When John Otte stepped up to the microphone at the Des Moines Register’s Storytellers Event July 13, Kyle Munson, the Register’s Iowa columnist, triggered thunderous applause by introducing Otte as the retired economics editor of Wallaces Farmer. Munson later attributed the enthusiastic welcome as recognition from all those in the room who revered Otte for his years of ag coverage.
The evening’s story topic was “Tales from the road.” Six storytellers gathered at the Des Moines event and shared their tales of travel and the lessons learned along the way.
To qualify as a storyteller, you must have a story that:
• is true
• is mostly about you
• must not compromise your ability to return to work, your family or your community
• must not damage the reputation of another person
Plus, all stories document change. If you don't change what you think, what you do or how you act, then you don't have a story. You have an anecdote, which is a funny thing you talk about at brunch. Your friends love them. Strangers — not so much.
Career vs. romance
John regaled the audience with changes in his life and career. In 1976, the dairy farm boy from Illinois took a job as an area farm management economist with the University of Florida Food and Resource Economics Department. His career plan: work that job 18 months, after that go back to school to get a Ph.D. or seek employment elsewhere. His personal goal: Find a rich widow, one foot in the grave, the other on a banana peel, no heirs.
Along the way Otte found a not-so-old Brazilian lady named Maria. They hit it off. Romance blossomed, which complicated his decision when the Farm Progress job with Wallaces Farmer came along in 1979.
After a false start, John and Maria married in 1980. By 1984, it was past time for Maria to go to Brazil to see her family. She needed to go. She wanted to go.
John had no interest in going to see people he did not know and could not talk to. Plus, he figured the money they would spend on a second ticket would be better used to pay down debt on the Jasper County farm John insisted that they buy on the eve of what turned into the farm financial crisis.
They bought just one ticket.
In 1988, John made his first trip to Brazil with Maria. John was hooked. Over the next 22 years he and Maria made that trip half a dozen times. With each subsequent trip the pull of the people in his extended family who live in that South American agricultural giant country grew ever stronger on John’s heartstrings.
Facing up to challenges
By 2011, Maria and John were deep into the first year of their breast cancer fight. Despite a host of complications, the surgeon told them that at Maria’s age, odds were 85% she could beat breast cancer and 85% that something else would eventually get her.
They were due to go back to Brazil. But their positions were the exact opposite of 1984. John was chomping at the bit to go see Maria’s people, who had now become his people, too.
Maria was saying, “I’m not ready. I’m not ready. I’m not ready.”
They went. They made the rounds. They had a good time. They, and the family there, believed they may be making their last trip to Brazil. It turns out it was not their final trip. They’ve been back three times since. They think they’ve beaten cancer.
Diseases associated with aging are challenging. Being blessed to beat one disease may set the stage to fight a tougher foe.
Back in 2010, they thought it would be a blessing if they could beat breast cancer. Now they face a more challenging foe. Maria has some sort of dementia. Beating breast cancer is not the victory they hoped it would be. Still, they’re thankful for all of the support they’re getting from their extended families in Brazil and the U.S. and their faith to keep pushing forward.