A “roots tour” with the Zimplemans: It’s a kick to visit ol’ hometowns with notable Iowans!

By CHUCK OFFENBURGER

WILLIAMSBURG, Iowa, June 24, 2023 – Back in February, when Drake University in Des Moines announced that its business school was being re-named the “Larry and Kathleen Zimpleman College of Business,” DU President Marty Martin pegged the alumni couple well.

“They’re both compassionate, kind people,” Martin told Des Moines Register business writer Tyler Jett. “They’re diligent. They’re respectful. They have great integrity.”

One day last week, the Zimplemans led my wife Mary Riche and me on a “roots tour” of their hometowns in east-central Iowa – that’s little Parnell (pop. 195) for Kathi and neighboring Williamsburg (pop. 3,346) for Larry.  They’re both in Iowa County, which is split by Interstate Highway 80.

We cruised both towns, stopping for photos at their childhood homes, buying bags of the delicious beef jerky made at Cook’s Meat Locker in Parnell, touring the outstanding public library and local history museum in Williamsburg, and I bought lunch for the Zimplemans and nine friends from their high school years at “The Legendary” Sundown Bar and Grill in Williamsburg.

High noon at the Sundown Bar and Grill in Williamsburg, with ol’ pals (left to right) Myrna Curtis, Dawn Coffman, Kathi Zimpleman and Marcy Wardenburg.

The whole gang at lunch, clockwise from the left front: Terry Curtis, Myrna Curtis, Dawn Coffman, Kathi Zimpleman, Marcy Wardenburg, Kent Wardenburg, Mike Kleinmeyer, Claudia Kleinmeyer, Linda Driscoll, Bob Driscoll and, with his back to us, Larry Zimpleman.

It was a fun way for me to do two things: 1) I could thank Kathi Zimpleman for a year ago becoming the first of my “First Team” subscribers, who pay a premium for my Iowa Boy Chuck Offenburger columns on the Substack platform on the internet and who also get an annual lunch on me.  And 2) we got to hear a whole bunch of terrific Williamsburg-area stories in a short time, and I’m sure you’ll be reading some of them in times to come.

The Zimplemans, who are celebrating 50 years of marriage this year, are well-known in Iowa, especially so in the Des Moines area, where Larry led the Principal Financial Group until his retirement in 2015.  Early on, Kathi was an administrative assistant in the computer center at Drake. Together they have been generous philanthropists in education and community building.

They have also become leading advocates of increasing the training of business students and workers in “ESG” competency – environmental, social and governance.  They continue doing that at Drake, across the state and nation, and around the world.

Two of their best friends around Des Moines – Terry and Joyce Lillis – grew up with them in Parnell and Williamsburg. “Terry was the CFO at the Principal when Larry was the CEO, and Joyce is a nurse and continues to make a difference in our community,” Kathi told me. “We often joke that no one would have put any money on any of us ending up here when we were growing up!”

Kathi Zimleman outside the home where she grew up in Parnell. The Zimplemans now live between Cumming and Norwalk, south of metro Des Moines.

What were they like, as kids back in the ol’ hometowns?  What and who inspired them?

Kathleen Berry was the sixth of seven children of Dean and Margaret Berry, who had a vegetable farm south of Parnell.  Margaret was pregnant with her seventh child when Dean died of acute pneumonia, after only having been married 13 years.  Margaret overcame her shock and grief, earned her college degrees and began a 35-year teaching career in Parnell and then Williamsburg, supporting her children.  She never married again.

Larry Zimpleman’s dad J. Henry “Hank” Zimpleman was a rural mail carrier and parttime farmer.  Larry’s mother Clara Hansemann Zimpleman had grown up on a farm, and knew well how much work was involved. When she and Hank married, Larry said, “she told him, ‘I’m done with farm life. If you want to farm, fine, but we’re living in town.’ And so Dad built our house in 1956 and that’s where my brother and I grew up.”  Hank also served as mayor of Williamsburg for a couple years.

Larry Zimpleman outside his boyhood home in Williamsburg.

Larry went to grade school in Williamsburg, while Kathi was in Parnell. They didn’t know each other well until their high school years, and never dated then.  Larry graduated from Williamsburg High in 1969, Kathi in ’71.

Like most Williamsburg-area high school kids, they had plenty of experience working in surrounding farm fields.  Larry put in time on detasseling crews for the Holden Foundation Seeds, a family-owned farm business that became the largest independent developer and producer of “foundation” corn seeds – the base for hybrids.  Kathi “missed that because I spent all my time picking tomatoes on my family’s vegetable farm.”

They recall all the fun they had with school friends at the movie theater, bowling alley, ball games and concerts.  Larry “Zip” Zimpleman played second base in baseball and was a guard for the Williamsburg High Raiders teams.  Kathi was a cheerleader, band member and involved in student government. 

One of young Larry’s claims to fame in sports – he was a young fan who, with his parents, attended the 1959 Iowa Girls High School State Basketball Tournament championship game at Veterans Auditorium in Des Moines.

A dangerous blizzard pounded the capital city while the Gladbrook girls were beating West Central of Maynard 72-60.  All fans were ordered to stay overnight right there in “Vets.”  At the request of tournament officials, Des Moines police managed to pick-up star young rock ’n’ roll deejay Frosty Mitchell of KIOA radio at his home.  They took Mitchell to the radio station to grab a collection of 45 rpm records, then delivered him to the auditorium where he led an all-night sock hop for all the fans.

Kathi remembers a special moment in her youth, too.  In the summer of 1973, the Des Moines Register’s “Great Six-Day Bicycle Ride” across Iowa overnighted in Williamsburg.  (That was the first edition of what became “RAGBRAI,” and its 50th anniversary ride is this summer, July 22-29.) 

The bicyclists were camped in a city park.  Kathi was among the students who joined in with the Williamsburg High School band and surprised the visitors by marching through and around the park.  Many of the cyclists fell-in behind the band and marched with them.  That endured as one of RAGBRAI co-founder John Karras’ favorite moments in the big bike ride’s long, colorful history.

It was in their later college years when Larry Zimpleman and Kathi Berry connected romantically.  Larry was at Drake.  Kathi had started at Mount Mercy College in Cedar Rapids, was briefly at the University of Northern Iowa, then transferred to Drake.

They raised three sons.  “After growing up in the middle of four brothers, and then having three boys myself,” said Kathi, “I bragged that at least my boys weren’t going to do anything I hadn’t seen before.”

The Williamsburg Public Library, for which the Zimplemans have donated, is an amazing resource center for a community of this size.

Given Larry’s phenomenal 44-year career story with the Principal, one old story that you need to know is how he decided to go to Drake, major in actuarial science, accept a parttime job in his college years with a Principal affiliate in Des Moines, and stay with the company the rest of his working life.

“When I was in eighth grade, we had a guidance counselor, Mr. (Bob) Thran,” Larry recalled. “I can’t remember doing anything special that might have impressed him, but one day he asked me what my favorite subject was. I said, ‘Math.’ He said, ‘Then, Larry, you should look into being an actuary.’ My first response was, ‘What’s that?’ ”

Four years later, a new high school guidance counselor asked Larry if he had figured out where he wanted to go to college and what he wanted to study.

“I said the first thing that came to my mind then – the same thing Mr. Thran had suggested – ‘become an actuary’.” Larry said. “The counselor pointed to a row of catalogs from colleges on a shelf and said, ‘Well, you can go through these and see who offers a major in actuarial science.’ The college books were alphabetized, so it didn’t take long for me to get to the 4th letter, D, and find Drake.  It turned out not many schools offered a major in actuarial science back then – most schools only offered a course or two in it – but Drake did.  Going there and getting my degree changed the whole trajectory of my life.”

When the business college at Drake was named after the Zimplemans, the first call of congratulations they received was from Bob Thran, now 93, and living in Nashua in northeast Iowa. Thran, of course, is extraordinarily proud of his former student’s success.

When I asked Thran if he remembers, so long ago, why he would have recommended that an 8th grade Larry “should look into being an actuary,” he didn’t hesitate. “I had just read a short article in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, no more than two or three inches long, saying that there was a shortage of actuaries for small insurance companies, and they were being paid $25,000 per year to start,” said Thran. “At that time, I was getting about $6,500 per year as a counselor, so I thought it’d be a good career for a young guy.”

A huge fireplace on the west wall of the Williamsburg Public Library. The colorful painting is by artist Gordon Kellenberger, of the nearby Amana Colonies.

Iowa County has indeed produced many whose career trajectories have been impressive.

Rob Denson, the innovative president of Des Moines Area Community College, is from the Homestead area.  Hy-Vee chairman Randy Edeker is from North English.  Super Realtor Rick Wanamaker is from Marengo.  Dr. Kathryn Edwards, a Williamsburg native, is a pediatrics professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville and is internationally recognized for her work evaluating the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.  Another Williamsburg High School graduate at Vanderbilt is James Newcomb, a retired professor of English.  Robert Bauer, a WHS graduate in 1960, is an acclaimed American painter of people, landscapes and gardens, and is still working in Maine.  There are the brilliant corn geneticists and marketers who’ve grown up with Holden Foundation Seeds. And there’s this wizard of an inventor Jon Kinzenbaw, who started doing welding, equipment repair and building go-karts in a small shop in Ladora, a business which grew to become the huge Kinze Manufacturing, the farm and ag machine maker with the impress headquarters and “innovation center” along I-80 west of Williamsburg.

What was it that inspired so many high achievers?

“I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but there was some secret sauce there,” Larry said. “We didn’t think about anybody being rich or poor. Everyone was on the same level. There were no cliques. We got a great education.  It was clear that the community valued education. I recall that in about 1960, they started requiring us to take a foreign language – it was German back then – when we were in third or fourth grade!  And art was important.  We all had to take an art course.

“The only thing that was a challenge for me, a little bit, back in the1960s, and that is there wasn’t an African-American in the county,” Larry continued. “When I went to Drake, I had to do a lot more learning culturally.”

Kathi nodded, adding, “I agree with all of that.  But if you look at how we grew up and where we all are today, I still want to be defined by the values we had growing up.  We felt safe, and we felt cared for. There was about two degrees of separation between all of us back in the day. You couldn’t do anything without it getting back to mom.  There’s a certain amount of ‘humble’ embedded in all that.  You were never allowed to get too big for your britches. We certainly feel blessed by what we have today, but we got there because of how we started out in Parnell and Williamsburg.”

In the Williamsburg history museum is this almost life-size painting of a woodsman by the nationally-known painter Robert Bauer, who grew up in Williamsburg.

Now, 10 things I learned about Williamsburg that we all need to know more about:

1) This rural community that is not a county seat town and not a college town is nevertheless enjoying its all-time high in population at 3,346. 

2) What’s enabled that?  Lots of good jobs and tax base expansions from Holden Foundation Seeds; Kinze Manufacturing, and the 30-plus-years-old “outlet mall” just north of town (formerly the “Tanger Outlet Mall,” now the “Outlets & Marketplace” center.

3) A top-notch local school system that appeals to young parents commuting to jobs 30 miles away in Iowa City and 40 miles away in Cedar Rapids.

4) There’s some very proud local history.  One early native of the county, Eugene Burton Ely, born in 1886, was first known for his love of driving fast cars.   He moved to California, then Oregon and by 1911 was hired by early airplane maker Glenn Curtiss to be his test pilot. On Nov. 10, 1910, Ely piloted the first plane to take off from a sea-going U.S. Navy ship and then land safely on it.  He’s been a Naval aviation hero ever since.  He told a Des Moines Register reporter then that he would do more flight exhibitions. “I guess I will be like the rest of them,” he said, “keep at it until I am killed.”  A year later, he was, crashing during an air show in Macon, Georgia.

5) Harry E. Hull was a Williamsburg businessman early-on, and from 1915 to 1925 represented his home area as a U.S. Congressman. He was a Republican.

6) Sports note: Williamsburg “has had a semi-pro baseball team forever,” Larry Zimpleman said. The manager the past 61 years is Lloyd Brockshus.  The last year or two, he’s shared the coaching duties with Tony Wardenburg.  You can follow the team on their Facebook page “Red Socky.”

7) One more sports note: The Williamsburg baseball umpire everyone knows is Terry Curtis, 83, a retired teacher who’s been umping for 60 years or longer and is still active.  He taught the Zimplemans and most of the others at our luncheon. He had to leave early “to do a game at Pekin of Packwood tonight.”  He speaks often to his son Lewie Curtis, in Boone, who is “director of officials” for the Iowa High School Athletic Association. “That means,” said Terry, “my son is my boss.”

8) Two more reasons Williamsburg is at an all-time population high: The community has a fantastic community center and “Highland Ridge,” a multi-staged senior-living center that everyone calls “The Castle.”  Both facilities are here as a result of large financial gifts from the Holden family.

Highland Ridge, the senior living center on the north edge of Williamsburg.

An historic Holden company poster in the local history museum.

9) In the 1980s, Williamsburg made international news for hosting “The World’s Largest Beach Party.”  The funniest thing about it: The party was located at “No Wa-Wa Beach,” which really meant “No Water Beach.” Promoter Steve Gander, then a young guy from the Parnell area, figured out that if he put some sand down in an idle farm field adjacent to the Williamsburg exit on I-80, and then hire some big name rock ’n’ roll bands, people would pay money to attend and drink beer. They did for a half-dozen years, hearing such music groups as Jan & Dean, The Ventures, Gary Lewis & The Playboys, Tommy Roe, Johnny Tillotson and many more.

10) Another history note from the museum: In 1932 or ’33, famed aviator Amelia Earhart, who was on a trans-USA flight, had engine trouble and landed her plane in a field north of Williamsburg. Local farmer Walter Newkirk drove her to town to get repair parts, she spent the night, then flew on the next morning. That story surfaced again in a 2007 feature column by Dave Rasdal in the Cedar Rapids Gazette.

11) Williamsburg has a wonderful new grocery store, “Brothers Market,” and the story goes well beyond this community.  You remember when a tornado devastated the town of Parkersburg, Iowa, in 2008? There were nine fatalities in the area, and a 20-year-old grocery was destroyed. The deaths were horrible, but so was the loss of the store.  Brothers Jared, Jay and Darian DeVries, all graduates of Aplington-Parkersburg High School and all of whom went on to success in pro sports, coaching and business, stepped up.  They had a new grocery built and opened in Parkersburg.  They also listened to pleas from Williamsburg and other Iowa communities that were losing groceries because of economic challenges, and they now head a 16-store chain of “Brothers Markets.” Darian DeVries, as you probably know, is head men’s basketball coach at Drake U.

Ooops! That’s 11 things to love about the Williamsburg area, not just the 10 as promised.  That means I’ll probably be spending even more time here.

Chuck Offenburger and Larry Zimpleman outside a local insurance agency in Williamsburg that offers products from the Principal Financial Group, which Zimpleman headed for years in Des Moines.

Kathi Zimpleman and Mary Riche, back at the home where Kathi grew up in Parnell.

You can comment on this column below or write the columnist directly by email at chuck@offenburger.com.

2 thoughts on “A “roots tour” with the Zimplemans: It’s a kick to visit ol’ hometowns with notable Iowans!

  1. What a great article about the community I also grew up in and many of the people I grew up around. Kathy and Larry’s description captured the atmosphere growing up during those years perfectly. Loved reading about the memories of the past and seeing the photos of places and people I consider lifelong friends.

    • Larry and Kathi! What a wonderful and refreshing story about you, Parnell and Williamsburg. We
      have followed your success and we’re always proud to say we knew you! Having grown up in the area, having a business in Williamsburg and a son who graduated from Drake, we always boasted that the CFO
      for Principal was from our area. We congratulate you on your success!

      • City - North Liberty
      • State - Iowa

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *