Retirees ready to relax

Hundreds of UI employees entered the next stage of their lives during the 2009–10 academic year, which is to say they retired from the University. Some will stay busy playing music, others will find plenty to do around the garden, and still others will attempt to replicate the cuisine enjoyed during trips abroad. Five retirees recently told fyi about their plans.

Gayle Blevins, Department of Athletics

Gayle Blevins

Gayle Blevins. Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

Gayle Blevins has led the University of Iowa softball squad for the past 23 years, time that represents a significant portion of more than three decades of coaching and motivating young women on the softball diamond. Victories were aplenty during her time in the Hawkeye dugout, but Blevins knew she was entering a winning situation the minute she was offered the job by former athletics director Christine Grant.

“I must thank Dr. Christine Grant for offering me this wonderful job 23 years ago,” Blevins says. “I already knew Dr. Grant quite well and remember her informing me of the tremendous amount of support Iowa provides for both men and women’s athletics. The support from her, the administrators, the fans, and the community surpassed my wildest expectations.”

Blevins retired earlier this year having compiled an astounding 1,245 victories as a head coach—945 of those with the Hawkeyes. She ranks second all-time in victories among NCAA Division I softball coaches.

Her years at Indiana University (1980–1987) and Iowa (1988–2010) are without a single losing season. At Iowa, she led the Hawkeyes to the Women’s College World Series four times, won five Big Ten regular season championships and two Big Ten tournament titles, and secured 16 NCAA tournament berths.

Her time at Iowa produced numerous memories that she holds dear to her heart, but one stands above the rest: the first Big Ten title Iowa won under Blevins in 1989, her second season with the program. Blevins says it was fun to lead a group that believed they could win a title, even though it hadn’t won a championship before. That season reinforced her belief that coming to Iowa was the right decision.

Was it tough to walk away after years of success?

“I made this decision after the season was over,” Blevins says. “I’ve thought about it for a while now and decided the time was right. I’ve done a lot of reflecting—I think about all the people who shaped my career and all the opportunities I’ve been provided. I’m so thankful.”

Although at peace with her decision to permanently leave the Hawkeye dugout, no longer witnessing pitches thrown, balls caught, and home runs hit will be difficult to handle at first.

“I’m going to miss the day-to-day camaraderie, the day-to-day growth amongst players and colleagues, and game day,” Blevins says. “I will miss a lot of things, but I’m confident the school will work very hard to put a solid head coach in position to lead the Hawkeyes.

“This is a good program.”

by Travis Varner

Ron Hillis, Academic Advising Center

Ron Hillis

Ron Hillis. Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

Ron Hillis has no shortage of stories from his days as a musician. Want to hear something cool? In 1969, he played in the Mother Blues Band, which opened for Led Zeppelin in the Iowa Memorial Union. Based on a newspaper account of the proceedings, the boys in Mother Blues nearly stole the show.

Want a story with some danger? “One night I was playing in a bar in Des Moines and my singer was kidnapped by a berserk fellow who had just robbed the club,” Hillis says.

Hillis, who retired from the University of Iowa last September, continues to play music in the Iowa City area, performing a wide variety of music (“a majority of the tunes I play were written before I was born”) at his numerous solo gigs. Hillis spent a number of years in a jazz duo with Betsy Hickok, and for the past three years he has been playing in Mutiny in the Parlor, a group that performs a lot of old jazz and standard tunes from the 1920s and ’30s.

Hillis also works quite often with Monica Leo and the Eulenspiegel Puppet Theatre as instrumentalist, composer, and performer. “The association with the Eulenspiegel has been perhaps the most creative work I have done,” Hillis says. “I have been able to compose a number of songs. I have been to numerous festivals; two years ago, I had the chance to perform from the Children’s Stage at the New Orleans Jazz Fest.”

Music has been a fixture in Hillis’s life. He was the son of two musicians who also worked as schoolteachers—in 1944, Hillis’s mother was the string teacher at Iowa City High, alongside West Music founder Pearl West, who was teaching woodwind. “She is 88 now and can still play the piano, organ, and violin,” Hillis says. Retirement has allowed Hillis to spend more time with his mother, who lives in Iowa City.

Hillis worked at the University for nearly 25 years. His most recent duties included hiring and supervising the front desk work study crew at the Academic Advising Center. “We advised thousands of students per year, including the majority of first-year students,” Hillis says. “When we were busy the traffic was like that of a fast-food restaurant during the noon hour. It was a test of patience and moderation at times; all the interactions made me a better person.”

Although he’ll miss the variety of characters he dealt with—both in the student population and the advisers and staff he worked with—he is heeding the advice found in the title of a song he performs: “Enjoy Yourself, It’s Later Than You Think.”

“I play bass, guitar, cornet, fiddle, mandolin, harmonica, accordion, and banjo at present, to some degree,” he says. “I will be trying to unravel the puzzles of playing these instruments forever.”

by Christopher Clair

Marilyn Kempnich, Office of Admissions; Herald “Skip” Kempnich, Office of the Registrar

Marilyn and Skip Kempnich

Marilyn and Skip Kempnich. Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

Forty-two years ago, Marilyn Kempnich was told about a job opening in the University of Iowa Office of Admissions. She applied for the high school college relations position, interviewed, and was hired.

Four years after that, Herald “Skip” Kempnich was working as a UI student employee when his boss quit. Kempnich found himself filling his boss’s shoes.

“Taking that job was not in my plans but things turned out the way they were supposed to,” he says.

In June 2010, after years of helping new students orient themselves to the University (Marilyn) and serving as an advocate for veterans attending Iowa on the GI Bill (Skip), the Kempnichs retired from the University. They look forward to leisurely travel, church activities and mission trips, and time spent with their children and grandson, but that’s not to say they won’t miss their UI lives.

“I really liked my job. I knew I would certainly miss the people I worked with and the people whom I served,” Marilyn says when describing her feelings during her last day on the job. “But I was excited for new adventures, and doing the things I didn’t have time to do while working.”

“I will miss the energy and the optimism of the students. I will definitely miss making my colleagues laugh—humor is sometimes the only tool that works against the foolishness of the day,” Skip says. “But I worked in the same building for 38 years. I did my best. It’s someone else’s turn.”

Marilyn worked for 42 years in various areas of the Office of Admissions, the last 20 in Orientation Services. She made arrangements for orientation programs, and was part of the team that interviewed, hired, and trained the student staff who oriented new students to the University. “I figure I helped hire and train more than 800 student employees,” she says.

Those students and Marilyn’s colleagues in admissions provided fond memories. “I became very attached to the student staff—they were like my kids,” she says. “The students had fresh perspectives and were willing and eager to listen and do the things asked of them. The camaraderie after spending numerous hours in training and class together will always be a memory I will cherish. I enjoy hearing from them and what is happening in their lives.”

In Skip’s work with the Office of the Registrar, he gave advice and assistance to students who had health or personal issues that did not allow them to complete classes they had enrolled in. This interaction allowed him the opportunity to help students grow and mature from an initial state of vulnerability to the stage in their lives where they find themselves.

“I was most proud of my work when students would tell me I made a difference in their lives, sometimes because of something I don’t even remember doing,” Skip says. “It feels good to think I may have had an impact on someone.”

The Kempnichs kicked off their retirement by celebrating their son’s wedding in Florida. Marilyn will spend time gardening, learning how to paint, and getting back into doing stained glass. Skip is restoring the couple’s 1976 BMW, improving his guitar playing skills, and working on writing a book on veterans. And they hope to retain the energy students brought to their lives for so many years.

“The students kept us young,” Skip says.

by Christopher Clair

John Raeburn, Department of American Studies

John Raeburn

John Raeburn. Photo by Kirk Murray.

About the time he started phased retirement, John Raeburn decided to spend some time on the other side of the lectern. After 35 years as a professor of English and American Studies in the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, he enrolled as a student.

So far he has completed courses on art museums, and the art of urban life in Paris. In the fall, he’ll study Roman architecture and symbolism. Then, European history and classics.

“I’m always caught up on the reading, and I never miss class,” Raeburn says with a smile. “It’s such a gift to hear the interesting perspectives of people who’ve spent a lot of time considering the subjects, and to absorb the knowledge they share.”

Raeburn plans to continue his own scholarship, at a more leisurely pace. He has published books on Ernest Hemingway as a cultural figure, on director Frank Capra, best known for “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and on the cultural history of 1930s photography. His latest book is about photographer Ben Shahn, who worked for the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression.

Travel and cooking are also on his agenda. With his wife, Raeburn has made several trips to Italy and France. They take turns replicating the cuisine at home.

“I took two cooking classes through a local French bakery years ago–advanced pastry, and advanced chocolate–but mainly I’m a recipe reader,” Raeburn says. “We have about 50 cookbooks, and I often page through them while eating my breakfast. I’m looking forward to making dishes that take longer than an hour to prepare, now that I’ll have the time.”

Raeburn will look back fondly on his time at the University. As chair of the departments of English and American Studies for a combined 15 years, he took pride in coming up with solutions and seeing them take effect.

But it’s the students he’ll miss most. Raeburn taught courses on 20th century cultural history and literature, earning a Helen Kechriotis Nelson Teaching Award for his skill in the classroom.

One of his favorite teaching moments occurred this past year, during a course on the Civil Rights Movement that he co-taught with Horace Porter, professor of English and African American Studies. Many of the students were unaware of Martin Luther King Jr.’s infidelities, and the revelation sparked a lively discussion about morality.

“It’s a real kick when the class is contributing and pointing out things you have overlooked–teaching you things,” Raeburn says. “Teaching has a certain rejuvenating quality because you are always working with young people. To engage your students, you have to figure out what they’re interested in and find a way to connect it to what you’re trying to teach.”

by Nicole Riehl