SPIRIT LAKE, Iowa | Bob Shaw drove his 50-year-old ice cream truck home to Spirit Lake from Hartley, Iowa, on a picturesque Iowa day in June. He and wife, Kate Shaw, had just completed their annual visit to the Community Memorial Health Center in Hartley, where they handed ice cream treats to patients.
Kate told her husband she'd often thought about driving across Iowa while giving away ice cream. What a way, she said, to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.
Bob Shaw stood in their driveway on Thursday, readying himself and their colorful ice cream truck for a cool two-week September trek that will see them giving away Blue Bunny Ice Cream treats in at least 14 Iowa cities, from Orange City and Le Mars, to the west, to LeClaire and Dubuque, on Iowa's eastern border.
"I said, 'No,' to this," Bob said with a wink. "See what 'no' gets me?"
Beyond spreading cheer and seeing Iowa in a way they haven't before, the Shaws intend to share goodwill from a handful of Iowa businesses who jumped at the chance to sponsor this silly, chilly, oddity on wheels: Wells Enterprises, the maker of Blue Bunny, Central Bank, Diamond Vogel, Fareway, Pizza Ranch and, of course, Shaw's of Okoboji, the paint and decorating business Bob Shaw founded 37 years ago.
The Shaws will pick up their Blue Bunny treats at Fareway stores across Iowa. They'll hand out said treats in parking lots serving those Fareway store sites, as well as at Central Bank and Pizza Ranch locations, and at three Diamond Vogel plants in Orange City.
The Shaws aren't charging a dime for these sweets. Rather, they're sharing blessings showered on them since they exchanged vows on May, 30, 1967, at St. Joseph Catholic Church at tiny Neptune in Plymouth County.
The church, by the way, closed six years ago. I attended the last Mass there, as did Kate (Sitzmann) Shaw. She and Bob now have the church's communion rail in their home. It stands at the base of their prayer wall, a wall in which the couple invites guests to scribble a greeting, a prayer, or post a photo.
I suppose it makes sense for a couple that asks visitors to write on their wall to embark on a trip across Iowa in a 50-year-old ice cream truck. According to Kate, the truck may be more ready to roll than Bob. The 1967 Ford has a new alternator, generator, fuel pump, head gasket, battery, brake lines and a rebuilt carburetor.
In the 32 years since they've owned and operated the ice cream truck in the Iowa Great Lakes, it hasn't been far. Just to Hartley and back, in fact. Mostly, Kate and their children -- and lots of other children -- kept it busy in the Great Lakes each summer.
"I'm betting the truck will make it across Iowa and back," Kate said.
"The guys at coffee are also betting on the truck, not on me," said Bob, who is 72.
The story of the Shaws is a treat itself. Bob Shaw, a native of Pennsylvania, came to Iowa to play football for Westmar College in Le Mars in the mid-1960s. He was selling candy for Westmar's Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter one day when he stopped at Le Mars Savings Bank and caught the attention of Kate Sitzmann, who worked there. The details of the encounter are not frozen in time, as it were.
Bob said he sold Kate some candy, but she didn't have enough money. So, he returned the next day. "I never did collect!" he said, roaring in laughter.
"I gave him the money," Kate countered. "But he didn't have any candy! So, he had to come back."
The couple wed on Memorial Day (a Tuesday) in 1967. Their first child, son Hudson, was 3 when he died in 1974 after suffering a viral infection. His death occurred nine months after the birth of his sister, Angela, who was born with Cornelia de Lange Syndrome, a rare genetic condition.
"When Angie was born, the doctors told us to prepare for a funeral as she had a 3- to 5-year life expectancy," Bob said.
Angie was 5 when she died on Oct. 17, 1978. Prior to her death, Gordon Gammack of The Des Moines Register wrote a feature story about the family. Amazingly, parents of other Cornelia de Lange Syndrome children across the country reached out to the Shaws. The group of parents bonded immediately through letters and phone calls, and soon established the national Cornelia de Lange Syndrome Foundation, which continues to this day.
In 2013, I featured the Shaws on what would have been Angie's 40th birthday as Bob and Kate hosted a concert at the Sami Center in Spirit Lake to again connect with their angels (Hudson and Angela) and a number of CdLS (Cornelia de Lange Syndrome) families throughout North America.
Bob Shaw smiled at the memory and grew serious for a moment, noting how something beautiful and meaningful came from a series of tragedies that tested a young couple. "You can turn to drugs or alcohol or your faith in God," he said while wrapping his arms around his bride. "We grew even closer."
Kate added a statement that offers comfort while foreshadowing their trip: "There's no problem so big that God and a little ice cream can't fix."
Bob and Kate would go on to raise four more children; Jeff, now of Las Vegas; Justin, of Portland, Oregon; Roberta, of Grande Prairie, Canada; and Todd, of Waukee, Iowa. They have two grandsons: Julian and Hudson.
Todd Shaw will film parts of this anniversary celebration, dubbed "Shaw's Great Ice Cream Adventure."
Bob, who initially said "no" to this zany idea, can't wait to see the film, evidence of what's sure to be 100 miles of smiles per day, starting Tuesday and continuing through Sept. 19, a thank-you tour for the ages.
"I'm a Pennsylvania transplant and I've always said that native-born Iowans have no clue as to how nice they are," Bob said. "There's a naivete and a sincerity in Iowa that you can't find anywhere else.
"Plus, we think it'll be a lot of fun."