SPENCER, Iowa -- When Craig Ihnen started his job as executive director of the Iowa High School Speech Association, he'd been at his desk an hour when the phone rang, at 9 a.m., July 1, 1994. Larry Untiet, a teacher and director of the speech/drama program at Spencer High School, called to wish Ihnen, who had commanded the drama department for years at Le Mars High School, all the best.
"I was a bit unsure about the new job, maybe a little reluctant," Ihnen remembers. "But Larry was so supportive and reassuring. He called me at 9 o'clock that first morning to tell me he was thinking about me."
The other shoe, for Untiet, an incurable ham, would fall seconds later.
"And then Larry told me he was calling me on his mobile phone because he was on the golf course," Untiet said.
Untiet then laughed his infectious roar and zoomed off to the next tee. He called Ihnen later that day, saying he continued to think of his former teaching colleague. This time, his call came from a boat as he fished the waters of Okoboji.
And, again, he laughed.
Untiet, a legendary speech coach and speech/drama leader in Iowa, submitted his resignation from his coaching position at Spencer High School this week, setting the stage for his exit after 44 wonderful years in Spencer. The large-group speech program he pilots, after all, is the only one in Iowa to have featured all-state qualifiers in every year of the All-State Festival, a period covering 43 years.
"Since 1976, when it began, we've had 234 different groups go to All-State," Untiet said.
That means a Spencer senior who earned all-state accolades in 1976 would be 61 years old now. And, perhaps, like the director, retired and approaching retirement.
Untiet gathered his speech charges in the fabulous 2-year-old performing arts auditorium at Spencer High School on Monday and delivered the news of his retirement. He said it was among the most difficult tasks he's faced in his long career. There were tears of sorry and happiness on both sides.
"I've always taught as a way to make a real difference in the life of a child," he said. "My favorite part of this has been all of the kids we've saved, the kid who maybe has little going on and then they paint or help build a set and suddenly they're part of a group and have something to strive for."
Untiet calls "The Diary of Anne Frank" and "The Miracle Worker" his favorites. "Oklahoma," his first musical, ended up being his last as well when staged in the fall at Spencer. Although he'll still have the spring play to direct this year (his 88th spring/fall production, he's undecided on what it might be), plus a state-level large-group speech festival Spencer High School will host on Feb. 2, one of a estimated 20 or so state large-group events Untiet has presided over at Spencer.
"We took 17 groups to the district contest at Sheldon last Saturday and 13 of them advanced to state," he said.
Next week's event will also have Untiet working with Katie Kardell, vocal music director at Spencer High, and dozens of staffers and volunteers in making sure the meet plays out for an estimated 2,000 Iowa high school students and up to 4,000 or 5,000 spectators who enter and depart throughout the day.
And while it involves all sorts of last-minute details and efforts to hire 48 judges, the task won't be as complicated as the state festival held here two years ago. The 2017 event, after all, represented the inaugural event for the new $11-million performance arts center.
"That was our first event," said Untiet, who hand a hand in the conceptual design of the marvelous new structure and school addition. "I can still recall how impressed people were."
They will be again. And, very likely, they'll be impressed with groups Spencer High has performing at the state contest. If the outgoing director has any say, his performers will do their best to extend one of Iowa's longest -- and most impressive -- all-state streaks.