My father was a journalist. Since he was first diagnosed with a pituitary adenoma—a form of brain tumor—in 1999, I have periodically attempted to find his articles through various academic and online search engines. Despite a career in which his byline appeared in the Des Moines Register most days in a week, his digital record is surprisingly sparse. It turns out that the best repository for his writing, which ceased just as the era of Internet journalism dawned, is in the family filing cabinet.
That his name receives only a few Google hits is evidence of his employer’s middling online archive, but also the era in which he worked. Lest his memory fade into the tangible, but inaccessible record of paper and ink, there should be just a few pixels in the Internet that relay his incredible qualities as a father and a friend. Below are memories contributed by family, friends, and colleagues at his service a week ago.
So the story has it that my father’s dying wish was to see one last game from the bleachers in Wrigley Field, but after seeing the opening week’s box scores—in which both Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol blew late inning leads—he said, “Ah, forget it.” Then he checked out.
My father was an incredibly loyal man. To earn his respect was to win his love, and there was rarely a distinction between the two. He was a loving father, a dedicated husband, and a compassionate friend to both close acquaintances and strangers alike.
He was also an extremely patient man, and I’m living testament to that fact.
Long before I took up distance running in high school, he and I decided to participate in the annual Thanksgiving Day Turkey Chase. Having determined that the 10K was too long for a seven-year-old, we decided the two-mile “fun run” seemed more our speed. We trained a bit to get a sense of the distance, but made no real preparations on the race’s behalf. On Thanksgiving morning my father’s only instructions at the outset were, “Tony, pace yourself.”
I imagine if my father felt he had to issue a belated warning, he was already aware of the kind of trouble he was in. I, of course, had visions of a world record or at least a medal of some sort. No one had told me that in a “fun run,” they did not keep time, nor did they award prizes. Under such delusions when the gun went off, I shot out to the front of the pack in a full sprint, weaving in and out of runners, cutting them off with little regard for their safety or my own. In those first few hundred yards, a gold medal seemed inevitable, shiny, and bright. My father, annoyed but collected, followed closely behind: “Tony. Pace yourself.”
This first phase of the race was short lived. In less than a half mile my pace rapidly slowed, first to a hurried jog, then a fatigued trudge, and finally, little more than a discomforted power walk. At last, exhausted and defeated, I stopped. I bent over. I gasped. My father allowed me the short breather. Then he looked me in the eye and said, “Are you ready to pace yourself?” His eyebrows were raised in a manner that suggested this was not so much of a question as an instruction. Obediently, I nodded in the affirmative… and then took off sprinting again.
We repeated this cycle—sprint, slow, stop, sprint, slow, stop—for most of the race. Each time as I slowed and runners streamed by us, my father clamped down on his temper, which must have been burning hot. We were passed by old men, fat women, and children much younger and smaller than me. Still, he remained cool.
It wasn’t until we were passed by a man on crutches that he finally cracked. With a few choice words, he explained exactly how the rest of the race was going to proceed. True to his instructions, we trotted out the last few hundred yards at a slow, even pace. When we crossed the line there were no records, medals, confetti, or for that matter, too many people left.
And we still lost to the guy on crutches.
If my father was able to exact a measure of revenge, it came by editing my school papers. Taking a paper to my father was like spending all afternoon on the beach building a grandiose sand castle, only to watch the evening’s high tide reduce it to a sad, wet lump. He did not share my youthful enthusiasm for inflated word counts, nor was he particularly impressed with my use of the thesaurus. He wanted only facts, distilled to their purist, and written in their most accessible and comprehensible form.
His talent and professionalism as a journalist were unquestionable. His career, though cut short, bore the mark of a diligent reporter with the highest ethical standards. In an era where editors resorted to sensationalism to pump a few last gasps into the dying lungs of the print newspaper industry, his work was evenhanded and fair. And whether he was on the campaign trail during the Iowa Caucuses, covering Congressional maneuverings on agriculture and commerce policy or a simply writing a personal interest piece on a farmer in Dubuque County, it was always interesting.
If his job while tasked to the Des Moines Register’s Washington Bureau was to sift through the mess of Capitol Hill politics to give his readership the information most relevant to their lives in Iowa, his role as a father was to ensure that his children never strayed to far from the Midwestern upbringing that both he and my mother shared. The incredible sense of fairness and equity that permeated each of his stories was equally present in the lessons of our home. So too was the ever-present emphasis on responsibility, hard work, and trustworthiness.
I’d like to close by talking a bit about heroes, and specifically about the loss of heroes. Through my childhood and my early adult life, it seems that every year the number of people that I can direct my admiration toward diminishes.
It may have started when Roberto Alomar, then an Orioles second basemen, spat in the face of umpire John Hirshbeck. Or it may have been when Sammy Sosa’s muscle development became too dramatic to attribute to any natural cause. Locally, the game of Which-Politician-Will-Disappoint-Us-Next has become an almost seasonal sport. More recently, as a Penn State football fan, there came the time when it was impossible to ignore the lapses of an otherwise deified football coach. One by one through the years, these superhuman figures have faltered and fallen.
All the while there was my father, who, under my nose, maintained consistent single-mindedness about what was right and what was not. Well after the brain tumor had cost him his more cerebral faculties, he would be at home sitting in his chair. I could walk through the door and know full well that in any dilemma I was confronted with, his advice would provide clear and resolved perspective on the best way forward. His determination, in both overcoming his original tumor as well as his more recent diagnosis, was incredibly heartening. When my mother told him the median life expectancy for his new tumor was two- to five-years, already a bit of a stretch, he soon began talking about what he could do with year six.
While he was living, I would never have thought to call these simple acts heroic. Despite his enduring optimism and unyielding ability to live with and overcome the indignities that life had dealt him, I was ignorant and unappreciative of the ways in which he enriched the life of my family and me.
And if his early departure has cost me a living moral compass, it has at the very least opened my eyes to another heroic figure in my life: My mother.
My mother, for the last thirteen years, has been nothing other than the stalwart leader of our family. Taking on a role she never imagined, she has been the backbone and provider for a family that would have crumbled under the guidance of a lesser woman. Though I know neither she nor my father could not have done it alone—our family has been fortunate to have the most incredible, tight-knit group of family, and close family-friends—she stands alone in my admiration for personal strength and perseverance.
And, of course, there are all of you, who have gathered here today from the most extreme distances and under the shortest of circumstances. Your love and compassion is overwhelming. I cannot begin to express how much it means to me, my sister, my mother, and of course, my father. Thank you so much.
The first memory I have of Ken is a summer morning when Maddie and I were six or seven years old. I was going to camp with Maddie for the day and Ken drove us there. Tony was in the front seat, Maddie and I were in the back, and as we’re driving along Maddie and Tony both start to say things like, “Dad please!” and “Come on, Dad, do it”. Ken would respond, almost coyly with, “No, no, I don’t think that’s such a good idea.” This was again met by Maddie and Tony asking over and over for him to do “it”, whatever “it” was. I had no idea what was going on when all of a sudden Ken guns the gas and we go flying over a speed bump. We all screamed and laughed and asked for more and sure enough every speed bump we encountered on the way to camp that day was taken on with full speed and 4 laughing voices.
The next memory I have of Ken is 3 years later, another summer morning this time with Kim and Mookie, who the Pins’ had just gotten the previous winter. We were sailing along when all of a sudden, young, curious, unable-to-swim Mookie decided it would be a good idea to jump off the boat into the Bay. Maddie and I, of course, found this hilarious until we saw the panic in Kim’s eyes as she jumped right in after him. Ken, who had been steering the boat, decided to hand me, a ten-year-old girl who had never been on a sailboat before, the tiller as he also went to Mookie’s aid. I’m not sure if it was his trust in my steering abilities rather then his concern for Mookie that led him in this decision, but he seemed to think it would be fine, and I decided to take that as a sign of trust he had in me.
These are my earliest memories of Ken that I can recall, and I’ve been racking my brain for more, craving specific snapshots of times spent together. But what I’ve realized is its the moments in between, the moments that all blur together; Of countless dinners and Christmas Eves; Of walking into the front door of the Pins house and seeing him slowly rise out of his chair to say hello; The sound of his voice saying, “Hey kiddo” when he saw it was me; It’s those moments that have been a backdrop of my life since I was 4 years old, and its those moments that mean so much and will be missed the most.
I love you Ken-Ken. We’ll miss you.
My Uncle Ken was proud to be an Iowan, proud of his hometown Dyserville and even wrote a book about it called “Dyers Dream”. Finishing his book was his lifelong dream. I haven’t finished the book, but the parts I have read remind me of him. I pick up his personality, his humor and it makes me smile. I imagine Ken to be like my Dad, you can’t take him anywhere without bumping into somebody he knows and striking up a conversation with them. But Ken knew a lot about a lot and I always loved hearing him talk and tell stories. A couple of years ago he came to Des Moines, doing research for his book and my Cousin Connor his nephew was playing in the state high school baseball tournament. We were at Principal Park at Sec Taylor field talking about all the old building we could see downtown and what buildings had changed since he lived in Des Moines. He knew more about the city than I did and I lived there. At the game we were having such a good time watching Connor playing baseball, and talking that we thought we should have a beer. I asked my Aunt Audrey, Ken’s sister and Connor’s mom, “do you think they have beer?” She responded, “are you crazy?” This is a high school game!” “Oh well so we screwed up there Uncle Ken and I thought. We thought a beer would go great with the time we were having!
When I was 12 or 14, I was invited out to DC for a couple of weeks to spend with my Uncle Ken. Ken’s son Tony is my age and we had always been pals. My older brother and sister Chris and Meredith were both over in Europe and my parents let me fly on my own to DC. My uncle Ken picked me up from the airport. It was my first time in a big city and I remember going over little ridges when he changed lanes, and I asked him what those were there for. He replied, that it should wake someone up if they had fallen asleep at the wheel. I found that interesting and thought we don’t have those in Iowa. While I was in DC Ken took me on a tour of the memorials, we biked on a trail all the way from the Pins house into his work, and he showed me his office with a window! Ken, Tony and I road tripped to Baltimore to see a baseball game at historic Camden Yards. It was a night game, the air was cool, the lights were on, great seats along the first baseline. it was incredible! We were also scheduled to go for a sailboat ride in Madeline. Of course I had a picture of a sailboat in my head This thing was going to be awesome, it was going to be huge. However when we arrived, I found the Madeline is very petite. I was worried that if someone threw a rock, we could sink! And of course the day we went out there was no wind, and Uncle Ken was not too happy about running the motor the whole time. Nevertheless we had a great time and I have a better appreciation for sailing these days.
One night I made a call back home to touch base with my parents. I told mom that Kim wanted to do my laundry and if that was okay. My mom responded well Jon you are going to be there for a while, your clothes are going to have to be washed. I said mom, “even my underwear? Kim can wash my underwear?” She said yes Jon even your underwear. I thought at the time it was a little personal for my aunt to wash my underwear.
One night for dinner Kim and Ken made muscles and noodles. They asked if that was okay and I thought sure, I have never had them before, but I played it off cool. The muscles were had hard shells, and they were cracked slightly with a gooey substance inside. I picked around for a while and just ate noodles, until I finally worked up the courage to put the slimy muscle in my mom. It barely was inside my mom when I started to cry. How embarrassing. However the crying was partially being homesick, this was my first big trip away from home and the other part the muscles that I had never had before!
Before I came out here I knew of my uncles passing, but I had never read a lot of his work. I decided to Google him. What I found was a little blip on an American Cancer Society page they had been done after Ken’s surgery. In the article Ken said that after his first surgery he had a greater appreciation for life. He also got to learn to play the piano, a promise he made to his mom, my grandma Lois. He said now she can’t say I didn’t fulfill that promise! Some of my other great memories were coming home on Christmas and skipping everyones Christmas card just so I could read my Uncle Ken’s first. He was always so charismatic and funny!
My uncle is smartest person I know. I know that the Cubs are no good this year, but up there (Heaven) they are winning championships!
My other story Kim was when I was working at the hospital and a gentlemen was grumpy. I was making small talk and asked him what he did for a living, he said he worked for the Des Moines Register. I said, Oh! My Uncle Ken Pins writes for the Register. He said your uncle Ken is a great writer and very smart man! After that the man was in a much better mood and I could do no wrong. It was so nice to hear a great compliment like that!
George Anthan, Former Washington Bureau Chief at the Des Moines Register:
To say that Ken fit into the Register’s Washington Bureau activities doesn’t cover reality.
Ken fit seamlessly into a move by the Register to de-emphasize Washington coverage which focused on national issues in favor of regional issues centered on Iowa, and especially on food and agriculture.
When he found a large commercial farm operation that reaped a harvest of federal dollars, it made it quickly to Page One. There were many large farmers who complained bitterly. On one of my Ragbrai rides, I stopped one day in a town square to rest and get a drink of water. There was a big banner across the main street welcoming the Des Moines Register, etc. The fellow I was sitting next to identified himself as a big farmer who had received large subsidy checks. “I’d love to get my hands on this guy ‘Pins,’ he told me. I weasled my way out of town.
This meant Ken became an expert on how agriculture and food policy was formed, who formed it, who benefited and who didn’t.
Journalism publications of that time pointed to The Register as an example of how Washington bureaus could serve their readers, helping to ensure the bureau’s very existence. Ken soon became an expert on Iowa’s economy and its prospects. He explored how rural areas in general could be economic success stories while the small towns in many rural regions were declining.
Ken went to West Virginia to report on how economic declines affected individuals in its small towns. He went there to report on the impact of ignoring economic troubles. This led him to study the census for details on poverty in Iowa.
In doing this, Ken began looking at airline service, which is a factor in the economic growth of a region. He found that the cost of air- line service in the Des Moines area, for example, was significantly higher than in Omaha or Kansas City.
At one point he went to Omaha’s air field and found that many of the cars in the parking lots had Iowa licenses. I raised this issue during a dinner with some Register editors, told them of what Ken wanted to do, and was discouraged in this venture as the economic impact would not be of general interest to the traveling public.
However, at a subsequent, and unrelated, meeting, some business leaders specifically raised this point, and Register editors quickly embraced Ken’s project, which included reports from New England on how affordable air service was a chief factor in a city’s — and region’s — economy.
Ken played a major role in covering what we called “the ethanol wars” of the late 1990s, about which he wrote “a million stories” in the words of bureau reporter Jane Norman. These “million” stories were cited by journalism reviews as examples of a newspaper’s serving its readers.
Ken did his share of stories on what Washington-based reporters called our “sickening stories” featuring “filthy” meat, with carcases covered with fecal material. He and I had a sort of competition on who could produce the most lurid examples of filthy meat and chickens. One story we held back so it could be delivered to homes on Thanksgiving Day. This was about a Kansas City doctor who felt a “tickle” in his throat and removed a tape worm several feet long. This was too much for Don Kaul, who threatened to “stop the paper.”
Through all of this, Ken did his share of covering routine events: Iowans at presidential inaugurals; international meetings on trade; the activities of Iowa’s congressional delegation. There were more than a few unpleasant lunches I attended with Iowa senators and representatives who had complaints about Ken’s work. Never, not once, were these complaints justified.
Ken and I had a special friendship that went beyond our work together at the Des Moines Register. There was the magical visit he paid to Kansas City and wonderful days spent together there.
Among the many places we went to there were the Negro Leagues Museum, the National Jazz Museum, national World War I Memorial, and the Truman Library. He wanted to taste Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue and he wanted to see the place where the Mafia put their victims into car trunks.
I will miss Ken and our times together when I would visit Maryland.
Donald Kaul, Colleague at the Des Moines Register:
I think Ken was the stubbornest man I’ve ever known and one of the most contentious. You could walk into the office dripping wet, tell him it was raining outside and he’d question your credentials as a weatherman.
I remember when he first showed up in Washington, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed—and young—I tried to take him under my wing, show him the ropes, give him some advice. Fat chance. He kept questioning my assumptions and making me defend them. Within a year he knew the ropes better than I ever did.
That act could be a little irritating at times but it was very valuable to have a colleague than didn’t let you get away with sloppy thinking. He was that colleague.
He carried that same attitude into his own work, the hallmark of which was thoroughness. He was especially good at breaking down a complex statistical survey and converting it to English. He did good work and laughed at all my jokes. What more can one ask of a colleague?
I think his stubborn streak served him well during the last cruel decade of his life when fate dealt him a lousy hand.
Despite suffering a disability that would have laid most of us low, he never gave in to it. He insisted on riding his bike long after he should have and continued his writing career, producing not only a weekly column but a book, all the while maintaining what seemed to be an upbeat outlook.
I was proud to call him friend. And if he were here, he’d probably ask me what I meant by “proud.”
Phone rings at 11, “Hi kiddo. Lunch?”
We meet on the corner at noon, you always get there first.
Shocker, you’re wearing a Cubs hat.
And your Library badge.
And your “great to see you” grin.
We get our sandwiches, and a root beer for you.
Then walk over to the garden and sit on our bench.
Remember when we were three on the bench?
Remember when we were two?
And now I am here this Monday, just one.
It’s an incongruously beautiful day.
The sun and blue sky taunt the sorrow.
An acappella group out of nowhere gets off a charter bus and is singing on the corner.
What’s up with that?
On a regular Monday, that would have launched yet another conversation.
Beginning with the acappella group and ending who knows where.
Along the way covering politics, art, books, music, god, baseball.
But, it’s not a regular Monday. So instead, I close my eyes and listen. The music is lovely.
It washes over me, the sun shines on my face.
They finish the song, get back on the bus and drive away.
Just like that.
I sit and listen to the quiet.
And I think of your curiosity and intelligence, Ken.
Your ever-present optimism.
The twinkle in your eye.
Your ability to accept and move on to what’s next.
And if there’s a heaven, that’s what’s next.
When you got there did you ask, “Is this Iowa?”
Ken, may your journey forward be filled with biking, sailing, writing, ice cream, Christmas eves, dark beer on tap, crosswords, It’s A Wonderful Life, a bathroom always nearby, and of course—the Cubs winning the World Series.
It could happen.