Onawa is a small rural town in western Iowa that has a history of thinking big.
The town boasts the widest main street in the United States — 150 feet from storefront to storefront. According to the most popular theory, it was designed that way to make room for a railroad line that never materialized.
Onawa also claims the Eskimo Pie, a 1920 invention by a high school teacher with a soft spot for hard chocolate-coated ice cream.
“It is a town of about 3,000 people surrounded by massive farmland supportive bar none of the schools and the students,” longtime Coupeville resident Kathleen Anderson said.
Anderson was one of those students who grew up in the cornfields of Onawa with dreams as tall as the stalks around her and a work ethic to boot to achieve them.
She was raised on a 240-acre farm outside of town that produced corn and soybeans. She drove a tractor by age 10, took care of chickens, cattle and hogs and did whatever else was necessary to help her family before heading off to college and plotting her course in life.
“You know, back in 1956 when I graduated there were five things girls could do,” Anderson said. “You could become a nurse, or a secretary, a teacher, a clerk in a store, or you got married. Those were the only things that were open to us.”
Anderson opted to become a teacher, following her passion for education that continues to burn brightly after nearly six decades.
She is in her 22nd year of serving on the Coupeville School Board — the second of two stints sandwiched around 15 years on the Washington Board of Education.
She not only serves in Coupeville, she also leads the group, voted on by her peers last month to continue on in her role as board president.
Anderson will turn 79 next month but already is anticipating running for election again when her term expires at the end of this year.
She has two grandchildren in the Coupeville School District and kind of likes keeping her nose to the grindstone.
“One of my two passions of living is education,” Anderson said. “I feel that providing the best education for all students is something each of us needs to take an interest in. Those of us who have chosen to be involved in leadership roles need to do so.”
Anderson is a long way from the cornfields of Onawa but carries with her the core values, work ethic and leadership qualities that she acquired back home and drove her to be a high achiever.
She went to the University of Iowa to earn a double major in education and office management then became a high school business teacher. She married her high school sweetheart, Stanley Anderson, and both headed west to Whidbey Island to answer the call of military service.
Stanley Anderson was assigned to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island as a member of the Naval Reserve.
They settled in Coupeville, where they’ve lived since 1963 and where Stanley practiced dentistry for 45 years before retiring.
Kathleen Anderson became a substitute teacher her first year in Coupeville and has been involved with schools in some capacity ever since. Her first stint with the Coupeville school board started in 1975 and she continued to serve until she was elected to the Washington Board of Education in 1985.
She and the other members of Coupeville’s board oversee and set policy for a school district of 974 students and 110 educators.
“She has such a passion for learning and wanting students to have the best learning that they can,” said fellow school board member Glenda Merwine. “She never gets tired of wanting to explore what’s the next best option. She doesn’t want to just keep the status quo.”
“For a small-town Iowa girl who grew up on a farm, she doesn’t back down from a challenge nor does she back down from what she thinks is right,” said her son, Craig Anderson. “She’s always done what is right. And if it was wrong, you knew she had the best of intentions and has never been afraid to admit that either.”
Craig Anderson and his sister grew up in Coupeville, watching their parents lead by example through community service, instilling values that ran deep.
“If we complain about the next generation we only have to look in the mirror,” he said.
Craig Anderson is a captain with the Oak Harbor Fire Department. He said during his childhood his mom was loving but firm.
“She was the type of person I didn’t want to disappoint,” he said.
“To me she’s an easy person to talk about, but she’s also a complex, hard person to talk about in the sense that I guess as a son, I couldn’t be more proud. She’s a tough act to follow when it comes to being involved in the community and community service. And that’s what she and my dad have been about, serving their community and using any talent you have for the betterment of others.”
School board member Christie Sears said the first thing that comes to mind when she thinks about Anderson is her “big heart for kids.”
Sears said Anderson lights up when visiting schools and not just when she sees her two grandsons.
She heaps praise on students, teachers and administrators, brightened by their accomplishments and ideas.
“I feel so strongly that if you have good schools, you’ll have a strong community,” Anderson said.
“I am so proud of this school district. As a small school district, we are doing very well.”
Student success isn’t always measured by traditional yard sticks. Character counts big in Anderson’s book. She’s pleased by the qualities she’s seen in Coupeville students and the adults they become.
“She has an equal passion for those who are college bound as those wanting to go to trade schools,” Craig Anderson said.
“I’m all for high academics,” Kathleen Anderson said. “But that’s not everybody’s talent or everybody’s interest.
“If you are a confident person and you have people skills and are able to carry on a conversation and be knowledgeable about your surroundings, you can do any job. That’s the key.”
Anderson sees a lot of Onawa in Coupeville, both rural towns with vast open spaces anchored by long-standing residents dedicated to their schools and communities.
“I’m still a farm girl,” she said. “You can take the girl from the farm but you can’t take the farm from the girl.
“I think that’s why we love Coupeville so much because of the surroundings and the people we’ve met.”
In both cases, there have been deep, long-lasting impressions made.
“People ask me why I do this still at this point in my life,” Anderson said. “I represent a large part of Coupeville people who are a large retirement community. I have that connection with them.”
“I think she’s been the steady presence,” Sears said. “As people have come and gone on the board, as superintendents have come and gone or other board members or administrators, she’s sort of been the thread that has kept the continuity for everyone.”