(November 8, 1928 — September 25, 2007)
Iowa State College alumni (1952), editor of the Iowa State Daily, newspaperman, reporter and columnist for the Des Moines Register and Tribune (1960-1993), author.
Donald (“Don”) Charles Muhm was born on November 8, 1928 at Kanawha, Hancock County, Iowa, the fifth child of Fred Carl Muhm and Clara Irene Hartwig Muhm. He grew up in rural Hancock County where his parents were tenant farmers near Kanawha and Britt. Despite his family's struggle to farm profitably, Muhm later described the farms he lived on as “something out of Currier and Ives.” He attended one-room country schools, graduated from Britt High School in 1946, and then attended Britt Junior College for two years. A high school teacher who noticed his talent encouraged him to write, and he decided early to be an agricultural writer. While still in high school he wrote news and columns for the Britt News-Tribune.
In the fall of 1949, Muhm enrolled at Iowa State College (now Iowa State University) with a technical journalism major and worked on the staff of the Iowa State Daily. During his first quarter, he was involved in a prominent story of a fraternity disposing of a dead horse from its house. When the police were called, the fraternity president repeatedly said, “No comment,” but eventually the fraternity admitted guilt in the horse's death, was reprimanded by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and lost all their rights to social functions for several months.
During his second year (1950-51) Muhm also served on the Daily Publication Board, and during his senior year (1951-52), he was editor. While writing many serious editorials, others “often brought a laugh when published in the 'Letters to the Editor' column.” Also during his senior year, Muhm was a member of Sigma Delta Chi, professional journalism fraternity and was a stringer to the Des Moines Register and Tribune from the Daily. He was paid $0.15 per line, and he said jokingly that “that's when I learned to write long because the longer your story, the more you got paid.” Just before graduation, he was honored by Sigma Delta Chi as “the student who has made the most distinguished contribution to campus journalism during the past year.”
On March 24, 1951, Muhm married Joann Dorene Larson at Crystal Lake. They had three sons; Maury, Scott, and Robert Muhm. Until his graduation in 1952, Don and Joann lived in Pammel Court campus housing where they paid monthly rent of $20 plus $12 for heating.
In July, 1952, shortly after graduation, Muhm was inducted into the U.S. Army, where he served the next two years in an intelligence unit and was stationed in South Carolina. Upon discharge, he sought employment with the Des Moines Register and Tribune, but was turned down. Instead, he worked for the Marshalltown Times-Republican for about six months and then landed a job at the Omaha World Herald as Farm Editor. After winning several national awards for his work at the World-Herald, the Register approached him offering a job there. He also took the job because it gave him more editorial latitude in his writing. Muhm began his new job at the Register and Tribune on June 6, 1960, and wrote a column called “Country Living.” In September, he was named Farm Editor for both papers.
Muhm wrote for both the Register and Tribune until the Tribune's demise in 1982 and then continued with the Register until his retirement in 1993. He wrote a total of 1,716 “Country Living” columns over those years on topics including the the corn blight of 1970, Peace Corps farm projects in South America in 1970, the Soviet grain sale in 1972, Pope John Paul II's visit to Iowa in 1979, the farm crisis of the 1980s, the various U.S. Secretaries of Agriculture, farm protests of the National Farmers Organization and the American Agriculture Movement, droughts, American Farm Bureau conventions, and many more.
After his retirement, he recalled that among the saddest days in the newsroom was when President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas and when the Tribune folded in 1982. Among the the most joyous days was when Frank Miller won the Pulitzer Prize in 1963 for a front page editorial cartoon and when Nick Kotz won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 1968.
Muhm was also a prolific author, publishing ten books including Iowa Soil Conservation, 1939-1979 (1984); Iowa Pork & People: A History of Iowa's Pork Producers (1995); Iowans Who Made a Difference: 150 Years of Agricultural Progress (1996) with co-author Virginia Wadsley; The NFO: A Farm Belt Rebel, The History of the National Farmers Organization (2000); Iowans Outdoors: Best Outdoors Stories...As Told by Iowans (2001) with co-author Keith Kirkpatrick; and Fencelines, Deadlines & Headlines: A History of North American Agricultural Journalists (2004). He also published early farm memories in The Annals of Iowa.
Muhm received many honors and awards over the years. A partial list includes his induction into the ISU Agriculture Hall of Fame in 1967, the Glenn Cunningham Agriculture Journalist of the Year award in 1967, 1969, and 1978, U.S. Conservation Writer of the Year in 1973, the J.S. Russell Memorial Award in 1974, the James W. Schwartz Award in 1982 (by the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at ISU), the ISU Gamma Sigma Delta (national agricultural honorary) in 1990, and the Distinguished Alumni Award by the ISU College of Agriculture Alumni Association in 1992. He was an honorary member of the National Future Farmers of America, Iowa Master Pork Producers, Friend of Iowa Agriculture, and won awards from Iowa Farmers Union, the Iowa Corn Growers Association, the Iowa Chapter of the Soil Conservation Society of America. He chaired many committees, professional organizations, civic organizations, and was a member of other groups such as Ducks Unlimited, Inc., and the Iowa 4-H, and Troop Chairman of the Boy Scouts. He was named U.S. Farm Editor three times. In 1993, the year he retired, Muhm was named Farm Leader of the Year by the Des Moines Register.
After his retirement, Don enjoyed hunting, fishing, golf, and church activities. Donald Charles Muhm died at his summer home at Spirit Lake, Iowa on September 25, 2007. His remains were cremated.
Information on Don Muhm can be found in Alumni Affairs RS 21/7/1, Box 94, “Don Muhm” folder, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University. The collection includes news articles and an article in the Iowa Agriculturist, April, 1952 on Don's life while living in Pammel Court with his wife, Joann.
The story of the fraternity and the dead horse can be found in the James Thomas Emmerson Papers RS 13/13/18, Box 7, Folder 19, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University.
Information and photographs of Don Muhm can also be found in the Iowa State Bomb of 1950, 1951, and 1952.
A complete list of his honors and awards can be found in “We'll Miss You, Don!” Des Moines Register, June 6, 1993, p. 5D.
His early farm memories are in The Annals of Iowa, Volume 476, Number 2, Fall, 1983, pp. 133-137.
An extended audio interview of Muhm by Brian Thomas in 1999 provides much detail of Muhm's career online at digital.lib.uiowa.edu/cdm/ref/collection/joh/id/50. The interview includes the course of his career, memorable stories, newspaper policies, changes in journalism, politics, ethics and objectivity, professional advice, other topics.
Other general information was found online about his high school graduation, awards and honors in the Iowa State Daily and the Britt News-Tribune, and a marriage announcement in the Mason City Globe Gazette.
Family information was found in the 1930 and 1940 U. S. Federal Censuses and Public Member Family Trees at ancestryinstitution.com.
Obituaries were found online in the Des Moines Register, September 27, 2007 and the Mason City Globe Gazette, September 26, 2007. An obituary for Joann Dorene Muhm was found online at legacy.com.