Donald Kaul’s latest column is also his last — either forever or until he changes his mind.
I’d like to assure his fans that yes, he’s come back from retirement before. But this time, it’s different.
As Don explains with his trademark humor, he’s recovering from a heart attack. It occurred on the Fourth of July, of course. Given the heart-breaking state of American politics, what else could his heart do on Independence Day?
It’s been an honor, a privilege, and a delight to serve as his editor for nearly three years. Along with his dark wit, storytelling prowess, and original angles, I’ve treasured the stream of friendly letters to the editor and those creepy rants calling him a communist.
“He has a lock on his readers,” explained Chuck Offenburger, a popular Iowa journalist. “Even the people who disagree with him.”
Don’s versatility is stunning. After half a century of penning columns, he writes with equal ease about football, economics, racism, and military spending. He’s at his best when he gets personal, whether it’s sharing the irony of being a non-believer born on Christmas, explaining why he cut meat out of his diet, or assessing the state of American newspapers.
Since Kaul has confessed to occasional deviations from veganism, sometimes declaring “hotdogs a vegetable for the day,” I asked him what he ate before his near-death experience.
“I ate a goddamn hot dog on July Fourth,” he said. “Believe me, it will be the last I ever eat. Life is full of little ironies, some of which kill you.”
Kaul grew up in Detroit but spent most of his career writing for the Des Moines Register, initially based in Iowa’s biggest city. He attacked some local targets in jest. For example, he feigned outrage over a yearly girls’ basketball tournament — and called for its abolition. Those columns fueled support for the games, which took place on half a court. The Register moved Don to Washington in 1972, where he spent more than three decades. It’s hard not to like Don. But Jim Gannon, then the paper’s top editor, loathed him. He fired Kaul in 1983.
Don shifted to the Cedar Rapids Gazette, another Iowa paper, where he became nationally syndicated. That’s where he was working in 1987 when he nearly won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary, losing to Charles Krauthammer. “He picked that year to write the only funny column he ever wrote,” Don said. “It was how liberals and radicals pronounced Nicaragua — ‘neee-kah-ra-guah.’”
In 1988, after Gannon left the Register, the new editor hired him back. In 1999, the Pulitzer judges gave Kaul another finalist nod. Maureen Dowd won the prize that time.
Don retired from the Register in 2000. Blaming the election of President George W. Bush, he started writing a column again a year later. This time, OtherWords — a non-profit editorial service then known as “Minuteman Media” — distributed his commentaries.
He never missed deadlines. He even filed his penultimate column, the one about New York City’s pending ban on supersized sugary drinks, two days early and less than four days after his jaunt to the emergency room.
With all that ink running in his veins, no stupid heart attack could interfere with a deadline.
Fittingly, the Register‘s weeklong Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa — RAGBRAI — is underway now. The ride, billed as “the oldest, longest, and largest bicycle touring event in the world,” began with one of Don’s columns in 1973. He launched it that year with another Register journalist, John Karras. It’s perhaps his greatest legacy.
His friend Offenburger became a RAGBRAI leader when Don started having back trouble. When the former author of the Iowa Boy column later had his own health challenges, he found that sticking with his writing during cancer treatment to be a “lifeline.”
Here’s Offenburger’s advice for Kaul: “He should keep doing it until he drops dead. He should rest up, get ready, and get back to work.”