Former Ottumwa Laureate Guild members reminisce about their closed chapter

Published: Oct. 12, 2021 at 9:17 PM CDT
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OTTUMWA, Iowa (KYOU) - Barb Black joined the Ottumwa Laureate Guild in 1972. She says, at the time, “a lot of it was about gardening.” It had been founded years before, largely made up of housewives, according to Black. Throughout her time in the guild, she saw raise money through plant sales, auctions, and garden parties and donating it to various organizations throughout the city. And almost fifty years later, Black, as president, made the call to vote to shut the guild down.

Joyce Kramer, another former member who joined in 2000, says it’s okay this chapter is ending. “It just was a wonderful organization, but now its time has come.”

Both Black and Kramer spent an hour sharing memories of their time spent with the at times 30-plus members of the Laureate Guild. Between the women, Kramer notes, they had a “feeling of comradery, and then we felt good about our place in the world.” Kramer also served as president in the mid-2000s.

The women recall the guild as filled with women from around 30 to 50 years old, with a varying membership size. And Black says there were a lot of gardeners.

A good thing, as the Laureate Guild’s main claim to fame came in their annual plant sales, where the members would grow plants in their own gardens, them bringing them together to raise proceeds. Other events the guild held would bring in money was well: a Thanksgiving auction, a Christmas tour of home, and garden parties. Those funds would then be distributed among organizations around Ottumwa. While initially the money went directly to the Children’s Library, by the end, Black says there were around 10 different places the guild gave to. Those ranged from the Lord’s Cupboard, the Blessings Soup Kitchen, Whatsoever You Do, and the Hope House. Kramer says the guild’s goal was “to give back to the community that we live and thrive in to the people who also needed to thrive in any way we can.”

The director of the Blessings Soup Kitchen says the Laureate Guild was there for them every year. “Their focus is beautification and, you know, gardening and things. And yet they have a heart for what we do.” Other remnants of the Laureate Guild’s legacy remain. An Ottumwa librarian tells me some children’s book are affixed with a Laureate Guild seal.

But Black notes membership for the guild began to decline a few years ago. Then as the COVID-19 pandemic began, meetings stopped. Kramer explains it wasn’t any one thing. Even before the pandemic, the guild was only made up of around 14 members.

Black decided to end it officially, instead of watching it slowly dissolve or turn into some sort of social club. Black says that isn’t something she wanted to see the Laureate Guild become: “It doesn’t fly. You have to have a purpose.” She feels a social club would be doomed to fail, and that the members’ projects throughout the years kept them bonded. The remaining members took a vote, and the Laureate Guild was over.

As a final act, Black donated the rest of the money in their fund to Main Street Ottumwa. That’s where both Black and Kramer say the Laureate Guild is living on, through a former guild member who now serves on Main Street Ottumwa’s board. “I felt that it was a way to use that money and honor her for all she’d done,” explains Black. In the guild’s absence, Main Street Ottumwa has taken over the plant sales and garden parties.

And with the chapter now closed, the two former members think back fondly on the friends they made and the work they did. Black says working together was “when we got to know each other the best.”

When asked how Ottumwans may remember the Laureate Guild, Kramer said that “the best thing is in our own memories, don’t you think? It doesn’t really matter if the community remembers, because we will. And we know we did good.”

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