Making it right on Father’s Day this year: Herman Offenburger deserved more from me.

By CHUCK OFFENBURGER

DES MOINES, Iowa, June 16, 2024 – As this Father’s Day weekend approached, I had an awful thought – I don’t think I ever gave my dad his due. 

That’s a haunting realization when you’re almost 77 years old.

A big part of that feeling for me is that Herman Francis Offenburger had a heart attack while shoveling snow and died on Christmas Eve in 1961 in our hometown of Shenandoah in southwest Iowa.  He was only 59 years old.  And I was only 14.  We never got to have an adult conversation.

Another part of that feeling is that my mother Anna Sims Offenburger, following the death of her life partner of 32 years, immediately and bravely stepped up to become like both Mom and Dad for all seven of us, their kids.  Especially so for the two youngest – me and my then-10-year-old sister Christine.

Anna and Herman Offenburger at the time of their wedding in 1929.

We Offenburgers in the early 1950s. Left to right in back, Beverly, Dan, Sue, Bill, mother Anna, Tom, father Herman. In front, little Chris and her slightly older brother who is about to be called out for sneaking a dart gun into a family photo.

You who’ve been reading me for years know that I’ve written about how, months earlier, Mom essentially ordered the 13-year-old me to start my writing career as a sportswriter for the Evening Sentinel in Shenandoah, then a five-day daily.  Managing editor Robert K. Tindall had called her and asked “Anna, don’t you have another boy about ready to go for us?”  He was referring to my older brothers Tom and Dan, who’d also served as sportswriters for the newspaper, but they were in their junior and senior years of high school when they did so.  At the age of 13, and feeling that writing was about the most uncool thing I could possibly do, I resisted.  She made me do it.

You also know I’ve been forever grateful to Mom for that.  She started me on a career of 64 years that’s let me see much of the world and meet a lot fascinating people.  I thanked her profusely in person and in print, and have continued to do so long after her death on Valentine’s Day in 1996 at the age of 89.

Part of it was showing me how her job, and her duty, were lifelines for her.  For me, it was writing.  My lesson about that began, maybe too early, when Dad died and I still had stories to do.  It has continued for all the decades since then.  If you’re going to be a pro, you write in good times, in bad times, all the time.

Recently, I decided to empty a storage unit where for years I’d stored lots of stuff that needed to be tossed, including most of my clippings, which were so poorly organized they would be almost useless to anybody in the future.  Besides, nearly all of them are available online now, one place or another.  But I did rediscover a few things so precious – probably only to me – that no way would I get rid of them. 

Most important of all – the clipboard that Herman Offenburger made by hand for me in the summer of 1961, when I was starting what became my career.  He cut it from a larger sheet of Masonite, rounded the corners, attached the clip and made sure it would be large enough to hold the score sheets I’d be using in a few weeks covering high school football games. 

And there’s the toy sword which he made for me a few years earlier, when I’d become fascinated with his ceremonial Knights of Columbus sword.  He used the hand tools in his basement workshop to shape the toy sword from mahogany.

In recent days, as I’ve held and studied these old pieces, I’ve been deeply touched. 

They remind me of the love and encouragement Dad gave all of us who were lucky enough to be his children. He didn’t send us to church; he took us.  He taught us all baseball, lawnmowing, woodworking, painting, fishing, hunting.  He gave stern orders – “Up the hill, Bub!” at bedtime – and great hugs.

I hope my older brothers and sisters did a better job of showing their thanks and love for him than I did.

The tarnished silver Knights of Columbus sword, and then little wooden one that Dad made me.

Please indulge me in telling you a bit more about him.

Herman was the grandson of German immigrants.  He was the middle son of William Offenburger and Mary Ohnemus Offenburger, who raised him, along with his brothers Barney and Lawrence, on a small farm on the edge of the unincorporated community of Bauer.  That’s between the slightly larger towns of Lacona and Melcher-Dallas in Marion County, maybe 60 miles southeast of Des Moines.

In the second decade of the 20th century, the Offenburger brothers were altar boys at Bauer’s St. Joseph Catholic Church.  They were kidded the rest of their lives for “almost catching the church on fire.”  During the procession for a special mass, they were carrying lighted candles while also holding poles that supported a fancy cloth canopy above the priest’s head.  Coming up the aisle, they started fumbling the candles and poles, the canopy dropped and caught fire.  Only the quick reactions by a couple parishioners averted disaster.

They did their early school years at the small Catholic school next door to the church, then finished, I think, at nearby Chariton High School.

Barney, Herman and Lawrence started their adult lives farming around Bauer with their parents and neighboring families.  Even after all three brothers moved away, married and had their own families and careers, they maintained loyalty to their little hometown, which was widely-known for its “Bauer Picnics” with fried chicken dinners.

(Those were still being held as late as 1991.  I know that because, by then, I was co-host of RAGBRAI for the Des Moines Register.  That summer, when the big bicycle ride was going to be going through that general area, I successfully lobbied for making Bauer a midday stop. To show their appreciation, the people of Bauer made me a special guest at that summer’s Bauer Picnic, and they presented me not only a key to the city, but also a certificate “good for one burial plot” in the St. Joseph Church cemetery.  My Register column about that honor was headlined, “In little Bauer, they sure know how to get a guy’s attention.”)

Offenburger men about 1950.

Herman Offenburger’s move away was to Shenandoah in the mid-1920s. 

That’s when he answered an ad from the nurseryman Henry Field for someone to open and run a “produce house,” for processing and sales of chickens and eggs, in a complex of retail shops Field was building around and in his headquarters.  Dad operated “Herman’s Produce” there for about a decade.

During that time, Field sent Herman and several crates of his chickens, by train, to a multi-day national conference for poultry dealers that was held at Ohio State University. Ever after, when discussions of college life would surface, Dad would delight in mentioning off-handedly that he “went to Ohio State” in his younger years.

He and Anna Sims met, fell in love and married in 1929.   They started their family right away, with both parents continuing to work.  For a time, Dad cooked and ran the small Eagle Café, then worked for a decade as a custodian at Shenandoah High School. Mom began a 50-year career working as secretary and eventually office manager of the Economy Products Co., which made and sold livestock health products, nutrients and supplies.

Herman never was called for military service. “Too young for World War I, too old and too many kids for World War II,” he always said.   

After World War II, he contracted with the U.S. Post Office to become a “Star Route” mail carrier, meaning he’d haul bags of mail each weekday morning from the Post Office in Shenandoah to the offices in Farragut, Riverton, Sidney and Hamburg.  He’d spend five or six hours in Hamburg, then reverse his route between the Post Offices in the late afternoon.  For several years, he filled his idle hours in Hamburg by opening and running a “Herman’s Produce” there. 

Chris and our dad Herman Offenburger in about 1953.

He finished his last two years of working in Shenandoah, clerking first in a farm implement dealership, then in a farm supply store.  “What your dad brought to our business,” the farm supply store owner Mike Lonowski told me later, “was that he knew absolutely everybody in the territory.”

Both my parents were lifelong Democrats.  Dad made one run for public office. 

In the 1960 Iowa legislative races, he was the Democrats’ nominee for the Iowa House of Representatives from Page County, then and now a Republican stronghold.  He said from the start of the campaign that he didn’t have much of a chance.  His opponent was Rep. Vern Lisle, the popular incumbent Speaker of the House, from nearby Clarinda.  He was a man Dad actually liked and admired. 

Lisle won re-election with 6,764 votes to Dad’s 3,151.  But Dad considered it “almost a victory” because he received 76 more votes in Page County than his hero and the Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kennedy did!

President Kennedy was one of my heroes, too.  So was Herman Offenburger.  I just wish I’d had an opportunity to tell them both that.

But when I see these old photos of Dad, I see a lot of me in him.  And for that, I am so grateful.

My favorite photo of our dad: In the 1952 presidential election, Herman Offenburger (Democrat) and his younger friend John D. Field (Republican), who was the editor and publisher of the Hamburg Reporter newspaper, had a bet on the election outcome. The loser had to haul the winner down the main street of Hamburg at high noon in a wheelbarrow. This photo was published in The Evening Sentinel in Shenandoah.

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

3 thoughts on “Making it right on Father’s Day this year: Herman Offenburger deserved more from me.

  1. Beautiful, absolutely beautiful, dear friend. Reminds me that it’s about time for me to administer my exam on that book I sent you. It’s a closed book one by the way.

    Study up my friend.

    • City - Athens
    • State - GA
  2. Enjoyed reading about your Dad and your family. You have lots of good memories. I (Lois) was also only l4 when my dad died but he was only 39.

    • City - Audubon
    • State - Iowa

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