Donald Kaul, Pulitzer Finalist And RAGBRAI Founder, Dies At 83
The spirit of editorial columnist Donald Kaul is surely looming large over the cultural institution known as RAGBRAI — the Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa — that he helped found 45 years ago and taking place this week. The longtime Des Moines Register columnist, known for his dripping satire and polarizing columns, died Sunday, the opening day of the ride, after he discontinued treatment for prostate cancer, his family said.
Kaul, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist whose column was syndicated to 150 newspapers at the height of his career, was 83. In his “Over the Coffee” column in the Register, he railed against the Vietnam War, racism and discrimination against the poor, military spending and other hot-button liberal issues, but was at his best when he took on personal topics, such as the irony of a non-believer like him being born on Christmas Day.
In January, when he announced he was ceasing treatment after the cancer had spread to his skeleton, he quipped that his legacy would likely be RAGBRAI, rather than his blistering columns. The seven-day ride draws tens of thousands of bicyclists from around the world and is the largest touring bicycle ride in the world.
“My ambition was to be a nationally known Washington columnist,” Kaul told the Register at the time. “Unfortunately, I would imagine the first line in my obit will read ‘one of the originators of RAGBRAI.’ it just took over my career — brutally.”
Kaul, who hailed from Detroit, founded the ride with fellow Register writer John Karras, who was from Cleveland, “didn’t figure on it being a life sentence,” he wrote in 1980 “We thought of it as a one-shot deal with two or three riders accompanying us across the state on a semi-private ride. Now we feel like Dr. Frankenstein.”
Despite all that, Kaul still loved and was proud of the ride, his son, Chris Kaul, told the Register on Sunday. That his father died on the opening day was “fitting timing,” he said.
“He would have smiled that RAGBRAI started on the day that he passed,” Chris Kaul said.
Kaul started with the Register’s evening paper, The Tribune, as a scrappy police and fire reporter in the 1960s. In 1965, took over the “Over the Coffee” column, which had been a collection of juicy tidbits about Des Moines society, and made it his own.
Churning out as many as five columns a week, he fearlessly took on sacred cows, including the Iowa’s bygone six-on-six girls’ basketball tournament, which was played on a half a court, and called for it to be abolished.
Even those who disagreed with him were veracious consumers of his columns, according to Chuck Offenburger, who for years penned the “Iowa Boy” column in the Register.
“He has a lock on his readers — even the people who disagree with him,” Offenburger told OtherWords, which distributed Kaul’s columns in his final years of writing.
Kaul moved to the Register’s Washington bureau in 1972, putting him a bitter feud with the paper’s top editor at the time, James Gannon, who fired him in 1983 because he thought Kaul should focus more on Iowa issues. Kaul’s fans and critics were equally outraged and overjoyed.
He began writing for the Cedar Rapids Gazette shortly thereafter and his column was nationally syndicated. While working at that paper in 1987, he was a Pulitzer finalist, but lost to Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer.
After Gannon left the Register in 1988, the new editor hired him back. He was nominated for another Pulitzer in 1999, but the award that year went to Maureen Dowd.
He retired from the Register in 2000, but began writing for OtherWords, at the time known as Minuteman Media.
He nearly retired in 2012 after suffering a heart attack on the Fourth of July. At the time, he wrote that given the heartbreaking state of American politics, his heart had no other choice on Independence Day.
OtherWords said President Trump’s election convinced him to finally retire and he penned his last column in 2017. He had written that Trump had no chance of winning the Republican nomination, and that if he did, Americans wouldn’t elect him.
“I give up,” Kaul said. “If you can’t be any closer than that, you don’t belong in the column-writing business.”
On Twitter, many of his fans both celebrated Kaul and mourned his death.
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