Chuck Offenburger is Bell Tower of Fame honoree
By Carole Custer
EDITOR’S NOTE: The annual Bell Tower Festival was held June 9-11 in Jefferson. This year’s celebration honored the 150th birthday of Jefferson.
Chuck Offenburger of rural Cooper has probably interviewed more Iowans from more far-flung corners of the state than anyone else in Iowa’s history.
That alone could have earned him the 2022 Tower of Fame Award.
But as they say, there’s more. Much more.
The Bell Tower of Fame Award honors those who have lived in Greene County and through their personal or professional accomplishments bring great pride to the county. Chuck’s friends, acquaintances, and co-workers over his long career as an Iowa journalist/booster all agree: he’s a dynamic spark plug for whatever project he takes on, and those projects are the better for his involvement and leadership.
A proud native of Shenandoah, Iowa, Chuck started his journalism career in the newspaper offices of the Shenandoah Sentinel, writing sports in the footsteps of an older brother while still an early teen. He continued to write for the student newspaper at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, where his writing helped resurrect the university’s baseball program. (He is proud of his stint as a third-string catcher with the Commodores.)
After an interval with the Quad-City Times in Davenport, Iowa, following college, he joined the staff of the Des Moines Register in 1972, where he wrote (and wrote and wrote) until 1998.
Rox Laird, a colleague in the Register’s newsroom, calls him “an indefatigable reporter and columnist who spent most of his time outside of the office.” He says Chuck probably put more miles on his cars/bikes in search of his Iowa Boy columns than any other Iowa columnist, or reporter for that matter.
And he didn’t confine his travels to Iowa. Among his many ventures beyond the state was his assignment to the Middle East for the Register to interview Iowans fighting in the first Iraq War in the early 1990s. He also traveled to South Africa with Iowa-born opera singer Simon Estes to report on Estes’ performances and philanthropic work there.
When Chuck was in the office, Laird recalls, he was on the phone lining up an interview, or such, before he swung his traveling bag packed with reporter’s notebooks (and later a laptop) over his shoulder and headed for the road. He knew the state at ground-zero level, Laird says.
“Chuck was a priceless ambassador for the Register, and for Iowa, reflected in his small-town Shenandoah roots and his clear affection for this state,” Laird affirms.
Randy Evans, Chuck’s boss at the Register for a number of years, agrees. Some people would have been content to quietly wear saddle shoes. But he recalls that Chuck arranged with a shoe company out east to restart production of saddle shoes and make a special order for him and the dozens of his readers who decided they wanted saddle shoes, too.
Evans notes that Chuck “introduced us to fellow Iowans we came to know and adore,” among them Sam the Barber of Audubon, Ralph of Laurens, and Chuck’s friend and spiritual mentor Father Jim O’Connor of New Melleray Trappist Abbey near Dubuque.
Chuck takes pride in helping beginning journalists advance in the trade. When the Register had an opening for a reporter in 1974, Chuck put in a good word for a young journalist from the staff of the Quad-City Times: Jefferson native David Yepsen. The two were then serving together with the Army National Guard at Camp Dodge.
The Register agreed, and hired Yepsen, who went on to a long career with the paper, his last segment as its senior political reporter.
Yepsen is sold on Offenburger: “His good humored energy is contagious. He gets others involved, keeps a positive attitude and supports positive vibes.”
In addition to his newspaper writing, Chuck has authored several books, including a biography of Iowa State basketball standout Gary Thompson, works about the state’s high school athletic associations, compilations of many of his columns into book form, and other pennings.
A big chunk of that energy goes into Chuck’s dedication to bicycling. For 16 years he served at the Register with John Karras as co-chairs of RAGBRAI which always draws thousands of bike riders from across the country and many other countries. The Offenburgers co-chaired the 2008 RAGBRAI overnight stop in Jefferson. For years, Chuck was a vital member of the Raccoon River Valley Trail Association. A large portion of the trail travels through Greene County, beginning in Jefferson.
But RABGRAI wasn’t a big enough stage. In 1995 Chuck and his late beloved wife Carla hosted a transnational bike ride as the first event to celebrate Iowa’s sesquicentennial, guiding 308 riders over a 5,048-mile, 100-day route from Long Beach, CA, to Washington, DC. In 2015 the two organized a “reunion” ride, that one “only” from Iowa City to Washington, DC.
After their move to rural Cooper, Chuck and Carla dived into the promotion of the Raccoon River Valley Trail, which lies a scant half-mile east of the Offenburger home.
When he left the Register, Chuck taught journalism, first at Loras College in Dubuque and then at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, where he served as adviser to the student newspaper. Carla also taught in the Buena Vista English department.
The Offenburgers moved from Storm Lake to their acreage a mile south of Cooper in 2004, where they remodeled the vintage farmhouse. The Offenburgers helped put on an adult prom in Cooper to raise funds for the local school gym while Chuck was instrumental in developing a colorful mural on the weigh station exterior in Cooper. Most recently, Offenburger has led the charge for Nueva Vida, a project encouraging Latinos to move to Greene County. Offenburger also headed the “I’m With Alice Campaign” in early 2022, an inititaive to raise funds in honor of the late Alice Walters’ $2 million estate, with proceeds going directly to the Greene County Community Foundation. The campaign secured $56,105 in pledges in a month’s worth of time.
Chuck continues to commit journalism. He publishes “offenburger.com,” the oldest Internet publication in the state, which has thousands of devoted readers.
His son Andrew, who teaches history at Miami University in Ohio, says Chuck has never really retired: “that’s because, paycheck or no paycheck, he can’t turn off his curiosity for stories.”
Offenburger will receive his award at opening ceremonies of the Bell Tower Festival, Friday, June 10, 6 p.m. on the tower plaza and a public reception for him will be held in the Greene County courthouse following the ceremonies.