by Riki Saltzman with Deb Gore Ohrn
Steve Ohrn was above all things a mensch. He was also a gifted photographer, exacting in his work, and generous in his relationships with others, especially the many folk and traditional artists whose work and stories he documented, helped to preserve, and promoted. Part of the first generation of NEA-funded public folklorists in the 1970s, Steve was the Iowa folklorist from 1982-87 and the longtime editor of the Public Sector Folklore sections print newsletter from 1987-97. He authored 2 books, co-authored another, wrote several articles, curated many an exhibit, and always kept the focus on the folk artists. During his time as Historic Sites Coordinator for the State Historical Society of Iowa (1987-2003), Steve was instrumental not only in working tirelessly in historic preservation of Iowa’s cultural heritage but also partnering with the Iowa Art Council to resurrect the state folklore position in 1995 as part of a partnership with the Iowa Sesquicentennial Commission and the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.
Steve, who passed away November 19, 2021, in Des Moines, IA from complications from MS and respiratory failure, was born to Ralph and Helen Ohrn on July 12, 1945, in Coral Gables, Florida. He grew up in Minneapolis and graduated from Washburn High School. He received an undergraduate degree in history and African studies at the University of Minnesota. He loved Africa and spent his junior year at the University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria. Over time he traveled extensively to nine African countries. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, he worked at the Educational Mass Media Center, producing a series on African history to be broadcast into the schools. He obtained an MA in religion at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis and then went on to graduate work in folklore, photography, and African Studies at Indiana University (1971-75); Steve, who was ABD in Folklore, focused on Midwestern folk art and material culture. He carried out extensive fieldwork in northern Minnesota, documenting the few surviving log farm buildings.
Folklore colleagues from graduate school days remember Steve as friendly, welcoming, and generous in sharing his photography skills. Jens Lund, a classmate and friend from Indiana University, remarked on Steve’s “successful career in Iowa in public folklore and, even more so, in historic preservation. I especially remember, from Bloomington days, that he was a very skilled & sensitive photographer. . . . Steve was both a fine fellow &, in our chosen field, one of the greats of his generation.” Libby Tucker, another graduate schoolmate, remembers Steve as “such a wonderful man and great contributor to public folklore studies.”
A talented carpenter, who rehabbed three houses, and passionate gardener, Steve co-ran a design and building business in Iowa City (1975-81) until he started working for the Iowa Arts Council as the state folklorist in 1982, when many of those first state-level positions were starting. Elaine Thatcher remembers Steve as “one of the established state folklorists when I entered the field. He was a regular at the Fife Conference gathering of public folklorists, and later we were state folklorists in neighboring states. I learned much from him and really enjoyed his sense of humor and kindness.” Phil Nusbaum, another graduate school friend and colleague who later became Minnesota’s state folklorist, was working at KUNI when Steve came to Iowa. He was most grateful for Steve’s help with sound recordings in those early years and for his assistance with “a grant to document a Cedar Falls guitarist, Eddie Bowles.”
Hank Willett, while serving as Alabama state folklorist and National Endowment for the Arts’ Regional Representative, worked closely with Steve during the early days of the AFS Public Programs Section. Notes Hank, “I always found Steve, in his often-understated way, to be among the most consistently kind people I knew—always friendly, always helpful, always kind. And at those somewhat regular (in the early years) gatherings of ‘state folklorists’ in Washington, Steve’s contributions were always carefully measured and considered.” Nick Spitzer wrote that of Steve that he “was one stand-up and do it person. I appreciated his depth of knowledge, clarity of purpose, and humanism. His way of relating to the citizenry in cultural terms was a model for the initial generation of folklorists in state positions.”
Peggy Bulger recalled Steve as “a mainstay of the early Public Folklore cohort and he was a funny and kind man” and lamented that “younger folklorists may not know of his good work.”
And that work, which was excellent, accessible, thorough, and far reaching, should be known. Steve documented, collected, and recognized Iowa folk artists in publications, exhibits, articles, and public programs. Many of his projects were funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, Folk & Traditional Arts Program; The Museum of International Folk Art; and the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife (aka Smithsonian Folklife Festival). He is the author of the exhibition catalogue Remaining Faithful: Amana Folk Art in Transition (1984, Iowa Arts Council) and the book Passing Time and Traditions: Contemporary Folk Art (1984, Iowa Arts Council. He also co-edited with Michael Edward Bell Saying Cheese: Studies in Folklore and Visual Communications (1975, Folklore Forum, series 13). Steve also wrote several articles for Iowa Heritage Illustrated (State Historical Society of Iowa), co-authored “Points of View: Using Photography to Document a Region” (1981, Southern Folklore), curated several folk art exhibits, and had a leadership role in planning and implementing the construction of the Western Trails Center in Council Bluffs, IA.
Of their time together at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Bill Johnson, retired curator of Natural, Military, and Transportation History, wrote, “Steve was a talented craftsman, with a passion for the people and products of folk art, even more was his passion for the preservation of their stories. Working with Steve I rapidly learned and appreciated his diverse knowledge, skills and experience. I was fortunate to have him as a friend and mentor.”
For me, Steve was a great mentor and advisor when I took on the position as state folklorist for the Iowa Arts Council in 1995. Because of departmental politics, we had to meet outside the office those first couple of years. Most of those meetings took place over lunches where he introduced me to his favorite Vietnamese restaurant, A Dong, and the “Greek Place,” which served what became known as the “Steve Ohrn special” among the wait staff and his friends (a burger with grilled onions and the instruction to “burn the fries”). Steve encouraged me to explore a variety of fieldwork opportunities and connected me with many of his friends and traditional artists, from those at the Amana Colonies and the Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum to one-time refugees in Iowa’s Hmong community. He very cleverly included in the NEA grant proposal for my position the task of coming up with a plan to preserve all of the folklore fieldwork in the State Historical Society’s archive and library—thus ensuring the survival and preservation of years of data and metadata from several folklorists and community scholars. Finally, he was my friend, and he and his wife, Deb, offered me first-refusal when they decided to sell their renovated 1910 craftsman home—but he included a clause in the sale that noted that this did NOT include Steve’s extensive collection of folk art (especially whirligigs) that decorated their home. We shared a love of swimming, black cats, and baskets, and I will miss his solid hugs.
As Mike Luster says, Steve Ohrn was “one of the great ones.”
Steve is lovingly survived by his wife of 30 years, Deb Gore Ohrn of West Des Moines, and puppy, Piper; his sister Kris (Dave) Rice; nephews Steven (Ryann) Greenberg; Joe (Erin) Greenberg; niece Allie Greenberg; two great nephews, Henry and Olin; one great niece, Andie; and his in-laws James and Evelyn Gore; Peggy Herz and Colonel Philip Smith; Beverly Arrasmith; Carroll Egemo (Anita); and Nancy (Schuyler) Grace.
His family has asked “to honor his memory, please consider performing an anonymous act of kindness. The organizations Steve supported include the National Multiple Sclerosis Society—Upper Midwest, West Des Moines Public Library, ARL Animal Rescue League of Iowa, Iowa Public Radio, Iowa Public Television, Peace Corps, Amnesty International, and Doctors Without Borders.”
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