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Dan Ehl is a man filled with stories, stories he loves to share with others.
For more than 50 years, he has been sharing those stories with newspaper readers across eastern Iowa, the past eight years as news editor for the Kalona News.
This week, his newspaper storytelling career comes to an end with his retirement.
Ehl is moving to Arizona where he plans work on his fantasy novels, hike and no doubt regale others at the local watering hole with his colorful stories, sporting one of his trademark Hawaiian shirts.
For the past eight years when workday ended at The Kalona News, Dan was a fixture at the Tuscan Moon, a beer in hand and an ample supply of stories for whoever was sitting at the bar.
His life was as colorful as his stories and provided ample material. An “unabashed liberal,” Ehl worked at newspapers whose publishers were farther right on the political spectrum than he was – much farther right.
Ehl grew up in a number of communities in and around Jackson County. He was bitten by the journalism bug at an early age, working at the Maquoketa Sentinel while still in high school.
After graduation in 1968, he enlisted in the Army, a strategy that helped him avoid a tour in Vietnam. He landed in Germany as an Army photographer, but his avocation was driving officers in his unit crazy.
He and his buddies had a motto, “We won’t fight, and you can’t make us.” Ehl regularly sent letters to his hometown newspaper railing against the war in Vietnam.
Nor surprisingly, the Army let him out in 1972, a year early as the Vietnam War was winding down and the Army began thinning its ranks.
Back in Iowa, Ehl enrolled in journalism school at the University of Iowa. He supplemented his college courses working for the student newspaper and at the Hoover Library in the museum’s photo lab. Ehl never graduated as his second son was born in 1977, and he went to work full-time at the West Liberty Index where he spent seven years honing his craft as a reporter and editor.
His career took him to the daily newspaper in Newton for 15 years, another eight in Centerville and finally landing the news editor job at the Kalona News eight years ago.
A story in Centerville nearly got him killed.
It was just a couple of paragraphs in a city council story. Police had asked the council to revoke a bar’s liquor license. Ehl was jumped on the street and beaten unconscious by two men. They eventually were convicted of punching, kicking and stomping on Ehl, who ended up in the hospital with a broken leg and multiple injuries to his face.
“Some people just don’t think a letter to the editor is sufficient,” Ehl said.
Looking back, Ehl said he is surprised that it was a small part of a news story that got him in trouble. For years, he wrote a column – “Running Rampant” – that was filled with his liberal thoughts that were well read but not always popular in the conservative communities where he worked.
“I’ve always been an unabashed liberal,” Ehl said.
The column was not all Ehl wrote. In August, he published his seventh novel, the fifth featuring Jak Barley, private inquisitor. The book is a fantasy where Barley gets help solving crimes from Morgana, a beautiful witchling in training.
Ehl also is a regular contributor to the eclectic Wapsipinicon Almanac, a gig he landed after a friend of a friend introduced him to publisher Tim Fay. His first story was a piece where Ehl roamed government offices in search of the drug tax stamp required by the state. Fay introduced Ehl to readers as his “drug correspondent.”
A number of stories stand out in Ehl’s mind from the thousands he has written over the years.
There was the story on a woman addicted to methamphetamine, a story that captured a first place award from the state newspaper association. There was the story on Raymond Tinnian, a Kalona attorney, who endured ethics violations, slashed tires, an attack on his reputation and two arrests before being found not guilty in court. Earlier this year, the attorney won his lawsuit against Johnson County and Coralville stemming from an arrest tied to the years of harassment he dealt with.
“That’s the one that strikes me the most,” Ehl said, adding that other newspapers failed to report on the story until after the not guilty verdict.
Ehl recalls the days before digital cameras when police would call him to the scene of grisly accidents to capture the tragedy in photographs. One sticks in his mind. He was eating Christmas dinner with his family when the call came in after a young driver had slammed into a tree, throwing her through the windshield and then back again.
“I had to go take those photos and then go back to Christmas dinner,” he recalled.
And then there are the stories he loves to tell with friends sitting in a bar.
Hitchhiking across the country. Going to sleep on a billboard platform and rolling out of his sleeping bag to find himself dangling in the air in his underwear, the billboard image of a giant woman blowing smoke rings staring down at him. The apology from a police agency after being hassled while hitchhiking.
There was his run to be elected sheriff in Appanoose County with the campaign slogan “drive crime off of the streets and back into homes where it belongs.”
Did I mention that he was ordained as a minister in the Universal Life Church?
Ehl has presided over 60 to 70 weddings. One sticks in his mind. He had been offered a couple of beers while substituting at a Baptist church for a minister on vacation. One thing led to another, and the straight-laced groom’s family found Ehl in a hot tub with a couple of bridesmaids.
“Anyone else want to be baptized?” the Rev. Ehl asked, raising a beer to the stunned family.
“People tell me I should write a book about all of the stories,” Ehl said.
That book may or may not be in Ehl’s future. For now he is packing up for the move to Arizona where he’ll be living in with his ex-wife … but that’s another story.