By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
COOPER, Iowa, Feb. 5, 2019 — Iowa just lost one of its best citizens, Mark A. Wampler. And he was one of my best sources over the years, too. Wampler, who lived in rural Slater in central Iowa but hailed from Allerton in south central Iowa, knew everybody who was anybody in this state, and he knew a whole lot of nobodies, too. And you know what? He thought they were all kind of neat and interesting in their own ways.
Wampler, 66, died Friday, Feb. 1, “while enjoying one of his regular swims” at the YMCA, his obituary reports. Visitation is Wednesay, Feb. 6, from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Salem United Church of Christ in the central Iowa town of Alleman, and his funeral is at that same church Thursday, Feb. 7, at 10 a.m.
He is survived by his wife Kathy, grown son Andrew, and hundreds of other family members and friends scattered river to river and border to border across Iowa.
Mark A. Wampler (right), one fine Iowan and my great friend.
When you reach my grand old age, if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to say you have a few friends you’ve known for 40 years or more. But it’s rare when you’re able to say that you remember the exact day and place you first met such a friend.
I first met Mark Wampler on Oct. 21, 1977, outdoors on the north end of the Des Moines airport. U.S. President Jimmy Carter had flown in to try to stabilize voter unhappiness over his tinkering with the agricultural economy. The president was staying overnight at the grand farm of Woodrow & Mary Diehl, southeast of Indianola, and then talking to Iowa groups the next morning. But when Air Force One landed in Des Moines, there was a brief public welcome ceremony near the Iowa National Guard hangars. Iowans being as they are, or at least as they were back then, most were thrilled to see any president and the special big airplane.
However, there stood one young fellow wearing one of those Smokey Bear-style campaign hats from the Boy Scouts of America and holding up one of the only picket signs I saw, mounted on a piece of wood lath. I was writing a color story for the Des Moines Register about the president’s arrival and stay at the Diehl farm, so I pushed through the crowd, walked up to the protester, shook his hand and said, “Can I get your name?” Mark Wampler.
All these years later, I can’t recall what his picket sign said, but he told me the point of his one-man protest was to let the president know not everybody in Iowa was buying what he’d been selling lately. Wampler’s message was delivered on page 1 of the next morning’s Register — a line or two in my larger story.
And that started a friendship that led to me making dozens of trips to Wampler’s native Wayne County over the years, often for columns. For 30 years, he worked as an administrative law judge for the State of Iowa, conducting mediation hearings all over the state. It will tell you something about his integrity that I don’t believe he ever tipped me off, for story purposes, about any interesting or newsy cases he was handling. But he was always alerting me about churches or organizations in small towns that were hosting good potluck suppers that shouldn’t be missed. He’d hang out at such events when he was overnighting for his legal work, and you can imagine how many interesting characters and stories he’d find — and relay to me.
I think he developed his appreciation for Iowa characters by hanging out and working at Bob & Teressa’s Country Store that his parents ran in the business district of Allerton. It was a farm supply business and excellent conversation spot. Young Mark came to know and like all kinds of folks there.
He was an Eagle Scout — already started along the path of devoted citizenship — by the time he graduated from Wayne Community High School in 1970. He also had worked two years as a page in the Iowa legislature. He’d already figured out he was a Republican, and as far as I know, he remained one the rest of his life, despite occasional frustrations with the GOP.
Mark Wampler (center) in a visit with U.S. Senator Charles Grassley (right), who had met with the board of an electrical power cooperative that Wampler served on. (CIPCO photo)
After high school, he enrolled at Drake University, in Des Moines, and by the time he left DU in December, 1980, having completed law school, he was the longest-tenured Bulldog student on campus. Because of that distinction, I did a profile of him, “A perennial student,” in the Register’s old Picture magazine. Allow me to quote a couple passages from that:
“Wampler first enrolled at Drake in the fall of 1970, a fuzzy-cheeked freshman who qualified for an accelerated program. Because of personal commitments and interests in a wide variety of non-academic activities, Wampler turned out to be in more of a decelerated program. Over the decade, besides going to school, Wampler has constructed grain bins, worked as a grocery checker, flipped pizzas at a parlor, managed a bookstore run by students, worked on the campaign staff of unsuccessful U.S. Senate candidate Maury Van Nostrand, worked on the staff of unsuccessful presidential candidate Howard Baker, served as a law clerk for a Des Moines attorney, farmed for his brother David, washed dishes in a Drake cafeteria, worked in the university library, and clerks in his parents’ farm supply store.
“That’s not all. He has gone through a marriage, run unsuccessfully for a seat in the Iowa House of Representatives, worked as an intern briefly on Gov. Robert Ray’s staff and received a gubernatorial appointment as a member of the new Iowa Railway Finance Authority, a state agency that is attempting to do something about the condition of the railroads in the state.”
I can’t resist adding this, about his long stay at Drake:
“Much has changed around Drake during the Wampler decade. There are seven major buildings that have been built since he started. Tuition has nearly tripled. Controversial speakers, several of them introduced or chauffeured by Wampler, have come and gone. So have streakers and radicals. Asked what the worst thing that happened to Drake in that time, he thought for a time and answered, ‘The loss of Maury John,’ the basketball coach who took the Bulldogs to the NCAA Final Four and then departed for Iowa State University.”
In 1984, he insisted I bring my family and spend Thanksgiving day at the “Community Thanksgiving” in Allerton. In that town of 650 people, 200 gathered for a huge traditional dinner, a couple of brief speeches and some local entertainment — all free. Takeout meals went to dozens of shut-ins. Mark’s dad Bob Wampler was one of the speakers. He did a little monologue about the history of the holiday, and then added this: “In the laws of mathematics, when you divide something, it becomes scattered. But in the laws of nature, when you divide something, it multiplies, and that’s how it is when we divide out blessings.”
I concluded my column about that Thanksgiving event: “It was almost a tearful experience for a veteran Iowa watcher, a firm believer in the folk goodness in this state. The community spirit in that building was alive, well, warm and caring.”
My tattered files also show proof of how Wampler was forever picking up a quip from somebody along his way, and then repeating it to me. In 1985, when the Farm Crisis had beaten Iowa to a pulp, he called one day and said, “Know what the difference is between a pigeon and a farmer?” Uh, no, I said. What is it? “A pigeon can still make a deposit on a John Deere tractor.”
As jolly as he generally was, he went through some real loneliness and despair after his first marriage ended. His obituary notes when the turn-around on all that happened: “On July 2nd, 1989, he married Kathy L. Paulsen in Yellowstone National Park. A few years later — on Father’s Day — Mark was elated when he learned he was going to be a father.” Mark’s devotion to his wife and son was genuine and exemplary.
They were involved eight years later when, in July 1997, my wife Carla threw a fantastic 50th birthday party for me — in Allerton, Iowa. We had a 50-mile bike ride around the area, we had a big meal (like the Allerton Thanksgivings) in the town’s Centennial Building, and we had a great dance played by the Red Sneaker Jazz Band from Des Moines.
Also in the 1990s, I learned that Mark Wampler’s knowledge of the Capitol complex in Des Moines was exceptional. Twice he took me on walks around the Capitol grounds, stopping at all the monuments for his fascinating stories about the people and events memorialized there. Gov. Terry Branstad asked Wampler to give that same tour to high-level visitors to the state, too.
Since then, Mark Wampler and I have talked by phone frequently, generally got together for lunch a couple times a year, and would see each other often at state events around Des Moines.
In May, 2016, we had a long day together on the road. His son Andrew Wampler was getting ready to graduate from Loras College, in Dubuque, which some may remember has been one of my hangouts — I’ve even taught there in a couple of brief appointments. Mark called and said as a kind of graduation gift to Andrew, he wanted me to go to Dubuque, take the young Wampler out to lunch, maybe introduce him to some Lorians I have high regard for, and give him a final dip in Loras lore. “I’ll be glad to do that,” I told the ol’ man, “but you’re going, too — and you’re buying.”
In our four-hour tutorial, I warbled the fight song “Hail Loras Varsity” for Andrew. We made a few stops around campus to make sure he was aware of some special spots — the old Fieldhouse, the Rock Bowl, all that. Then I invited a couple of Loras luminaries for the dramatic conclusion of our seminar — former mayor of Dubuque Terry Duggan, still a business leader in the city, who did the 1970s at Loras, and Father Scott Boone, a very popular student body president at Loras in the ’90s and now pastor of St. Patrick’s church in Anamosa and other nearby parishes.
First, we went to the noble, inspiring and slightly spooky Mortuary Chapel in the basement of the Cathedral of St. Raphael downtown, where we visited the grave of Bishop Mathias Loras, founder of the college in 1839 and one of Iowa’s most significant pioneers.
Then the five of us moved on to a long, story-filled lunch at a favorite downtown restaurant.
Andrew and Mark Wampler at the crypt of Bishop Loras
Mark and I dropped off Andrew back on campus, where he was clearing out his dorm room, and the two of us took off for home in central Iowa. We made a quick stop at New Melleray Abbey, the Catholic Trappist monastery south of Peosta, for a conversation with and blessing from my spiritual mentor, Father Jim O’Connor.
After all the people and places around Iowa that he had shared with me over time, it was nice to share some of my faves with him on that day. A year later, we had one more time together — his wife Kathy joined us — for a lunch in Jefferson when they were traveling this way.
And now, with stunning suddenness, he’s gone.
I always thought that Mark Wampler was smart enough, experienced and connected enough, to be governor, or a member of congress, or a leader in the legislature.
But the truth is, what he was, was plenty good enough. He touched and inspired thousands of people who, like me, will be telling Mark Wampler stories for the rest of our lives.
You can email the columnist at chuck@Offenburger.com or comment using the handy form below here.
You can read Mark Wampler’s obituary by clicking right here.