She cried excitedly: “You’re a legend!”

We were about halfway into my interview of the man when she ran toward us, handed me her cell phone, and declared to him, “I want a picture of you with me!”

He stood. His folding chair teetered a bit from the release, scraping slightly on the cement floor of the lodge’s canopy. We had moved out there to be away from the crew dismantling tables and chairs inside. 

“A legend?” He asked in a startled manner, not quite sure what was going on. 

“Yes, a legend,” she said in a cutesy voice as she nestled close to him, putting one arm around his waist. 

Without hesitation, almost as an automaton, I obediently took the phone, snapped 2-3 shots, and just as quickly, she grabbed it back, kissed him soundly, and ran off. 

The Okoboji Writers’ Retreat had just finished after three days in the wooded beauty of northwest Iowa. Julie Gammack, whose father had been a recognized wartime correspondent for the Des Moines Register & Tribune, and Julie herself had worked for them, produced the event which featured writers, poets, editors, publishers, literary agents and journalists from across the nation. Each, it seemed, except the agents, had a strong connection to Iowa, and Ms. Gammack had brought them there to help us wannabe writers learn some good writing skills. 

I was so fortunate to be able to attend. It was exciting, exhilarating! We crammed a lot into our brains in those three days. I came away with copious notes. But oh, was it fun. We even went as a group for a boat ride around the lake one evening. 

We who attended were a varied sort, coming from all directions and backgrounds. To my utter amazement, I discovered three of DeWitt’s fine people, the Muellers and fellow Observer columnist, Christine Gilroy, were there also — I had never met them before. What a wonderful surprise!

There were not many younger people, perhaps unable to attend because of jobs. But several older ones were there, hoping to learn about writing memoirs — to them the retreat offered terrific emphasis on getting one’s life story kept for family and posterity. 

The woman wanting the picture, in spite of her small stature and youthful appearance, was in fact a former school principal who had three sons who were now uniformed police officers. 

Her leadership modus operandi showed up at one point during a break when the meeting hall was crowded with masked attendees, speakers, and just about everyone milling about. The former school administrator put two fingers up to her pursed lips and let out a long ear-piercing whistle, then proceeded to issue orders to everyone about garbage placement. 

She, who I met in a session we attended earlier, though merely an attendee and not at all a part of the production, was going to have her way! 

The French have a saying: “Fortune favors the bold.” 

It fit her precisely. It taught introverted me something more about chutzpah.

The man she called a legend on whom she planted that hearty kiss, was John Dinges. He had graciously agreed to my interview, by which I hoped to introduce him to Observer readers because he was, if not a legend, a distinguished author and award-winning journalist, having written for the Washington Post, Time magazine, NPR, ABC Radio and the Latin-America Press. In addition, he became foreign editor and later managing editor at National Public Radio, has written four books about Latin American dictators, and taught at Columbia University as well. 

There was something more about him that intrigued me, however: His modus operandi

Before his journalism days, Dinges grew up in Emmetsburg, Iowa, studied for the priesthood and taught theology. Having been top student at seminary, the presiding Bishop sent Dinges to further study theology at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. Grooming him toward one of the top pinnacles of church hierarchy perhaps? 

He traveled extensively in that part of the world picking up languages like a collection of souvenirs. 

Priesthood was somehow not where he was intended after all, and Latin America came to play a pivotal role in his life. As Dinges explains, “Human values inspired me in everything I have done.”

Furthermore, Dinges revealed, “I never gave up being a Catholic — my window of spirituality.”

I gleaned from the interview and from his workshops the intense interest of John Dinges, not only in learning but also striving to do the best possible with the knowledge he attained, in passing on that knowledge to his students, and his absolute and continued fervor to support his love of humanity through support for democracy. 

Dinges’ words struck a resounding chord with me … I found throughout the retreat, that, just like him, many speakers of the retreat had displayed a deep passion for increasing justice in the world. 

Further research brought to light and I wonder in awe about this, not only the connection to Iowa of those who came to pull the stories out of us, but a seeming connection to the divine. 

No, the gathering could hardly be called a religious rally, not even an ecumenical one — far from it. Although, there appeared to be various creeds and faiths represented, but to me, it was as if there were a spirit moving over the Okoboji waters, filtering through the leafy surroundings of the lodge where we gathered in the woods, and, hidden only physically, settling there among us.

As Julie Gammack so often declared, “There’s a story in all of us.” 

I came to have a further understanding there in the gathering of wordsmiths in flyover Iowa — that in all of us there is found the Creator as well.