By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
JEFFERSON, Iowa, June 12, 2023 – The 43rd Bell Tower Festival was held here this past weekend, and I loved it. And not just because I won one of the big raffles and now have two tickets for this fall’s Iowa-at-Iowa State football rivalry game.
I also loved it because my wife Mary Riche and I didn’t have to do anything but attend all the events we could get to, and have a good time. We do that really well. It looked like about 20,000 other people were proving they’re good at that, too.
The festival is held around the Greene County courthouse square, where on one corner our 168-foot-tall, 47-bell Mahanay Memorial Carillon Tower soars above us.
Dr. Philip Heisterkamp, our community festival’s chairperson, is cooler than your community’s festival chairperson.
The theme of the latest festival was “Live Your Legacy,” and that stirred some serious thinking for me.
I was in two different meetings earlier in the week when the discussion turned to the Bell Tower Festival Committee’s recent efforts to raise money for a reserve fund. They’ve said that would help ensure that if the festival should run into an especially stormy weekend in some future summer, they could still cover the expenses. And it’d be nice to have a nest egg if they think of something really big to add to the event.
One of the discussion leaders pointed out that while we all grow tired of being asked for donations, there were two reasons to give a little extra to the Bell Tower Festival Committee right now: 1) There’s been a generational hand-off in leadership of this committee, and our grand old summer festival is now being run by a bunch of imaginative, energetic and bold 30-somethings, and 2) they want to turn it into “the best small-town festival in Iowa.”
That reminded me of a column I wrote back in 1990 for the Des Moines Register about a very proud grandpa, Bill Helscher, of the town of Washington in southeast Iowa. He told me that he and his wife Dorothy, to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, had taken their three grown kids and a dozen or so grandchildren on a get-away trip. Ten granddaughters, ranging in age from 10 to 23, had so much fun on that trip that they asked Grandpa if he’d help them go on their own trip together – without parents or grandparents. With no hesitation, he popped for their adventure.
“You reach a point in life where one of the best things you do is write checks,” Bill Helscher told me, and I’ve never forgotten it.
So as I was reflecting on how I’m “Living Your Legacy,” per the Bell Tower Festival theme, it occurred to me that this is my 20th year as a Greene Countian. I’m now 75 years old, closing in on 76.
It’s my time to write checks. And when I do, you know what happens? Nice things start happening around me – and to me. (Like winning two football tickets to watch the Hawkeyes play the Cyclones on Sept. 9 in Ames.)
The view from the top of the tower of two of the new rooftop murals being done on downtown buildings, sponsored by the Jefferson Matters Tower View Art Team. These murals of the swans have been done by local artist Dana Harrison, who is also the chef in the Peony Chinese Restaurant in that corner building.
Right here at home, I can watch people who are young enough to be my grandchildren take over leadership of not just our Bell Tower Festival, but of our local government bodies, our schools, health care facilities, businesses, organizations, churches.
And when I hear them saying they want to help all these important entities become “the best in small-town Iowa,” I’ll write bigger checks and encourage others of my vintage to do the same.
Dr. Philip Heisterkamp, 32, the homegrown young leader who established his chiropractic practice here and is chairperson of our crackerjack Bell Tower Festival Committee, wrote about the festival themes in a tabloid promoting the event.
“Last year, we celebrated Jefferson’s 150th year of existence,” he reminded us. “We celebrated our past and how far we’ve come. This year, we are looking to the future, trying to see how far we can go.”
When he spoke at opening ceremonies on Friday from a stage on the courthouse plaza, he talked about why he’s become so involved in his home county’s activities.
“I’m just a person who believes you should make the most of every moment, wherever you are, whomever you’re with,” Heisterkamp said. “And that’s the real reason for the Bell Tower Festival. Connection. Camaraderie. I’m happy! And I’m happy you’re here to share it.”
Firing us up in Jefferson! On Thursday night of the Bell Tower Festival, locals competed in a series of wacky events with the overall winner being named “G.O.A.T. of the Night.” Here’s that “GOAT” — our brand new City Administrator Scott Peterson, who is just moving to the community from Lake View. He clinched victory over four or five other finalists after building the best fire from a flint-striking start.
For each festival, nominations are taken from the public and a “Bell Tower of Fame Award” winner is selected. The award “recognizes a person who has lived in Greene County sometime in their life whose professional or personal accomplishments internationally, nationally or statewide bring great pride to Greene County.”
The honorees have included our most famous native son, the American pollster George H. Gallup Jr.; NASA Astronaut Col. Loren Shriver, and many other high achievers, right on down to the pick a year ago – uh, me.
This year’s Tower of Famer is Julie Fie, a 1977 graduate of Jefferson High School and an ’81 grad of Iowa State University. For 41 years, she was the public relations and communications executive for three teams in the National Basketball Association – in Kansas City, Sacramento and, from 1992 until retiring in 2022, the Phoenix Suns. She worked with several of the greatest coaches and players in the pro game, helping arrange and shape their public presentations and interviews.
In her speech after accepting the award Friday night, she traced her start in sports to trailing along with her father Larry Fie, when he was the high school basketball coach and teacher at JHS in the 1960s.
“I remember when I was really little, maybe 5 or 6, walking with him toward the gym at the high school,” Julie said. “I ran out front of him, saw a door open and ran right into the boys locker room,” where the team was getting dressed. “Dad came running after me, grabbed my hand, walked me out of the dressing room and said, ‘That is not a place for little girls, Julie – not a place for girls.’ Funny now, to think that for almost 40 years, I was in men’s locker rooms on almost a daily basis!”
Bell Tower of Fame Award winner Julie Fie, addressing the crowd.
Julie Fie, on stage after her speech, with the award committee’s chairperson Carole Custer.
Custer wrote in a story introducing Fie that Sports Illustrated writer Howard Beck has called her “hands-down one of the best PR pros the NBA has ever had.”
Fie said she’s made trips back to Jefferson at least yearly, often more frequently.
“This place is not just where I was raised,” she told the crowd here. “It’s where so many of you taught me so much that helped direct me, helped get me started.
“This place has always been, and continues to be, my touchstone, where I get back to reality. When friends at work used to ask me why I’d go back to Jefferson so much, I’d say because it was a re-set on my bullshit meter.”
Now there’s some real insight on the public relations business!
In her retirement, Julie Fie says she’s going to continue living in the Phoenix area. She said she’s thinking of writing a book on her life and career. As a starter, she said she’s scribbled “pages and pages” of memories and thoughts about Jefferson.
Memo to Philip Heisterkamp and our other rising young leaders: Think about asking her for a little more of her time, consulting on helping them take the story of Jefferson and Greene County to the nation and the world.
It’s a good story, getting better all the time.
Old guy celebrating his raffle win at the latest Bell Tower Festival.
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