I owe it all…to Donald Kaul – Empty Nest, by Curt Swarm


Because of Donald Kaul, I’m a columnist today. Donald Kaul was a columnist for the Des Moines Register and Tribune back in the sixties and seventies. I was an English Major at Iowa State University, living in a roach infested apartment on Lincoln Way in Campus Town. My roommates and I would start the day off by skipping class, nursing hangovers, drinking coffee at the L-Way Cafe and discussing Kaul’s column, “Over the Coffee.” I told them then, “I can do this.” They said, “Go ahead.”
So I did. I wrote my first weekly column in Windsor, Colorado in the late eighties, early nineties. It was in the Windsor Beacon and occasionally the Greeley Tribune and Ft. Collins Coloradoan. It was called, “True Story.”
When my family and I moved back to Iowa in the late nineties, I resurrected the column, this time called, “Empty Nest,” because our kids were off to college. At first Empty Nest was only in the Mt. Pleasant News but eventually coverage expanded to twenty Iowa newspapers. The greatest compliment I have ever received is that I, “Write like Donald Kaul.”
Kyle Munson had a nice eulogy to Donald Kaul in the January 14th edition of the Des Moines Sunday Register. Kaul is in his early eighties and dying of cancer. This is my eulogy to Donald Kaul.
In addition to his column, Kaul is also known for, along with Register Journalist, John Karras, founding RAGBRAI, the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa, or, “Midwestern Woodstock on two wheels.” Kaul, a character if there ever was one, made famous another character on that first RAGBRAI, Clarence Pickard. At 83-years old, and wearing a pith helmet, Pickard liked to keep fit by riding a bicycle in case he ever, “had to chase a hog.”
I rode RAGBRAI three times in my early sixties. Like Kaul, who tapped out daily RAGBRAI stories on a portable typewriter, at a kitchen table, while surrounded by sweaty riders, I too pecked out daily RAGBRAI stories at a picnic table, on a laptop, while surrounded by spandexed riders, and emailed the stories to the Mt. Pleasant News. “How can you write in all this noise?” I was asked. “Huh?” I said.
Unlike Kaul, who was an unabashed agnostic, I’m a devout Christian. At his height, he was syndicated in 150 newspapers. I write for free in twenty. He wrote a lot about politics, Nixon, the Viet Nam War, the 18-year old vote, Sunday beer sales, the NRA, handguns, vitamin C, and Watergate. I, for the most part, stay away from politics and stick with human-interest stories, my favorite subject lately being our chickens, which is avian interest.
In Kaul’s day, girls’ high school basketball was still six-on-six and Kaul loved to poke fun at the sport. In his words, “I was once hired by a radio station to do color commentary for the broadcast of a game, but I came down with laryngitis and lost my voice. So they let me do the play-by-play.” He also loved to poke fun at Ankeny, Iowa, one of the fastest growing, most expensive Iowa cities (towns) to live in at the time. “Where is Ankeny?” he would write. Kaul could easily have been a character in M*A*S*H.
While Kaul wrote as many as five columns a week, I write one. People ask me how I can write one column a week, week-after-week. I would like to ask Kaul how he could write five columns a week. He has compared being a columnist to being married to a nymphomaniac. “It can be a thrilling and even ecstatic exercise, but there’s no respite from it.”
Note: In the creative writing class that I’m teaching, one of the students also attributes his penchant for writing to Donald Kaul.
I’m sad that Donald Kaul is dying. Maybe this year’s RAGBRAI can be dedicated to him. I also hope this column I’m writing can find its way to his bedside. I owe it all to you, Donald Kaul.

Have a good story? Call or text Curt Swarm in Mt. Pleasant at 319-217-0526, email him at curtswarm@yahoo.com or find him on Facebook. Curt’s stories are also read at 106.3 FM in Farmington.

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