Letter from the Editor

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Brushes with fame

For the past few months, I've been working on a Pilot-Tribune Hall of Fame series. Frankly, it has become an addiction. In the quiet hours between midnight and dawn every day, I slip "Better Days," "Chasing Cars," "Until the Day I Die," or maybe a faithful old Ramones tune into the CD player, and climb into someone's heart and mind for a look around.

The original thought was to create a list of famous people with some tie to the Storm Lake area. After all, if you listen to Wikipedia, the on-line smart-aleck encyclopedia of absolutely everything, there are NO notable people whatsoever from Storm Lake or Buena Vista County. [Insert sound of game show buzzer here] Wrong! And I took it as a challenge to prove it. I just didn't think I'd still be at it months later.

I figured to make a list of a handful - the hero pilot, the big Hollywood actor, the famous artist, a couple of contributors in government, a couple of popular novelists... the names a lot of people around here would think of. But the list keeps growing - as fast as I do one story, two more seem to come around a corner unexpected and step into the hazy light of a streetlamp. I'm closing in on 30 installments now, and as long as I can live on good music, Nature Valley granola bars and no sleep, I could give you dozens more.

It's fun to write about famous people. The rich, the powerful, the stars. But what I like is finding the stories of people you SHOULD know, people who have disappeared in time and anonymity, great stories that are nearly lost forever. My attention span is usually that of a fruit-fly, but the digging has kept this interesting.

There's the hard-luck big league pitcher, the Catholic schoolgirl who became a Hollywood star only to die tragically early, the idealistic Depression artist, the strongarmed international union leader with a soft spot, the outrageously courageous Civil War soldier, the brilliantly quirky professor, the broken-bodied pro wrestler, the tormented guitar genius, and on and on. And before you ask, again, the famous adult film star from Fonda and I agreed to take a pass on that particular story.

After long nights researching and tracking down interviews where possible, I feel like I know them all.

Inevitably, the story grows the day AFTER the story is printed. Someone, somewhere, adds to the discovery and I wonder how I could possibly have missed such an obvious lead. The day after I wrote about the globetrotting journalist and Hallmark cards senior sentiment writer, I learned that his grandfather had built the famous Peterson ice house on Storm Lake, and that the writer's family had donated all the memorabilia to a display I know well in the local historical museum. In searching out stories, I've met a lot of great people around the country, learned a few things, and in a couple of cases, even had the opportunity to bring lost-lost friends or relatives back into touch. Cool beans.

Sometimes I find things I don't share - though many of these people have long since moved away or passed on, I still feel I owe them something. A few of these peope stumbled and fell over their own fame and fortune - in alcoholism, drugs, meaningless sex and broken families. Yet they leaved loved ones, or only a legacy, behind here, and some things don't need to be dredged up unless the person has chosen to address the issues themselves. Their secrets are their own.

Of the dozens of stories I've chased or cued up to research so far, no two people have been alike or come from exactly the same circumstances here, but some general similarities are starting to emerge.

I've given this some thought. All of these people who have emerged from or journeyed to one small rural community in the heartland who have achieved incredible things out in the world, found fame and success in their respective fields - do they share some common attribute, something internal that makes an otherwise regular person somehow bound for glory?

I don't think so. The vast majority - heroes and stars and statesmen alike - have just two things in common. Opportunity and struggle.

By opportunity, I mean that they were once rather ordinary people who were shaped by extraordinary times and happenings. There seems to be a clear, life-changing moment for most, that they could not have expected. The most used word in the series is "tumultuous" - these great people have stepped up in times that demanded someone like them. Wars, unrest, social change, danger, poverty, controversy. It seems as though you can't be great unless you are needed to be.

The struggle has been the thing that has struck me the most. In almost every single story, the person who has found fame has first faced some rather incredible hurdles. You might think life is easy for such people, but that is hardly the case. Our famous model grew up teased for being ugly. Even our acting great Gene Hackman has been homeless, broke, loveless, dismissed and humiliated during his life.

If these kind of memorable people have been lonely and lost, confused and poverty-stricken, overlooked, self-doubting, beaten down at times... maybe none of us are alone when we feel that way. Many, it seems, lost someone they loved early. A lot of them had their hearts broken at some point. More than a few were abandoned by a parent, and more than a few saw marriages and careers crumble along the way. A lot of them were forgotten after their grand achievements; several died unknown, a few penniless.

Perhaps that is a prerequisite of greatness as well, this element of overcoming something. If it comes too easily, it is luck, not greatness. Like anything else, fame must be earned to be appreciated. A great story needs to deliver some element of hope that we can all rise above, if we don't stop trying.

At any rate, it's been a long, unusual project - strange and rewarding - the longest series to my knowledge in Pilot-Tribune history. I can only hope I haven't bored you.

For me, the end result has been a re-definition of fame: it is not so much what you have done, but who you have been.