Some Whys and Wherefores of the Mason City Ys

This is just a reminiscence. I know the word “wherefores” in the title is old-fashioned, but I’m an old guy and so what? When I was a young guy living in Mason City, Iowa where I grew up, I could not afford to rent an apartment. Shortly after I became an emancipated minor, I was lucky to be able to rent a dormitory room at the YMCA at 15 North Pennsylvania Avenue. The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002.

Reference: M, Ben and Clio Admin. “Mason City YMCA (1926-200).” Clio: Your Guide to History. September 30, 2021. Accessed May 10, 2022.

I guess that makes me sort of historic too. It was built in 1926. I think it rents out apartments now. I recently read a Globe Gazette article about the beginnings of the YWCA on 2 South Adams and it was built in 1918. The current Mason City Family YMCA is located on 1840 S Monroe Avenue.

There is a local legend that bank robber John Dillinger and his gang stayed at the YMCA while planning their robbery of the First National Bank in 1934. Track star Jesse Owens stayed there briefly in 1937, starring for a basketball exhibition.

I recently read a Globe Gazette article on the web about the beginnings of the YWCA on 2 South Adams. As I said, it was built in 1918, but I don’t know when it closed. The YWCA sat empty for years until a couple of artists got a loan from a local realtor. They’re renovating it. (Zachary DuPont. “Old YWCA building takes strides toward renovation,” Globe Gazette on line, 10/29, 2021, updated 1/18/2022).

They plan to build artist studios on the 2nd floor, performance space where a basketball court is presently, a community area and art gallery on the first floor, and make single apartment/dormitory rooms cheaper than regular apartments (maybe similar to what the YMCA had many years ago, up to 12 units on 3rd floor). My wife, Sena, stayed there briefly and that was very helpful.


The YWCA is not on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s not clear why. The artists have raised some money with a GoFundMe campaign toward the renovation project. The website is titled “Save the Historic Mason City YWCA.” So why is it not on the National Register of Historic Places?

Anyway, I moved into a very cramped room at the YMCA on either the 3rd floor in my teens. I was working as a draftsman and surveyor’s assistant for WHKS & Co., a consulting engineering company. It was mainly a place to sleep. Most of the time I was traveling, working on out-of-town jobs such as relocating Highway 13 between Elkader and Strawberry Point (really more like straightening out all the curves in it), land surveys and the like.

Portrait of the legacy blogger as a young man

I also have a distant memory of learning how to swim at the YMCA when I was a kid. I was terrified of even putting my face in the water and used to get fierce headaches just getting into the pool. I’m not sure how I got over it, but I did.

There were a fair number of eccentric characters who lived at the YMCA back in my day. I didn’t consider myself one of them and that’s probably why I didn’t end up staying there for decades. I could have worked in Mason City for the rest of my life, having breakfast at the café in the old Brick and Tile Building on East State Street, and eating all of my other meals in restaurants along Federal Avenue until I was too old to do much more than sit in Central Park.

But I didn’t. I’ll get to that.

There were a number of guys who stayed long term at the YMCA. It was kind of uncomfortable for that. There was only one communal bathroom and shower. There were no kitchens. There was barely enough room for a bed, a kneehole desk and chair, and you had to listen to the cast iron heater radiator clank most of the night. They were just sleeping rooms, but it was a little too loud to sleep sometimes because of the banging noise from the radiators.

I found out one of my neighbors was building a motorcycle in his room. He was very proud of it. It was a large machine and took up a lot of space. He kept it very clean. The Director of the YMCA at the time was John Calhoun and he’d been involved with the YMCA since 1943. He had a reputation for being pretty strict about the rules, which likely included one prohibiting the building of motorcycles in your dormitory room. We kept the motorcycle a secret of course.

There were some guys whose wives kicked them out of the house. They were always going out for coffee. They could drink a lot of coffee, smoke a prodigious number of cigarettes, and talk non-stop about how bad things were in the world in general.

There was an old candy bar vending machine on the floor. I got what must have been an ancient Butterfinger. I bit into it and found what I thought was half a worm wriggling around. Finding a worm was bad enough, but half a worm alarmed me. Where was the other half?

I even telephoned the local hospital emergency room to ask if I were in danger of some kind of poisoning. There was only a pay phone available at the YMCA, even for the guys who lived there. The ER doc couldn’t stop laughing long enough to say more than I’d most likely be just fine. “Fine,” he said. I haven’t eaten a Butterfinger since.

I met one guy who kept saying basically one thing over and over: “So my ancestors came over on the Mayflower. All well and good…” Then he would sort of trail off. His expression didn’t change at all. In fact, he looked flat most of the time. I didn’t know it at the time, but he probably had a chronic, severe mental illness.

I don’t remember who told me that the athletic director was gay. I don’t know if he was or not, and it didn’t matter. He treated everybody with kindness and respect and we treated him likewise. I remember he gave me sound advice about the safest length of time to spend in the steam room after I almost blacked out after sitting in there way too long.

I learned the dollar bill jump trick from an older guy in the weight room. He didn’t call it that, but it was a similar challenge. The idea is to bet you that you can’t bend over or squat, grab just your toes and jump over a broomstick—without letting go of your toes. I think he actually showed it to me and another youngster. We tried over and over. All we did was fall and laugh. It’s a good thing he didn’t make us bet.

There wasn’t much to do around there except play pool. There was this underfed-looking guy who used to play a deadly game of call shot eight ball. He amazed me because he worse eyeglasses that were as thick as pop bottle bottoms. I didn’t understand how he could even see his own hands. He won every game.

I know it sounds a little dull, living at the YMCA. On the other hand, I’d have probably been in a tight spot if the YMCA had not been there when I was young.

I read a Wikipedia article about the song in the late 1970s, “Y.M.C.A.” by the Village People. The author noted that in the early days of the YMCA, the single room occupancy dormitory rooms were for guys who moved to the city from rural areas to find work. Later, YMCA tenants tended to be youth “…facing life issues” or the homeless.

And I met Sena there. She switched jobs from working across the street at a school administration building to work at the YMCA.

I never hung out at the front desk as much as I did after she showed up. I pretended to read the newspaper a lot. She probably wondered why I was always there. We played bumper pool. I don’t remember who won the games, but I had trouble concentrating on my shots.

She does everything. There must be a God because she is God’s gift to me. I guess after all, I did just fine after eating half a worm.

Featured image picture credit: Pixydotorg.

Next Episode of Uncovering Hawkeye History Today

Get ready for the next episode of The University of Iowa’s virtual event of Uncovering Hawkeye History this evening from 4:30-6:00 PM. The title for this one is “Endless Innovation: An R1 Research Institution (1948–1997).” According to the official announcement, “This event series is designed to highlight notable elements of UI’s 175-year history and includes readings you can do in advance, notable guest speakers during each class, and the opportunity to ask questions each week.” You can register here.

Today’s zoom class again features university archivist David McCarty and 3 of the UI’s most talented innovators:

Bruce Gantz: 68BS, 74MD, 80MS, 80R), otolaryngology professor, the world’s first doctor to perform a robot-assisted cochlear implant surgery

Kevin Washburn: N. William Hines dean, College of Law

Ed Wasserman: experiential psychology professor

Sena and I plan to join the event this evening. I’m looking forward to hearing from Ed Wasserman, who has been studying the origins of innovation for decades. He studies pigeons to find out what really goes on in the ability of humans to come up with new ideas. Wasserman thinks it may have more to do with simple processes like trial and error then eureka type flashes of genius. In other words, we’re a lot like pigeons.

For some reason, this reminds me of an essay by James Thurber, “There’s an Owl in My Room.” It’s published in a book entitled The Thurber Carnival. The essay is all about Thurber’s impatience with a poem about pigeons written by Gertrude Stein. He thought it made pigeons way too complicated. I realized that I had never read the poem, so I went hunting for it on the web. I found a lot of comments about how ridiculous many people think “pigeons on the grass” is:

“Pigeons on the grass, alas. Pigeons on the grass, alas. Short longer grass short longer, longer shorter yellow grass. Pigeons, large pigeons on the shorter longer yellow grass, alas, pigeons on the grass.”—Gertrude Stein.

I had no trouble finding a short excerpt of Thurber’s scathing essay about it on the web.

Thurber’s closing sentence is “No other thing in the world falls so far short being able to do what it cannot do as a pigeon does. Of being unable to do what it can do, too, as far as that goes.”

You can see why some people might be offended by being compared to pigeons. On the other hand, he has written a book about the origin of the notion of creative genius, As If by Design: How Creative Behaviors Really Evolve (2021, Cambridge University Press).

I read an article on the web claiming that, scientifically speaking, there’s no difference between doves and pigeons. Sena and I have observed pigeons/doves with missing toes. That might indicate the trial and error of attempts to make nests with string, which gets wound around their feet, leading to auto-amputation. Some call it stringfoot, although it might just be bad judgment (see my YouTube description).

I can imagine what he might think about Ancient Aliens theories about how humans might come up with innovative inventions. Aliens seem to be particularly prone to crashing their space ships on our planet, making it easier for us to reverse engineer the working parts left strewn all over the ground. There’s something ironical about that. How can they be smart enough to manipulate our DNA and leave us clues about how to create inventions that advance our civilization when they can’t even stop falling out of the sky? On the other hand, maybe we just stole their technology right out from under their very small noses and slapped patents on them. So much for genius.

I’m sure Wasserman thought of all that.

Our Impressions of University of Iowa Free Webinar Yesterday: The Stories That Define Us”

We were overall delighted with yesterday’s presentation, University of Iowa Free Webinar: “Breaking Barriers: Arts, Athletics, and Medicine (1898-1947).” It’s one in a series of 4 virtual seminars with two more scheduled this month, which you can register for at this link.

February 15: Endless Innovation: An R1 Research Institution (1948–1997)

February 22: The Next Chapter: Blazing New Trails (1998–2047)

The moderator was university archivist and storyteller, David McCartney.

Presenters include:

Yesterday’s presentation was recorded and will be uploaded to The University of Iowa Center for Advancement YouTube site at a later date.

McCartney did an excellent job as moderator, although got stumped from a question from a viewer about who was the first African American faculty member in the College of Medicine. He’s still working on tracking that down. It wasn’t me. I’m not that old and I am not risen from the dead, as far as I can tell; but to be absolutely clear, you should ask my wife, Sena. I was able to google who was the first African American graduate of the University of Iowa law school: Alexander Clark, Jr. McCartney thinks he might have been the first University of Iowa alumnus, although he couldn’t confirm that.

On the other hand, I could have been the first African American consulting psychiatrist (maybe the only African American psychiatrist ever) in the Department of Psychiatry at UIHC—but I can’t confirm that. Maybe McCartney could work on that, too.

 There are a few words about me in the department’s own history book, “Psychiatry at Iowa: The Shaping of a Discipline: A History of Service, Science, and Education by James Bass: Chapter 5, The New Path of George Winokur, 1971-1990:

“If in Iowa’s Department of Psychiatry there is an essential example of the consultation-liaison psychiatrist, it would be Dr. James Amos. A true in-the-trenches clinician and teacher, Amos’s potential was first spotted by George Winokur and then cultivated by Winokur’s successor, Bob Robinson. Robinson initially sought a research gene in Amos, but, as Amos would be the first to state, clinical work—not research—would be Amos’s true calling. With Russell Noyes, before Noyes’ retirement in 2002, Amos ran the UIHC psychiatry consultation service and then continued on, heroically serving an 811-bed hospital. In 2010 he would edit a book with Robinson entitled Psychosomatic Medicine: An Introduction to Consultation-Liaison Psychiatry.” (Bass, J. (2019). Psychiatry at Iowa: A History of Service, Science, and Education. Iowa City, Iowa, The University of Iowa Department of Psychiatry).”

And in Chapter 6 (Robert G. Robinson and the Widening of Basic Science, 1990-2011), Bass mentions my name in the context of being one of the first clinical track faculty (as distinguished from research track) in the department. In some ways, breaking ground as a clinical track faculty was probably harder than being the only African American faculty member in the department.

I had questions for Lan Samantha Chang and for Dr. Patricia Winokur (who co-staffed the UIHC Medical-Psychiatry Unit with me more years ago than I want to count.

I asked Dr. Chang what role did James Alan McPherson play in the Iowa Writers Workshop. She was finishing her presentation and had not mentioned him, so I thought I’d better bring him up. She had very warm memories of him being her teacher, the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and a long-time faculty member at the Workshop.

She didn’t mention whether McPherson had ever been a director of the Workshop, though she went through the list of directors from 1897 to when she assumed leadership in 2006. You can read this on the Workshop’s History web page. I have so far read two sources (with Wikipedia repeating the Ploughshares article item) on the web indicating McPherson had been acting director between 2005-2007 after the death of Frank Conroy. One source for this was on Black Past published in 2016 shortly after his death, and the other was a Ploughshares article published in 2008. I sent an email request for clarification to the organizers of the zoom webinar to pass along to Lan Samantha Chang.

I asked Dr. Winokur about George Winokur’s contribution to the science of psychiatric medicine. Dr. George Winokur was her father and he was the Chair of the UIHC Psychiatry Department while I was there. She mentioned his focus on research in schizophrenia and other accomplishments. I’ll quote the last paragraph from Bass’s history on the George Winokur era:

“Winokur, in terms of research, was a prototype of the new empirical psychiatrist. Though his own research was primarily in the clinical realm, he was guided by the new neurobiological paradigm (perhaps in an overbalanced way) that was solidifying psychiatry with comparative quickness. New techniques in imaging and revelations of the possibilities in genetic study and neuropsychopharmacology lay ahead. George Winokur had helped the University of Iowa’s Department of Psychiatry—and American psychiatry as a whole—turn a corner away from subjectivity and irregularity of Freudian-based therapies. And once that corner had been turned there was no going back.”

George Winokur was the department chair at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics from 1971 to 1990 and had a unique and memorable style. George also had a rough sense of humor. He had a rolling, gravelly laugh. He had strict guidelines for how residents should behave, only slightly tongue-in-cheek. They were written in the form of 10 commandments. Who knows, maybe there are stone tablets somewhere:

Winokur’s 10 Commandments

  1. Thou shalt not sleep with any UI Psychiatry Hospital patient unless it be thy spouse.
  2. Thou shalt not accept recompense for patient care in this center outside thy salary.
  3. Thou shalt be on time for conferences and meetings.
  4. Thou shalt act toward the staff attending with courtesy.
  5. Thou shalt write progress notes even if no progress has been made.
  6. Thou shalt be prompt and on time with thy letters, admissions and discharge notes.
  7. Thou shalt not moonlight without permission under threat of excommunication.
  8. Data is thy God. No graven images will be accepted in its place.
  9. Thou shalt speak thy mind.
  10. Thou shalt comport thyself with modesty, not omniscience.

Quinn Early has a lot of energy and puts it to good use. His documentary of the sacrifices of African American sports pioneers, including “On the Shoulders of Giants” (Frank Kinney Holbrook) is impressive.

There was a good discussion of the importance of the book “Invisible Hawkeyes: African Americans at the University of Iowa during the Long Civil Rights Era”, edited by former UI faculty, Lena and Michael Hill.

Sena and I thought yesterday’s presentation was excellent. We plan to attend the two upcoming webinars as well. We encourage others to join.

University of Iowa Free Webinar Tonight: The Stories That Define Us”

We just found out that the University of Iowa is presenting a free webinar this evening from 4:30—5:30 PM. It’s a zoom meeting and the title is “Breaking Barriers: Arts, Athletics, and Medicine (1898-1947)”. It’s part of a 4-part series that started February 1, 2022, “Uncovering Hawkeye History: The Stories That Define Us.”

Presenters include:

  • Lan Samantha Chang (93MFA), Iowa Writers’ Workshop director and acclaimed author
  • Quinn Early (87BA), Hawkeye football star and film producer
  • Patricia Winokur (88R, 91F), professor of internal medicine–infectious diseases

We discovered this presentation after a long, spirited conversation about race relations generally this morning over breakfast. Authors mentioned included Ralph Ellison, author of “Invisible Man” and James Alan McPherson, long time faculty and director of the Iowa Writers Workshop, author of first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction with his collection “Elbow Room.”

There were several cross threads in our conversation. One of them was my memory of a visiting professor (whose name, however, I can’t remember) who gave a presentation about being Black in America at Huston-Tillotson College (now Huston-Tillotson University; one of the HBCUs in America) in Austin, Texas. He said something I’ll never forget. I mentioned this in a book review published over 20 years ago in the American Journal of Psychiatry:

A guest lecturer (who, as I recall, had also written a book about being black in America) told us that the white man would never allow a black man to be a man in America. He had only three choices: he could be a clown, an athlete, or a noble savage. These corresponded to the prominent and often stereotyped roles that blacks typically held in entertainment, sports, and black churches. It begged the question of what on earth could we hope to accomplish— JAMES J. AMOS, M.D., Iowa City, Iowa (2000). “Being Black in America Today: A Multiperspective Review of the Problem.” American Journal of Psychiatry 157(5): 845-846.

This is related to another memory, that of the quasi-character Rinehart in Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” The name refers to the multiple perspectives from which a black person (or any person, really) can look himself. You can look at the word itself as compound, containing two words, “rind” and “heart.” Understood as metaphors, you can readily see how it could apply to anyone. We can have a surface personality socially, and we can have an inner core, a heart that is hidden and which can truly define who we are. We’re always changing, inside and out, backwards and forwards.

On the subject of hidden stories, I am also reminded of the book “Invisible Hawkeyes: African Americans at the University of Iowa during the Long Civil Rights Era”, edited by former UI faculty, Lena and Michael Hill. The book describes the mixed reactions of African Americans to the interracial climate in Iowa City and at the University of Iowa during that era. Not all felt welcome, although James Alan McPherson did. Indeed, the Hills often highlight the fluidity of the interactions, which makes me think of Rinehart.

David McCartney, the university archivist, is joining the presentation. He led the drive to rename Johnson County in Iowa for Dr. Lulu Merle Johnson, an accomplished University of Iowa alumna, by putting up an on-line petition which gathered 1,000 signatures. We’re looking forward to this evening’s presentation.

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