Schools should teach about Nile Kinnick's inspirational life

Randy Lukasiewicz
Iowa View contributor
1939 photo of Iowa Hawkeyes football star and Heisman Trophy winner Nile Kinnick.

Growing up, "Kinnick" meant relatively little to me, other than a name of a stadium.

After attending a World War II plaque dedication on Aug. 4, 2011, the life of Nile Kinnick came alive. He and 39 other Omaha amateur baseball players were honored for giving up one field for another — a baseball field for a battlefield — and never coming home.

We need to study past heroes. Nebraska Poet Laureate John G. Neihardt taught himself Greek at 16 years old in order to study past heroes and write about them. People such as Crazy Horse, Hugh Glass and Nicholas Black Elk.  To that list must be added Nile Kinnick.

Kinnick would have turned 100 years old this week, having been born in Adel, Ia., on July 9, 1918. Though gone, his spirit remains. We know he excelled on the athletic fields, but what fueled a passion far beyond the gridiron, court and field?

Journals and letters written to his family provide insight into the Kinnick family’s Sunday night reading time.  There he learned the power of well thought-out written and spoken words. He taught himself the Gettysburg Address for a seventh-grade contest. He would recite it throughout his life, explaining its importance and to be kind to all. While farming with his dad, he took pride in being a steward of the land. 

His grandfather, George Clarke, was governor of Iowa and Dean of the Drake Law School. As a 5-foot-6, 165-pound sophomore at Iowa, Kinnick was all-Big Ten in football, a catcher on the baseball team (later for Legion teammate Bob Feller) and a member of the basketball team. He was drafted by the NFL in 1940.

Some notable Kinnick quotes:

  • “What we need are men of greater stature and character in Congress.”
  • “Our social and economic problems are fundamentally moral. Their ultimate solution depends on the home, school and church.” 
  • “Are the old virtues of thrift, hard work, initiative no longer important?"
  • “Great majority of our political and economic troubles arise from a lack of candor in our leaders.  They try to be too smooth and adroit.  They put partisan advantage above conviction.”
  • "The happy, peaceful, kindly mind is the one which loses all sense of self and takes no thought of the physical body."
  • "The important thing is to keep your thought well ordered — be able to see order in seeming chaos."
  • "Government by force cannot last, it is too exhausting.  An enduring government must be based on the faiths and loyalties of a people.”
  • “My most unforgettable characters ... grandpa Kinnick, grandpa and grandma Clarke, parents.”
  • “Our home and family life has been grand and fruitful.”

Nile Kinnick certainly had the makings of a man destined to lead his country.

With the occasion of his 100th birthday, I believe the life of this local hero should be taught in our classrooms and on our screens.    

A start can be a patriotic and historic trip down to Brown Park-Stella Field in South Omaha to see where this Cornbelt Comet is honored for being a baseball player. A stimulating follow-up day-cation can be over to the Adel Historical Museum for the largest display of Kinnick/Clarke memorabilia around.

Nile Kinnick has been recognized and honored world-wide for his athletic endeavors, but perhaps now is the time to explore deeper into his burning heart and churning mind as to what nurtured such a compassionate, patriotic, humanitarian spirit.

Randy Lukasiewicz lives in Omaha, Neb. He collects and shares stories and memorabilia about the importance and richness of our cultural heritage.

Randy Lukasiewicz