When I walked out the door at the Des Moines Register for the final time on Dec. 12, 2014, there was an unfinished piece of work tucked away in a box of assorted stuff I carried.
The folder contained a few dozen newspaper clippings, press releases and notes to myself I had collected.
There was a common thread in all of this: They dealt with events across Iowa to raise money or provide other assistance for people in times of need. I had hoped for several years to travel to a few of these events and then weave all of this raw material into a column for the front of the Sunday Register opinion section that I edited.
But retirement caught up with me.
This idea grew out of many years of seeing the coffee cans next to countless cash registers, where customers could leave donations for a local fundraising effort. The idea also was fueled by the signs taped to the doors and windows of many small-town businesses about some fundraising gathering that was coming.
As a young reporter, I had covered several “good neighbor deeds” when farmer friends pitched in to plant the crops, or bring in the harvest, for a neighbor who was sidelined by sickness or injury, or whose widow was distraught with grief and anxiety after the farmer’s death.
The folder I carried home that Friday evening in 2014 included a clipping about the traditional election day Swiss steak meal that members of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Albia served to raise money for parish activities. There was a note about the annual sweet corn feed at the Izaak Walton League clubhouse in Des Moines. There were details about pancake breakfasts at volunteer fire departments across Iowa. And community potlucks, the ham ball dinners, the spaghetti feeds and the soup suppers being held hither and yon.
The goal with each of these events was to raise money for new gear for local firefighters, or to assist someone struggling with cancer, or to help a local family with an unexpected mountain of bills resulting from some adversity.
These clippings, press releases and notes represented a geographic and gastronomic journey across the fundraising fabric of Iowa that I hoped to take Des Moines Register readers on.
The importance of such a trip was obvious to me a decade ago. These days, it is more important than ever before.
For all of the division we see and hear about in our nation, this discord has not snuffed out the willingness in people to set aside our own challenges and differences and pitch in when we see friends and neighbors — and even strangers — who are struggling and need a helping hand.
That was one of the takeaways from the tornadoes that devastated communities in Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee a few weeks ago.
The pictures of flattened homes, businesses and churches ignited once again the spirit of assistance that is behind the soup suppers and bake sales we see in our own communities when there is a need.
This time, instead of a taking pot of chili or a pan of brownies, we have seen Iowans pack a caravan of cars and trucks with supplies for the storm victims. We have learned of people from Cedar Rapids, a city brought to its knees last year by the derecho, who headed south this month to feed people left weary by the deadly tornadoes.
That was one of the takeaways we saw last week when high winds and tornadoes chewed their way across Iowa. At dawn’s first light, people showed up with their trucks and chainsaws to help with the cleanup.
In each of these instances, there was no expectation of compensation. Instead, it was simply a matter of what has come to be known as “paying it forward.”
My friend, Michael, owns a small business. During 2020, the pandemic forced him to lock the doors. There was no revenue coming in. There was no work to be done. But he continued paying his employees, and they never missed a paycheck.
“They needed the money more than I did” — that was his simple explanation when people learned of his kind deed.
I remember another friend, Dave, telling about one particular Christmas, or maybe it was Thanksgiving, when he was a child. Dave was itching to sit down with his extended family for one of those scrumptious holiday meals that fill a farm house with warmth, good company and wonderful aromas.
But before anyone could share in the bountiful spread, Dave’s dad asked him to help with an important errand that was the first priority. Dave’s father carefully loaded a couple of plates with generous portions of meat, vegetables, salads and dessert. He then covered the plates with foil.
Dave’s questions went unanswered. Instead, he was instructed to hold the plates as the two of them headed out in the family pickup truck for the drive into town to deliver the meal.
There were more questions when Dave realized they were not going to some family friend. Instead, they were headed to a down-on-his-luck man who lived alone.
The lesson Dave took away from the experience has stuck with him for more than 50 years.
The lesson is one we all should remember.
There is always someone who has it worse than we do, and the world is a little kinder if we take time to share what we are blessed with with those who are not as fortunate.
That is always a good lesson — and we don’t have to wait for tornadoes, floods and fires to put that lesson into action. Dave’s dad knew that.
Randy Evans is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and a former opinion page editor at the Des Moines Register. He can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com.