Spotlight: Larry Rettig (LarryR)

By Sharon Brown (Sharon) on October 25, 2010

Sometimes we meet a friend and we know within a heartbeat that our lives have been made better. It doesn't matter that we've never seen our new friend face to face, it only matters that the value of the friendship begins to evolve. Remember the old song "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better..."? Well, it was almost like that at the beginning, but I think I need to tell you the whole story so you'll understand.

As is true for many of us here, Larry Rettig and I met in Dave's Garden. It was a good place to meet, and at the time, our one commonality was writing articles. Actually, our article writing there started at about the same time. I was impressed with this man who wrote quite well, he mastered the technology of article writing quickly, he was a perfectionist, and I could never find an undotted i, nor an uncrossed t. I didn't talk with him at first, I simply read his articles. 

It seemed he wrote of subjects similar to my own, things that rang a memory bell deep inside me. I wrote of plants I knew from my childhood, so did he. I wrote of an early Christmas tree that I remembered, so did he. I wrote of art projects, so did he. Who on earth was this man whose memories were so meshed with my own?  I found myself writing better, putting more effort into my articles, because his very perfect work presented me with quite a challenge. We had started out on equal footing, but within a short time he was so much better than I was. He didn't know it but I was reading every word he wrote!

One day more than two years ago, I wrote of a plant I had seen in Alaska, one I didn't have but remembered from my childhood. Out of the blue I received a note from him:  "Sharon, if you'll send me your mailing address, I'll send you some seeds." Ha!! He had been reading my articles just as I had been reading his! He was probably watching my dotted i's and crossed t's, too. It occurred to me that only a teacher would mentally edit everythi2010-10-24/Sharran/9b9fb8ng written. I was a teacher, I wondered if he was, too.

And so began an unlikely friendship, one that continues to grow in importance and value, even as we laughed our way through this interview. I want you to get to know Larry, too.  

Larry, please give us a little background information. For the moment, I promise I'll be serious. And for the moment, you can be serious, too.

LR:  I was born in 1941 in Middle Amana, IA, one of seven villages in a former German religious commune called the Amana Society; my parents were born and raised in the commune. My native language was Amana German (due to my matriarchal grandmother); I did not know English when I enrolled in kindergarten.

I met my wife, Wilma, at the blue table in kindergarten; I never gave her a second thought. Our first date was our senior prom. (She asked me!)

I was president and valedictorian of our senior high school class; I made medical history that yea2010-10-23/Sharran/852888r by surviving a case of the mumps with more complications than anyone had ever had before. (I spent two weeks in the hospital; thought I was going to die.)

My first job was as a printer’s apprentice and proofreader at a local print shop, then I received my B.A., M.A., and PhD from University of Iowa (German linguistics and literature).  I researched sounds of Amana German for M.A., grammar and syntax for PhD. (I wanted to establish a written and taped record of Amana German before it died out completely—it existed only in oral form.)  I was a graduate student and German instructor at the U of I during the Vietnam protest era.

Larry, tell us about the opportunity you had to study in Germany. 

LR:  I received the Germanistic Society of America scholarship (for living, studying and researching dialects in Germany). Wilma and I spent 13 months in Germany. Our daughter, Robin, was born there. Wilma was 6 months pregnant when we departed the US.2010-10-23/Sharran/ec633d

Then I spent twelve years as professor of German and linguistics, first at Defiance College (Chair of Dept. of Foreign Langs.), Defiance, OH, then at Alabama A&M, and finally at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. I also taught German to rocket technicians at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville.

I returned to Iowa in late 1970s; I spent several years as academic counselor at U of I and then Special Assistant to Vice President for Research for 25 years. I had 6 different bosses during that period!

OK, you've told us about the Academic Larry. Let's change hats now and talk about the Larry I've come to know, the one who can throw me right into the midst of a giggle fit with only a word or two. We'll get back to the serious stuff, but I'm ready for one of your stories. Grab a cup of coffee, folks, the best is yet to come. 

Larry, how about your red, white and blue striped bell bottomed trousers...


LR:  “Omigosh!” my wife gasped.  Those are your pants!”

We were seated at a table in a local theater, enjoying a production of “All School Reunion,” a sit-com in which the theater goers are also part of the action.  The plot revolves around the all-school reunion of a fictional Highland High School with the audience playing the attendees.  There was high drama, lots of adlibbing, lots of fantastic musical talent, many surprises, and best of all, lots of laughs.

Tickets to the event informed purchasers that there was a Hawaiian theme involved in the performance and to dress accordingly.  My w2010-10-23/Sharran/f85af2ife wore her South Seas pareo, shell earrings, and carried a bag made of woven palm fronds.  I chose a Hawaiian shirt, a shell necklace, and a Tahitian warrior's grass headpiece.  Everyone got leis as they walked in the door.  No reunion detail was omitted, including a real banquet with very tasty food.

The biggest surprise of the evening for my wife and me came when the math teacher, who also ran the lost and found department at Highland High, pulled a pair of pants from his lost and found box.  He asked if they belonged to any of us.  Wilma recognized them immediately as a pair I had donated to the theater company some years ago. 

My mind flashed back to an afternoon in a dentist’s office in Huntsville, Alabama.  In the early 1970s, my wife, daughter, and I lived in Huntsville, and on that particular day I found myself in a dental chair, bracing for a root canal.  The dentist and I chit-chatted a bit as he prepped for the procedure.  “You know,” he said, “you look an awful lot like Mark Spitz.”  (Spitz had recently won an unprecedented seven gold medals in swimming at the Munich Olympic Games.) 

I think my appearance surprised the dentist, because he was used to seeing me in dark hair down to my shoulders.  Shortly before my visit, I had decided to get my long locks cut and now sported a more conventional hair style.

I thanked him for the compliment.  He continued, “I went to dental college with Mark’s father and I know Mark well.  You look just like him.”

A short time later, my family and I were in the midst of our customary weekend shopping excursion at the largest mall in Huntsville, when I spied a pair of bell-bottom pants in a discount clothing store.  They sported broad vertical stripes of red, white, and blue and had a drawstring at the waist.  Since July 4th was coming up soon, I decided to buy them to wear at the local festivities.

During the following week, I made a trip to the same mall to pick up something or other that I needed at home.  Without giving it much thought, I put on my new pants, my leather boots, and wore a medallion around my neck. (It was the early 70s after all!).

I walked into the mall through the2010-10-23/Sharran/0765e6 front entrance and noticed that quite a crowd had gathered around a model of an in-ground swimming pool in the large open area just inside.  As I walked toward the crowd, I heard someone yell "There he is!”  Without warning a group of young teeny boppers broke away from the crowd and came running straight toward me.  When I realized that it was I that they were after, I panicked and broke into a run myself.  I had no clue as to what was happening.  Penney's was nearby, so I ducked into the store’s closest entrance.  Picture me running through aisles and aisles of clothing with a swarm of teeny-boppers in hot pursuit.  I found an exit to the outside and was relieved that they didn't follow me out of the store.

It wasn't until the next day that I learned the crowd was waiting for Mark Spitz, who had come to the mall to promote a particular brand of swimming pools.

Ahhh, Fleeting Fame!! I can see you running in those bell bottomed2010-10-23/Sharran/6e6778 trousers, and I wanted everybody else to see it, too. Now, serious again, what about gardening, Larry? How did you become so interested in gardening?

LB:  We now live in South Amana in the house that Wilma was born in. It was built in 1900 as the last “old” Amana house, but it was also once the site of the first structure (log cabin) in South Amana.

My love of gardening developed early in life.  While growing up, everyone in our neighborhood had vegetable gardens and flowers as well.  My mother loved flowers, tending numerous beds around our house during the growing season.  But the person who most influenced me was Brother Jacob Dickel, our neighbor across the street. (When I was growing up, members of the community who were not immediate family were addressed as “Brother” or “Sister,” a left-over from communal days.)

An elderly man, he was anxious to pass along his gardening knowledge to someone in the younger generation.  He took note of my interest in his gardens and during my visits would tell me about them.  I learned the nam2010-10-24/Sharran/0727a9es of all his flowers and how he grew them.

What was most fascinating to me and really piqued my interest was Brother Dickel’s knack for grafting.  I thought it absolutely miraculous that one could take part of one plant, merge it with part of another, and have it survive and thrive.  At the time, he was conducting a grand experiment.  His challenge was to develop a large, yellow-fleshed, freestone peach that could withstand Iowa’s ofttimes brutal winters.  The only peach that grew in Iowa at that time was a small, white-fleshed peach that was tasty, but sometimes made quick trips to the bathroom necessary when eating more than one or two of them at a time.

Every summer, Brother Dickel would buy bushels and bushels of peaches, have his wife can them, and ask her to save the seeds.  He planted the seeds in his garden and observed w2010-10-24/Sharran/ecdcd5hich seedlings survived the winter.  He continued to grow the survivors to maturity, waiting to see what kind of peaches they produced.  After many years of doing this, he finally hit the jackpot—a peach that met all his criteria.  He began grafting buds from his prize peach onto the stocks of the hardy white variety and taught me how to do the same.  By the time I left for college, I had successfully grafted four of five trees, and they began bearing those wonderful, juicy, yellow peaches.

And now you are living the results of your early gardening experience in the home you call Cottage in the Meadow. I know your garden is often the site of weddings, you shared that with us in one of your articles.

LR:  We expanded and reworked the existing gardens during the 1980s and 90s, now we have ¾ acre. We added the seed bank of vegetables brought from Germany in the 1850's. It was designated as a National Heritage Garden by the Smithsonian Institution in 2005.  We had to come up with na2010-10-24/Sharran/eef4b6me for our garden for the Smithsonian listing. We decided on “Cottage-in-the-Meadow Gardens” (a brick cottage in our gardens with “meadow,” which was actually only large patch of lawn grass).

Larry's garden has been featured in several places. If you simply google Larry Rettig, you'll see for yourself. Country Gardens Magazine (October 30, 2008 issue) is one of them, another is an interesting bike event whose participants can stop for awhile and wander around in his garden. Check this out: RAGBRAI, then watch this interview with Larry.

His gardens have also been the site of outdoor weddings, and you might remember this beautiful article that gives us a glimpse of one of them.

Now I'm seriously impressed. Anything I can do, he can do better. Here's another fun story I think you'll enjoy, luckily he shared a picture or two with us from this event:

LR:  In September 2010-10-24/Sharran/ed1173Wilma and I celebrated our 48th wedding anniversary in Lanesboro, MN.  We had a really fun time!

Lanesboro is known as the "B&B Capitol of Minnesota."  It's even more well-known for the beautiful bike trail that runs through the town and on to the west on an old railroad bed.  Then there is the Root River that runs through town as well.  We stayed in a lovely, old Victorian home right on the river, at the base of a gorgeous cascade of water over a dam.  We biked on a "tandem" bike, only it was a side-by-side.  We'd never seen one before and loved riding it!  It had individual brakes and gear shifts, but the steering was a joint effort.

About the bike:  Wilma and I have ridden the classic "bicycle built for two."  The unfortunate thing about those is that if you're in the back, most of the scenery consists of someone's backside!  We were happy to see that the new configuration solves that problem.2010-10-23/Sharran/f896cb

Saturday evening, we attended a live theater performance of "Enchanted April," one of my favorite pieces.  We'd seen it several times before, but it's fun to see the different interpretations of the script.  This performance was in the round by professional actors and actresses.  It was an outstanding production in every way and received a well-deserved standing ovation at the end.

Wilma and I love live theater.  We have two companies here in the Amana Colonies.  The owner/director of one of them lives right across the street from us and is a good friend.  Anyone who loves live theater would be in seventh heaven, living in our area.  Within a twenty-mile radius, we have ten theaters and counting.  Theatre Cedar Rapids, the community theater in that city, is consistently listed as one of the best community theaters in the country.  Wilma and I have dabbled a bit in theater, I playing an elder 2010-10-23/Sharran/dacb77in Old Amana and Wilma playing an eccentric old lady.  We help out when we can with construction, striking sets, handing out programs, and seating theater-goers.

The weather was absolutely perfect, so we chose to eat our celebratory meal al fresco at a quaint restaurant on a quiet side street.  We forgot the camera, but one of the attached photos shows Wilma standing in front of the restaurant the next morning.

Congratulations to you and Wilma!  Here we are again right in the middle of another similarity. Does it count that I played Elwood P. Dowd's brainless sister, Veta Louise Simmons, in "Harvey" a few years ago? Well, at least I didn't play the invisible rabbit. And then there's the quilting thing:

LR:  Quilting was an important activity for women under the communal system.  That craft, its patterns, and the capabilities of individual quilters carried over to the post communal era.  Quilting bees were common in our household.  There was always competition among the quilters, not only concerning who made the finest stitches, but also who made the best lunch.  Since quilting was an all-day affair, the hostess was obliged to provide lunch.2010-10-23/Sharran/63e1f4

My favorite quilting memory is of playing with my toys under the quilt.  When the quilters started in the morning, the cloth would still be spread wide across the whole room.  It became my tent with a cloth roof and quilter's legs for walls.  Now I know what you're thinking, but let me assure you that I was much to young to be a voyeur!  But I did get an earful.  After a while, the ladies would forget that I was under the quilt, and then the gossip often got quite juicy!

Yes, you guessed it. I wrote an article about quilting also. But I got into real trouble for flipping a dropped thimble at everybody's feet. I should have sat quietly and only listened like he did. I did learn a lot hidden under that quilt, though. That brings us to hooked rugs. Recently here on Cubits, I wrote an article about my old hooked rug that came home to me. It was one my mother and I worked on about 50 years ago. I heard from Larry. He showed me the hooked rug his dad had long ago started, and not only that, he's planning to finish it. I am beginning to think we were separated at birth.

You might as well tell me more, Larry. Otherwise I'll just write my own life story and be done with it. Oh but wait! I've never ridden a tandem bike, and I never taught in Alabama. I want to hear a little about Huntsville. 

LR:  During our stay in Huntsville, I taught at a historic black university, Alabama A&M, as well as at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.  I occasionally invited my A & M classes over to our2010-10-23/Sharran/9bded5 house, when the visit was connected with a classroom activity.  On one occasion, I had my students translate a German recipe for Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte (Black Forest Cherry Cake) and convert metric amounts as a classroom project.  Then we actually mixed, baked, and ate the cake at our house.  Living in a white neighborhood, blacks were seldom seen there.  When car after car arrived with its black occupants, all the neighbors were suddenly outside, mowing the lawn, shining the boat or the car, or standing there, just plain wondering what those crazy Rettigs were up to now!

I just found another difference! I have 2 cats and no dogs. Larry has 2 dogs and 1 cat. Well, it is a small difference. I'll be very quiet now while he tells us about his pets.

LR:  Dogs have always been part of my life.  My very first dog was a Doberman Pinscher named Fritz.  He was a trained watchdog2010-10-23/Sharran/bd49ec that my father somehow managed to acquire from the police department in Des Moines, our state capital.  His role in our lives was to guard the free range chickens my father raised in a pasture just west of our village.  Fritz, however, appointed himself to another role, that of my guardian.  During the daytime, he was often relieved of his duties at the chicken farm and spent that time at home with us.  Fritz and I soon developed a strong bond, and he rarely left my side while at home.

One day, fairly soon after Fritz and I had bonded, one of my uncles stopped by to visit.  As was his custom, he held out his arms, I ran toward him, and he scooped me up off the ground.  Fritz had never met my uncle and, thinking I was about to be assaulted, launched himself with his powerful hind legs.  He landed just to the rear of my uncle and took a bite out of the seat of his pants!  My uncle always phoned ahead after that to inquire if it was safe for him to visit! 

Today we have two dogs, Saphira, an Afghan Hound, and Laila, a Shepherd/Lab mix.  We take four walks a day; both dogs are rescues. We also have one cat, Sadie.

It's highly unlikely that either of my cats would launch itself toward anybody, maybe to reach the top of my fridge, but probably not to protect me. 

There are more stories about Larry than I could tell in a lifetime, and he tells them better than I do anyway. He and Wilma truly enjoy dancing, and I understand he's quite the performer on the dance floor. Another difference, because I have about as much grace as my cat when she misses the top of the fridge, less, actually. But I am an artist, and so is Larry, as yo2010-10-23/Sharran/553531u can see if you check out his blog on Dave's Garden. I will include one of his pastel drawings here, because I think it is so very beautiful.

Larry's also very musical, he plays the keyboard and the hammered dulcimer. We both enjoy Bluegrass music, of course, and I can peck out a melody on a keyboard, but that's about the extent of our musical connection.

Writers often also enjoy writing poetry. Here is one of my favorites, such beauty in so few words:





My soul takes wing and,

gliding through the gathering


dances with fireflies on a

distant, dusky hill.

© Larry Rettig 2007

And then there is the tropical garden he has installed in an extra upstairs bedroom. You can see and read about it here. I don't have an upstairs bedroom, and unless you count my ficus trees, I don't have a tropical garden either. 

So how did the two of us have such similar lives? It's highly unlikely because even as the crow flies, it's 580 miles from Larry's Amana to the mountains of southeast KY where I grew up. He's a little older than I am, he's German and I'm not, but isn't it fun to find friends with such similarities? Larry's an admirable man, and I'm honored to be included in his list of friends, because it is a long list. I was in such a dither writing this article, he's done so many things and I was so impressed, star struck really; I panicked when I couldn't find a photo I'd saved and a paragraph he'd written, so in the middle of the night I sent him a note. It started with "OH NO" and ended with something about having lost my mind along with his information. He almost immediately wrote back: "No worrie2010-10-24/Sharran/3964fds, Sharon.  Being good friends means never having to wear a halo". 

That sure is a good thing, Larry. Thank you. And thank you, too, for such a delightful interview. I'm going to list more of Larry's accomplishments at the end of this article. They are truly mind-boggling. 

I hope you enjoy the photos as well, be sure to click on them to enlarge, and scroll over them for descriptions. If you'd like to chat with Larry, please do so in the comment area that follows this article. 

Oh, and Larry...just one more thing:  Anything I can do, you always do better...always! I am in awe. We share many interests and abilities, but if we were ever to talk by phone, I'm afraid our biggest difference would be obvious. Larry, do you talk with a southern mountain drawl? No, I didn't think so. But you know, I think the most important thing we share is our love of life and laughter. How we sound doesn't seem to matter very much.

Thank you so much, all of you, for joining us this week on Spotlight!

Please visit Larry's Cubits:  Notes from the Garden and Garden Photos.

(Note from Sharon:  Throughout this article I've imbedded links within words. I realize now that they might not be easily seen within my blue text. It's a little too late to change things, but if you scroll over the blue text where it seems a link should be, then I think they'll show up easily for you. I'll do better next time, promise!)

Here is the amazing list that tells us more about Larry Rettig:

  • Vocations/avocations (aside from gardening)
    • University professor
    • University administrator
    • Author:  Currently garden writer; other publications (see below)
    • Professional proofreader
    • Artist
    • Photographer
    • Musician (keyboard and hammered dulcimer)
    • Historian
    • Volunteer at assisted living facility
    • Board member of several civic organizations
    • Member:  Iowa Animal Welfare Foundation, Amana Heritage Society, Amana Arts Guild



 Middle Amana in the 1890s:  Photos Compiled and Restored by Lawrence L. Rettig, self-published

 “Work in the Amana Colonies,” Utopian Visions of Work and Community, Obermann Center for Advanced Studies

 Amana Today: A History of the Amana Society from 1932 to the Present, Jostens University Press

"Renaissance Humanism and Der Ackermann aus Böhmen," AAMU Research Journal

 "Amana German Anew," American Speech


 “Research” (Newsletter), Editor, Office of the Vice President for Research

Bimonthly articles in The Farm Bureau Spokesman, for the Office of the Vice President for Research

Bimonthly articles in The Farm Bureau Spokesman, for Iowa’s Center for Agricultural Safety and Health

“Animal Use in Research and Teaching,” Office of the Vice President for Research

“Oakdale Pathological Waste Incineration Facility,” Office of the Vice President for Research



“Introduction,” “Stardom for Oma,” “Carrie’s Hair,” An American Mosaic, Robert Wolf, editor, Oxford University Press

Numerous stories in a collection of stories by residents of the Amana Colonies, Village Voices: Stories from the Amana Colonies, Free River Press

Guest editorial articles, The Cedar Rapids Gazette,

Monthly gardening column in local newspaper, The Bulletin

Related articles:
art, books, gardening, gardens, history, interview, poetry, teaching, writers, writing

About Sharon Brown
I am a retired Art and Humanities teacher living in western Kentucky. I love writing and art with equal measure, but I also have a passion for nature and plants.

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Comments and discussion:
Subject Thread Starter Last Reply Replies
Quilts? KAMasud Jul 18, 2013 2:27 PM 0
What a fun article! nap Nov 3, 2010 8:07 PM 19
Great! Ridesredmule Nov 2, 2010 7:32 AM 2
OK Sharon, I'm blushing now LarryR Oct 24, 2010 11:21 PM 7
What an interesting life! PollyK Oct 24, 2010 9:15 PM 5

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