It was serendipity; it was a call that changed my life forever. Here is the story:
I was ten years old and like many farm kids, that was the year I joined 4-H. Dairy animals were my project and the first cattle show was the Coggon Harvest Home in Linn County. One of the supervisors was a man by the name of Garland Ashbacker. Garland was the vocational agriculture teacher in Coggon, an adjoining school district to mine. Garland took an interest in me, but Garland took an interest in everyone.
He said “Steve, you should enter the showmanship contest." I thought that seemed unusual because I was ten and there were 4-H and FFA members who were much older. For a 10-year-old to compete with someone much older seemed unrealistic. Garland was an engaging person and said it in a way that motivated me to participate and compete. I didn’t win, but I did take third place. I worked very hard. Garland and I developed a relationship during that three-day fair.
Fast forward to four years later; I was getting ready to enroll in high school at West Delaware County Community High School in Manchester and had signed up for my courses. I had elected to take Latin because I was considering law as a career. I was advised Latin would help me understand language and become a better writer, which is an important skill for a lawyer. Our local high school had just hired Garland Ashbacker to be our vocational agriculture teacher.
Garland called my parents and said, "I think Steve should take vocational agriculture, and I see he signed up for Latin. I'd like to talk to him." My parents told me that Garland wanted to talk to me. Garland said he would come to our home. FFA was a vocational organization and that didn't seem to fit into a curriculum that would prepare me for law school. Even if I farmed, I thought that for the type of farmer that I would be, it was more important to take more math courses and science courses that would prepare me for business of farming and writing and speech courses would prepare me for law school.
When Garland came to our home, we sat down at the kitchen table, where all business was conducted. Garland got right to the point. He said, “I see you have signed up for Latin, but I think you should take vocational agriculture and join FFA." I responded that while I may want to run the family farm, I may also want to go to law school and should take Latin. Garland came prepared. He asked if I knew Dr. Neal Harl, who was a Professor in Economics at Iowa State, had a PhD in economics and a law degree.
Ashbacker said, “You can study his extension bulletins as part of your vocational agriculture courses.” He said FFA would prepare me for leadership and give experience in public speaking by participating in speaking contests. Garland was convincing and I enrolled in vocational agriculture and became a member of the FFA. By the time I finished I had three gold medals and was a State President and National FFA Officer.
I called Dr. Harl in August of 1968, almost four years to the day after I met with Garland Ashbacker in my home. I asked Dr. Harl to meet with me. He told me to come to campus before school started and to have my transcripts sent to his office. When we met he asked me what I wanted to do. I responded that I wanted to vertically integrate the family farm, become a lawyer, run a large corporation, become Governor of Iowa or Secretary of Agriculture.
He replied, “Steven, you are not thinking big enough." I was quite surprised by his response and I quickly responded, “What do you think I should do?”
He said, “I think you should do what I did. No one else has done it--get a joint law degree at the University of Iowa and a PhD in Economics from Iowa State University. You should also study accounting.” I responded, “That will take 15 years and I don’t have that much time.” To which Dr. Harl responded “Steven, you are too impatient. You can do all the things you mentioned and you can do more. You could have my job someday or be a university president. If you study hard, go year round and do as I tell you to do, you can do it in 10 years.”
Fast forward ten years later, I had graduated from Iowa State with an undergraduate background in accounting and agriculture, a PhD in Economics from Iowa State and a Law Degree from University of Iowa, and then I started work at the Belin Law Firm for my first job.
With the public speaking skills, leadership skills and the ability to communicate combined with an interdisciplinary program of law, economics and accounting, I was prepared for a career in corporate law, corporate tax, tax and estate planning. I have had a wonderful and rewarding career as a lawyer for more than forty years. Simultaneously, I developed an appreciation for community service and the ability to lead and communicate which gave me the opportunity to contribute to our community and to give back to Iowa State University. My wife, Kathy, and I are currently the Honorary Co-Chairs of the ISU Forever Billion Dollar Capital Campaign. I have also served as the Chairman of the Greater Des Moines Partnership; Chairman of Bravo, a culture and arts organization; led the United Way Campaign; was a member of the State Board of Regents; and have been involved in many other community organization. My professional recognitions include: Chamber USA–Corporate M&A Star Individual, Best Lawyers–Des Moines Estates and Trust Lawyer of the Year; Worth Magazine Top 100 Lawyers; Iowa Business Hall of Fame inductee.
It all started over 50 years ago at the Coggon Harvest Home when I met Garland Ashbacker and was first introduced to vocational agriculture and FFA.