LE MARS, Iowa | Hours before Marty Kurth won his 500th game as a baseball coach at Gehlen Catholic High School in Le Mars, he walked through his house with a black fungo bat, the kind he's used thousands of times to hit fly balls and grounders to his players.
"I use the bat as my cane," Kurth said. "It helps me get around the house."
Coach Kurth is going blind. In layman's terms, he has suffered a stroke in each eye the past 11 months, resulting in a sudden loss of blood flow to the optic nerve. The first stroke, which afflicted his left eye, happened on July 25, 2016. The stroke to his right eye took place on June 3, just 19 days ago.
Kurth is still coaching, doing so from the dugout, not in his coaching box on the field. He relies on assistant coaches Solomon Freking and Ty Kurth (his son) and Jays players such as Cooper Davis to describe action on the field. The Jays won 10-0 at Hartley-Melvin-Sanborn on Monday night, giving Kurth his 500th victory.
With that victory level and a pair of state championships (1995 and 1999) among his six state tournament appearances, the Westmar College graduate is a lock for a spot in the Iowa Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
The accolades matter little right now, if they ever did. Kurth remains focused on his 2017 team, a club that began the season 0-4 and has ripped off 11 wins in the last 13 games. When he's not studying lineups or opponents, he's pondering a somewhat uncertain future, one that for the first time in his adult life doesn't include teaching or coaching full-time, as he recently resigned.
"I was at the point of my career where I thought maybe after next year I'd retire," said Kurth, a native of Remsen and a second-baseman on Remsen St. Mary's state championship baseball team in 1983. "Now what? I have no idea what the good Lord has planned for me."
Kurth hasn't been one to run from challenges in the past. A physical education teacher who was toiling as Gehlen athletic director several years ago, Kurth was charged with finding a head coach to direct the girls' basketball program. When his search turned up empty, Kurth told school officials he'd lead the team for a maximum of two years.
"I ended up coaching eight years," he said.
Not only that, Kurth piloted the 2012 Jays basketball team to the school's first state basketball tournament. And, he surpassed the 100-win total, all for a guy who was awfully "green" when it came to high school girls' basketball.
The news of his failing eyesight came as a shock to me. I didn't realize it until Barry Poe mentioned it in a Sunday story in the Journal, a wrap-up of Gehlen's title in the J-Club Tournament on Saturday. I was there that day and saw Kurth sitting in the dugout, an oddity for a hands-on coach who was always prepping the field and his players for another game.
"When I lost my vision in my left eye in July 2016, I woke up that morning and closed my right eye and could not see myself in the mirror," he said.
He began worrying at that point, not only about his left eye, but his right eye, too. Kurth's sister, Cheri Hoebelheinrich, who resides in Florida, lost vision in one eye when she was 37. She lost the vision in her other eye one decade later. Kurth's father, who died at age 56, began losing vision in one eye at age 37, too.
"We hoped that after I lost the one eye that I'd have time, like maybe 10 years," Kurth said. "But not even 11 months later, I woke up on June 3 and knew something wasn't right."
Kurth hit infield to his Jays that weekend in the CYO Classic, which played out on fields in Carroll and Glidden, Iowa. Before the second game at Glidden, a 10-0 victory over St. Edmond High School of Fort Dodge, Kurth had trouble catching a toss from his catcher as he hit ground balls. It's the kind of catch he's made a million times, second-nature.
"I couldn't see the ball," he said.
Jen and Marty Kurth visited the Truhlsen Eye Institute at the University of Nebraska Medical Center two days later. Doctors there identified the cause, the same affliction that struck his left eye last July: non-arteritic ischemic optic neuropathy, or "NAION" for short.
"There's no cure," he said. "It's what my sister had, too."
Jen said that while the condition isn't genetic, it can be familial. Researchers continue to study it. The Kurths continue to pray.
Marty Kurth tried to qualify for a "NAION" study, but his participation was ruled out because he has too many red blood cells.
"We got opinions from Duke University and Johns Hopkins Medicine and they didn't want to give me the medication in the study because they didn't know what the ramifications might be with my blood disease," he said.
Jen Kurth, who works in the business office at Floyd Valley Healthcare in Le Mars, said that "NAION" typically affects smokers, diabetics and those with high blood pressure. Marty, she noted, fits none of those descriptors.
Marty Kurth said he can currently see a little out of the upper right hand corner of his right eye. He also has some peripheral vision in his left eye. "I told Ty that if you closed your eyes so that your eyelids were touching and you tried to see, that's kind of what it's like for me right now."
He hasn't lost his sense of humor, though, and it showed on Saturday as the Jays battled Newell-Fonda. When Gehlen pitcher Collin Buden got ahead in the count before hitting one batter and walking the next, the old head coach became anxious on Saturday: "I hollered out to the mound and said, 'Alex, don't make me come out there. You know, I will find you!'"
The players and Budden got a kick out of it, their longtime coach making the best of a difficult, life-changing predicament.
Kurth knows he's fortunate to have Jen, their children Kendra, Mitchell and Ty, and Jen's parents offering love and support, as well as a world of friends and current and former Gehlen students, players and competitors throughout Plymouth County and Northwest Iowa.
"I'm 52," the Gehlen legend said. "I feel good. The good Lord has a plan. We hope to find out what it is soon."
In the meantime, researchers will continue to work, as will the baseball players sporting the Gehlen green and gold. And the wise, old coach in the dugout? He'll lean on his fungo, listening, feeling, smelling for the optimum time to call a pitch-out or a hit-and-run. Maybe Marty Kurth is becoming visionary, in a figurative sense.
"My daughter wanted to make a shirt after Monday's victory," he said. "It was going to say, '500 wins. Not so hard. My dad did it. The last six with his eyes closed.'"
ELK POINT, S.D. | A lawyer for the American Broadcasting Corp. introduced a series of internal company emails from Beef Products Inc. on Wednesday that showed increasing concern by 2011 about the use of “pink slime” to describe the company’s signature product.
BPI hired a crisis public relations firm in the spring of 2011 after a popular food show host referred to BPI’s Lean Finely Textured Beef as “pink slime,” and by June of that year the PR firm was recommending the production of videos to “combat the negative portrayal” of the company’s use of ammonia gas to kill illness-causing bacteria in its beef.
“This is a crisis matter not an artistic exercise,” said one email.
The emails show that BPI was facing greater pressure about its product even before ABC ran a series of negative stories about Lean Finely Textured Beef in March, 2012. Those stories repeatedly referred to the product as “pink slime,” and ABC took credit as BPI’s customers began abandoning Lean Finely Textured Beef, resulting in BPI closing three of its four plants and laying off more than half its workforce.
The stories are the basis for BPI’s $1.9 billion defamation lawsuit against the broadcaster, an amount that could grow to $5.7 billion under a South Dakota law that calls for triple damages to any company or producers whose agriculture products are falsely maligned.
Though ABC took credit for BPI’s woes, the company had already been subject to numerous news stories and social media posts prior to ABC’s first story, said Dane Butswinkas, a lawyer representing the broadcaster.
But Rich Jochum, BPI’s general counsel, said those stories had not damaged BPI and the company was in the midst of pursuing new customers after having lost 60 percent of its business between 2009 and 2012, including the loss of McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell in 2011.
The loss of the three fast food giants hurt BPI in the near term, Jochum said, but BPI had a long list of other customers who were in a position to expand their orders for LFTB, and company projections for 2012 had orders for LFTB increasing by about one million pounds a week.
“If we had shipped what we were projecting, this would have been our most profitable year ever,” Jochum told attorney Erik Connolly, who represents BPI.
It was ABC’s inaccurate reporting, Jochum said, that crippled the company.
But even before ABC’s reports, it was clear that BPI was worried about its image as more accounts surfaced linking the term “pink slime” to its LFTB. In July, 2011, the crisis PR firm convinced BPI to launch a Wikipedia page for the term “pink slime.” Wikipedia didn’t have a pink slime page at the time, and creating one gave the company an opportunity to put its spin on the term.
Jochum said he monitored the page and was eventually locked out of making edits by Wikipedia. He also admitted to posting anonymously on online forums with materials that were positive for BPI, posting under the name “Jimmy Dean,” a reference to the sausage brand.
On March 5, 2012 The Daily, an iPad publication, ran a critical story of LFTB, again linking it to the term “pink slime.” Reacting to the story, a lawyer for BPI wrote in an email calling it “dreadful.”
“These articles are doing great harm to BPI,” the lawyer wrote on March 7, 2012, just before ABC’s first story.
Jochum downplayed the email, telling Butswinkas: “I see he used those terms – again, he’s got no way of knowing what it’s doing.”
Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh picked up on the article on March 6, blaming the federal government for allowing “pink slime” into the nation’s school lunch program. Jochum said he happened to hear the broadcast on his way home for lunch that day. He immediately contacted a PR firm.
Still, despite those stories, BPI didn’t start losing customers until ABC began its onslaught on March 7.
Kevin Butler, the vice president of ground beef sales for American Foods Group, said in videotaped testimony that by late March, grocers and other customers who purchase beef from his company were demanding that it be free of LFTB.
“It was pretty much the public perception and the media blitz that was occurring,” Butler said.
Butler also defended the product, saying it was not a filler or less nutritious than ground beef.
“Slime to me is something dripping off the wall or something like that,” he said. “I don’t believe the product does that.”
CEDAR RAPIDS | President Donald Trump said Wednesday he will include funding to boost rural internet access in his proposed $1 trillion infrastructure plan.
His speech to a crowd of about 250 at Kirkwood Community College also served as a send off of sorts for former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who will leave Iowa Friday to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to China.
Branstad “loves the state and the people so much, and together we all join to express our deep gratitude to Terry for everything he has done for Iowa and for its people. Mr. Ambassador, thank you very much and have a good time in China,” Trump said.
Branstad, in turn, thanked Trump for his leadership and congratulated him for a deal between the United States and China that will allow the exports of United States-made beef into the country.
The two countries reached an agreement last month that would allow for the sale. China had said last September it would look at re-allowing the entry of U.S.-produced beef.
In his address, Trump hailed American farmers and said his administration will work to “eliminate the intrusive rules that undermine your ability to earn a living.”
“I’m not a farmer, but I’d be very happy to be one. It’s a very beautiful world you live in,” the Republican president said, flanked by a red combine and a green tractor.
Trump’s visit to Kirkwood came as a part of Technology Week for the White House. Before his remarks, a Kirkwood student showed Trump a John Deere Combine Simulator, used to train students on how to use the equipment.
“On our visit to Kirkwood Community College, President Trump and I saw the high-tech equipment used in the school’s precision agriculture program,” Gov. Kim Reynolds said in a statement. “Precision agriculture optimizes yields while conserving resources. Each advance made in technology is another step in the right direction for both farmers and the environment.”
The president advocated that better infrastructure, including broadband, is needed to “usher in a new era of prosperity for American agriculture.”
“That is why I will be including a provision in our infrastructure proposal — $1 trillion proposal that you’ll see very shortly — to enhance broadband access for rural America also,” he said.
Bruce Rastetter, a Republican and agribusinessman, said he liked that Trump “recognized the importance of U.S. agriculture” and the need for improved broadband.
“Rural broadband, we’ve seen in our farming operation, is critical for technology to be able to work out in the fields. When you have gaps in that, the software on that technology doesn’t work …,” Rastetter told The Gazette.
A Federal Communications Commission report in 2016 found 37 percent of rural Iowans were without access to high-speed broadband, compared to just 4 percent of urban residents.
Trump was also expected to attend a rally at U.S. Cellular Center Wednesday night.