By MARY RICHE
Yes, that Joy Corning. Former lieutenant governor of Iowa, state senator, Cedar Falls school board member, Iowa Women’s Hall of Famer, named on the Women of Achievement Bridge in Des Moines, and with countless scholarships, awards and other honors named for her.
I’ve been thinking about her a lot since my husband Chuck Offenburger and I attended the most recent Joy Cole Corning Distinguished Leadership Lecture at the University of Northern Iowa, a series she endowed in 2001. The Sept. 19 lecture was especially a jaw-dropper by Jon Meacham, the noted historian and presidential scholar at Vanderbilt University.
Joy and I became close friends and constant companions for nearly two decades before her death in 2017. There was an age difference that was meaningless until the very end of her life. We spent so much time together that we were often asked if we were sisters. That question came more often after she stopped dying her hair, making us both silver-haired, and she started wearing more scarves, like I always have.
Joy Cole Corning, lieutenant governor of Iowa from 1991-1999.
She was the revered moderate Republican feminist. I was the feisty Democrat feminist. (However, I proudly changed parties during the 1980 Republican primary to vote for Tom Stoner and against Chuck Grassley. I’ve been voting against anti-woman Grassley ever since, though this column is not about him.)
As a politician, Joy modeled civility, integrity, and honor – values and character traits that are often missing in too many politicians in today’s politically charged environment at the local, state, and federal levels.
As a friend, she was fun, energetic, and a great storyteller. Sometimes she’d re-tell the same story but I never stopped her – even when she would prompt me to do so.
We lived in the same Des Moines neighborhood, so visits were almost daily, and I was usually her first call when she needed help with a computer problem or tying that accessory scarf. I was intrigued that she kept a handwritten list, in her closet, of what she had worn to which places – a habit that began on the campaign trail and continued when she was lieutenant governor. Once I discovered that list, I would quiz her, for fun, on what she wore to this event or that gala, and she always knew.
I loved to cook; she loved to eat what I cooked, although cheese and crackers with a glass of Kendall Jackson chardonnay was often her favorite meal. I loved to garden; she loved having arrangements of my garden’s most colorful flowers.
We both loved to travel, and she was game for most anything I planned because we both loved new adventures. We shopped often when traveling, and I especially loved picking out jewelry or clothing for her to buy!
Mary Riche and Joy Corning together at Lincoln Center in New York City in 2011.
One of my favorite outings with her was our West Coast roadtrip and the leisurely scenic drive down the Pacific Coast Highway.
She preferred planes and ships.
She really enjoyed seeing the world on cruises. I was happy if our room had an outdoor deck, and the ship had a Canyon Ranch spa with workout facilities and a locker room. I could get up early, have a workout and shower in the ship’s spa while she could get up a bit later and have the bathroom and shower in our room all to herself. That meant we were both ready at the same time to begin the day.
On our final cruise in the Caribbean, we survived a scary and massive norovirus outbreak. Neither of us got that nasty virus, but the 12-day itinerary was cut short by three days. We were met in Miami by CDC officials in their hazmat suits as they carefully screened us before we could set foot on American soil. We both decided that was a memory better forgotten! (Don’t read up on this gastroenteritis infection – it will make you sick.)
She loved her Lake Panorama condo, aka “Lake Panogramma,” a creative moniker coined by her oldest granddaughter. I loved the calming view from her deck. Together, we entertained there, and I never tired of her favorite silly party game that involved wit and toothpicks!
She got me hooked on her favorite board game of “Rummikub.” In fact, that’s how we spent most of our time during that nasty virus outbreak on that final cruise. After Joy’s death, I found an app to play Rummikub on my phone, though I discovered what I missed most was the sound of her fingers tapping on the table, a habit as she pondered most every move.
We both loved concerts by the Des Moines Symphony. Her friendship with Maestro Joseph Giunta began when he was conductor of the Cedar Falls Symphony, and she was a significant financial donor to the symphonies in both cities. (Joe and I both delivered eulogies at her funeral. You can hear both by clicking on this link to YouTube. My eulogy for Joy was the first time, as an adult, I sang a solo in public. The second time was on this Sept. 2, as part of my wedding vows. Both times reminded me of St. Augustine’s saying, “When I’m singing, I’m praying twice.”)
Joy also tolerated my varied and eclectic taste in musical genres. I really like the music of artists Dolly Parton, P!nk, Leonard Cohen and many others. Joy never did become a fan of P!nk, though she always enjoyed Dolly Parton.
Early in the friendship.
Later in the friendship.
Our mutual and passionate support for the mission of Planned Parenthood of North Central States, formerly Planned Parenthood of Iowa, kept us busy as volunteers for this important organization. Today, my commitment to reproductive freedom remains unwavering. Sometimes I “hear” her voice in my ear telling me she’s present and at my side again, even more often since the June 24 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health that marked the end of a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion.
Joy’s election as lieutenant governor in 1990 was the first time in Iowa that candidates for governor and lieutenant governor ran as a team. Incumbent Governor Terry Branstad wisely selected Joy to be his running mate, and they were the winning duo that November.
Joy’s husband Burt Corning died unexpectedly a few weeks later. Joy wrote in her obituary that “marrying Burt Corning in June 1955 was the smartest thing I did in my life.” Sadly, he never got to witness her remarkable success in this office, though he had always been one of her biggest supporters and fans in her earlier terms on the Cedar Falls school board and as an Iowa state senator.
Soon after Burt’s death, she was inaugurated as Iowa’s lieutenant governor and served eight years with Branstad.
They were a strong team, she more moderate, he more conservative. She spoke for herself, led trade missions, and initiated several projects and programs, like the Family Foster Care program, an Adoption Initiative, the Lt. Governor’s Committee on Diversity, a celebration of the 75th anniversary of Women’s Suffrage, the STOP Violence Against Women Coordinating Council, and others.
Her permanent residence changed to the Des Moines condo she and Burt had purchased shortly after the victory on election night.
She transferred her church membership from the Cedar Falls United Church of Christ to Plymouth United Church of Christ in Des Moines where I had been a member since the mid ’80s. In Cedar Falls, she and Burt were the ultimate volunteers who did almost everything. Joy was at the church so often that small children thought she lived there.
We loved Plymouth Church, and she was a “believer” – though she regularly quizzed me about God, prayer, and the Bible. I was never reluctant to have those conversations because I knew she respected my deep faith in God and the power of prayer, even if I stumbled around with my answers. As an alternative, I would point to my personal sacred space – my garden — and invite her to find God there, where the Holy Spirit is a constant presence for me. She preferred to enjoy the patio and garden with a nice glass of chardonnay and have a chat about current affairs.
Similarly, I introduced her to meditation as an alternative spiritual practice. Joy’s skepticism about prayer spilled over to her few experiences with meditation. She made it clear to me that she was not good at either, and I wasn’t surprised because she kept trying to rationalize the process. During my attempt to teach her the relaxation response, she kept opening her eyes, peeking at me to see what I was doing because she was not “getting it.” Those times often erupted into giggling by both of us. Bottom line: I learned not to meditate around her when we traveled.
Together at the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy in 2012.
We were both Iowa born and raised, she in Bridgewater, a small town in southwest Iowa, and me on a family farm between Stanley and Aurora in northeast Iowa. She graduated from Bridgewater High School in 1949 with about 10 classmates. I had fewer than two dozen classmates in Stanley until ninth grade, then our consolidated system put me in Oelwein Community High School where I graduated in 1966 with 167 students.
We both loved our high school alma maters and our years in college. She graduated from Iowa State Teachers College, now the University of Northern Iowa, with a teaching degree in kindergarten and primary education. I graduated from the University of Iowa, with an undergraduate degree in journalism and English in 1970 and with a master’s degree in social work in 1992. We both maintained important, significant friendships with our classmates from elementary, high school and college.
I’m often asked, even five years after her death, what Joy might say about the current polarization in today’s politics, the lack of bi-partisanship at the local, state and federal levels, and about the Republican Party given former President Donald Trump’s influence and almost-total control.
I’m careful and cautious to make certain I don’t project my feelings – my anger about the enormous amounts of money being spent by anonymous sources to cause fear and anxiety in voters; how I cringe at the negative ads even though I know they work, and how upset I get by any attempt to deny voters their rights to vote or access to the polls. So I pivot. I ask the questioner what he or she believes Joy might think.
However, the most often asked question is specific. Do you think Joy would be a Republican today? I also wonder, and I confess that I long for a conversation with her about President Trump, politics in general, and everything else in my life.
I do know who got her vote for President in 2016, though she shared that choice in confidence. I do know that she met with leaders of her party, those in office and other positions of power, to discuss her positions on several issues, and specifically gay marriage and reproductive choice. I also know how many times she was disappointed that those conversations had little impact on changing those leaders’ positions or policies.
We had many long talks in the final weeks of her life, searching for solutions to a myriad of problems, though often focused on politics. So I was primed for the 2022 event in the Joy Cole Corning Distinguished Leadership Lecture Series. Jon Meacham didn’t disappoint! He delivered an address that included some solutions I believe Joy would have cheered.
Meacham was oh-so articulate as he offered a historical context for the fragile state of democracy today. “This is the first time in modern American history that a loser did not leave,” Meacham said, “and that’s the real threat.”
He offered three suggestions for what each and all of us can do to ensure that democracy’s current fragile state is not weakened further.
First, he urged us to “be curious – about how government works, the lessons from history and past elections, and the electoral process.” He urged that “we have to want to understand.”
Next, he encouraged us to communicate with candor and to be “straightforward in our conversations, though we don’t need to be impolite.”
Meacham’s third point – about seeking empathy – gob-smacked my senses! As a retired therapist, I’ve witnessed the effect of empathy on individuals, couples and organizational dynamics. It’s what makes candor more palatable and possible.
“Empathy,” Meacham said, “is what makes democracy work. If we cannot put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, democracy does not work.” To which I say, “Amen, Jon Meacham.”
He ended his lecture with a touching story that featured the best definition of empathy I’ve ever heard.
“If you want to know what’s in someone’s heart, you have to know what breaks it,” Meacham concluded. To which I say, again, “Amen, Jon Meacham.”
I believe Joy would have been on her feet as part of the prolonged standing ovation Meacham received from the full house at UNI’s Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center. As for me, I continue to reflect on his message and wish Joy were here to discuss it.
Joy Corning with daughters (left to right) Ann Lyons, Claudia Peyton Ewald, and Carol Hallquist.
As with previous lectures, Joy’s family gathered for photos and a private dinner with the guest lecturer. Joy’s daughters Ann, Claudia and Carol, their husbands, and several of their adult children were in attendance. I have no doubt that Joy would have been beaming all evening at this beautiful legacy in this circle of Cole Corning descendants. I’m grateful and blessed by my continued place in that family circle.
In Joy’s final days, she kept repeating, “I’m not in pain. I’m not angry or sad. I have no regrets. I’ve lived a good life.” Always the pragmatist, she planned her funeral on a yellow legal pad and wrote her obituary. Ever the humble public servant, she included none of her landmark accomplishments. The words in that obituary focused on what was most important to her – her family.
After her death at age 84, daughters Ann, Claudia and Carol gave me a note I had never seen, handwritten by Joy years earlier, in September 2013, on another piece of yellow legal paper.
“Wonderful daughters,” she wrote to them. “When I die, please include Mary Riche in the process – visitation, funeral, whatever. She has been my confidante and special friend and perhaps the baby sister I always wanted and never had. Mary is an extraordinary person who is loving, kind, and a sincere friend to so many people, but I think she would tell you that we have had a special friendship.”
Yes, dear Joy, we had a special friendship, and I miss you.
You were the older sister I never had.
Joy Corning at sea.
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