When the news started to spread like wildfire out of northern Iowa Monday morning, KSIB sports director Damon Helgevold and I both had the same sinking feeling.
Uh, oh. We’ve been down this road before.
We knew the good folks who reside in Forest City were going to be smack in the national public eye for awhile, for all the wrong reasons. It was disheartening on so many levels. It reminded us of the KKK photo situation in Creston last fall, and the controversial Native American basketball poster produced in Osceola last year.
So, we knew what was next. A series of apologies and explanations, and sanctions that would affect lives due to someone not thinking before speaking or acting.
For those not familiar yet with the situation that evolved from a Facebook post of a Forest City-based broadcast of a basketball game against Eagle Grove, here’s some background. Then I’ll try to sort through it with the background Damon and I have in both communities. We both have people we care about up there, and the whole thing was so unfortunate.
Eagle Grove was playing at Forest City on Nov. 28. KIOW Radio of Forest City was there to cover the games as well as broadcasting on The Cube, an internet live-streaming website for local high school sports. While the radio broadcast went to commercial break as the boys teams were warming up, the broadcasters were still on “hot mics” that picked up their remarks on The Cube online broadcast.
Their remarks left them without jobs at KIOW by the end of Monday. Orrin Harris, in his late 70s and self-described as one year from retirement, had been the voice of Forest City sports for more than 40 years. A long and revered career came to a crashing halt.
His partner on the broadcast, and this is the truly disappointing part, was third-grade teacher Holly Jane Kusserow-Smidt, who also served as producer of the broadcast. Their conversation makes it troubling that she’s been influencing young minds in the classroom, but I won’t jump to a conclusion that she spoke like this to children.
Harris was reading the Eagle Grove roster. Now, for background, there is industry in Eagle Grove, much like Osceola and Lenox, that happened to bring a larger Hispanic population to town than earlier years. Prestage Foods of Iowa is building a $250 million park processing plant south of town that will have 1,000 employees. Jess Tolliver, superintendent of Eagle Grove schools, said 25 percent of the district is made up of students of Hispanic heritage, and it’s growing.
“They have a lot of Espanol people in Eagle Grove,” Harris remarked.
“Gee, I wonder why that is,” answered Kusserow-Smidt.
Yet, three of the ball players they referenced, by name, in the online video that went viral are not new to the Eagle Grove district.
The two broadcasters continued their conversation that had a racist tone, including this exchange.
Harris: “Nikolas Padilla, something like that.”
Harris: “It sounds like he’s not a foreigner, with that first name. Could be though.”
Harris: “They’re all foreigners.”
Kusserow-Smidt: “Exactly, all foreigners.”
Harris: “As Trump would say, go back where they came from.”
Kusserow-Smidt: “Well, some would say that, yeah. Some days I feel like that too.”
After all of this went public, Karl Woodridge, station manager at KIOW, issued a statement apologizing for the remarks, stating that they are in no way condoned or supported by KIOW. He said a letter of apology was sent to Eagle Grove school officials and to the mayor of Eagle Grove. Both employees were fired from their positions with the station, and Kusserow-Smidt was placed on administrative leave by the Forest City school district.
The only benefit from hearing somebody mock Latino names on a broadcast is that it reminds us what is being said privately in many places, including Iowa communities. We’re naive if we think we have evolved from racial insensitivity.
North Iowa ties
I spent the first four years of elementary school in the Eagle Grove school district at Vincent Elementary, before our family moved to Fort Dodge, where I got a quick indoctrination into racial diversity compared to rural Webster County in the 1960s. My sister Alice graduated from Eagle Grove High School in 1964.
I covered events in Forest City, just like that basketball game, as assistant sports editor of the Mason City Globe-Gazette in 1989-90.
Helgevold, whose father graduated from Eagle Grove High School in 1989, majored in communications at Waldorf College in Forest City, graduating earlier this year.
“We did some work together for Waldorf football games, which were simulcast from the college station to KIOW,” Helgevold said. “I was very surprised to hear (Harris) said that. Just knowing the people up there and having the relationships that I did, it caught me off guard.”
Helgevold reached out to friends still living in Forest City Monday, and found out that like Creston back in September, the community as a whole was receiving backlash in some national commentaries. That’s the part that’s a little unjust. A lot of good folks are being lumped into the same type of generalization that got Harris and Kusserow-Smidt in hot water in the first place.
I’m not going to say there is no racism in Forest City or Creston. It’s more pervasive than we care to admit. But you can’t paint a broad brush over an entire community over the actions of one or two people.
Melting pot nation
What baffles me when I see and hear these things is how much we have lost sight on how this country was built! It’s the backbone of who we are as a melting pot nation. It’s written on the Statue of Liberty, for Heaven’s sake! People have come here to build a better life for generations (I understand illegal immigration is a matter of concern, but there has been no evidence that issue pertains to the Eagle Grove basketball roster.)
Without getting too political here, the tone of the nation has certainly not helped in recent months. Especially when we see remarks about a white supremacists rally and protestors that, “There were good folks on both sides.” It’s almost like there is validation all of a sudden for prejudicial behavior.
I was pleased that Harris gave a public statement later Monday on KIMT in Mason City. He apologized and said he regretted the comments. He certainly did not plan to end his long career in that manner. He said he let down his employer and his community.
As we found out in Creston, time heals and folks gather their senses and don’t hold generalized ill will toward an entire community. We’re back on our feet here and probably better in the long run, because there was so much education involved, especially in the schools.
Diversity is a positive for any community, Helgevold said. He learned that growing up in Osceola.
“It doesn’t do anything but add to a town and make it better,” Helgevold said. “It gives you more options of students, more depth in your programs, and adds to the economy. When I went up to Waldorf, especially on the football team, there were people from all different places. You learn from each other’s backgrounds.”
In many respects, that’s why Southwestern Community College is such an asset to Creston. We learn to live among kids from rural Union County, Canada, inner-city Chicago and Australia. We discover we’re more alike than the presumptions we may have held.
I feel badly for what has happened to the careers of Harris and Kusserow-Smidt, but they sealed their fate by their own actions. The Eagle Grove kids deserved better.
Especially student-athlete Nikolas Padilla, who late Monday made this statement on Twitter. It was the classiest, most mature comment I read all day long.
“Thank you everyone for your sympathy. I am proud to be Hispanic and of my background culture. I don’t want Mr. Harris to be known for his devastating remarks. He made a terrible decision. I accept his apology and want him to move on with his life as I will with mine. #EGstrong
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