Sages Over 70 – 2020

Writer: Luke Manderfeld
Photographer: Duane Tinkey

We are pleased to present the 2020 Sages Over 70, role models who have lived their lives with wisdom, grace and a dedication to community leadership. Without a doubt, Greater Des Moines is a better place because of their tireless work and mentorship.

Because of COVID-19, this year’s event honoring the Sages will be virtual. Please join us for a Zoom celebration Sept. 23 from noon to 1:30 p.m.; register here. And click on the image above or here to view an uplifting video, created by Duane Huey and Dylan Huey with Good Plan Productions, in which the honorees share their experiences and insights.

As in previous years, we ask that you help us support the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines, our presenting sponsor, through donations to the organization’s Sages Over 70 Fund. The fund addresses some of our community’s most pressing needs. To learn more, visit desmoinesfoundation.org.

Read more about each honoree below. You’ll be inspired. We promise.


Rob Denson

Perhaps Rob Denson was destined to make a mark in Iowa. After all, he was born at the University of Iowa, grew up on a farm in Iowa Township in Iowa County and graduated from Iowa State University.

Nonetheless, he left Iowa as he pursued his career, which has included insurance and law. In fact, by the 1990s, Denson’s law practice had done so well he planned to retire. But a call from nearby Santa Fe Community College in Gainsville, Florida, where he was living at the time, drew him into education. He returned to Iowa in the late 1990s when he became president of Northeast Iowa Community College in Calmar. In 2003, he was named president of Des Moines Area Community College.

Denson’s work at DMACC and in the Des Moines community has resulted in thousands of students finding their own career paths. He also has contributed to dozens of organizations through his time and expertise. “I think anyone who is blessed … [has] an opportunity to give back what we can and stay engaged,” Denson says.

Denson, 72, has been married to his wife, Pat, for more than 50 years. They have two children and five grandchildren.

His Advice

The secret to life is hard work. “That’s something I always tell my grandkids, and it’s what has gotten me to where I am today.”

“You have to be present to win.” Show up ready to work and hit it hard.

“We all have opportunities to improve other people’s lives. And if you can improve the lives of others, that will usually improve your own life.”

“If you don’t feel appreciated, there is always someone looking for high-performing, driven talent.”

Community Voices

“Rob is a tireless leader and unwavering advocate for DMACC and the many other organizations with which he is connected.” Dennis Albaugh, founder of Albaugh LLC

“Rob is an approachable and collaborative leader—well-regarded in educational, legislative and business circles.” Joyce Chapman, former director of West Bank and a 2017 Sages Over 70 honoree

“Rob has a way of making everyone feel special. In less than a year after he came to DMACC, the faculty and staff were not only proud of working there but they were enthusiastic about the future.” Suku Radia, retired CEO of Bankers Trust

Among His Achievements

• Created DMACC’s Career Academies program, which introduces high school students to high-demand career paths.

• Increased enrollment at DMACC by more than 70% since 2004.

• Involved with a number of local boards, including the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, Greater Des Moines Partnership, and United Way of Central Iowa.

• Chairs the STEMconnector Higher Education Council, a national organization that seeks ways to bolster workforce in science, technology, engineering and math fields.

• Serves on the national board of Gateway to College, a dropout recovery program.


Allison Fleming

Allison Fleming believes her parents didn’t explicitly try to instill philanthropy into her values but instead preferred to lead by example. Whatever their intentions, Fleming evidently gleaned plenty from them, becoming one of the city’s foremost volunteer leaders.

Fleming grew up in Des Moines, and after graduating from Purdue University in 1971 with a degree in mathematics and computer science, her goal was to climb the corporate ladder. But life had other plans, she says. Fleming married her husband, Jim, and moved back to Des Moines. They had their first child, Jenny, in 1975, and Fleming never returned to the workforce. She instead focused on community service.

In the late 1970s, Jenny struggled with health issues. While the Flemings had good insurance and Jenny made a full recovery, Fleming knew others weren’t as fortunate. “I had all this support, and it was still very hard for me,” she says. So she promptly called the United Way of Central Iowa office and signed up to volunteer.

Since then, the now-72-year-old Fleming has served on dozens of local boards and fundraising campaigns and is still active with Junior League of Des Moines, United Way and more. She and Jim have two daughters, both of whom live in Des Moines, and four grandchildren.

Her Advice

“Treat others the way you want to be treated.”

Take a chance on people. “An awful lot of people took a chance on me when things were outside my comfort zone and gave me support.”

“Always be willing to try new opportunities.” You never know when you’ll need new skills later in life.

“Behave so you can look at yourself in the mirror every morning.” If there’s any time when you have to look away, revaluate your behavior.

Community Voices

“Allison is a much sought-after board director. Why? Allison contributes wisely and wholeheartedly. … She gets it right.” Michelle Book, president and CEO of the Food Bank of Iowa

“Her commitment to service, impressive track record and generous heart make Allison more than deserving for consideration as a Sage. Allison is a community gem.” Kristi Knous, president of the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines

“Allison is a true model of what someone who has been blessed in many ways does to pass the blessing forward.” Rob Denson, president of Des Moines Area Community College and a 2020 Sages Over 70 honoree

Among Her Achievements

• Served as chair for the National Coalition for Juvenile Justice, testifying in front of four different United States congressional subcommittees.

• Co-founder of the Greater Des Moines Child Abuse and Neglect Council.

• Led a number of local organizations, including president of the Junior League of Des Moines, chair of the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines, and chair of the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden.

• Named Prevent Child Abuse Iowa Outstanding Child Advocate honoree in 2010 and a Business Record Woman of Influence honoree in 2005.

• Led the Capital Campaign Committee for the $2 million public funding portion of the Jester Park Nature Center and leads the current $117.5 million campaign for the Central Iowa Water Trails.


Robert Pulver

In 1961, with only $300 in his pocket and a hole in the floorboard of his car, Robert Pulver strapped two suitcases to the top of his Chevy and set out for his next adventure. He had grown up in the Bronx and attended college there, but now he had accepted a position with Goodyear Tire and was heading to Lincoln, Nebraska, to start his job with the company.

Coming from a metropolis, Pulver found adjusting to Lincoln tough. When he was reassigned to Des Moines in 1972, the adjustment was even harder. “I thought for sure they were going to send this New York kid to Los Angeles or something,” he says with a laugh.

But Des Moines quickly became his home. He started a business, All-State Industries, in 1974 and discovered his love for philanthropy, particularly helping young children in need. Pulver joined the Blank Children’s Hospital board of directors and played a key role in helping grow the organization, eventually chairing a committee that raised $15 million. Now 72, Pulver spends about six months out of the year at his ranch in Arizona. But whenever he returns to Des Moines, much of his time is dedicated to community work.

Pulver and his first wife, Ginny, who died from a brain tumor, had three children. Pulver married his second wife, Deb, in 1993.

His Advice

“Don’t look back; you’re not going that way.” Learn from your mistakes and move on.

It’s OK to change course. “I grew up New York, so you [learn] that when you’re on a train going in the wrong direction, you get off.”

“Be willing to wait. Many younger people want instant gratification. I think that’s one of the biggest issues we have today.”

Community Voices

“Central Iowa is a better place because Bob Pulver decided to live here.” Bill Knapp, chairman emeritus of Knapp Properties

“Bob has many passions in life, none of which is greater than giving back to our community and our state.” Peter Cownie, executive director of the Iowa State Fair Blue Ribbon Foundation

“I have leaned on him many times throughout my life for advice and direction. His words were invaluable as I headed down
a path that made me a better person.” Brad Winterbottom, president of West Bank

Among his Achievements

• Built his own company, All-State Industries, which supplied products for numerous Fortune 100 companies, and served as CEO for 45 years.

• Has paid full college tuition for 15 individuals and sends three Iowa State University students to Europe every year for study abroad opportunities.

• Was instrumental in the expansion of West Des Moines through the development of Glen Oaks and West Glen.

Served as emeritus board chair and capital campaign chair (1999-2001) with Blank Children’s Hospital.

• Donated a lead gift of $500,000 to Iowa’s Development and STAR Centers, which serve the state’s most vulnerable children.


John Ruan III

John Ruan III has always looked to his father, John II, as a mentor. Growing up, Ruan remembers the work his father invested in his company and the vision he had for Des Moines.

His father launched Ruan Transportation Systems in 1932, and as a teenager Ruan absorbed the lessons of hard work as he washed trucks and performed basic mechanical tasks.

It didn’t take long for Ruan to fall in love with the business. After graduating from Northwestern University in 1965, he held various positions within the company. He also watched closely as his father developed some of downtown Des Moines’ most recognizable buildings and worked with him on some of the projects, including Two Ruan Center and the skywalk system. He also helped his father bring the World Food Prize Foundation to Des Moines in 1990.

In 1998, Ruan took over the business and continued the family’s dedication to community service. “I was always sort of in training,” Ruan says. “At some point in time, I needed to step into his shoes. They were a little oversized for my feet, but I did my best.”

Ruan, now 76, has contributed to Des Moines in numerous ways. The John Ruan Foundation Trust provides grants to arts and culture organizations, and Ruan serves on a number of nonprofit boards. He and his wife, Janis, have two children and five grandchildren.

His Advice

“Only do things you have a passion for. If you like what you’re doing, you’ll probably do it well. You won’t perform your best if your heart or soul isn’t into it.”

“If you plant the seed, things grow.” When the Ruan family first started developing commercial buildings in Des Moines, it created a spark for more growth in the city.

Get your feet wet. When Ruan was young, he started at the bottom of the company and moved up from there, learning the value of hard work along the way.

Community Voices

“John leads a complicated life very well. I know no one who loves Des Moines more.” Jim Cownie, well-known real estate developer, community leader, and a 2017 Sage Over 70

“John and Janis are quiet and unassuming people. They just go about their work of creating a better community and world for the rest of us.” Don and Margo Blumenthal, community leaders and former Sages Over 70

“John understands that families that experience success have a responsibility to give back. … As a result, the Ruan Foundation has provided support for important causes in the Greater Des Moines community and will continue to provide generous support for decades to come.” Steven Zumbach, partner at Belin McCormick

Among His Achievements

• Chairman of Ruan Transportation, which employs more than 5,000 people.

• Served as chairman for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C. (the only Iowan to ever do so), and is currently the Midwest Region vice chair.

• Heads the John Ruan Foundation Trust, which provides funds for local arts and culture organizations.

• Was integral in bringing the World Food Prize to Des Moines while transforming the former library building into the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates.

• Named one of Central Iowa’s “25 Most Influential Leaders” by the Business Record and inducted into the Iowa Business Hall of Fame in 2012.


Robert Shaw

Medicine may run in Dr. Robert Shaw’s family, even if surgery doesn’t. His older brother was a surgeon, and during his brother’s residency, the then-17-year-old Shaw watched a procedure to remove a neck abscess. Shaw promptly blacked out. “I woke up surrounded by nurses who had turned their attention from the patient to me,” he says with a laugh.

But he loved everything else about doctors, particularly helping people. Shaw grew up in Des Moines and graduated from the University of Iowa College of Medicine. After a stint in the Air Force, he began a career in neonatal care, launching a private practice in 1982. Eleven years later, Blank Children’s Hospital bought his practice, and Shaw was instrumental in helping the neonatal intensive care unit grow at the hospital. He eventually become medical director of the department before retiring in 2003.

Shaw, 71, has been involved with numerous nonprofit boards, including Blank Children’s Hospital, Planned Parenthood, the Des Moines Symphony and more. He and his wife, Rebecca, who is a retired OB-GYN physician, are also master gardeners.

His Advice

“If you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life. I laugh at that sometimes because I would come home from the hospital exhausted. I’m not sure it’s entirely true, but I understand the sentiment.”

“Life is about relationships. I’ve had the best experiences and partners, which made all the difference.”

Carefully choose the people you surround yourself with. “When I think back on my professional work, I was surrounded by people I knew and trusted to make the best decisions in medicine and life.”

“Be a lifelong learner.”

“Before attempting to rule the world, one should be required to tend a small garden. Lessons learned [would] serve mankind well.”

Community Voices

“I cannot tell you how many times people have asked me if I know Dr. Shaw and [wanted] to express the amazing care their child, grandchild or loved one received.” Stephen Stephenson, president and chief operating officer of Blank Children’s Hospital

“[I have] only had the privilege of knowing him well for three years. Nonetheless, in this short period of time I have become convinced that Dr. Shaw is one of the finest people I have ever known.” Sarah Stoesz, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood North Central States

“He values others’ opinions, thinks before he speaks and says what he means. He is bright, diverse, a family man and a gentleman. I’m proud to call him my friend.” Loree Miles, community leader and co-founder of Anawim Housing

Among His Achievements

• The fourth neonatologist brought on at Blank Children’s Hospital. During his tenure as medical director, the famous McCaughey septuplets were born on
Nov. 19, 1997.

• Supported Blank Children’s Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, Blank Children’s Endowment, new donor walls, and Festival of Trees and Lights. Also serves on Blank Children’s Hospital Governing Board.

• Active with Planned Parenthood, the Des Moines Symphony, DMARC Food Pantry and more.

• A master gardener. He and his wife, Rebecca, maintain a garden in their backyard.


Pam Williams

In 1980, there were few artistic outlets for young African Americans in Greater Des Moines, something Pam Williams experienced firsthand. She watched as frustration built in her son, who was interested in the French horn but was told to play basketball “because that’s all he was going to do anyway,” Williams recalls a teacher telling her son. “I was very angry,” she says. “There were so many barriers keeping Black kids from being part of the band.”

So Williams created her own group. At first the organization started under the Black Shriners, also known as the Prince Hall Freemasonry, a national African American organization. By 2000, Williams relaunched the organization under the name Isiserettes Drill and Drum Corps, centering the nonprofit group on helping youths develop musical as well as life skills.

Since then, the group has performed at presidential inaugurations, NBA games and state fairs. The mission of the Isiserettes goes beyond music to include tutoring, computer access and study sessions. “All of this is to help them develop important skills and encourage them to continue [their] education,” Williams says.

Williams, 75, has four children and 10 grandchildren.

Her Advice

“Be someone’s support system. It makes a big difference when you have someone encouraging you to achieve your dreams. I’ve had that my whole life.”

“Live your life as an example. I hope my life encourages others to give back to the community and support young children.”

“Take things day by day. We’re living in some of the toughest times I’ve ever seen. Control what you can control.”

“There’s more to life. Strive for the dream.” Williams encourages kids to finish their education and push forward.

Community Voices

“She is a leader, but she’s also a team member. Kids come first for her, and that’s all kids. She deserves every bit of recognition.” Janice Bannister, retired nurse and longtime friend

“She’s loving, and she can be hard, but you’re going to get the same person every time. For the kids, they might think she’s being strict. But those kids come back when they’re 25 or 30, and that says a lot.” Jonetta Sue Douglas, longtime officer and treasurer for the Isiserettes Drum Corps

“If you look at anyone who has been through [Williams’] program, and look at what they’ve accomplished, that’s one of the greatest testimonies of her work. The majority of them became leaders.” Wayne Ford, legislator in the Iowa House of Representatives and founder of Urban Dreams


Embracing ‘Generativity’

Writer: Jann E. Freed

It’s no secret that this year has been turbulent, with several crises converging to upend how we live and even how we think. While we don’t know what the new reality will be after COVID-19 is contained, most health care and other experts are telling us the world will not return to the expected “normal.”

How will we respond? Will we rise to the occasion? Will we make the personal sacrifices and lifestyle changes needed to make a difference? Will leaders emerge who are concerned about all of us?

Now is the time for the wisdom of sages.

Sages have the benefit of time, talent and life experience to help understand the crises we all currently face and can be leaders in shaping positive change for future generations. This is the focus of “generativity,” as proposed by the late Erik Erickson (1902-1994), who was a noted psychologist and a professor at both Harvard and Yale universities.

The theory of “generativity” revolves around the idea of making our mark, of contributing what we’ve learned to younger generations as well as back to the community. Erickson believed we grow stronger as we move through midlife and as we are faced with our own mortality. That strength enables elders to become activists for the benefit of generations to follow.

Everyone at this stage has had plenty of life experiences, of course. But when these experiences are translated into wisdom and shared with others, people truly become sages. As the late Irish poet and philosopher John Donohue said, “We ought to measure a wise life based upon the impact we have on those around us.”

One organization made up of sages actively embracing generativity and helping to improve the world is the Elders. Founded in 2007 by Nelson Mandela, the Elders consists of independent global leaders working together for peace and human rights.

Two other organizations that provide excellent resources for being generative are:

Sage-ing International, which is committed to transforming the current paradigm of aging to sage-ing through learning, service and community.

Elders Action Network, which seeks to build a movement of elders to address the social and environmental crises of our time.

These organizations have shifted into high gear during the current pandemic. As the Sage-ing International website puts it: “Sages face COVID-19 with wisdom, compassion and courage.”

Jann Freed, Ph.D., is a leadership development consultant and the author of “Leading with Wisdom: Sage Advice from 100 Experts.” She is also a Sage-ing Leader with Sage-ing International.

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