If 2020 were a movie, most of us would have pushed the fast forward button. If it were a magazine, we would have canceled the subscription.
For so many reasons, 2020 was uncomfortable. It was scary. It was filled with rolling disasters and collective losses. Fires in California. A devastating derecho in Iowa. A racial reckoning in the United States. A pandemic in every corner of the globe. Just when you didn’t think it could get any worse, it did. Over and over again. That was 2020 for you, consistent if only in its persistent wretchedness.
In the midst of this, 2020 had undercurrents of hope, resilience and positive vibes. Air hugs and elbow bumps became a thing. Zoom did, too. We got creative in finding ways to connect 6 feet apart. We delighted in simple adventures and creating new legacies. We looked for courage and inspiration that may not have presented itself in a different year.
We did not have to look far. Take a glimpse at the lives of several members of the Central family and learn how 2020 changed their lives for the positive, dawning unexpected opportunities and inspiration.
Here is hope.
Love in COVID-19 Times
They started dating in Fall 2019, before the world knew about horseshoe bats and deadly viruses with spikey crowns.
Jenae Jenison ’11, Central’s director of external engagement, and Drew Sikkink ’06, residence life area coordinator and assistant football coach, launched their romance on long walks in the evening after football practices and winning games. It was a way to see each other when a typical date wasn’t possible because of Sikkink’s intense athletics schedule.
“It was a way for our relationship to build. It’s how we really got to know each other,” Sikkink says.
October turned into November into December. They continued walking regularly, not every day, but often. In January 2020, Jenison printed a calendar to track the days they walked together for the year. It’s the hopeful kind of thing people do at the beginning of a new year. To make it on the calendar, the idea was that the walk had to last at least 20 minutes.
From Jan. 1 to March 10, 2020, the duo missed only 11 days walking together. According to the calendar, March 10 is the last day they missed.
“March 11 was the day everything started to really escalate in the COVID-19 world,” Sikkink says. “We went for a walk that evening and when we came back all these sports were getting canceled on the national level. The NCAA Tournament was postponed. The NBA shut down. Then the President was banning travel from Europe. From there, colleges started to make decisions to not return from break. It’s the day the world changed.”
In a realm where restaurants and movie theaters were closed, walking became an even greater source of entertainment for the fitness enthusiasts.
“We just kept walking,” Jenison says. In the rain. When it snowed sideways. When they hustled just before a lightning storm. When it was 50 degrees two days before Christmas.
They also run together. Jenison, who turned 30 in 2020, set a goal to run a half marathon. While shopping for new running shoes on March 6, she learned about a half marathon being planned in Des Moines for May.
“I made the decision that day I was going to run the half marathon and we started running together. I told him, ‘If I’m going to do this, you’re going to do it with me. I’m going to need your support,’” she says.
Because of the pandemic, the half marathon went virtual. The duo ran it together on the streets of Pella. “I think we ran every city street in town to get 13.1 miles in,” Jenison laughs.
They typically run together four to five days a week in the morning and walk a 2.5-mile loop together every evening. The runs are for exercise. The walks are a moving attraction.
“It’s just good quality time to spend with a person that’s uninterrupted. We don’t take our cell phones. We have our watches so we can track our progress. We talk about life and what we did that day. We talk about what we read in the news because we’re both news junkies. We love to talk politics. We also talk sports. I’ve learned a lot about football in the past year,” Jenison says.
So much so she won the Sikkink family fantasy football league championship.
The path they take varies only a little. “About 80% of the time we go the same general route to the point where Jenae’s picked out our favorite cats along the road and given them names,” Sikkink says.
Jenison interrupts, “Like Whiskers and there’s Bojangles and Socks.”
They talk like they walk, an intricate dance that ebbs and flows. They admit to having his and her sides of the sidewalk. Their favorite place to walk is around the college’s football field because “it’s just so magical, quiet and serene.” Especially when it’s snowed and there are no footprints.
The walks can be full of surprises and unexpected views. Majestic sunsets. The Christmas Star. Blue moons.
“We’ve seen a lot of deer in the middle of Pella. Once we were walking by Garden Chapel and all of a sudden, I looked to my left and there was a baby deer right there in the middle of town. That was the closest I’ve ever been to a baby deer my entire life, and I grew up in the country. I could have touched it,” Jenison says.
Familiar faces along the route help with connections. Almost every day Sikkink and Jenison see Football Coach Jeff McMartin ’90 and Laurie Rieken McMartin ’90, his wife, on their runs.
“You build this sort of community with other people while you’re out there. When we were in such isolation from each other, it was really good to have that interaction,” Sikkink says.
At the time this magazine went to press, Jenison and Sikkink didn’t have plans on how long they would keep the walking streak going.
“We have talked about stopping once we got vaccinated just to mark it in time. Getting vaccinated might be a fun ending point to encapsulate this moment in our lives. But when it comes down to it, I think we will both be like, ‘Oh, we really should walk today,’” Sikkink says.
No matter the decision, one thing is clear: Walking and running have built a strong foundation for their relationship.
“It’s been really special to us,” Jenison says. “You learn a lot about someone when it’s uninterrupted time. I was looking for someone who is really supportive and who I know will always be there for me and encourage me. This really shines a light on that. I think it helped me realize a lot faster how much I love him.”
“My advice, if anyone’s looking for dating advice, is go for a walk,” Sikkink adds.
Sikkink is a numbers guy. He keeps track of every mile, how much they do together and what their accomplishments are solo. By his calculation, when this magazine lands in your mailbox April 15, 2021, the couple will have walked 401 days in a row. He shares these additional statistics about their efforts so far:
- Every month, Sikkink averages more than 100 miles running while Jenison does over 75 miles.
- In 2020, Jenison completed a total of 1,630 miles walking and running. Sikkink completed 2,290 in both activities. Together they walked over 750 miles and ran another 880.55 together.
- The couple went through 10 pairs of shoes between them last year.
- Together they’ve completed one virtual half marathon and 28 10-kilometer races. The numbers, while inspiring, don’t tell the whole story.
“That’s our love story,” Jenison says.
In March, I was in the role of part-time interim pastor for a small church in our area. When the shutdown hit, I needed to figure out a way to stay in touch with and keep encouraging the members. I decided I would put a brief daily devotional on the church Facebook page each day “until the pandemic was over.” I posted them on my personal Facebook page as well. The pandemic is still with us and I am still writing each day.
— Curry Pikkaart ’71,
South Haven, Michigan
The friends from my college days remain so special to me. We live far apart: West Virginia, Connecticut, Iowa and Texas. We have kept in touch. Since retirement we have managed to travel and see each other more frequently. So here comes COVID-19. We are stranded at home. Someone suggested a weekly cocktail hour call. In our cocktail conversations we talked about our hobbies. I am an oil painter. Another friend a watercolor painter. Two more have dabbled and want to paint again. Another prefers crochet. So began our Zoom painting. Once a week, often for several hours, we paint and crochet together via Zoom. We get cut off. We log back on. It is like being in the same room. Conversation waxes and wanes. We encourage one another, share life stories, cry sometimes. Despite the COVID-19 catalyst, through the sharing of our art and friendship, our time spent together has been joyful. I know I speak for all.
— Juli Kuyk ’74,
Charleston, West Virginia
Pictured top row, left to right: Juli Kuyk ’74, Mary Ter Beest Steinbeck ’74, Barbara Goelz-Tamsin ’74. Pictured bottom row, left to right: Sandy Moldenschardt Ragona ’75 and Paulette Vogelaar Widmer ’74.
I’m a consultant at the University of Minnesota’s teaching/faculty development center. Who inspired me in 2020? The faculty, instructors and TAs who I have been so privileged to work with. With less than a week’s notice, they, like instructors across the country, made the switch to online learning. Time was a scarce and valuable commodity, yet so many of them prioritized learning more about effective online pedagogy and the tools that would help them connect with their students. The care and compassion that they showed their students, their creativity and their dedication to quality learning experiences brought me to tears more than once.
— Mary Valentine Jetter ’89,
St. Paul, Minnesota
I work at WorldChicago, where we manage international exchanges sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. In March, we were just about to board a plane to Bosnia and Herzegovina to host a conference with entrepreneurs in the Balkans when the pandemic changed our plans for the year. I am grateful the state department embraced virtual exchanges, which has opened the field of international exchanges to a wider audience.
— Peggy Fiedler Parfenoff ’90,
Vienna in the Basement
Feb. 25, 1993, was a day that changed my life. I set off on my study abroad semester in Vienna, Austria. (below, top) Twenty-seven years later (to the day), I was at the airport saying goodbye to my daughter, Abby Malecha ’22, as she set off to Vienna for her study abroad semester. (below, bottom)
I spent five months growing, learning, studying and traveling all over Europe. Abby got 18 days.
Meeting her at the airport March 15, 2020, was not what any of us expected. No hugs, no celebration. We dropped off her car at the airport, she drove home and went straight into the basement to quarantine for 14 days while the rest of us navigated the switch to distance learning and working from home. Gone were the plans of filling up her passport with visits to other countries. Gone was the opportunity to complete an independent study project in Ghana over spring break. Instead of bemoaning all that was lost, Abby made the best of the situation.
My job as a library media specialist for an elementary school required I work long hours to support staff, students and families as they navigated the new realities of distance learning. Abby stepped up and took responsibility for making sure her 11-year-old sister got logged into her Google Meets and spent many hours working with her to complete daily homework assignments. While doing that, she went to school in the basement. She had Zoom calls with classes in Pella, as well as Vienna. She continued to complete an internship she started in Vienna and had weekly check-in meetings with her team. Her spring break independent study project about single mothers in Ghana turned into a research paper she wrote from the basement in Minnesota.
We had planned to reunite June 30 in Vienna and spend 10 days traveling Europe. I was looking forward to re-exploring a city I grew to love while getting the opportunity to see what Abby had discovered. Instead, we spent a weekend in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, watching her brother play baseball.
While neither of us had the semester we planned, I did get to watch her continue to grow her relationship with her younger sister and learn more about the global world we live in — even if those lessons were learned from the basement.
Abby is thinking a trip to Europe after graduation next year would be in order. I sincerely hope we can make that a reality!
— Jennifer Eckerle Malecha ’94,
Father and son Bill ’86 and Ryan Strauss ’20 of Dubuque, Iowa, are avid backpackers. They try to take one epic trip a year together. COVID-19 put some uncertainty into whether that was possible in 2020.
With Ryan’s graduation in 2020, Bill “realized it’s possible this could be the last chance we’d have to take one of those life-changing trips together given the uncertainty where a job may be and if/when he could get time off.”
During Summer 2020, they agreed to take a September trip to Alaska. In 11 days and 10 nights they drove more than 1,400 miles and hiked hundreds of miles up and down 70-degree pitches — in knee-deep snow, in boulder fields and across glaciers. Highlights of the trip included stops at Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords Nations Park; Denali National Park; Denali Highway; Wrangell-St. Elias National Park; McCarthy, Alaska; and Palmer, Alaska.
In Denali, the pair opted to do a backcountry overnight.
“When we found a camping spot, it started to snow and pretty soon it was a whiteout. We were pretty well prepared. Throughout the night we had to push snow off the tent. We awoke to a beautiful view of the sun hitting the surrounding mountains and valley — and 4 inches of snow on the ground,” Bill says.
“The ‘silver lining’ to all of this is that, ironically, if it weren’t for the pandemic, it’s very likely this trip wouldn’t have happened. Perhaps Ryan would have found a job and would be somewhere else and would not have time off,” Bill says. “Instead of taking the ‘easy road’ and staying home, we decided to take the ‘road less traveled’ and had a trip of a lifetime!”
They returned just in time for Central’s graduation Sept. 27 to see Ryan, now in the Army Reserves, receive his diploma.
Necessity Breeds Invention
Kendra Haack Weston ’12, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, founded Lavendar Legal Center in October 2020.
“I found myself with a high-risk child who could not attend daycare during the pandemic. My current job was unable to afford the flexibility I needed to balance work and family,” Weston says. “The creation of Lavender Legal Center is a direct result of 2020.”
The nonprofit provides direct representation, advocacy and referrals for LGBTQ individuals. “We advocate for LGBTQ people to make sure they are supported on all fronts and can thrive in our communities,” Weston says. “The community support we have received has been overwhelming. Our community understands that allyship requires action, and they are not shying away from that. Because of this support, we began some of our services at the start of 2021.”
Prokupeks on Pine
In 2020, my husband Josh Prokupek ’18 and I had planned to travel to Europe for the A Cappella Choir alumni tour. It became more and more apparent travel abroad was not going to be possible. Eventually, the tour was postponed.
We saw countless friends and family on social media using this additional time at home for renovations, updates and all sorts of home improvement projects. We were sitting in the duplex we were renting, frustrated we didn’t have something we could add value to, nothing to call “our own.”
Because we were home, not going and doing, and certainly no longer going to Europe, we’d saved up a good amount and thought we’d inquire about what we’d need to do to buy a house.
Our search began in March. A few months and several showings later, we thought we found the one, but we were faced with hiccup after hiccup and roadblock after roadblock. We decided to walk away, and the hunt was on again.
In August we saw a house come on the market. It was over our budget. Since there’s always wiggle room when negotiating, we asked our agent if we could take a look.
The homeowner was there when we walked through. He told us about all the updates and work that had been done to the house in his family’s time there. The more we walked around the house and talked with the homeowner, the more we liked the home and could visualize friends and family there, as well as how we could make the space our own.
We told our agent we wanted to submit an offer. We included a letter about ourselves, our goals and plans for the future, all the exciting things we thought and felt as we toured and that we’d be honored to be the next family to live in and take care of this home.
Another party was interested in the property and wanted the chance to present a higher offer. The owner appreciated our letter and especially loved that we’d be able to see his late wife’s painting at the Catholic church we attend and knew we’d take care of the home. The homeowner said he wanted to work with us before he entertained the second party’s offer.
We crunched some numbers with his counteroffer and notified our loan officer only to find out the type of loan was no longer available. We thought we were hitting roadblocks again, but we ended up finding a better interest rate that same day. Just in time to respond to the homeowner’s counteroffer. He accepted!
Even after we’d finished negotiations and took ownership, we were amazed how renovations for the house fell into place as well. We were able to get a lot done in a short amount of time thanks to our fantastic family and friends. What a weird time to buy a house, but we were shown time and again it certainly was the right time for us!
— Brittany Carlson Prokupek ’16,
Joshua Noonan ’08 of Burnsville, Minnesota, celebrated a long list of triumphs in 2020:
- He was presented the 40 Under 40 Rising Star award in July for his work getting fresh produce to Americans as supply chains were pressed. (He’s a senior manager of supply chain services with C.H. Robinson, a Fortune 500 provider of multi-modal transportation services.)
- In August, he married his bride in their backyard during a small family gathering.
- He became a licensed wedding officiant and officiated his sister’s wedding in September.
- In October, he and his wife, Barie, welcomed daughter Adyn James Noonan.
“As someone who in a typical year travels 100,000-plus miles internationally for business, travel restrictions allowed me time to slow down. I was able to spend more time with family and those closest to me. Instead of FaceTiming my family from a faraway hotel at night, regular evening family dinners together became the new normal and something I feel blessed to enjoy,” says Noonan, who also spent the year perfecting his golf grip, building an in-home gym and remodeling a bathroom.
“Not everyone has been as lucky as I have during the last year, and my heart and continued prayers go out to those less fortunate. For everyone out there, my advice is to take advantage of the opportunity by reinventing your dreams, thinking BIG and appreciating all the beautiful blessings around you.”
Hooked on Hiking
Renee De Boef Simon ’84, Central admission representative from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, started visiting area state parks and hiking with her husband during COVID-19. “It was a good way to get outside several times a week and check out a new hiking trail. Hiking has saved our sanity, kept us in shape and introduced us to beautiful parks in Iowa. Pinicon Ridge Park in Central City, Iowa, is one of our favorites.”
Keep on Running
Russ Goodman, runner and professor of mathematics, set a goal to run (at least) 1,000 miles in 2020. “The pandemic was both a blessing and a curse, with the curse part being pretty obvious. The blessing, as far as running was concerned, was that I had more space in my life to get out on the roads and trails to meet my goal. In the end, my bride surprised me with a cool trophy to commemorate the accomplishment,” he says.
Nelson ’16 and Madi Gause Wiese ’16 welcomed a puppy, Walter, in April. “He’s been a joy to have around the house during long days working from home,” Madi says.