“However much we dreaded and feared them, those Irish nuns taught us how to write”

This excerpt is from the book, Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Changes, Resilience, and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper, by Art Cullen, editor of The Storm Lake Times, a twice-weekly newspaper in Iowa. The excerpt is about Cullen’s high school days in Storm Lake and his growing love for journalism. In 2017 Cullen won the Pultizer Prize for Editorial Writing for stories about how agri-business was poisoning the rivers and lake near Storm Lake.

Every morning five of us would walk the six blocks down the gangplank to school. Ann would start out, about five minutes late, and then each of us would follow five minutes later. I came up last, about a half hour late, ready to wrestle with the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

However much we dreaded and feared them at the time, those Irish nuns taught us how to write. We published our first newspaper when I was in junior high. Our government teacher at St. Mary’s, Sister Mary I Can’t Remember Her Name PBVM, told us about the First Amendment. She said we were free to express ourselves.

Dan Statz, Charlie Dick, Guy Golvin, and I decided to push the envelope and see how far the Constitution would stretch in a dictatorship. We commandeered brother Jim’s mimeograph machine, on which he published Ampersand, an underground newspaper that was tolerated but not encouraged at St. Mary’s High School. We started in junior competition by launching Schizophrenia. I was the editor, Charlie was the senior writer, Dan was our ace columnist, and Guy was the art director.

Our first issue broke all newsstand sales records. We spent the proceeds on a carton  of smokes. A classmate revealed our identities under duress, and we were called into the principal’s office under the stairwell where we met by a stern Sister Maureen, who sent us over to the rectory—No, Lord, not the rectory, please a thousand years in Purgatory but not the dark recesses of the rectory—where we were tried by Monsignor Sweeney for heresy, libel, poor taste, and treason against the Holy Roman Empire. He told us to give the money back from our ill-gotten sales. We had to admit we smoked it. He said he was going to put a red note in our file that would stay with us forever.

I went home that night ready for the whipping of my life.

I found Mom and Dad settled in with a highball laughing like Red Skelton.

Anything in defense of satire and iconoclasm. That was the message I got.

Sister Ruth Marie, knowing I was marked with the cardinal letter, told me in high school that I had “a way with words” but I consistently failed to apply myself. I used an Alford defense and got out of town pledging never to return.

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