By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
JACKSON JUNCTION, Iowa, Nov. 27, 2014 — It was 35 Thanksgivings ago when I joined with the senior class of Turkey Valley High School here in northeast Iowa to honor one of their own as “Turkey of the Year.” Now here we are, six presidents and four governors later (if we count the one governor twice), and the tradition continues. Meet Cole Langreck, 2014 Turkey of the Year. “They’re calling me ‘The Gobbler’,” he said the other day with a big smile.
Everyone tells me we’ve got another good one, here in this school that takes its name from the branches of the Turkey River that meander among the seven towns that make up the district. Solid student (A’s and B’s) and maybe one of the kindest kids of the 51 in his class.
Cole Langreck, the wiry third of four sons of Henry and Karla Langreck, of the St. Lucas area, practically defines “hard worker,” they say. He’s scraping your trays every lunchtime in the school cafeteria. He’s feeding calves for three hours every afternoon at Schmitt Dairy Farm, then doing the milking of 550 head of dairy cows there on weekends. Meanwhile, he’s helping tend the beef cattle that he and his dad are raising together, plus working at the family’s Big Oak Elk Ranch, a 100-acre game preserve on their farm that draws hunters from across the nation.
The 2014 “Turkey of the Year” Cole Langreck, with a couple of the traditional trophies.
What’s he like to do when he’s not working?
“Cole loves to hunt,” said TVHS Principal Carol Knoll, “and he’s a good shooter.”
In fact, he’s one of the top guns on Turkey Valley Trap Shooting team, which is a school-recognized activity but not a school-sponsored sport, with 11 volunteer adult coaches who have to be trained and certified to direct teams. Trap shooting has become very popular in its four years at Turkey Valley High, and actually across the state. Last spring, Langreck hit 95 out of 100 clay targets in the state championships in Cedar Falls and — talk about competitive! — that score was good for 38th place among 1,607 shooters. This year, 32 Turkey Valley students, 14 of them girls, have indicated they’ll try out for the sport next spring, and that’s despite the fact each of them has to raise several hundred dollars for guns and shells. Team fundraisers never stop.
So he’s a veritable straight shooter. His biggest thrill?
“Maybe it was when I shot a bear up in Minnesota,” he said. “I was 12 years old then, up in a tree stand. This 250-pound black bear wandered out, came up to my tree and looked right up at me. I’ll tell you, that gives you an adrenalin rush!”
He dropped the bear with a 20-gauge shotgun, had him dressed out and now has a big bearskin rug on the floor of his bedroom at home!
Cole Langreck, at 12, with the bear he killed.
Has there ever been a “Turkey of the Year” happier to be where he is than young Langreck?
“What I love most about this place is that you can talk to anybody,” he said, referring to the communities as well as the school. “Everybody knows you and they’ll go out of their way to help you. Rural is way better than city life.”
Langrecks have pretty well always felt that way. The farm that 17-year-old Cole is growing up on has been in the family since 1862. He plans to study ag business at nearby Northeast Iowa Community College in Calmar, then join his dad on the farm and eventually take over. His older brothers, twins Chase and Blake, 20, are both going other directions. Chase is studying mechanical engineering at Iowa State University, and Blake is working at a garage in Spillville after studying auto tech at NICC. Their younger brother Tate, 13, is a seventh grader at Turkey Valley.
Industrial tech teacher Paul Bakewell at Turkey Valley says Cole will be a solid operator on the farm or in whatever he does. “Cole is a person who thrives on a challenge,” Bakewell said. “He’s a student who can be trusted to work on his own with confidence — in running machines in the school shop as well as on his jobs in public. He knows that being in school is important to his success later, and it shows with his attendance and grades.”
Cole Langreck with his parents Karla and Henry Langreck.
This has been a good year on the farm, Henry Langreck reported, with “a really good harvest.” Their corn crop came in at about 180 bushels per acre, and soybeans at about 50 bushels. It was a wet fall, and they didn’t finish the harvest until two weeks ago — only a day or two before the snow started falling.
And it’s been a good start to the year at Turkey Valley High, too, despite the continuing challenges of declining enrollment.
The senior class of 51 “is our last large class,” she said. “The next largest have like 30 students, and in sixth grade, we drop clear down to 13 students — with three more that we think will be coming in from Catholic school” for high school. “We just stay pro-active on this, do lots of planning and continuing to meet with our surrounding school districts about what we’ll all do in the future.” Those are New Hampton, South Winneshiek and North Fayette Valley. There is a Turkey Valley steering committee involved in those meetings, and it includes board members, parents and students, too.
The school did move from 11-player to 8-player football this fall, and had a fun 9-2 season. Two cross country runners Ryan Izer and Shelby Reicks were top five finishers at the state meet, and the girls volleyball team finished 27-10, the best record in school history, and was stopped one game shy of the state tourney.
Cole Langreck comes from deeply rooted stock. Here, after lunch at the White House Supper Club in the town of St. Lucas, he points out a photo of his great-great-grandfather Henry Langreck standing with some other men in 1915 in a tavern that stood on the same spot where the White House is located now. While we were there, another grandfather Donnie “Fibber” Kuennen came in. So we asked him what kind of “Turkey” his grandson Cole is. Kuennen’s answer: “He’s terrific!”
We now conclude with another part of the “Turkey of the Year” tradition — the annual re-telling of the Vera Wiest turkey joke, and you can use this at your own family gatherings on this holiday.
Wiest was the school secretary the first years I made my visits to Turkey Valley. The first year, after I’d completed the interview with winner Paul Barloon (see the story below here), I said goodbye at the office window and was walking down the hallway to leave the school.
“Oh, Mr. Offenburger!” Wiest yelled after me. I stopped, walked back toward her and said, ‘Yes?”
Quick question, she said: “Do you know how to keep a turkey in suspense?”
Uh, no, I said. How?
“I’ll tell you later.”
I keep coming back to Turkey Valley, trying to figure that out.
THE ROSTER OF “TURKEYS OF THE YEAR” OVER THE PAST 35 YEARS
One of the longest-standing traditions at Turkey Valley High School is the “Turkey of the Year” honor. In 1980, I came through here as a young Des Moines Register columnist, wondering if anybody ever made much of the school’s “Turkey” name at Thanksgiving time. People trotted out their favorite stories – athletic opponents referring to the TVHS teams, officially the “Trojans,” as the “Gobblers,” and also calling Turkey Valley’s home fields and courts “Gobblers Gulch.”
I suggested that I partner with the senior class, and that each November they would vote one of their classmates as Turkey of the Year, with no specific qualifications other than being “an overall good gobbler.” There is no grade-point requirement, candidates don’t have to be top athletes, or musicians, or thespians – just good kids. The idea took root, and here we are 35 years later with a roster of past “Turkeys of the Year” that are spread across the country, nearly all of them successful in life. One is deceased, 1989 honoree Dana Reicks, who died from cancer in September, 2008.
We’ve had one “reunion” gathering of as many of the “Turkeys” as we could get together at once — was that at 20 years? — and we’re overdue for another one. But I do hear from many of them, and usually about this time of year.
Because this is the 35th year, I checked in with four of them in recent days.
The first “Turkey” Paul Barloon is now 51 years old and for three years now has been a lecturer in mathematics at Iowa State University in Ames. He spent the earlier part of his career “riding the Internet bubble” in Idaho and Colorado, partnering in several Web-based start-up companies. “We hit that just about right and made some money,” he said. “But after I’d done that for a long time, I decided I really liked math more than I liked computer programming. So I moved back to Iowa, enrolled at UNI to get a master’s degree in math in 2010, and then I started teaching as an adjunct at Des Moines Area Community College. Then I moved to Iowa State, and now I’m teaching the big lecture classes and really enjoying it.” He never married, he was driving back to spend Thanksgiving with his parents George and Sylvia Barloon at their farm home outside Fort Atkinson.
“Turkeys of the Year” Lynn Smith Arens & Leon Arens with their daughters.
Checking in with the Arens family is almost a requirement for me. Three Arens brothers were “Turkeys of the Year” — Paul in 1988, Greg in 1991 and then younger brother Leon in 1993. And then Leon trumped his brother Turkeys by marrying 1994’s Turkey, Lynn Smith. The Turkey couple are now 38, living in Cedar Rapids with their two daughters, 11-year-old Avery and 6-year-old Ella. I’ll never forget the birth announcements they sent out when Avery was born: “It’s a Little Turkey!” Leon is a nurse, although he is now “working in the IT aspect of nursing, as a systems analyst writing programs for medical records,” and Lynn handles regulatory and grant-writing duties for the research program at a cancer center.
Then there’s Kim Kuennen Stevens, the Turkey of the Year in 1995. She is reluctantly becoming a historic Turkey because after her, the Turkey Valley High seniors have elected 19 straight males. “When you said that, I was shocked,” said Stevens, 37, now a cardiac surgery nurse doing the scheduling of the procedures at the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics in Iowa City. “Nineteen guys in a row? Was I not up to the bill, or something? There were a lot of equally deserving boys the year I won, and I’m sure there are a lot of girls today who are just as deserving.” Kim and her husband Eric Stevens have a 2-year-old son Hudson.
Kim Kuennen Stevens and her family in Iowa City.
She tells a really funny story about yet another part of the “Turkey of the Year” tradition — that I always buy the winner a turkey for his or her family.
“My mother already had a turkey for our family Thanksgiving that year,” Kim said. “So she said we’d keep my turkey frozen until a little later, then I could invite my friends over and we’d cook the turkey then. So when the day came, I invited friends from my class over. Mom and I had cooked the turkey right before they arrived, and she told me to take it out to the garage and set it up on top of the freezer out there to cool off a little. I did that, went back inside to say hello to my friends. After just a little bit, we were getting ready to eat. When I went back out to the garage to get the turkey, I discovered that our Kuennen family dog had gotten into the garage and helped himself to half my turkey! So we had to scramble fast to come up with an alternative dinner. I think we ordered pizza.”
Ah, what a good bunch they’ve been!
1980, Paul Barloon.
1981, Mike Kuennen.
1982, David Lusson.
1983, Barb Pinter.
1984, Steve Samec.
1985, Connie Mueterthies Frick.
1986, Carl Reicks.
1987, Chris Galligan.
1988, Paul Arens.
1989, Dana Reicks.
1990, Kris Kovarik.
1991, Greg Arens.
1992, Jenny Reicks Koudelka.
1993, Leon Arens.
1994, Lynn Smith Arens.
1995, Kim Kuennen Stevens.
1996, Jackson Hayek.
1997, Jeff Halverson.
1998, Mike Arens.
1999, Steve Nolte.
2000, Dana Croatt.
2001, Matt Hackman.
2002, Andy Pavlovec.
2003, Greg Stammeyer.
2004, Kyle Panos.
2005, Bryan Christophersen.
2006, Todd Schmitt.
2007, Keith Langreck.
2008, Grant Cuvelier.
2009, Neil Hackman.
2010, Luke Shatek.
2011, Nolan Milbrandt.
2012, John Hageman.
2013, Riley Meirick.
2014, Cole Langreck.
Turkeys together — 2014 “Turkey of the Year” Cole Langreck and perennial turkey Chuck Offenburger. (Turkey Valley Schools’ photo by Mauranda Wilkerson)