Letters from the past help clarify future

David Ostendorf

The office phone rang Monday and a familiar name from long ago scrolled across the caller-ID display: David Ostendorf.

It can’t be the same guy, I thought. But it really was the pastor, activist and community organizer who led PrairieFire Rural Action during the Farm Crisis in the 1980s. PrairieFire was founded in 1985 in Des Moines, Iowa, to advocate for farm families who often had nowhere else to turn. Its aim was to keep families on their farms by keeping rural communities informed about current issues and educating them about their legal and political rights. The organization was dissolved in 1999 and merged with the Iowa Farmers Union Education Foundation.

Ostendorf, who today is a pastor at First Congregational Church in River Falls, Wisconsin, became close friends with my parents, Tom and JoAnn, during some of the darkest days of the Farm Crisis. I think the last time I saw or spoke to him was probably at one of the weddings of one of my brothers, which Ostendorf officiated, nearly 30 years ago. He had found me by finding this blog – a good reason for keeping it even though it’s been neglected the past few years.

He called to catch up, find out how to contact Mom and to share a treasure: All of the letters written to him long ago — single spaced on an electric typewriter — by Mom. I can’t wait to read them.

For years, I’ve talked and dreamed of writing a book about my family’s Farm Crisis experiences. I’ve told some of the stories on this blog and shared stories with friends, but have always been scared by the idea of writing a book. My excuse for not doing it has always been that I don’t have enough time.

By the end of this month, however, I will finish the MBA degree that I have spent the past two years working to obtain. And I have vowed that I will use the time I have carved out in the past two years  (early mornings and weekends) to study and finish homework to start writing that book. Awhile back, Mom sent me two boxes of paperwork and photos to help get me started. I’ve done some other research as well.

Yesterday’s phone call and the existence of those letters are clear signs that I have to write this book. Even if I don’t know yet how to do it.

Recently, I found out I would not get something I thought I really wanted. Getting it would have probably delayed even further my getting started on this book. And even I’m not so thickheaded to not get the message. It’s time to get started.

My parents, Tom and JoAnn Steinbach, on what was then our family’s farm in Lucas County, Iowa. The photo was taken in the fall of 1984 by Karen Engstrom of the Chicago Tribune. My parents left the farm late in 1986.

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