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“HerStories of the 1960s”
The Pull of The World – The Tug of Home
Esther Mackintosh

ESTHER MACKINTOSH
High School Class of 1965

In June 2021, I will become the board chair of Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. I graduated from Morningside in 1969. Attending Morningside was my first step off our family’s dairy farm. It was the second time in my life that I had to overcome a “fear of leaving home” and step out of mental and physical “safe spaces.” As the world pulled my sleeves – I’ve professionally, socially, and politically travelled far —  home has always tugged my arms. As I begin my duties as board chair, I realize that leaving home also requires remembering your way back.

 

 

Fear of Leaving

The impact of the 1960s was a bit more muted in the rural area where I grew up than it was in many other parts of the country. 

It wasn’t that we didn’t get the news. It was more than the events of that remarkable decade seemed to be concentrated in places well beyond the realm of our activity or influence, not reachable across those long stretches of former prairie land. 

Nevertheless, for me, as for so many others, the journey through the decade profoundly influenced my life’s direction. 

But to trace how, I need to step back for a brief moment into the quieter decade that preceded it.

I remember a September day in 1952. It was a Saturday, a welcome reprieve from the kindergarten classes I attended in the Methodist church’s basement in our tiny town two miles away.  I was sitting beside my father on the front steps of our Iowa farmhouse, watching him tie up his work boots, wondering if he would let me tag along behind him as he did chores. And then he suddenly asked me quietly, “Why do you cry every day in school?” 

I was stunned.  It was true; I did cry every day, sitting at that low table with a dozen other children, doing our kindergarten activities under the guidance of the kindly Mrs. Olson.  How did he know that?  Who told him?  I had no answer to his question. “I don’t know,” I said.

Several decades later, I told this story to a friend in Saudi Arabia, who was living and working in Riyadh, as I was, on a two-year contract.  He repeated my father’s question. “Why did you cry every day?  Can you remember what you were feeling?”  “I just wanted to be at home,” I said, “where it was safe.” “And yet, here you are,” he said, “on the other side of the world. Do you think you are still trying to prove you can leave?”

 

Growing Up On A Dairy Farm

I grew up on a dairy farm in central Iowa. 

The closest town (Livermore, IA) —the one where I attended the kindergarten that made me so sad—had a grocery store, a gas station, a post office, a tavern, a library, an American Legion hall, four churches, and barely 600 residents (including those who lived on the nearby farms), who distributed themselves in roughly equal numbers as members of those four churches. (Today, Livermore’s population is around 400.)

At the center of the community was the school, which included all twelve grades until the late-50’s, when the shrinking population of the area prompted a consolidation that relocated the high school to a similar small town five miles away. 

I was the fourth of five children, neatly divided into two pairs of girls, with the lone boy squarely in the middle.  For years, family and friends called us “The Big Girls” and “The Little Girls.” My father milked 30 cows twice a day, and our parents expected all of us, as we reached the appropriate age, to help with one or the other of those “milkings.”

Because there was an 18-year span from the oldest to the youngest, each of us “graduated” into the next level of responsibility when an older sibling left home.

 

A Television-Free Home

Ours was a television-free home. We all participated in school activities—sports, band, chorus, student government, school plays—and my parents asserted that these, along with homework and chores, left no time for television.

No one ever hinted—and it never occurred to me—that television was a luxury that at that time we couldn’t afford. Strangely, I don’t remember that we argued against the decision.  Nor do I remember feeling deprived, except for a brief period in grade school when my friends recounted every day at school what had happened the day before on “The Mickey Mouse Club.”

Reading, however, was central. 

A built-in bookcase filled one entire wall of our living room, my parents read during every spare moment, and throughout my childhood, I carried a book with me at all times, often forgetting what else I was supposed to be doing.

Reading was my gateway to the world beyond our own.

 

Rumblings Of Change

By the time I entered high school in 1961, there were rumblings of change globally, though muffled. 

The Cuban missile crisis so shook us during my sophomore year that I found my friend Mary sobbing in the girls’ bathroom, terrified that we were all going to die.

The violence of the attacks on African-American civil rights marchers in Mississippi and Alabama was almost unimaginable to us, cocooned as we were in our unremittingly white communities.

We were also starting to have discussions about a war on the other side of the world.

But in reality, so many significant events seemed to be happening “on the other side of the world.” They did not yet touch us where we lived. 

 

President John F. Kennedy Shot

That began to change on the November day in my junior year that our history teacher Mr. Brock briefly left the room during U.S. history class and returned ashen-faced to announce that the president had just been shot.

The president of the whole country had been “cut down,” and with that, I knew our orderly world became irreversibly disrupted.

Two days later, as we left church services, my former second-grade teacher Miss Wyman, who lived in a small house just across from the church, came running out into the street screaming, “They just shot Lee Harvey Oswald!”

 

A High-School Trip To Big Cities

The following Spring, I joined a group of earnest Methodist high-schoolers from our region on a 10-day church-sponsored bus trip to Washington, DC, and New York City. 

At that point, I could count on one hand the number of times I had been outside the Iowa borders, once to visit a dying uncle in South Dakota, another to join my mother in taking my brother to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, for treatment of an ear problem.

Here I was in Washington.

I was standing in awe on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, reliving the powerful speech Martin Luther King, Jr. had given on that spot the previous summer.

I was listening to a concert in the National Gallery of Art.

I was meeting an Iowa congressman (who took the opportunity of a visit from wide-eyed Iowa teenagers to rail against the liberal policies and arm-twisting tactics of President Lyndon Johnson), standing in the visitors’ gallery of the Capitol itself. 

In New York, we visited the United Nations and wandered streets packed with more people than I had ever seen in one place.

The long miles back to Iowa on the bus offered plenty of time for reflection. 

The world was beginning to pull at my sleeve. 

 

My Non-College Parents Promote College

Neither of my parents had been to college, which was their lifelong regret. Perhaps for that reason, they had a unified mission of seeing that their children had a chance they never had.  For them, education was the highest possible value, but how to do this on a small dairy farmer’s income? 

Fortunately, the years between us spread out the financial burden.

Unfortunately, that also meant it was a challenge they faced for most of their working lives.

Our parents instilled in us the understanding that we would play our part, so it was a given that I needed to be a diligent student, able to show the good grades and outside activities that might win me a scholarship.  And that I would be willing to work, both to save money for college and to contribute to college expenses once I got there.

 Jobs weren’t easy to come by in our small town, but I spent several weeks every summer “detassling” corn and pulling weeds out of the neighbors’ bean fields, and one summer, I landed an office job in the creamery where my father sold his milk. 

 

Navigating Financial-Aid Forms

The main financial burden, of course, fell on my parents, not just to come up with what money they could but also to fill out the endless, complicated financial aid forms that we hoped would make up the difference.  I can still see my father at the card table he set up in the living room with papers and farm records spread in front of him, gathering the numbers that would demonstrate our need. 

When my time came, we put together a package that included a scholarship from the state of Iowa, a loan through the college, and a job working in the college dining room. 

My mother, who had the thankless job of trying to wake me up every morning of my life through high school, proclaimed that I would flunk out of college within the first month because I would never be able to get up in time for class. 

Fate took care of that. I landed a job on the breakfast shift in the student union dining room, which meant I rolled out of bed every morning before 6:00 to arrive at the kitchen, bleary-eyed, in time to dish up eggs and toast to equally bleary-eyed students heading off to their 8:00 classes. 

 

Off To College: English Grammar versus Literature

My three older siblings had all attended Morningside College, a small liberal arts institution in Sioux City.

When the recruiters came to our house to encourage me to follow, it was an easy decision, especially when they described the financial aid that would be available.  The college was just three hours away, but I headed off with the same leaden feeling I had had when the big yellow bus took me off to kindergarten. 

I was keenly aware of how small my high school graduating class of 38 had been in comparison to those of many of the other Morningside freshmen, and my anxiety intensified. Why? Because of a conversation I had with one of my fellow students on the way out of our world literature class the first week. “What?” this Cleveland native exclaimed in horror. “You have never read The Odyssey?”

She may have done me the biggest favor she could have.  I immediately realized that despite the reading culture in my home, my English teachers had taught me more about diagramming sentences than they had about the wonders of world literature and that I once again must become a diligent student.

 

From English To Sociology To The Humanities

The people in my hometown who had watched me, and my siblings, grow up had been generous with both support and advice as I prepared to leave for college. When I was vague about my intended major, they strongly urged me to go into education. Why? I would always have the security of a teaching job to fall back on.  Partly in defiance of that, I initially declared myself to be a sociology major.

I had a  rocky beginning in my world literature class. However, I took more and more English courses, along with language courses. By the beginning of my junior year, I was well on my way to a double major in English and German, a minor in history, and a lifelong commitment to the humanities.

 

Learning Outside The Classroom

I discovered how much there was to learn outside the classroom, even in a small and homogeneous college as Morningside. 

The significant advantage of such a small college is the possible interactions between students and faculty. These exchanges were invaluable in helping me make sense of the growing noise of the outside world.

My professors were willing to discuss class assignments and aspirations, fears, challenges, and ethical issues that appeared in the daily news.

I sought and gained a seat in student government, joined several campus clubs, and took part in a non-credit honors seminar that brought together students across majors to discuss big ideas and issues, using assigned readings as reference.

 

Racial Injustice, War & Assassinations

The world’s growing turbulence also led to many late-night discussions in dorm rooms, the student union, and the coffee shop that a group of students set up at the edge of campus for animated conversations about racial justice and the ever more threatening Vietnam War. They joined a somber gathering of stunned students following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The shock of Robert Kennedy’s assassination later that summer contributed to an inchoate fear that the world was collapsing.

My male friends, in particular, experienced growing panic about the draft and the prospect of being forced to take part in a war they vigorously opposed. Some declared their intention to escape to Canada, others shaped plans to apply to graduate school or seminary, and still, others researched requirements for conscientious objector status.  That last group included my friend Dave, who was part of a small group of friends I invited to spend a weekend at our farm during the spring of my senior year. 

 

War: What is Good For?

My parents were lifelong Republicans of the moderate brand that existed then and has seemingly disappeared today.  Dad and I disagreed on most political topics but managed to keep our relationship intact by stepping back from those disagreements when they became too intense. 

But that weekend, Dad entered willingly into deep conversations with Dave about the decision that was causing him so much torment.  Dave impressed Dad as a serious and responsible thinker with a mature moral sensibility.

Some weeks after that visit, Dad observed with sadness, “It’s not right that our government should be putting young men like Dave, with so much to contribute, in such an impossible position.” And with that, he joined me in opposing the Vietnam War. 

 

Graduate School

Despite all the turmoil, I had my own decisions to make as the decade waned and approached the end of my college days.  With my humanities major (and without the teaching certification my hometown supporters had urged me to secure), graduate school seemed to be my best option. 

My academic advisor, Dr. Knepper, helped me craft applications to the University of Minnesota. That was my first choice. However,  he gently suggested that I would find a better match at Kansas State University.  It was a smaller department on its way up, willing to invest in nurturing good students rather than having to weed out the less talented. 

Both departments accepted me, but Kansas State offered me a full-tuition fellowship, so in September, I headed down the road to Manhattan, Kansas. Fortunately, a family who had never met gave me a room. They took me in temporarily on the word of one of my college classmates. 

I was on my way to a Ph.D. in American literature. 

 

The Liberal Arts & Career Changes

I was fortunate that my liberal arts education had given me a strong foundation and an ability to pivot.

While I was busily working my way through the coursework for my Ph.D., the college teaching market became hopelessly flooded, so that even before I began writing my dissertation, I realized I’d better find another career path.

Publishing seemed like a good option, so I moved to Boston (lured by the graduate school colleague who was a Boston native and became my lifelong partner) and took a low-level job at Horticulture magazine training as an editor. 

I had worked my way up to editor-in-chief of the small staff when I received an opportunity to take a job as a scriptwriter in the audiovisual department of a hospital in Riyadh (Saudi Arabia). My partner had been working in Riyadh for several months. 

Two years later, we moved to Washington DC to work for a start-up science magazine designed for a lay audience. When that magazine folded, I came back to my humanities roots, accepting the Federation of State Humanities Councils’ vice president position.  That organization became my home for 33 years, 15 of which were as president. 

 

The Tug of Home

Every one of my “life changes” terrified me. But my early home life and those years at Morningside during such a pivotal moment in the country’s history had given me the foundation I needed to step into the world.  

In the late 1990s, as a result Morningside’s  planning for its 100th anniversary, I got an invitation to return to the campus to give a convocation address.  I talked about the power of the humanities and the value of the stories that connect us and sometimes transform us as human beings.

Soon after that, the president asked me to join the board of directors, where I served two consecutive terms and have recently returned for a third.  I will become the board chair in June 2021. 

For me, I had discovered that learning how to leave home meant remembering the way back.

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