By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
And our wedding has now indeed happened, late this morning in the rotunda of the State Capitol here. It was a small, mostly-private ceremony – even if it was in one of Iowa’s most public places. We did have it live-streamed for relatives and friends.
Back in April, asking Mary whether she’d marry me was a question I was too afraid to ask.
But that trip, which included lunch and conversation with three of her Oelwein High School classmates and a guided tour of both little towns, somehow confirmed what I thought I already knew: Mary Riche represents the best of Iowa.
That comes partially from how and when she grew up, post-World War II thru the 1950s, ’60s and into the ’70s. It was a time when Iowa may well have been at its best. May it be so again.
She was a farm kid, part tomboy, but a prodigy on the piano and other instruments. She showed registered Angus cattle and was also the Buchanan County Beef Queen. She was a student leader at Oelwein High, editor of the “Ghost” yearbook, a young reporter for radio station KOEL and then she was off to study journalism at the University of Iowa.
Mary in front of the building in Aurora, Iowa, that was once Riche’s Store, owned by her parents.
Mary in the Aurora Museum with the sign that once marked her parents’ small grocery store in the northeast Iowa town.
Maybe you have to be an Iowan of our age – we’re septuagenarians, as she’s told you in her column – to really appreciate this, but Mary was a bagpiper in the university’s late-great pipes & drum corps, the Scottish Highlanders. The Highlanders, then all-women, were globally acclaimed. But it’s also true that some of the more crude fans at Hawkeye home football games, wearying of the Highlanders’ halftime performances that all seemed the same, were unkind. The ruffians called the troupe the “Whistling Bitches.” But I liked them so much I now want to buy Mary a new set of bagpipes.
Also at the U of I, she was a sorority member, and happened to be a “sister” of a woman who would become my first wife.
And she thrived in the feelings of change and empowerment that were growing on campuses then in the late ’60s, a time of student unrest, political activism and then-new feminist movement.
Mary Riche lived and loved it all. She came out of the university and started her adult life with what now seems to me to have been a near-perfect mix of respect for heritage and tradition, and genuine fire-in-the-belly for challenging unjust authority, righting social wrongs and expanding personal freedoms.
She began her career in a corporate project analyst’s job in Chicago.
But in 1973, she was so shocked and enraged at the political scandals of the Watergate era, and decided she had to go to Washington, D.C., to try to save democracy. She went to work on the staff of U.S. Senator Adlai Stevenson III, a Democrat from Illinois. Then she returned to Iowa to work nearly a decade in politics. That started in 1974 when she was the press secretary for what turned out to be the unsuccessful campaign for governor by Democrat Jim Schaben, an Iowa state senator.
That is when I first met Mary Riche.
As a young general assignment reporter for the Des Moines Register, I was assigned by our political chief Jim Flansburg to cover the Schaben campaign for a day. I rode along in the passenger seat while Mary drove between campaign appearances, chitchatting with her while candidate Schaben stretched out and slept in the back of the station wagon.
I liked her as a friendly political operative who was clearly a pro.
Mary visiting the family plot in the cemetery outside little Stanley, Iowa.
It was the start of a wonderful friendship between us that covered the next 47 years. It seemed that our careers and mutual friends often had us running into each other. That happened even while we were in different marriages, different towns, different churches. But it always seemed great to see and talk with her. Every once in a great while, she’d call with story ideas for me, and I was always hungry for them.
I watched her career grow in politics and state government, and realized she was becoming – and still is – one of the leading feminists in Iowa.
She’s been a Democrat over the long haul, although she volunteered in 1980 for the U.S. Senate primary campaign of Des Moines business leader Tom Stoner, a Republican. She supported him because of her friendship with Kitty Stoner, Tom’s wife, and they’ve stayed close ever since. (Tom Stoner, by the way, got beat in that primary by a lesser-known GOP upstart, Charles Grassley.)
In the 1980s, I watched her start and grow her own public relations and marketing agency, MR Enterprises, which eventually employed 15 people. She quickly became a real force in business in Des Moines and beyond. Other leaders recognized her skills and energy, and soon wooed her to join bank, corporate and organizational boards of directors.
In the early 1990s, she wanted more personal time for her family when she was stepparenting, and she decided to go back to the University of Iowa, earn a master’s degree in social work, and then launch her own practice in psychotherapy and family counseling. She worked in that busy practice until her retirement in 2019.
Two things happened in the ’80s and ’90s that were important in the friendship – and eventual love story – that Mary Riche and I share.
First, I started getting a few notes and letters from Register subscriber Verda Riche, of Aurora, Iowa – Mary’s mother – commenting on my columns and offering story ideas. She was the co-owner with her husband Frank Riche of a small grocery story on main street, which they bought after they sold and left their farm in 1967.
Next time I was roaming northeast Iowa, I stopped in at Riche’s Store. I plucked a bottled Pepsi Cola from the cold water in the pop chest and a Snickers candy bar from the candy rack. And then I had a good visit with Verda and Frank. It was the first of three or four stops I made there in coming years. Mary never knew about the visits until afterward. Sometimes she didn’t know until she read her mother being quoted in my Iowa Boy column.
You know, all these decades later, it has seemed real important to me that I knew Mary’s parents. It’s also seemed important to me to meet her sister Bette Bobkowski and her family, who are outside Philadelphia in New Jersey, with a son and his family on the New Hampshire-Vermont border. I’m going to do that this fall with Mary.
I’ve stood on the old Riche farm, just south of Stanley. I attended Verda Riche’s funeral in the Stanley Union Church. I recently stood outside the old Riche’s Store on the main street of Aurora – and I half want to buy it.
Mary on the farm where she grew up in northeast Iowa.
All of that has deep meaning to me now. I like these places and I admire and trust the people who have come from them.
The other thing that happened in the later ’80s and ’90s that’s important to Mary Riche and me, now having married, is that Mary became a great friend and mentor to Carla Burt Offenburger, my wife of 30 years before her death from cancer in July, 2021.
They met when Carla was working for one of Mary’s PR clients. They gardened together. They were in a book club together. They went to church together. And I tagged along when they’d let me.
Mary was with us a whole lot – through my own cancer treatment in 2009 and 2010, and then through Carla’s many surgeries and radiation sessions over a dozen years, and especially in Carla’s last year. It was tough, very hard, for all of us. As Mary mentioned in her column today, she delivered the eulogy at Carla’s funeral.
Through all of that, I honestly never had a romantic thought about Mary.
Until months later.
We began seeing more of each other last fall, primarily at our Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Des Moines. Then we were together for the “Best Fried Chicken Dinner in Des Moines” search that we started with Carla’s sisters Chris Woods and Tammie Amsbaugh and their husbands, for Sunday dinners after church.
Mary and I also began attending lectures and programs together.
In March, I went on a long, solo driving trip to Atlanta, Georgia, and back to join in the celebration of the 90th birthday of Rev. Andrew Young, my late brother Tom’s old boss in the Civil Rights movement. It was on that trip that I realized how much I was “missing” Mary Riche.
When I was coming through southeast Iowa on my way back home, I called and asked what she was doing later that afternoon, and could I stop and say hello? She consented. First I dropped by Jaarsma Bakery in Pella, picked up some Dutch letters, drove to Mary’s home, sat on the patio with her, and tried not to act too sappy.
April was wonderful. It wasn’t just the flowers that were blooming around here.
And then I suggested the “Mary Mae Riche Roots Tour,” back to the farm, to Stanley and to Aurora, as I mentioned at the top of this column.
On the “Roots Tour,” we had lunch with Mary’s Oelwein High School classmates Richard Roepke, Margaret Damge, Peggy Sherrets, and that’s Mary on the right.
It was probably the most important Iowa road trip of my life.
I came away from that day convinced that Mary Riche is one of the most interesting and capable persons I’ve ever known. Since then I’ve been bugging her that she should write her own life story. Or let me do it.
She has seen so much, done so much. She has ridden and helped direct the wave of huge change that’s happened in the lives of women the last half century.
She also has been among the quickest to answer the call when some individual or group needs help. She can connect hurting people with essential resources from coast to coast, and sometimes beyond. She has mentored so many people – some younger and some older than she is – that a count would be difficult.
The two of us shown here among those singing in the Summer Choir at our Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Des Moines. (Photo by Pam Kenyon)
Now, confession time, here’s something that’s as embarrassing to admit as it is true: I had focused for nearly our entire friendship on who Mary Riche is, what she’s done, what she stands for, her intellect, her sharp instincts, her advice and counsel.
Then, almost suddenly, it was like I woke up and realized, OMG! Mary is also breathtakingly beautiful, so stylish, sensitive, and oh so nice!
That’s when I began making my best arguments about why she should turn her perfectly happy single life upside down and marry me.
Eventually I felt confident enough to get down on one knee and ask.
She said yes.
I took her on a short-form of my own roots tour, to my ol’ hometown of Shenandoah in southwest Iowa, for a family reunion of more than 60 Offenburger kin, the last weekend in July. The family’s consensus: They already like Mary more than they like me.
Full disclosure: We entered the reunion’s talent contest, performing as “Not the Everly Brothers” and singing a version of “Devoted to You” that we re-wrote to tell the history of the Everly boys making it big after growing up in Shen. We got second place. We also decided that in the future, if we perform as a country music duo, our stage names will be the pet names we have for each other at home, “Darlin’” (that’s me) and “Puddin’” (Mary).
When it’s coffee time at home. (Photo by Pam Kenyon)
So, love’s just been grand.
“I’m the luckiest son-of-a-bitch in Iowa,” I told her the other night, holding her in my arms.
“I’m a lucky son-of-a-bitch myself,” she said. “Can a woman say that?”
Over this summer, I sold my acreage outside little Cooper in Greene County. Mary and I rented a brand new apartment a block-and-a-half south of the bell tower in beautiful uptown Jefferson, the county seat town. We are, of course, keeping her cozy home in the historic Owl’s Head neighborhood just beyond Terrace Hill in Des Moines.
And we are beginning our new life as a two-county, two-home couple – committed to Greene County, committed to Des Moines, even more committed to Iowa, and most of all committed to each other.
I’m liking this life a lot, even at 75 years old.
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