Priorities worth praising and passing on to others


This photo, from left to right, of my siblings, Scott, Susan, and Doug, and our parents, Tom and JoAnn, was taken in the fall of 1984 by Karen Engstrom for a Chicago Tribune photo page feature on my parents during the Farm Crisis. It was published on November 28, 1984. I’m in none of the photos because Engstrom visited in the fall and I was at football practice.

Character, as the old saying goes, is what you do or say when no one is watching or listening.

My mom has great character. And so did my dad.

I’ve always been proud of them, but am even more so after receiving some letters Mom had written during the worst days of the unsuccessful fight she and Dad waged to save our family’s farm in the 1980s. The package arrived Saturday. It includes a letter dated December, 6, 1984. In the letter, Mom mentions a story and page of photos the Chicago Tribune had published about our family.

Under the headlines, For love of the land; An Iowa farm family fights for its 100-year-old legacy, reporter Barbara Mahaney started her story:

It is 5:32 a.m. Dawn cracks the night, an orange ribbon untying the black wrap. Day unfolds onto the eastern rim of the Chariton, Ia., farm.

Three generations of Steinbachs have watched the early morning glow ascend over the family’s 380-acre farm. But this morning, as every morning for the last four years, the illumination eclipses the hardships sown through these fields, cattle barns and hoghouses.

“Farming. Right now it’s a good way to lose money,” says Scott Steinbach, 17. Despite that, he still hopes to carry the farming legacy into a fourth generation.

“We’re not going to give up without a fight,” says his father, Tom, who has run the farm since his father handed it over 15 years ago.

We’ve made it on our own so far. We’re going right on farming.”

It wasn’t meant to be. My parents left the farm late in 1986 and started their lives over with not much. He was 47. She was 43. He died in 2008 when he was 69. Mom is 77 and retired from a successful career she was able to start after they left the farm. It turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to her.

The Tribune story was one of many written about my parents during the Farm Crisis. They were featured in the New York Times, the Des Moines Register, National Public Radio and the CBS “Sunday Morning” news program hosted then by Charles Kuralt. Getting to meet some of these journalists probably had a bigger influence on me than I realized at the time and may have led to how I spent much of my working life.

Most of this news coverage was the result of Dave Ostendorf, who was then director of PrairieFire Rural Action, a nonprofit organization founded in Des Moines, Iowa, to advocate for farm families who often had nowhere else to turn. He would tell the national news organizations about farmers in Iowa, including my parents. And my mom often wrote to him. He kept everything, which is how I now have a new package of her old letters.

In the letter of December 6, 1984, she writes of receiving letters from Tribune readers after Mahaney’s story was published.

“There has been money in some of the letters,” Mom wrote. “Think I will send it on to Iowa Cares. They want it to go to help hungry people and those poor people are a lot more hungry than any of us. It is a nice feeling, though, to know big city people do care and are concerned.”

Iowa Cares was a program started in 1985 to help feed starving refugees in Ethiopia.

Until now, I never knew people sent money to my parents as a result of the news coverage they received. Nor did I know they gave that money away to help others who were even worse off than us.

This says more about my parents than I could ever write. They endured challenges that seem unbelievable now and I hope to someday tell the whole story. In spite of it all, they knew there were people in the world who were worse off than them. We don’t get to chose our parents, which is a good thing because I couldn’t have chosen anyone better.


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