At their rural home on a hill east of Corydon, where John and Arta Harman raised five children, John offers a glass of Sangiovese he prepared from a store-bought kit. He once tried to grow the grapes himself, but could not keep the vines alive. On a related note, perhaps, the DNR once provided him Agent Orange as a gift to kill multi-flower rose bushes. I did not suggest to him that that might be the reason his grapes withered. Though his orchard did not flourish, Dr. Harman was much more successful helping animals in his veterinary practice to live and die in a humane way. At the same time, his wife Arta kept him sane, mostly. They brought up their children to value success and family. John champions the worth of education, as former president of the Wayne Community School Board, and still actively promotes the acquisition of knowledge as essential to the survival of small towns. He sees Corydon as being in a battle, but one that the town has many advantages to be able not only to win, but also to thrive.
Both John and Arta are humble about being named Old Settlers of the Year for 2014. They say their only accomplishment is outliving the competition. But as imports from northern Iowa both active in the community, they also appreciate the acknowledgment—the fact Corydon has reached out to recognize their importance, though recognition was never their goal.
“It means that people respect what you’ve done and approve of what you’ve accomplished, however little that might be,” John said.
Arta was a charter member of the Home Health Care Aide Agency, which started in 1964, and 50 years later is still functioning under the leadership of Holly Arnold. Arta is still on the board.
“It’s really quite a service to the community,” John said. “It brought health service to people who were in-between being part time and full time in a home. That helped bridge that gap.”
Though they were humbled, there was some hesitation in the Harmans’ acceptance of their upcoming honor.
“Cathy Couchman and Georgia Runyon came over and asked me if we wanted to be Old Settlers [of the year],” John said. “I thought the wife might want to be, so I said yes. I’m just an ordinary fellow. I suppose someone has to ride in the convertible. Besides, some of the kids are coming home. So that’s pretty nice.”
“I was just floored,” Arta said.
The couple’s children include Pam, the oldest, who graduated from Wayne Community High School in 1975, and lives in a suburb of San Francisco; Brad, who graduated from Wayne in 1977, received his Ph.D. from Iowa State University, lives south of Des Moines, and he and his wife work in the silage inoculants division at Pioneer Hi-Bred in Johnston; Tork graduated from Wayne in 1979, and is an MD and anesthesiologist, head of the pain clinic in Cedar Rapids; Wade graduated from Wayne in 1982, and is a coach for the Atlanta Falcons of the National Football League; and Greg graduated from Wayne in 1983, and is a dentist in Denver, Colo.
“Interesting to me,” John said, “because [Tork] was born on my 28th birthday, so the wife said I could name him. Tork stands for t-o-r-q-u-e, but I spelled it T-o-r-k.
“[Tork Hook’s] mother, Terry, babysat for us and borrowed our name.”
Even in naming their children, the Harman’s influenced three generations of three different families. Sports journalist and Wayne graduate Tork Mason was subsequently named after Wayne Falcon great and University of Iowa football player Tork Hook. When I told John that Mason was named after Hook, Harman laughed and said, “No, he wasn’t—he was named after Tork Harman.”
Arta graduated in 1951 from Providence Consolidated School in Sulfur Springs near Storm Lake. She earned her RN from the St. Mary’s School of Nursing in Rochester, Minn. in 1954. John and Arta met at a dance at the Cobblestone Ballroom in Storm Lake.
“The youth tend to congregate,” John said. “Nothing unusual about that. It’s happened for thousands of years.”
“I was home for a weekend, and he was on a fraternity skip,” Arta said.
When asked if it was love at first sight, she said, “No, I don’t think so. Not for me. Maybe it was for him.”
“Well, it looked good,” John said.
When asked in what way it looked good, John and Arta laughed as John quipped, “Oh, I wouldn’t touch that! She was a nice lady.”
“He was attentive and kind,” Arta said, pausing. “At that time. We communicated well. Didn’t see a lot of each other, because he was in school, and I was in school.”
John and Arta got married in Storm Lake in 1954, while John graduated from ISU in 1957.
“Only way I could get through college was to have someone to support me,” John said.
Arta Harman is also a member of the Wayne County Hospital Auxiliary, and still volunteers her time. A few years ago, she received the Shining Star award for her service there. She is past president of the Wayne County Booster Club, and was a Girl Scout and Cub Scout leader.
John and Arta attend the Lutheran Church in Corydon, which is part of the Chariton Lutheran Church. They started their organization in 1974, and have both been council and committee members. Growing up in northern Iowa, they were raised Lutheran.
John is now retired from veterinary practice, and farms and raises cattle. As an animal lover, he was a board member of the Lucas County Humane Society, where he helped by spaying and neutering animals. He might be most proud of his school board participation, however.
“We have five kids with at least 37 years of college,” John said. “Education is important. It costs more not to go [to college]. If you have children, you are responsible for them until they at least have job training [past just 18 years old]. Saying I’m going to let my kid do what he wants is not a proper answer. Dropping them on the world with no education and no job skills is not proper.”
As president of the school board during Tork’s graduation, John got to hand his son his diploma.
“That was important to me. Our first three kids were number one in their class, and the last two were not far down the line. School is important, and to get to give your kid a diploma is an honor.”
This year, Tork’s daughter, Sydney, graduated from medical school at the University of Iowa. That makes three generations of doctors.
The Harmans were not only a family of valedictorians and honor students, but also an athletic family. John believes this is most likely thanks to his wife, who earned first team all state in basketball her senior year in high school. John played center on the offensive line in football for one year of high school.
“I can still snap a ball between my legs 15 yards and hit a guy in the chest,” John said.
They have lived on their farm since 1972, and in Corydon before that. Each Thanksgiving, they held the Turkey Bowl, named by son Wade. John found himself again forced to play on the line.
“At least two all-staters played in this yard,” John said.
Some of those players included Wade, who played Division I football at Drake University, before it dropped scholarships and he followed head coach Chuck Shelton from the Bulldogs to Utah State University; and Dave Wetzel, who played quarterback at Simpson College.
“I chased Davy Wetzel every Thanksgiving, and never did catch him,” John said.
John said that Wade was the best athlete, but son Brad was the smoothest.
John and Arta are proponents of the Wayne Pride Project, for the same reason they lament the death of many small towns.
“I think it was a really good move,” John said. “A lot of people don’t like to spend money on athletics, but I do. I think it can get kids to come to your school. It’s going to be a battle for students—small farmers leaving, small communities losing population. It will be a battle for school survival, based on academics and athletics.
“I’ve been an athletic booster the whole time, probably to a fault. I’ve had a tremendous amount of fun. We’ve had excellent coaches. [Paul] Epperly was an outstanding coach. [Paul] McFarland was a good coach. You’ve got to have a continuous program—you can’t have a new coach every year and have a good athletic program. And you’ve got to have class A people, and what we had—we were very fortunate. And our athletic programs are coming back.
“When Wade moved from Baltimore to Atlanta, he looked at the schools. He said, ‘We’re going to buy a house where the schools are right for the kids.’
“Society today has trouble with success. They’re against success. So if you’ve got a good school, they’re against you. If you make money, they’re against you. Used to be, success was important.”
John was not soft spoken in his days on the school board, either.
“I aggravated the school board something fierce. I’m still on the SIAC committee, and aggravating them again. My basic opinion is that success is important. They’re stealing money from the good student. I told them that when I was on the school board, and I’ll tell them that today. Every kid is entitled to his $6,000 dollars worth [the average cost of educating each student]. I’ve had parents tell me, ‘Well, those good students don’t need it.’ Well, that is not necessarily true.
“But my opinion is not universally accepted as fact.”
After working in Austin, Minn., as a veterinarian right out of college, and Arta as a nurse, they moved to Corydon. Arta, now with children, gave up nursing to devote her time to the home. John worked with Dr. Leo Freese for several years.
“It was a good opportunity,” John said. “Good area. It’s cattle country. Not as many cattle as there were, but still a lot of cattle.”
But John preferred dogs and pets the most. He enjoyed it not only for his love of animals, but because of how much he knew those pets meant to their owners.
“They have a wonderful personality,” John said. “The dog can look at you and tell everything that you’re thinking just in one second. There are some fabulous, fabulous dogs in this world.
“I enjoyed the large animal practice, as well. Farmers, they were nice people—they treated me well.”
Harman remembers Clell and Linda Bryan’s dog, Peg, fondly.
“Every day [that] I’d go out there to the country, I’d say hi, Peg, and I played with Peg,” John said. “And I could never remember the kids’ names—Cynthia and Kyle. So one day, Clell said, ‘The kids want to know how’s come you can remember that dog’s name, and you can’t remember their names.’ Oh, boy, I never forgot their names after that.
“I had to put Peg to sleep. She got old and in bad shape, and she was under a tree in the yard, and I went out there, talked to her and told her what I was going to do. And she never said a word, and she lay there and I petted her. Popped her in the vein. She licked my hand when I was shooting that in her vein. And she lay down and went to sleep. Peg was a sweetheart. There were lots of other dogs, too, but Peg was one of them.”
When asked if it is still difficult to do, putting animals to sleep, John said, “No, because it needs to be done. It’s a good way to go.” It was not difficult for him because he was relieving the animals of their suffering.
“Back in those days, you were on call 7 day a week, 7 nights a week, 30 days a month.”
John laments the fading of the small family farm. When he speaks of progress and efficiency as the reasons behind their fall, one cannot be certain he is praising or cursing those terms.
“That has destroyed rural America, and we are part of rural America,” John said. “All aspects of the small town suffer because the people aren’t there. You can’t stop progress, but it has changed rural America. The herbicides are what did it. If we didn’t have herbicides, the big farmers could not farm a lot of land. You’d have to cultivate it several times in the summer to get a crop. Now with the herbicide, you can put in three days in the spring and three days in the fall, and you’ve got it.
“It destroyed the small towns and the small communities. Any small town is in a fight for its life. Corydon is lucky. We’ve got a county seat, we’ve got a good hospital, we’ve got a good school, we’ve got several good businesses that hire people. So we’re in a good situation. But small towns are in for a fight.”
I asked John whether large hog operations such as Murphy-Brown in Missouri are signs of progress.
“No, it’s the eventual way that you have to go to get efficiency,” John said. “The people who can produce pork for the least amount of money are going to be successful. It’s not progress, but it’s just like standing in the way of a flooding river—it’s going to run over you. It’s not progress, but it’s the way it’s going to go. It’s efficiency, not progress.”
I asked if efficiency could be stopped, or if those who fight it are only going against the flood.
“Yes, and they’re going to get washed down the creek,” John replied. “You can’t stop efficiency. Efficiency is the name of the game. The one that can produce the pork for the least, the beef for the least and the corn for the least is going to be successful. Size is a big factor. And it has robbed the community of small farms and small farmers.”
Ironically, after speaking of large hog lots, one of his favorite, most memorable pets John doctored was a pig.
“This was a true story. This lady had a pig—there used to be runt pigs, and people would give you a pig because it was going to die where it was at, the sow wasn’t going to take care of it.
“Pigs are smart. The pig is most like human in their body design and function.
“She raised this sow, and it stayed in the house with her. This hog was housebroken. Still smelled like a hog, but it was housebroken. It had its own couch. She got to weighing 400 pounds, and she still came in the house and slept on that couch, and she was the best guard dog in the world. Ain’t nobody come in there against a 400-pound sow. A 400-pound sow could knock you down and eat you before you could draw your gun. They’re fast and they’re smart. When you’re down flat on the ground, that sow’s got you where she wants you.”
John stopped short of identifying the owner’s name.
“Not a lot of people want other people to know you’ve got a sow sleeping on your couch.”
Another story John likes to tell concerns Lyle Furman, a farmer south of Allerton. Furman owned some the earliest purebred limousine cattle. He bought a limousine heifer for $3,000, equivalent to around $30,000 today, and about the price of a new car, then. Furman was super-ovulating and taking the eggs out and inserting them in another cow. The heifer hurt her leg. None of the veterinarians wanted to treat her, because of liability issues—they didn’t want to be blamed for the death of an expensive animal.
“I said, it’s real simple, Lyle, there’s a hundred ways that cow could die, and everyone in the world knows you can’t treat a cow with a broken leg. We touch that cow, we’re liable for $3,000. Insurance company probably wouldn’t back us, because we worked on a cow with a broken leg.
“He said, ‘I’ll tell you what. If you treat that cow for me, and that cow dies, I’ll not say nothing to anybody. No court case, I won’t do nothing, if you’ll work on her for me.’
“I said, okay, Lyle, we’ll work on her. No signed contract, nothing. Just his word on a $30,000 deal.”
John fashioned a special stint for the cow, put her on bed rest, and over a month later she was better. Furman sold the heifer for $4,000.
Due to the popularity of English bulldogs, John also performed hundreds of C-sections, which is the only way to birth that breed. Owners could sell the pups for $1,000, equivalent to $10,000 today.
“I liked the big dogs. Dobermans, I loved them. And Rottweillers. They can be aggressive, but they’re loving dogs. Just really nice dogs. They know what you’re thinking—like I told you before—so either you like them, or they eat you. I like them, so they didn’t bother me at all. Pit bulls, same way. Pit bulls are a nice dog, [unless] the owner raises them incorrectly, to be mean.
“When you ban all pit bulls, it’s like banning all white people, or all black people, or all red people. You throw all of them together [by stereotype], which is not correct.”
John fondly recalls a gift once given him by Jim Kaster, the proud owner of a dachshund. Kaster was on vacation in Arizona, when he learned his dachshund suffered from a potentially fatal hernia.
“He loved the dog, his wife loved the dog and it was a very important dog,” John said.
John told him they had to operate, or else. Kaster agreed, even though the dog could die without him seeing the dachshund alive again. When John was on call at Thanksgiving, he was getting tired of hearing the phone ring. But Kaster called and said he wanted to talk to John, who lived only a few blocks away. Kaster presented John, for saving his black male dachshund, a pint of pinch bottle scotch—good, high-priced scotch. Kaster told him they were sitting there on Thanksgiving thinking of all the things his family was thankful for, and one of them was John saving his dog.
“That made my whole day,” John said.
In the end, the Harmans are thankful John was not happy in Austin, Minn., and that he listened to Arta, who told him to find a place where he was content.
“We think Wayne Community is a good place to live, and we’re very happy with the education our kids got here,” John said, speaking on behalf of Arta as well. “You can come from Wayne and go to anyplace you want and be whatever you what. It does not limit you. Wayne is a good place to be from, because it’s a good background.
“If we cooperate and work together, then we have a chance to survive and do well. We cannot expect someone else to do the work.”