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Reading the Signs

By Anthony Flott, Editor
Photo courtesy Midwest Living

Dan Kaercher has always had a knack for reading signs. It’s a skill that came in particularly handy last summer when the UNO grad navigated more than 10,000 miles through 12 Midwest states. Signs guided him from the nation’s largest quarter horse ranch in Nebraska’s Arthur to an historic community of German religious dissenters in Ohio’s Zoar—and dozens of places in between.

The four-leg, eight-week journey was conducted under the auspices of Midwest Living magazine, where Kaercher has been editor-in-chief since 1987, with the intent, “To reconnect at the grassroots with my region and to reaffirm our magazine’s overriding mission: to celebrate everything that is the very best of the Midwest.”

Kaercher compiled his travel notes into a chatty book, “Best of the Midwest: Rediscovering America’s Heartland” released this May. His observations and experiences also formed the basis for “Dan On the Road,” a one-hour special airing on Iowa Public TV and other Midwest PBS stations this spring and summer. A series of half-hour programs based on the trip will debut this winter.

It was Kaercher’s ability to read other signs, though, that fostered such storytelling abilities. Kaercher’s parents, Edward and Lillian, both were deaf and mute.

“Some of my verbal skills came from the fact that I was their interpreter many times from an early age,” Kaercher says during a phone conversation from his office in Des Moines. “They would call on me to talk to the guy at the furniture store, to call my grandmother in Omaha. I had to develop my verbal skills very early.”

It was a unique parent-child bond that came to an end only last summer when Kaercher’s mother died at 95 years old—days before he was to begin the second leg of his journey. Lillian Kaercher caught a cold, then developed pneumonia. She spent one day in the hospital before dying. “Somebody who’s 95 dying that mercifully and swiftly, if you will, was a blessing to us,” Kaercher says.

Still, “it was a shock. It was tough. We buried her in Council Bluffs on Monday and then Tuesday afternoon I had to be in Chicago to start the next leg of the trip. I thought, ‘How can I get through this?’ But . . . sometimes parents are helping you along when they’re not physically along.”

Roots

Married later in life, Edward and Lillian Kaercher were “totally not expecting a child” when their son came along in 1949. “Life was hard for my parents because life was hard for disabled people then,” Kaercher says. “It’s not easy now. Employment and things like that were very difficult.”

Kaercher’s father, a Philadelphia native, graduated from Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, Gallaudet College and Lutheran Theological Seminary. He is cited in the book, “Deaf Heritage: A Narrative History of Deaf America,” as being the first deaf Lutheran pastor to be ordained, in 1929. Edward later established “preaching points” in various East Coast cities before illness forced him out of the pulpit in 1942.

Sometime after that he came to Nebraska, ostensibly to visit his sister, Hilda, who in 1943 formed Immanuel Lutheran Church in Bellevue. His real motivation was to meet a woman spoken of by a friend from Gallaudet College—Lillian, a Nebraska School for the Deaf graduate and recent widow. “There aren’t all that many people to pick from, sometimes, if you have this disability of deafness,” Kaercher says. “At that time, a deaf person almost always married a deaf person.”

Edward and Lillian did just that, then moved to the Finger Lakes region of New York. Kaercher was born there, in Elmira, N.Y. “Despite that blemish,” he jokes, “I can claim safely that I’ve been a Midwesterner for 52 out of my 56 years. I couldn’t have asked for two better parents. Both very loving. My father . . . really opened up the world to me. He loved to travel.”

When he was 4, the family “got a fresh start,” moving to Omaha. They lived in Logan Fontenelle Homes, segregated public housing in North Omaha. Edward began a new career, teaching at Iowa School for the Deaf. Their son attended Kellom Grade School at 24th and Paul streets. “The project we lived in was segregated until the mid-’50s,” Kaercher says. “The school was integrated. The majority of students in my grade school through fourth grade were black, which opened my horizons, too. At the time, I thought it was just normal.”

The family moved to Council Bluffs in 1959, Kaercher attending Hoover Grade School and Abraham Lincoln High School (which has inducted him into its hall of fame). At Hoover in the fifth grade he met his wife-to-be, Julie. The two didn’t begin dating until their senior at A.L., however. They graduated in 1967, Dan heading for the University of Omaha, Julie for Iowa State University.

Kaercher praised several professors from his UNO days, including Hugh Cowdin and Joe McCartney. One professor, though receives a special nod. “I feel so lucky I had Warren Francke as one of my personal mentors,” he says. “He got me my first job in journalism at the Council Bluffs Nonpareil when they were looking for an intern. That just sealed my fate. I got those ink-stained fingertips writing obituaries in the summer. They sent me on photo assignments to every county fair in the southwest area. My first beat was the library . . . the YMCA. But I couldn’t have gotten better training. Warren Francke doesn’t know what a big favor he did me.”

Halfway through his time at UNO, Kaercher’s father died at 66. About the same time, Julie transferred to UNO. The couple married in 1970 and both graduated a year later–Julie with a degree in education, Dan in journalism while being named that program’s outstanding student.

Meredith and Midwest

Kaercher had dreams of “going to Chicago or Kansas City or New York” and becoming “a real big shot in the publishing world or in advertising.” Instead, he landed a job in 1972 as senior copywriter in the Better Homes and Garden magazine advertising department. The notable magazine was begun in 1922 by Meredith, Corp., today a diversified media company with magazine, book and TV interests.

Kaercher never left, holding a variety of posts at Meredith in the ensuing 33 years. He worked for the company’s public relations department and was editor of Meredith’s employee publication, of Remodeling Ideas magazine and of BHG’s health and education section. He served as managing editor during the startup of WOOD magazine and was involved in other magazine launches. In 1987 he was tabbed to start Midwest Living.”

Debuting at a time when both the farm and rust belts were experiencing rocky economies, the magazine was meant in part to counter the stereotypes of the Midwest as a cultural wasteland and of its residents as hicks. Kaercher fought skeptics within and without the company. After the first issue appeared, some reviews sarcastically wondered if there was anything left to feature in a second issue.

Kaercher averaged 12 hours a day, seven days a week making a go of things. “I paid quite a price in terms of personal time, but I have a very patient wife,” says Kaercher, who with Julie has a grown son and daughter.

Some of the early fare focused on stories like nuclear waste or taxation and education. “But our readers just did not spark to that. They wanted the chocolate chip cookie recipe, how to grow a better tomato and ‘What color should we paint the porch this year?’ In magazines in particular, you’re a hostage to the expectations of readership. Part of the reason Midwest Living is successful is we’ve always paid attention to the consumer and what they want from the magazine, and it wasn’t stories about nuclear waste; it was chocolate chip cookie recipes.”

Midwest Living turned a profit after three years and returned the company’s investment two years later. “And that’s just unheard of in today’s publishing world. It just doesn’t happen. It takes such an enormous commitment.”

Today it is one of the country’s largest regional lifestyle and travel publications with a circulation of 925,000 and a total readership of 4.2 million. Kaercher directs an editorial staff of about 20 people.

Somewhere along the way, stereotypes of the Midwest began to change, too. “I think the perception has improved, and I think our magazine has made a difference, which is something I’m very proud of.”

On the Road

More stereotypes should fall with Kaercher’s “Best of the Midwest.” The book presented an opportunity “to put my writing hat back on. I enjoyed it, but it was kind of nerve-wracking. You’re nervous if you still have the skills or not.”

Typical days began at 5 a.m. when Kaercher would send off his previous day’s notes for transcription. After breakfast, Kaercher, two photographers and an assistant would pack equipment into two cars and hit the road. After “taking notes like mad” during a day jammed with visits, his head wouldn’t hit pillow until around midnight. There were “biblical downpours in Ohio and flood and tornado warnings in Kansas.” He also packed on four pounds during each leg of the trip (the devoted swimmer shed most of it after his travels).

His book covers attractions big (Chicago’s Wrigley Field, St. Louis’ Gateway Arch, Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, etc.) and small (North Dakota’s Fort Mandan, Minnesota’s Twine Ball Museum and Kansas’ Amelia Earhart home). Nebraska stops included Arthur (Haythorn Ranch), Kearney (Archway monument), Lincoln (Capitol Building/Memorial Stadium), North Platte (Union Pacific Bailey Yards) and the Sandhills. The book mixes Kaercher’s travel accounts with history, shopping, dining and lodging information and, yes, recipes. Beautiful photographs by Bob Stefko run throughout.

“The book is really just a huge, huge thing in my career,” says Kaercher who was “98 percent sure” of another road trip this summer for a book exploring the Midwest’s various food heritages. “If my career ended tomorrow, I couldn’t go out on a better note.”

Fortunately for Kaercher, there’s no sign of that.

Email a letter to Editor Anthony Flott at aflott@mail.unomaha.edu

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