By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
COOPER, Iowa, Jan. 8, 2023 – When your 97-year-old neighbor dies and you find yourself sitting in church at his funeral thinking “I want to be like Stephen Molle when I grow up,” that’s a pretty good measure of his life.
Hundreds of us have been remembering and sharing our stories about him after Stephen’s death from cancer on New Year’s Day. At his visitation Friday night and his memorial service Saturday morning in Jefferson, there was a grand show of support for his wife of 67 years, Betty Molle, their son, two daughters and the extended family.
At a Franklin Township Trustees meeting in 2018.
My own Stephen Molle stories start on Labor Day weekend of 2004. On Sunday evening of that holiday weekend, a tornado came bouncing and roaring across farm fields just to the southwest of our new home outside the unincorporated village of Cooper (pop. 30, maybe). That’s Stephen’s hometown in southern Greene County, about 55 miles west and north of Des Moines.
As we Offenburgers dashed to the basement, the bulging funnel tore through the treetops of our west windbreak, dipped down, then pulled back up through the treetops of our north windbreak. It was no more than 30 yards away from the 104-year-old farmhouse we’d had renovated and, three months earlier, moved into. We thought we were hearing the farmhouse popping and cracking while we cowered in the basement. Minutes later, when I went up the basement steps and peeked out our door, I was relieved to see the interior of the house looked fine.
We awoke the next morning to see and realize: 1) how lucky we were to be alive; 2) our old house was structurally unharmed, although the exterior walls were coated with smelly manure dust blown from a livestock farm somewhere southwest of us, and 3) our trees and yard were a shambles.
We were standing, almost in a daze, looking at the mess in front of us, when a pick-up pulled into our driveway, a wiry fellow got out, picked his way around tree trunks and big branches, and walked up with a big smile.
“You folks took quite a hit,” he said. “Are you O.K.? I’m Stephen Molle, one of your neighbors. Do you need some help?”
On his beloved tractor in 2007.
We told him that we were uninjured, had a couple relatives coming from Des Moines to help us, but there was obviously much to be done.
“I was just over northeast of Cooper, where a couple places got hit, but there are a lot of people there helping,” Molle said. “I thought you new folks might need some help, too.”
I wanted to hug him, but I just thanked him, said yes to him helping, and started apologizing that I had very few tools.
“Got a chain saw?” he asked. No, I said.
“Doesn’t matter – I’ve got two in my pick-up,” he said. “You folks do whatever you need to do, and I’ll go ahead and get started out here.”
Stephen Molle worked the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon at our place. He made those chainsaws work like precision instruments. In the afternoon, he drove his pick-up home, came back on a tractor with a scoop and hauled trunks and limbs to a brush pile out back.
He worked with such energy, and yet almost effortlessly, that I finally asked how old he was. “I’ll be 80 my next birthday,” he said.
I was astonished!
Over the next 18 years, I witnessed and learned that there are all kinds of similar Stephen Molle stories around Cooper, Jefferson, Greene County and beyond.
He grew up on the same farm where he lived three miles south of Cooper, and from early boyhood was involved in the farming. His first 20 years out in those fields with his father, the Molles used teams of horses and mules. Stephen was one of two boys in the 10-member graduating class in 1944 at Franklin Township High School in Cooper.
Graduating with the Class of 1944.
He was drafted into the Army in 1950, served two years during the Korean War, then returned to the farm, met his wife-to-be, soon married and started their family, grew the farm, and became two of the best dancers in the territory.
Before long, Stephen was the adult leader of the Franklin Township Eager Beavers 4H Club, commander of the American Legion Color Guard at the post in nearby Jamaica, a member of that town’s comical “Jamaica Corn Kings” band packed into a jalopy convertible for area parades, a seemingly lifetime member of the board of the Cooper United Methodist Church, and an enthusiastic participant in both the great Cooper Centennial of 1981 and the Cooper Quasquicentennial in 2006.
Saluting as he commanded the Color Guard at the 2019 Memorial Day service.
With old soldier and pal, Harold “Bud” Pittman, in 2014.
In that last Cooper celebration, he led the effort in digging up a time capsule that had been buried on the old school grounds during the centennial. A hitch developed when we couldn’t find the time capsule. Molle brought another tractor to town, this one with an end-loader. He dug and dug and dug, eventually had a nice trench about 10 feet long and 6 feet deep. But no time capsule when we all went home and went to bed. The next morning, on celebration day, he was the first person back to the scene, using a long steel probe to finally locate the time capsule. “I was just sure I knew about where it was,” he said. “When I came back in the morning and tried again with the probe, I found it right away. We’d just missed it by 3 or 4 feet last night.”
Among his most notable accomplishments, he surely set a long-tenure record as an elected member of the Franklin Township Trustees.
Township government is the bottom rung of the government ladder in rural America. If you’ve got good trustees, it can be perhaps the best form of government, too. Stephen was as good as trustees come. He knew everybody in the 36-square miles of the township. He knew the roads, watersheds, drainage system, fence lines, and quirks of all residents and most of the absent landowners, too.
He served about 45 years in two long hitches. In early 2020, when he was 94, I pronounced him the oldest elected official in the state of Iowa, and no one argued. Would he run again? “I’ll run again if no one else wants the job,” he told me, “but the truth is I’m probably getting a little long-in-tooth for this.”
Stephen and Betty Molle with Cooper’s most famous native son Terry Rich, now of the Des Moines area, when Terry spoke at the 2016 Greene County Farm Bureau annual meeting.
What I probably respected most about Stephen Molle is that he was so clearly an avid, lifelong learner. He made his farms among the best in the area, transitioning up into all the modern equipment, studying the expanding fields of agronomy and technology, becoming very environmentally conscious. He and Betty were among the most faithful members in attending programs of the Greene County Historical Society, and Stephen always had follow-up questions of the program presenters.
When service ended on the railroad line that divided the Molle farm ground, and then when the nationally-known Raccoon River Valley Trail was developed there, Stephen embraced it. As it passed the Molle homes, the trail is wonderfully shaded by a thick canopy of trees. When he’d be out gardening or during yard work, and notice a trail user stopped in the shade for a drink of water, Stephen would often walk over for a conversation.
For about 30 years now, the Molle land has been farmed by Dave Haupert, who lives just north of Cooper, sometimes with help from his brothers Steve and Gary.
“I learned so much from Stephen Molle,” Dave said Saturday after the burial at Franklin Township Cemetery. He and Steve were among the pall bearers. Gary was the soloist at Stephen’s funeral.
“Over the years, when I’d make a mistake, or two or three dozen of them, Stephen always reacted the same way,” Dave said. “He’d always say, ‘Don’t lose too much sleep over it – it’ll be what it will be.’ ”
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