Water Cooler Observations, July 1, 2020


By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Other Stephen Hiemstra

In honor of Father’s Day, I would like to devote this post to my father, Stephen J. Hiemstra. Dad has been on my mind a lot this year because in the middle of the Corona Virus Pandemic, my dad suffers from Alzheimer’s and I worry a lot about both him and my mom. Locally in Fairfax County, two-thirds of the corona virus deaths are of people over the age of eighty. My parents will be ninety this year and still live in their home in Falls Church, Virginia with the help of caregivers.

The remainder of this post will be essays taken from my father’s memoir, My Travel Through LifeMemoir of Family Life and Federal Service (2016) published in Centreville, Virginia by T2Pneuma Publishers. Check Amazon.com for copies.


In this rags to riches story, read about how an Iowa farm boy finds love, earns a doctorate, serves his country, combats hunger, advises presidents, and starts the first doctoral program in hospitality anywhere. 

Foreword by John E. Hiemstra

I am pleased to introduce my brother, Stephen’s, memoir from the days on our family farm through his service as an economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Although I was 3 years older than my brother, Stephen was clearly the brains of the family. This became obvious when our family moved from one farm to another in March of 1936 and our mother, Gertrude, took me to enroll in the area’s one room school house, Walker No. 6 of Spring Creek Township which was 3 miles south of the County Seat of Oskaloosa, Iowa and about a half mile from our new home. At the time, the school enrolled about 10 or 12 students in the eight grades offered.

After enrolling me in the third grade, the teacher turned to my brother, who was standing quietly alongside my mother, and asked: “Who is this?” She was told that Stephen would be five years old next month in April. With a gleam in her eye and perceiving a bright, young man, she said: I can enroll him in kindergarten now and in the fall he can start the first grade. Stephen’s academic pursuit took off from that moment forward. As the brightest of the three sons in the Hiemstra family, he went on to high school, college, and graduate school where he earned a doctorate, always at the top of his class.

One of three boys, Stephen grew up on the 160 acre farm that our father, Frank, worked hard to support us. And it was hard. When the crops failed in the depression, our Dad had to surrender his other farm east of Oskaloosa. Having lost much of his investment in the first farm, he moved to the less expensive farm in 1936 where he was able to start over and provide for his family—without the aid of tractors and power machinery—having only his own manual labor. As boys, we learned to plow and cultivate fields behind a team of horses. But we never felt poor having the example of a dedicated and hard working father and a loving mother.

Not only were we well taken care of physically, we had the gift of God’s love. The focal support point for the family was the Bible and the Central Reformed Church in Oskaloosa, Iowa, a protestant church of mostly Dutch heritage members. The church was one of about 20 Dutch churches, descendants of a colony of Dutch immigrants who founded Pella (16 miles West of Oskaloosa) in 1847. 

Church life had a strong influence on our family. We attended Church twice on Sundays—Sunday school and worship on Sunday mornings and worship again on Sunday evening. We also attend weekly Bible study and catechism on Saturdays. Sunday afternoons were spent reading or taking a nap, unless we were visiting our grandparents.

The Christian faith deeply affected our father and our family. He prayed with us every day and urged us to maintain a deep commitment to Jesus Christ. As a youth, my father wanted to become a minister and started attending the Central Academy to pursue this dream, but family obligations forced him to drop out. So he encouraged his sons to enter the ministry, which I did—as a boy of seven or eight I took his dream as my own and studied to be ordained later as a minister in the Reformed Church in America.

This deep religious surrounding and commitment also impacted my brother, Stephen, but his faith took him in a different direction. Stephen wanted to be a farmer, like his father, but he wanted to be a more informed and educated farmer. His academic bent therefore took him to enroll in Iowa State College at Ames, Iowa. But, having experienced the academic life, he never returned to the farm.

After completing a two year degree aimed at farm operation, Stephen switched to a four year program in agricultural economics. Ironically, his love for agricultural economics led him to his other love, the lovely Hazel (Billie) Deacon, who he met while attending an agricultural economics conference in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. They were married during his last year at Ames. After attending the Reserved Officer Training Corps (ROTC) in college, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force where he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant and was sent to serve as a communications officer at a base near Seoul, Korea. After completing his military service, he returned to Iowa State to complete a master’s degree and, later, to the University of California in Berkley to complete a doctorate (Ph.D.) in agricultural economics. 

After graduate school, in 1960 Stephen accepted a position with the in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In USDA, he distinguished himself in research, publication, and administration. From 1960 to 1969 he wrote numerous articles for the National Food Situation (NFS), but in July of 1969, he and a colleague, Al Egbert, published a study, “Shifting Direct Government Payments from Agriculture to Poor People: Impacts on Food Consumption and Farm Income,” which set the stage for the rest of his career. He soon joined the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) where he worked on: Food Stamp Program, the Child Nutrition Programs, the School Lunch Program, the Child Care Food Service, and the Woman, Infants, and Children Program (WIC). Stephen details the research and implementation done in these programs in this book.

Following his years with the FNS, Stephen served as an executive in the new Council on Wage and Price Stability created by President Jimmy Carter in October 1978 and later dissolved when President Ronald Reagan took office in 1981. At that point, Stephen returned to USDA. 

In this book Stephen chronicles experiences that he had, including an invitation to an event with his family in the White House with President Carter. In 1983 Stephen retired from federal service and moved to West Lafayette, Indiana where he accepted a teaching and research position with Purdue University. There he founded and directed a doctoral program in the Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management, which was the first such program in hospitality anywhere in the world.

In addition to his professional accomplishments, Stephen remained devoted to his faith and his family. He was baptized and confirmed at the Central Reformed Church in Oskaloosa, Iowa and was later ordained as an elder by the Presbyterian church, another denomination in the reformed tradition.

Also see:

Water Cooler Observations, June 24, 2020

Interview about the Corona Life in English and Spanish with Stephen W. Hiemstra, April 24, 2020

Managing Change 

Believer’s Prayer

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: https://bit.ly/HangHome_2020

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Robinson Captures Iowa Psyche

Marilynne Robinson. 2004. Gilead: A Novel. New York: Picador.[1]

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

My clearest memory of November of 1974 when I returned to finish out the last two years of college at Iowa State University involved the need to learn the fine art of conversation. When offered a bar or cookie and a cup of coffee, one had to respond with a lengthy discourse on topics roughly summarized as small talk. This would not be gossip, nor items fit to appear in the Oskaloosa Herald, but mostly glimpses of life to acquaint those present with family matters missed due to the passage of time and travesty of distance. No one out East tutored me in coffee time etiquette 1.0 so for this class, required for graduation, I proved a slow learner.

Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead,takes the form of a lengthy letter from John Ames, a third-generation congregational pastor, to his son. Ames is dying of a heart condition at the age of sixty-seven while his son, the only child of a younger second wife, Lila, is still a preteen.

Gilead, Iowa

Gilead is an unincorporated town in southwest Iowa just south of Fontanelle along route 92 in Adair County. I last drove through this region in 1982 on a trip from Oskaloosa, Iowa to Omaha, Nebraska while I was researching beef packing plants for my dissertation. This area left two distinct impressions on me. First, between Indianola and Omaha along route 92 one could find no McDonald’s restaurants, my measure of an area’s poverty. Second, along the way, I had to stop to round up some pigs that got loose from a local farm—I never did see the farmer—and had wandered into the road.

For purposes of the novel, Gilead’s location put it close to the Missouri state line where Ames’ grandfather had participated in partisan fighting leading up to the Civil War. West of Gilead is Nebraska, but west of Missouri is Kansas Ames’ grandfather later absconded and died. Ames’ father also left Gilead to retire in the South. The fact that John Ames faithfully remained in Gilead and retired as one of its pastors speaks to his grit and the strength of his faith.


My father’s hometown of Oskaloosa, population 10,000, has not grown in a generation and occasionally appears on television as a location kids grow up and leave. Oskaloosa, with its McDonalds, high school, hospital, and indoor mall, is a big city compared to Gilead. Abject poverty is a theme in the book and Gilead remains a metaphor for poverty.

Robinson makes many references to this poverty. One that sticks in my mind is: “I am old enough to remember when we used to go out in the brush, a lot of us, and spread out in a circle, and then close in, scaring the rabbits along in front of us, till they were trapped there in the center and then we would kill them with sticks and clubs. That was during the Depression and people were hungry.”(198)

Robinson’s gift as a writer arises in her ability to paint one word picture after another.

John Ames Boughton

Another important theme in Robinson’s writing is the relationship between John Ames and his best friend’s son, John Ames Boughton. The best friend, a local Presbyterian pastor who grew up with John Ames, is normally just referred to a Boughton, but the son is also called Jack. As suggested by his name, John Ames Boughton has a father-son relationship with John Ames and is estranged from his biological father.

He plays out the rebellious pastor’s kid (PK) role virtually his whole life. For example, we read:

“His transgressions were sly and lonely, and this became truer as he grew up. I believe I said earlier that he did not teal in any convectional sense, but by that I meant he stole things of no value except to the people he stole them from. There was no sense in what he, unless his purpose was to cause a maximum of embarrassment and risk a minimum of retribution.”(182)

As a teen, this kid impregnated a local girl and later in life he took a black woman as his wife. Perhaps his worst sin was not being available when his mother and father died.

Ironically, this rebellious PK is so polite that strangers, including his future wife, assume he is a pastor. John Ames refers to him as a son and the boy refers to Ames as Papa. This odd relationship seems like a counterpoint to Ames himself, who never played out the PK role and remained a faithful pastor in the face of much adversity.


Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead,is an engaging read that won the Pulitzer Prize. I picked up the book as a summer read because I have spent a lot of time in Iowa and heard that Robinson taught at the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop.[2]The conversational style of Robinson’s writing reminds me of that of my own grandparents and their siblings in Iowa. Some may not catch all her biblical and theological allusions, but for me they added a depth seldom seen in Christian literature.


[1]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilead_(novel) [2]https://writersworkshop.uiowa.edu.

Robinson Captures Iowa Psyche

Also See:

Meredith: Robots Gone Wild

RPC Sharpens Shorts; Gets Buy 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Pentecost_2019


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Remembering Kaffietijd

Cover for Called Along the Way
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Six days you shall labor, and do all your work,
but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God.
(Exod 20:8)

Remembering Kaffietijd

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

More than a snack, coffee time (kaffietijd in Dutch) structured our lives and became an institution where my fondest memories of family life unfolded and I got a glimpse of heaven.


On weekdays, at nine in morning, at three in the afternoon, and around eight in the evening, My grandmother, Gertrude Hiemstra, prepared coffee for the adults, cocoa for the kids, and goodies for everyone. The goodies included homemade lemon bars, chocolate chip cookies, or strawberry short cake topped with ice cream. Choice, we always got a choice.

Whether knitting, feeding the calves, or pulling weeds in the garden, everyone paused, came in the house, got cleaned up, and talked. No one was excluded no one; everyone was invited; and conversation was required.


On Sundays, coffee time got more involved. No one dared to skip Sunday school or leave town before lunch at grandma’s house. So we attended church at nine-fifteen, but took a break for snacks during Sunday school. After church, we normally changed from our Sunday best into more comfortable clothes before lunch. After changing one thing led to another and, being kids, by the time the adults called us for lunch, we might be hiding in the attic or chasing each other around the yard. Lunch escaped our attention, but the adults bribed us to come to lunch with reminders of coffee time.

These Sunday coffee times might be delayed until after the cuckoo clock chimed at four o’clock. A late coffee time almost always involved better snacks requiring fold up trays and breaking out the card tables, which might be used later for playing hearts or board games. On occasion, the piano might be played and ice cream churned by hand. When we complained about helping churn, the adults reminded us that “kids today are so spoiled by that store-bought ice cream.” 

Special Occasions

Sunday coffee time became more formal when we celebrated birthdays among my grandparents’ siblings. Because both grandma and grandpa had eight siblings and came from Dutch families who lived around Pella, Iowa,1 their siblings pooled birthday celebrations several times a year and would collectively make the twenty mile trip to Oskaloosa. When the “Pella crowd” visited, a leisurely three or four hour visit followed where no one hurried during the heavenly banquet and everyone naturally wore their Sunday best. Formalities took distinctive phases, which moved from greetings, to eating, to discussions and board games, and then to goodbyes.

Greeting Phase

The greeting phase involved meeting people as they came in. After the formal greetings, the women gathered in the kitchen to properly set out their signature dishes, such as my grandmother’s steaming hot, chicken and noodles. Meanwhile, the men sat in the living room talking about the latest news or the market prices for corn, soybeans, hogs, or cattle. The kids might run this way or that, but often we retreated to the basement to horse around without soiling our clothes.

Eating Phase

The eating phase always started with a blessing for the food. When my uncle, Pastor John, visited, we might be treated to a few introductions and announcements (or a scripture reading) followed by a pastoral prayer. Otherwise, my grandfather, Frank, simply gave thanks.

Having blessed the food, we grabbed a plate and the family crowd snaked in line around the kitchen helping ourselves to the sandwiches, casseroles, apple sauce, and potato salad. Grandma normally served a lime or strawberry punch—iced in a crystal bowl, ladled with a crystal dipper, and enjoyed in a crystal cup. Then, the adults assembled in the living room seated in front of a folding up tray with their plates and cups carefully balanced. Meanwhile, the kids sat around the kitchen table and ate together unsupervised. The women later served coffee with the dessert.

Discussion Phase

The end of dessert marked the beginning of pointed discussions. Great Uncle John, the local county commissioner, frequently chided me about the cushy government job that I might get after graduation. Of course, I had other ideas. At one point in my sophomore year, for example, I announced my intention to study comparative literature, instead of agricultural economics like my father. Silence followed.
After a couple of embarrassing seconds, Great Aunt Nelly inquired: “What is comparative literature?”

With a questioning tone like that, I figured out before my next visit what I really wanted to study.

Some discussions took a less serious path.

You have heard, of course, about that new government program that they cooked up in Washington? Really? Do tell. In the future, social security checks will be issued along with a prescription for birth control pills.


Goodbye Phase

While everyone took part in discussions, board games marked an informal end. Those less interested in playing hearts, domino’s, or board games headed for the door, as regular as Grandfather’s daily bowl of All Bran cereal soaked with chocolate milk. Goodbyes then proceeded until everyone had said goodbye to everyone else. Weather permitting; the goodbyes included walking the most distant travelers out to their cars.

As Years Went By

As the years went by, coffee time slowly died out.

My parents struggled to imitate coffee time when my grandparents visited, but practice makes perfect and neglect leaves one neglectful. Interruptions during attempts at coffee time made conversation difficult; activities likewise cut into the leisure time. On the farm, a Christmas might last for two weeks; in the city, Christmas became a meal and afternoon discussion. We aspired to being relaxed and hospitable, but strived ever more diligently to keep our jobs, pay our bills, and advance our careers in the face of ever-easier, downward mobility. As my grandparents aged, travel distances seemed longer, schedules got more involved, and visits became rare.

Coffee time lived on during visits to Iowa. When my grandfather turned ninety, he lost his driver’s license after having a fender-bender. So when I visited, Frank often requested that I drive him from Oskaloosa to Pella to visit his younger sister, Nelly, the family historian and a live wire. Nelly usually voiced what others only thought. A quick call and Nelly would invite the surviving Pella crowd over to her place for coffee. Thirty minutes later on our arrival, out came the folding trays, the home-made snacks, and the coffee.

Born in 1898, Frank journeyed through three centuries during his 102 years. With his passing, Oskaloosa dropped off my itinerary. Since then, travel has become infrequent and the memory of coffee time became elusive.

Hiemstra Picnic

Coffee time lives on in the Hiemstra family picnic the first Saturday of August each year in Pella’s West Market Park. Picnic tables shaded under the shelter are cool and I cherish seeing distant relatives. The coffee and the snacks remain the same, but the folding trays, the leisure time, and my grandparents no longer accompany us, but I look forward to the day they will.

More than a snack, coffee time (or Kaffietijd as the old folks used to say) built a palace in time2 that lives on in the memory of my youth.

Also see:  Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2vfisNa

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Ever Present, Snow, and Grandpa’s Farm in Iowa

ShipOfFools_web_10042015The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. (Ps 23:1 ESV)

Ever Present

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Time awake. No tomorrow; no yesterday. A continuous present.

Every waking hour is new; Mom is there.

I am happy or alone. Loneliness is being in bed looking out over the covers.

The alligator under my bed comes out at night after the records play.
The alligator chases me around the room and runs away when Dad comes.


And the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them. (Gen 3:21 ESV)


By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Snow is for jumping in and for making into balls and throwing.

Mom, why do I need a jumpsuit, a knit cap, and mittens?

… Because the porch is cold and it is even colder outside.

But I don’t like mittens. Why can’t I wear gloves like you and Dad?

… These mittens were a gift made for you by your grandmother—see she made attached them together with a string so that you won’t loose them. When you get older, we will get you some gloves—gloves are made from leather and you can’t use them to make snowballs without ruining them. So for now, you need to use mittens!

Mom, I can put my shoes on myself! …


Now the LORD said to Abram, Go from your country and your kindred and
your father’s house to the land that I will show you.
(Gen 12:1 ESV)

Grandpa’s Farm in Iowa

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

I’m going to Grandpa’s farm in Iowa.

Wandering up and down the aisles on the California Zephyr. People asked me and I told them—

I’m going to Grandpa’s farm in Iowa.

From Emeryville to Ottumwa. Snow on the Rockies; the deep ravines; the scary dark tunnel. But mostly, I remembered that—

I’m going to Grandpa’s farm in Iowa.

Why did people always lean forward in their seats to ask me—where y’a going?—and smile when I tell them?

Why did I always smile in thinking about it?

Maybe it was the cats. Married student housing did not allow pets. Besides, cats got to have birds and mice and wild stuff to eat…

Maybe it was the mulberry trees. Berry trees are special and especially hard to find in the city. Somehow, I don’t think city folks even know about mulberries—they seem more like blueberry people.

Maybe it was Grandma’s chicken and noodles or the box of chocolate chip cookies in the fridge. Mom fixed some great macaroni and cheese, but store-bought cookies are always dry and crunchy.

I smile thinking on the farm, ‘cause there were pumps to pump; snow drifts to jump in; relatives to visit; Christmas church services to dress up for. Everyday was an adventure on the farm, but the reason I smile is because on the farm I felt special.

I’m going to Grandpa’s farm in Iowa.

[1] http://www.amtrak.com/california-zephyr-train.

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