he wanted us to be better, think deeper and be more compassionate toward others,” says Steve Kaiser. “I hope he’s a typical example of Prairie Club members.”
Most members first participate as guests; they’re vetted by a committee and approved by majority vote. In its early years, they were the “movers and shakers” of Des Moines, says Betty Grandquist. “The club was sort of the internet for them.”
While there are still plenty of movers and shakers in the club, the members are more diverse in age, ethnicity, profession and interests. “Everybody tries to bring other members who will advance the club, who will bring new knowledge and a commitment to the group,” says Steve Kaiser.
From Rancorous to Respectful
In its early years, discussions among Prairie Club members were often so high-spirited and rancorous that former Des Moines Register cartoonist Frank Miller depicted them at each other’s throats.
“Several members who received severe drubbings (for their presentations) … left the club because they resented the treatment accorded them,” Frank Herriott, a late club member and political science professor at Drake, wrote in the club’s archives in the early 1900s. “Now and then, the criticisms have been so blunt and merciless that members have thought the Humane Society should have been summoned.”
Herriott recounted a 1910 meeting at which pioneering Des Moines newspaperman Gardner Cowles Sr. presented “The American Newspaper”: “From every point on the compass ring, all the heavy and light artillery volleyed and thundered,” Herriott wrote. “The lawyers and the judges let loose their batteries. The preachers threw rocks. The businessmen hurled their bolts. The educators and ‘literary chaps’ shrieked in unison. The guests present sat and watched and listened in utter amazement. If Mr. Cowles ever had any delusions about what the public thought of the modern newspaper prior to that night, he certainly had none after that rendezvous with the club’s critics. … It should be added that Mr. Cowles sat through the melee that evening with the superb serenity of an iceberg.”
Today’s Prairie Club members say its more respectful climate is a welcome change from that history and from the current state of political discourse. “There are controversial topics we discuss, but we do so very humanely, in a respectful climate,” says Jan Kaiser. “Everyone appreciates the months and months of study that go into each presentation.”
Some past members may have had a different view. In a Feb. 23, 1990, presentation, George Cosson lamented the club’s Iowa-nice attitudes: “All too often, we are taking the easy way of avoiding sharp discussion by presenting non-controversial topics. There are a lot of papers we should be having, but we’re not. For example, someone could present papers on the following themes: It’s time for an end to affirmative action. … Let’s make abortion mandatory for welfare recipients with new pregnancies. … Donald Trump should be drafted as the next presidential candidate of the Republican Party. … If I am not successful in starting a few hot arguments, I think the Club needs to consider adding an undertaker as a new member.”
Through the years, the club has included well-known Central Iowa leaders, including former secretaries of agriculture James “Tama Jim” Wilson and Henry C. Wallace; Vice President Henry A. Wallace; and presidents of Drake, Iowa State, Grand View, Grinnell and Simpson. One member, W.W. Witmer, served in the Civil War as a teenager and managed to get close enough to hear Abraham Lincoln deliver his Gettysburg Address.
Presentations often reflect the times. A 1933 paper by Des Moines Register and Tribune editor Harvey Ingham explored “why the Nordic race was much superior in all desirable aspects to any and all other races of mankind”; a 1943 paper by Dr. W.L. Bierring sparked a lively discussion against increasing federal control of health care.
Today, the club’s 40 members and invited guests meet monthly, September through May, at the Des Moines Embassy Club for a cocktail reception, dinner, the presentation and a question-and-answer session. The April meeting features a guest speaker. Presentation topics remain diverse, and the discussions remain engaged.
“I like the conversations about interesting topics that aren’t part of our everyday life,” says Joseph Jones. “I like how it forces us to think and, in a very collegial way, challenge each other. Now I’ll see something, hear something, and think, ‘That would be a good topic to present.’ You can’t turn it off. Your brain is engaged in this. It’s great to find out what other members find interesting and inspiring.”
“The ideas have to challenge and stimulate us,” says Lorenzo Sandoval, who is the outgoing Prairie Club president and the founding artistic director of the Iowa Shakespeare Experience. “We don’t always agree, but we never come away from an evening bored.”
Housed at the Iowa State Historical Museum, the Prairie Club’s archives reflect a rich range of beliefs, opinions and curiosity. Here’s a sample.
“On a Wing and a Prayer”
by Jan Kaiser (2015)
Throughout many cultures, butterflies have represented resurrection, change, transformation. Native Americans believed that if you had a secret wish, all you had to do was capture a butterfly, whisper your desire into its antennae, and then release it to have your wish granted. There is an Irish saying that butterflies are the souls of the dead waiting to pass through purgatory, and it recommends you give ’em a pint and send ’em on their way. In Mexico, where the monarch butterflies return every fall, tradition tells that you should never move a dead butterfly from its final resting place because they symbolize the return of the spirits of deceased loved ones. No wonder their return often corresponds with Day of the Dead—a happy celebration of people once held dear.”
“Resolved: Iowa Should Enact a Law Permitting the Sale of Liquor by the Drink”
by Peter Janss (1956)
Consumption of intoxicating liquors satisfies a natural, biological impulse of man, and history confirms the practice as one of his inherent attributes.
“The Silent Majority and the Ballot Box”
by Jack Shelley (1970)
I have looked at so many evidences that the man in the middle has some reason to believe he’s being cheated in this affluent society; that he’s the guy who gets caught, most of all, in the bind of inflation and high taxes and high interest rates; that the wealthy liberal asks him to make accommodation with his black brother, while having to make almost no accommodation himself. And I remember just how little the “middle American” really does get to influence the designation of candidates for whom he’ll cast his vote, and I come closer to understanding his frustration.
by Guy M. Neff (1972)
Long ago there was an Egyptian king by the name of Amassis II, 555 BC, who had a real routine. Every day he would get up before dawn, go to his office and work like a Trojan the whole morning. When the noon whistle blew, he … was through for the day. From then on there would be nothing but fun and laughter. His reign was said to have been one of the most prosperous times Egypt had ever known. … Of the many restoratives created or discovered by man, there are few so pleasant and so effective as “unstringing your bow” in humorous laughter.
“The Purpose of Life”
by David Hurd (date unknown)
I run for pleasure. People who don’t run are astonished at the distances I run. But at age 50, not only can’t I compete with younger runners, I can’t compete with good runners of like age. It’s middle of the pack for me in competitive running. Still that doesn’t delete the pleasure, the value, the purpose of running. I test myself against myself, trying to perfect my own talents. So it is with the whole of my life. … I can test myself against myself, be the very best human I can. That not only doesn’t delete the pleasure and value and purpose of life—that view makes these qualities immediate and important.
“The Juvenile Problem,”
by Paul Ahlin (1957)
Many of us will say in reminiscing our own boyhoods that if every teen-age boy had a cord of wood outside the kitchen door to be split and carried in regularly to the wood box in order to keep warm and have food for supper, there would be less delinquency.