The latest version of “Best of Des Moines” reminded him of his ’81 “Worst of Iowa” contest.

By CHUCK OFFENBURGER

DES MOINES, Iowa, FEB. 3, 2024 – The fine monthly magazine “CITYVIEW” this week published its 126-page February edition, featuring their annual “Best of Des Moines” listings.

Editor and publisher Shane Goodman and his staff put together a list of categories, tell readers about them in an earlier edition, then count the readers’ votes that are submitted. They’ve been doing this for more than 20 years.

“A record 22,969 were cast in this year’s poll that recognized more than 800 local people, businesses, places and events in 271 categories,” Goodman wrote in his column in the new edition.

This year’s categories included “Best Local Fine Dining,” “Best Local Women’s Clothing Store,” “Best Local Hardware Store,” “Best Local Irish Pub,” “Best Local Band,” “Best Local Home Painter,” “Best Local Sports Commentator or Columnist” and so many more.  It’s a whole lot of fun-reading. 

You can pick up your own free copy of the February edition at 800 locations (including many restaurants) around central Iowa. You can also read all about it on the magazine’s website at www.dmcityview.com.

All this gave me a flashback of nearly 43 years, back to my “Iowa Boy” column in the Des Moines Sunday Register of Aug. 2, 1981.

For months that spring and summer, Des Moines TV station WHO used time in its newscasts to do flowery features on their “Best of Iowa.”  They had their viewers help them find the state’s best taco, pizza, waitress, bowling alley, hamburger, and more.  By early August, I had had enough.

“Nobody loves Iowa more than I do,” I wrote in that Aug. 2 column.  “But let’s balance this palaver. Let’s pick ‘The Worst of Iowa’.”

I picked 12 categories – they came to be known as “The Dirty Dozen” – and asked readers to submit their nominations.

The top of the front page of the Des Moines Sunday Register, Aug. 16, 1981, promoting my column in the Iowa News section.

We held the nominations period open for two weeks, while I went on vacation.  The Register’s promotions department ran ads encouraging entries.  Hundreds of them arrived by the quaint U.S. Mail system popular then.  “An incredible amount of vituperation came spilling out of the mail,” I wrote when I got back to work. “The state’s spleen was vented and vented well.” 

I’m sure I consulted with a few of my Register staff colleagues who were as well-traveled around Iowa as I was, and then we picked the winners. “Er, make that the losers,” I added. 

A Des Moines Register ad that encouraged readers to enter my “The Worst of Iowa” contest.

Here they were, as published in the Sunday Register of Aug. 16, 1981:

–Worst river: The West Nishnabotna River in southwest Iowa. “It’s certainly Iowa’s least scenic river,” a state conservation official told me. “They straightened it out in 1908 and all of its charm vanished.  Ever since, it’s been nothing but a big old ditch.”  It’s always muddy, I reported, adding, “Fishing is marginal at best. The best thing that can be said for it is that it usually doesn’t stink.”

–Worst county courthouse: Adams County Courthouse in Corning, also in southwest Iowa. My description: “E-e-yeeccchh! This was built in a style that could only be called 1950s-chic – a boring block structure that was painted, incredibly, coral and turquoise.  A couple of years ago, someone with some cloud decided something must be done, and the whole building was repainted two-tone brown. It’s better now, but how can we forget coral and turquoise?”

–Worst-looking girls basketball uniform: Home uniforms of the Spartanettes of West Monona High School at Onawa in far west central Iowa. “The uniform is white satin and features a skirt with pleats of green – a style that went out of fashion, oh, about 1962.”

–Worst dog: “Tag,” a cocker spaniel owned by Pamela Long, a guidance counselor at Newton High School. “Her counseling with Tag has gone for naught,” I wrote. “His top jaw is bigger than his bottom jaw, giving him a three-quarter inch overbite.  He is missing a toe on his right front foot, but a toenail grew out of the leg, made a loop and then grew back into itself, forming an odd circle.  Because of his appearance, Long gave him a nickname, ‘The Alien’.”  Then she continued: “He looks bad, acts badly, is noisy, pushy and obnoxious.  He eats anything and everything – from carrots to cucumbers, from bananas to Kleenex, from horse hooves to horse manure, from dirt to houseplants, from rocks to furniture, from fly bait to an occasional bite of dog food.  Because of his unlimited appetite, he smells like rotten eggs 90 percent of the time.”

The top of the Iowa News section on Aug. 16, 1981, where there was this photo of Iowa’s worst dog, “Tag.”

–Worst bar: The Chicken House, of Kalona in southeast Iowa, nicknamed the “Capon Chateau.” Not that it looks so seedy, I wrote, but “the clincher: In recent years, goofy customers have brought inside of the place motorcycles, goats and a genuine Brahma bull.  One guy recently parked his moped on the roof.  It fell off. The small restrooms are hot in the summer, freezing in the winter.” Owner Red Aldeman told me the general ambience was “rowdy fun.”

–Worst breaded tenderloin: Drake University in Des Moines students ganged up and told me the tenderloin served at their Hubbell Dining Hall were so bad that “you can forget about eating them. Remove them from the buns and throw them like Frisbees.”

–Worst name of a consolidated school: “Ar-We-Va.”  That’s the school consolidated from the west central Iowa communities of Arcadia, Westside and Vail.  They took two letters from each town’s name “and turned them into a word that means absolutely nothing,” I wrote, “in the best traditions of naming consolidated schools.”

–Worst school song: “Ottumwa High School Fight Song.”  The first verse is an original tune, written by an early band director, as I recall.  The second verse is to the tune of the well-known “Sidewalks of New York.”  The third verse is a chant that started, “La veevo, la vivo, la veevo, vivo vum!” Then it’s on to “Johnny get a rat trap, bigger than a cat trap!” Some more “La veevo, la vivo,” and then it winds up with: “Ottumwa High School, rah, rah, rah!”  And then there is a concluding singing line of “Rah, rah, rah for Ottumwa!”  After I revealed what a mess the OHS fight song is, 1) I was invited to come defend my decision at the Homecoming pep rally (I went, tried and was booed mightily), and 2) I was invited to be the commencement speaker the following spring.  I of course wound up my address at the packed football stadium by singing the fight song, loud and lively, without accompaniment or sheet music.  It was a solo.  No one else there could sing it! (In 2024, I still can.)

–Worst team nickname: “Orabs” of Sheldon High School in northwest Iowa. “The school colors are orange and black,” I explained. “See, you take ‘OR’ from ‘orange,’ take ‘A’ from ‘and,’ take ‘B’ from ‘black.’ OR-A-B. Orabs!”  A local sportswriter came up with that decades ago.

–Worst name of a community celebration: “Hoo Doo Day” each September since the end of World War II in the southwest Iowa town of Neola.  “I think the man who was the editor of the paper came up with the name,” Judy Thielen of the Neola Gazette-Reporter told me. “Now no one around here really knows what the ‘Hoo Doo’ means.”

–Worst town slogan: The northwest Iowa town of Mallard’s motto, “We’re Friendly Ducks!” I described it as “a honker.” When Mallard had its own high school, it did have one of Iowa’s best cheers:

            Black and gold!
Gold and black!
Mallard Ducks!
Quack, quack, quack!

–Worst display of yard ornaments: I wrote how my readers reported “several yards around the state crowded with statues, carvings, windmills and other dreadful doodads.  We found one place where a larger-than-life black panther snarls at a dog of about the same size, while an Indian stands over them holding a tomahawk and shield.  But the absolute worst of ’81 had to be the neatly-trimmed yard of the Bill and Opal Johnston residence in Swea City, located near the state border in north-central Iowa.  The Johnstons had three toilet stools, a urinal and a bathtub, all planted full of geraniums.” I called for an explanation. “I’d always wanted a stool out front with flowers in it,” Opal told me, rather directly. “I didn’t plan on having all the rest of this, but my husband sort of got carried away with it.  You might also put in the paper that we don’t care what other people think of that.  It’s our yard and we like it.” 

Well-put, Opal!  The thing I wonder about, nearly 43 years later, is how I ever summoned enough nerve to phone her and ask for a comment.

Most Register readers back then seemed to love “The Worst of Iowa” contest.  The best measure of that may be that my editors decided that 14 other responses from Iowa dog owners – describing how awful their own pets were – should be published two days later covering nearly a whole page of the paper. 

“Dishonorable mentions,” those letters were headlined.  The editors added this deck headline: “Fourteen Iowa families wrote to Iowa Boy, hoping their dogs would be named the worst dog in the state. Although they didn’t win, these Iowans get to keep their dogs.”

Here was the near-full-page display of what we called the “dog letters” that came in from people all over Iowa, howling about their own dogs.

I’m not going to repeat my contest now, in this modern age. 

But I’ll sure let Shane Goodman and his “CITYVIEW” magazine staff do so.

Here’s the eye-popping cover of CITYVIEW magazine’s February 2024 edition, which has the results of their “Best of Des Moines” contest.

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

One thought on “The latest version of “Best of Des Moines” reminded him of his ’81 “Worst of Iowa” contest.

  1. Oh that is the unique-in-all-the-world fun I remember and love so well from the Iowa of Iowa
    Boy. There was nothing which brought us all such mirth. Every winner ? is priceless and the comments from you and the entrants …oh how I miss those days when such good fun rolled down into Tennessee Thanks for these and legion of other memories. Go you mighty ORABS !

    • City - Centerville
    • State - Tn

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