As Iowa said farewell to RAGBRAI’s Jim Green, an all-time fun-lover


COOPER, Iowa, June 20, 2019 — It was 30 years ago this summer when I decided to get my ear pierced and start wearing an earring.  It was 29 years ago when I met Carla Burt during a bicycle ride on a recreational trail. Jim Green inspired both big moments in my life. 

On Friday morning, June 21, at St. Bernard Catholic Church in Osceola, Iowa says its formal farewell to Jim “Greenie” Green, who inspired thousands of us — as director for a dozen years of RAGBRAI (the Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa), as the influential pal of struggling teenagers, as a devoted family man, and as one of the most fun-loving individuals who ever came our way. 

His pastor and lifelong friend Father David Polich said Greenie had a stroke a couple years ago, and his health had slipped recently. On Sunday night, Greenie knew he was dying “but he was Greenie to the end,” Father Dave said. “His family was all there, he was hugging everybody, telling them he loves them and even telling jokes.”

He died Monday morning, June 17, at the hospital in Mount Ayr, not far from his home at Sun Valley Lake near Ellston in south central Iowa, just short of his 80th birthday. 

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Jim “Greenie” Green on an early RAGBRAI.

I love the photo of Greenie that the Register ran with storyteller Daniel Finney’s column  this week about his death, life and career.  That’s the Greenie with whom I became great friends in the early to mid 1980s when we both started riding on RAGBRAI.  I was co-host with the co-founder John Karras, and Greenie was a Register circulation department employee who’d oversee groups of newspaper carriers who’d come ride for a day with us.

If you look close at the photo, you’ll see Greenie is taking a smoke break. We use to joke in those early years that the only thing that got the two us to the tops of those huge hills in rural Iowa was knowing we could get off our bikes up there and have a cigarette. Actually, we weren’t joking.  That was one bad habit we both eventually managed to ride our way clear of, thank God. 

Besides chaperoning newspaper carriers who were riding with us, Greenie also usually rode close by me. He took on a role of keeping me moving, pushing me along, while I always had an inclination to spend a couple more minutes interviewing people. Back then I’d wear T-shirts that across the back said, “Iowa Boy — got a column idea for me?”  It was easy-pickings for stories out there.  But Greenie would keep reminding me, “We’ve got to get you in (to the overnight host town) so you have time to write your story.”  The only stops he ever really wanted to make were for the hill-top cigarette — or for ice cream anywhere. 

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In the photo at the right, Jim Green later in life.

And he’d always keep his eye out for my son Andrew Offenburger and his pal Jason Benbow, who rode together on RAGBRAI from about the age of 10 until they were teenagers.  Benbow was a skinny little whippet, and Greenie was forever telling him, “Benbow, if you’re going to make it up all these hills, you gotta get more ice cream in that bony little butt of yours!” 

Now, think of America back in the late ’80s and how we all looked.  On RAGBRAI in 1988, Greenie and I noticed that there were a lot of cool young guys showing up on the bike ride with earrings.  Well, I thought they looked cool, Greenie was more of the opinion that the young guys must be experiencing some kind of personal crises.  I suggested that after that RAGBRAI, we both get an ear pierced.  We had a good laugh. It didn’t happen. 

On RAGBRAI in 1989, there were even more cool young guys with earrings, and Greenie and I were talking plenty about them while we pedaled across the state.  I made note that the week after that RAGBRAI, Greenie would be celebrating his 50th birthday and I thought of a great gift for him.  I drew up a gift certificate good for the two of us to get our left ears pierced and earrings installed by Barb Allen, a nurse friend of ours who could do the mini-medical procedure.  I set the date and time for it.  

Well, that evening, I showed up at Barb’s house, and Greenie didn’t.  I went ahead and had her pierce my ear and put in my earring.  As I’ve explained a thousand times since then, I’ve been wearing this earring ever since — just to spite Greenie.  In fact, I now claim I’ve worn an earring longer than any man in Iowa history except Chief Black Hawk.

(Greenie tried to recover by having some clip-on earrings made, and he encouraged men of less confidence to wear one on the earring occasions of future bike rides.  They looked ridiculous.) 

I cannot overstate how important the Greens — Jim, his wife Judy (or “Ma” as so many know her), their kids and spouses  — were to me in the late 1980s.  Welcoming me as one of many strays who’ve seemed to find the Green home over the decades, they helped me shake divorce, alcohol, cigarettes and other problems. 

By the summer of 1990, they had me starting to feel pretty good about myself again.  Greenie and I were talking about that on a hot Saturday midday in early July, as we rode our bikes west from Waukee toward Adel on the Raccoon River Valley Trail.  We were also solving our kids’ problems, and syncing our RAGBRAI plans, when two young women on their bikes, also heading west, passed us.  Greenie and I were continuing our conversation as they went around us, but I glanced and noticed that one of the women had shoulders turning red in the beating sun.  “Hey, lady!” I said, apparently sounding much gruffer than I realized. “You better get a T-shirt on. You’re getting sunburned.” 

Greenie exploded — at me. 

“Jesus Larry Christ!” he roared. “Can’t you be a little nicer to people than that? That sweet young thing is riding along, minding her own business, and here you are barking at her!” 

Fifteen minutes later, Greenie and I were ordering ice cream at Barney’s Dairy Stripe, trailside in Adel.  We went outside and sat on a curb to enjoy the treats.  And there were the two young women we’d just seen on the trail — Carla Burt and her sister Chris Burt — also sitting on the curb.  

At Greenie’s urging, I apologized to the sunburned Carla for barking at her.  She and I started talking and it so happened that both of us had ordered peach malts.  It was a match made at Barney’s, a great omen, a sign from God, or perhaps from Jesus Larry Christ, that this could be the relationship with a woman I’d always wanted. 

Ever after, Greenie quit referring to Carla as “that sweet young thing” and instead would tell me she is “the best decision you ever made.”  Amen.  

Jim Green from Kale Funeral Home.jpg

Greenie was never far from his next bowl of ice cream.

The friendship between the Greens and the Offenburgers intensified in the 1990s. 

In ’91, going into ’92, when the original RAGBRAI director Don Benson was retiring, I took a rather strong stand with Register executives for Greenie to be the successor.  He was often loud, and sometimes a little rough around the edges, but no one could ever doubt his love for Iowa, for RAGBRAI, for the Iowa State Patrol and for the thousands of bicyclists who each year would drive him a little nutty. 

When the State Patrol made it plain that the numbers of riders on RAGBRAI were getting too large and the behavior too rowdy, Greenie tightened the applications and the rules.  “Beer gardens” became “beverage gardens,” and training and security was required for all working in them.  When a couple of teams of riders objected to new rules, Greenie booted them for a year or two.  They calmed down, came back and were welcomed.

To improve safety among the bike riders, Greenie organized a new “Ride Right” program with experienced cyclists teaching the less-experienced ones how to ride in big crowds.  That was subsequently copied by bicycle tours across the U.S.

In doing all of the above, he probably saved RAGBRAI, which this summer celebrates its 47th year as the biggest, oldest and longest bicycle touring event in the world — one of Iowa’s few truly Big League events.  

Greenie should also be remembered as the founder of the “RAGBRAI Dream Team,” economically-challenged teenagers from the Des Moines area who probably couldn’t afford to join the cross-state ride. He got them good bikes, cycling outfits, helmets and gloves.  He matched them with experienced cyclists who led the young people in rigorous training through the spring and early summer.  There are usually 30 or more of them who complete the big ride each summer, and those who do get to keep their bikes and equipment.

Oh, he could overdo it sometimes, momentarily losing his temper, or writing a scolding letter that was over-the-top.  One of my all time favorite moments with him occurred in late spring of 1995 at a meeting in Clarion of the RAGBRAI committees in the “pass-through” towns on our proposed route that summer.  They’d come from towns across the state, and we in RAGBRAI’s leadership were there to fill them in on what they needed to know.  Co-host John Karras and I spoke first, assuring the people how much fun their communities would have. 

Then Greenie got up, started explaining the rules and just went wild.  He was flapping his arms, shaking his head back and forth, repeatedly telling the crowd that they “absolutely, positively cannot do this,” “absolutely, positively cannot do that,” and “absolutely, positively cannot do” everything else.  I cringed, looked around the room and saw that eyes were glazing over. 

I turned to the big guy sitting next to me — I remember him as being the Chief of Police from neighboring Webster City, which was going to be on the route — and asked him quietly, “Do you have real bullets in that gun on your belt?” 

He looked oddly at me, then grinned and said, “Yes.”

“Good,” I said, again, quietly. “If he says ‘absolutely, positively’ one more time, would you please just shoot the son-of-a-bitch?”  

He chuckled and I did, too. 

And the oddest thing happened.  Greenie, who couldn’t possibly have heard us, never said those two words the rest of his presentation! 

Godspeed Greenie cartoon by Brian duffy June 17 2019.jpg

The cartoon that former Register cartoonist and RAGBRAI host Brian Duffy drew this week and posted on Facebook. He captioned it, “Godspeed, Greenie.”

What a wonderful couple Jim and Judy Green have been. 

“Ma” actually worked on RAGBRAI longer than Greenie did.  She ran merchandise sales out of a trailer on the ride for about 30 years.  She was certainly tolerant during Greenie’s years as director when their motel rooms would become the RAGBRAI overnight headquarters.  When big news would happen unexpectedly, Karras and I would frequently be in the Greens’ room, checking records, making phone calls. 

Greenie would wake up before dawn and put on a pot of coffee in the room.  He’d leave the door unlocked, and soon Karras and I, maybe others, would be coming in for cups.  Greenie would always have those rooms crazy cold, and there’d be poor “Ma,” catching a few more minutes of sleep under a huge pile of blankets. 

And there was the summer we were startled to discover, when we analyzed the home addresses of the 10,000 plus RAGBRAI registrants, that we had no one from Rhode Island.  Our pride was hurt, as for several years we’d had all 50 states represented on each RAGBRAI.  We called state officials in Rhode Island, and their pride was hurt, too. 

They scrambled and, at the last minute, came up with a terrific guy, Malcolm Starr, an attorney & banker who agreed to come ride his bike across Iowa. The Register paid for his airline ticket to Des Moines.  Then we realized he was arriving so late that we needed to fly him on to the RAGBRAI start in Sioux City. We chartered a small airplane to get him there.  How’d we pay for that?  When I asked Greenie that, he shushed me and said softly, “I used Ma’s credit card.”

At their 25th wedding anniversary party at a union hall in Des Moines, I loved it when Father Polich described the Greens’ marriage as “a perfect combination of a solid anchor and a hot air balloon.” 

I can’t top that.

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6 thoughts on “As Iowa said farewell to RAGBRAI’s Jim Green, an all-time fun-lover

  1. Yours is a beautiful tribute, Chuck. I loved reading these stories about Greenie. Your words made me wish I had been in that inner circle to enjoy the camaraderie and the planning. I hope you have thousands of ears to listen to you tell wonderful stories about your marvelous friend. Thank you.

    Lou Blanchfield, Churdan IA

  2. Very well done, Chuck. Greenie truly was a great influence on many of us. We will miss Jim, but his memory will live on with those of us he touched.

    Dan McKay, Knoxville IA

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