In Memoriam: Dorcas Dorow

This week a major force has passed. Dorcas Dorow wasn’t famous, though she was well known in my home town of Osage, Iowa, and half-way around the world in Lermontov, Russia, our sister city, a relationship she was the driving force behind. And her influence spread through her work at Waldorf and with the many choirs she directed and lives she affected, and later in life also through her poetry and membership in Osage’s Alpha Writers group.

But she has been a force in my life ever since the day I was born, and probably before. I grew up across Poplar Street from the Dorows, and distinctly remember running and playing up and down our own side of the street across from Joel and Martha until one of our mothers would come out to let us cross the street. For many years we weren’t allowed to dash across on our own. And I remember playing in their playhouse and later a pop-up camper. Dorcas was always there with a sweet or a joke, or if necessary a harsh rebuke, delivered with biting wit and yet with a friendly tone, a mischievous glint in her eye, and slight Iowa-Norwegian accent that made it a little easier to take. We never feared Dorcas, but we also knew better than to cross the line, at least not very far!

As I grew up, she would become my church choir director at Our Savior’s Lutheran. For 20 years she was the youth choir director, but had moved up to the adult choirs about the time I was old enough to join the youth, so I always looked forward to the day I’d be old enough to sing with the adults. When I reached that age, around junior high when my voice turned baritone, singing with one of her choirs was quite the experience. She handled the tenors, baritones, and basses in much the same way she handled us kids (and the altos and sopranos didn’t fare much better). She could joke around with us and may have inspired my love of bad puns, but we’d better not rush the tempo, sing a wrong note, or come in when there was a rest!

Hanging with the adults, pillars of the community like Arnie Warren, Lowell and Marge Olson, or Bob and Bernie Young, made us high school kids feel all grown up. And we toured with the choir to St. Olaf College and to other choir festivals. Every other Christmas we performed Handel’s Messiah with the community choir, usually under Dorcas’s direction. Her steady hand at the helm of all these ships was a model of good teaching and calm, yet firm leadership.

Later, when I moved away, first to college, then to work, then graduate school, and finally to teaching at MUW, I would see Dorcas and Edgar every time I went home. I saw as she became interested in the Alpha Writers and quickly became one of its most active and productive members. She helped me work with them to organize a poetry reading in Osage when my first book came out, which was a moving experience to be able to read in front of my Mom and Dad and the many friends from the days when I grew up. I saw her poems in Lyrical Iowa, and may have even judged one or two (anonymously) when I judged their contests. The older I got, the more I began to learn of her work with Waldorf College, and we would trade thoughts on the state of education. We had many long and spirited discussions as Waldorf made the move to more online learning.

And I always respected Dorcas and her husband Edgar for their belief in international exchange. As kids, we benefitted from the many Thanksgiving visits of foreign students from the University of Iowa organized by the Rotary Club of which Edgar was a member. The Dorows and our family often had a student with us for the holiday in those years. Later, as Dorcas became more involved, she would start Osage’s sister city relationship with Lermontov and become an international traveler and a driving force in the sister city organization.

I don’t think there was much that Dorcas took on, if she couldn’t do it whole-heartedly. And she took on a lot! She was always in charge, but never overbearing — or if she needed to be at time, she was so with enough sweetness or wry humor that you could bear it anyway. She never gave up, and she never stopped going until congestive heart failure finally got the better of her. If there was someone who defined the life force, it is probably Dorcas. Those of us who knew her are much better for it.

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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