Author Tommy Murray shares back story of novel ‘Fathers, Sons, and the Holy Ghosts of Baseball’

Fathers, Sons, and the Holy Ghosts of Baseball
Tommy Murray with his father, John Murray

A favorite pasttime of mine is reading the works of other Iowa authors, and I’m delighted to recommend the novel Fathers, Sons, and the Holy Ghosts of Baseball by Tommy Murray.

The Murray family was well known among us Catholics in Burlington, Iowa, because with 10 kids in their family, you were likely to have a Murray in your class.  They were all nice kids. Tom Murray (the oldest) was in my sister Tracey’s class, Mary Murray was in my brother Drew’s class, and Jean Murray was in my class and group of friends. All of us graduated from Notre Dame High School in the ’70s.

Tom’s novel was published in 2017, and it’s a great read. The characters are complex and real, and the plot is full of surprises. I have to admit I also learned quite a bit about baseball strategy from reading it. In some ways it’s a “coming of age” story, and in other ways, it’s a story about “coping with aging.” Tom manages to present both themes with humor and empathy.

Tom is a retired teacher from the Minneapolis Public Schools who lives with his wife, Mary Ann, in Shoreview, MInn. They have four adult children who are baseball and softball legends in the Shoreview area. Because I liked his book so much, and because I admire fiction writers, I invited Tom to answer some questions for this blog.

Fathers, Sons, and the Holy Ghosts of Baseball involves three elderly coaches and some of the key members of the varsity baseball team at Holy Trinity High School. How did you come up with the plot and characters? 

In 1973 I was a junior scrub on the junior varsity football team early in the season at Notre Dame High School in Burlington, Iowa sitting on the bench against arch-rival West Burlington when my big football opportunity manifested itself.  My coach told me I could report into the game on defense under one condition:  After the ball was hiked, I should race in three feet and hold my position.  It seemed simple enough.  However, he still made me model that attack strategy for himself and the group of my teammates that awaited the spectacle. When the coach was certain that I understood, he anxiously sent me into the game.  On my second and last down as a football player at Notre Dame I watched the quarterback run away to the complete opposite side of the field.  Instead of holding my ground as I had been instructed, I raced after him at which point West Burlington executed a deft reverse resulting in a speedy runner easily sidestepping me and eventually escaping right through the hole I had been ordered to plug.  It’s a continuing  nightmare I still have to this day, watching that guy run 89 yards for a West Burlington touchdown.

My football career was over. Banished to a solitary perch on the bench, I had the rest of the season to observe my coaches, all older men (two retirees from Burlington High School and a crazed priest from St. Patrick’s Church in Burlington), and the fathers in the bleachers living vicariously through their sons on the field.  Like many of those boys, I played for my hero, my father.  And also like many of those boys who battled for victory and glory in athletic contests, I wished that I had known my father better.  Sometimes I felt I didn’t know him at all.

Way back then I filled my empty head with dreams of a story where the old men were coaching, and fathers were cheering on their sons, but instead in another sport in which I was also a miserable failure—baseball. It’s true that those who can’t play baseball write about it.  I’ve been thinking, writing, editing and eventually publishing and promoting this story since 1973.

In the book, you write in-depth about the game of baseball and strategy. Did you play and/or coach baseball?

Fathers, Sons, and the Holy Ghosts of Baseball I was a terrible football player and even worse at baseball.  Though I was always the tallest player on the field I was also always the slowest.  I also had one other huge impediment.  I was deathly afraid of the ball.  Instead of charging in and genuflecting in front of a hard ground ball I would stand to the side, out of harm’s way and wave my glove in the general direction of the ball and hope by some chance it would get tangled in its webbing.

I was even worse at bat.  As the pitcher began his windup I was already moving out of the batter’s box and taking a giant step toward third base.  By the time the ball reached the plate I was always far away, almost in a different ZIP code.  In my junior year of high school, for the sake of the coaches and fans and myself, I quit playing baseball.

That action, raising the white flag, absolutely broke my father’s heart.  He was devastated.  Like most fathers he didn’t see my inadequacies and obvious failures.  He only saw my potential, future glory and most of all the fulfillment of my legacy.  My legacy was determined before I was born, when it was decided I would be named for my uncle Tommy Murray.

You dedicate the book to your grandfathers, your uncle Tommy Murray and your father. Tell us about them and their influence on your life and love of baseball.

I begin all my readings by telling the story of my Uncle Tommy, my namesake, and explaining his legacy.  Iowa, like Minnesota, originally had two different paths to a high school state championship—one for public, the other, private. In 1943 all schools were combined into one tournament.  Uncle Tommy led an undefeated Bancroft St. John team to the Fall Iowa State Baseball Championship game and then pitched and won that game.  St. John became the first private school to win a championship of any sport in Iowa.  He was a hero in Bancroft, a baseball star who excelled despite suffering from severe juvenile arthritis. He parlayed that success and charm to finagle my grandfather to influence the Army to accept him during World War II despite this obvious deferment.  In gratitude he trained for the most dangerous position in the Army, portable flame thrower.  He was killed in the Philippines in November 1945.


Fathers, Sons, and the Holy Ghosts of Baseball
The obituary of the author’s uncle, Tommy Murray.

All of northwest Iowa was devastated by my Uncle Tommy’s death.  Fort Dodge Public High School was scheduled  to play St. John on the very day of his passing.  They called my grandfather to offer their sympathies and cancel the game.  My grandfather explained that nothing could ever bring back his beloved son and that the game should go on.  In Bancroft, Iowa, baseball is more than a game.  It’s a life and death passion.  Baseball is a religion.

So that night my Grandfather watched his nephew and son (my dad) compete and win the baseball game against Fort Dodge Public.  Life goes on, especially and no matter what, the life of baseball.

Nearly all of the characters in my story are composites of loved ones that have passed on, some that I’ve never met like my Grandfather Art Murray, others that I did meet and treasure—wistful old men like my Grandfather Joe McTigue and even former students that were brutal and charismatic gang leaders on the streets of North Minneapolis. Somehow I seem to continue to see and hear them, mostly in the persistent whisperings of those who want to be remembered — want their story to be told because they continue to live as long as I and others tell their story. I believe these holy ghosts have given me permission to embellish their stories as long as those stories illuminate their truths.

Your book is set in fictional town of Cottage Park, Iowa. What’s your connection to Cottage Park? In writing about Cottage Park in the book, did you reference real places? 

I was the bat boy for my father, the baseball coach at St. Mary’s in Storm Lake, Iowa.  Cottage Park is a combination of all those little towns just big enough to support two bars, a Catholic church, and perhaps most importantly a baseball field.  However, Cottage Park is mostly modeled after Bancroft, Iowa a town of 727 residents also in northwest Iowa. The church and the baseball field there are open 24 hours per day, 365 days per year. I wrote Fathers, Sons, and the Holy Ghosts of Baseball to provide readers in that community a mirror to see themselves, and for everyone else a window to experience the joy and exasperation of small town Iowa life.

Toward the end of my father’s life he couldn’t tell you the name of the wife who mothered his 10 children, or even the names of his children, but he never forgot one detail of life in Bancroft, particularly as it related to baseball.

It wasn’t until nearly the very end of my 40-year journey of writing my novel that I learned that Cottage Park was also a metaphor for the relationship with my father.

Many people say “I want to write a book,” but few have the self-discipline and creativity that it takes to do so. How long did it take you to write your novel, and what was your process? 

I am hopeful that everyone who reads this blog will carefully read my strategies for writing a novel and then, no matter what, do the exact opposite of what I’ve done.

For starters, I would rather stick darning needles directly into my eyeballs than ever write one single word.  Writing is painful for me.  It was something I never enjoyed doing, but I felt compelled to do at the persistent nagging of old men, now passed, who relentlessly insisted that I tell their story.  I did everything I could think of to avoid sitting down and writing, which included elaborate nightly nesting rituals, mostly cleaning, picking up, and putting things in order after my four children went to bed each night.

My goal at first was to write one single word each night.  I was not going to be the most prolific author, but I was going to be the most consistent.  After days of writing only one word, I enlarged my goal to write at least one sentence, and then a paragraph, and finally a page.  Humans are the most adaptive animals on earth.

In just a few decades I had written a novel.  By the way, I’ll match the cleanliness underneath and behind my refrigerator against anyone.

 Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

 First and foremost find pictures of the author of this blog, Jane Sutter Brandt, at the signing of her memoir, Sutter’s Sodas Satisfy at Burlington By the Book. The line of people purchasing the book was not unlike that of people waiting in line for Taylor Swift Concert tickets.  Post those pictures on your refrigerator and it will give you motivation that your story is of great value to some if not all.

Second, talk to Jane Brandt’s sister Tracey who will give you confidence that you can and must market and promote your story, and a good place to start is at Burlington By the Book with its owner Chris Murphy, and his enthusiastic coworkers.

I know how to amass a small fortune writing a novel.  My third counsel is to always start out with a large fortune.  When my Uncle Pat McTigue passed, he left me enough money to purchase all the services and requirements for the publishing of this novel through an “indie” press called Beaver’s Pond Press in Edina, Minnesota.

Fourth, before you are published, choose who you allow to read your work more carefully than you choose a spouse.  I had an opportunity to have the great Catholic novelist J.F. Powers read an early draft of my manuscript.  I wasn’t prepared for his critique (which was savage, but entirely on the mark) and hid my story away for several years in a box in my bedroom closet.  That’s one of the reasons why it took me 40 years to get this story published.

Last, write for an audience.  This book is dedicated to my father.  After the debacle with J.F. Powers, my hope was to publish one copy and present it to him.  I couldn’t write and edit my manuscript as fast as dementia took away his memory, and finally his life. Dad never got to read the printed copy. So I wrote this story for my four children.  When I went to the printer, I discovered that it wasn’t that much more expensive to print up another 200 copies.

One pleasant surprise of my writing journey is that others are liking this story too.  This summer Minneapolis City Council Member Blong Yang requested an order for 200 copies to distribute to volunteers and contributors to his reelection campaign.  When I asked him why he liked my story he responded, “Because I’m Catholic.  I love small towns and I love baseball.”

I recently published a third edition of 1,000 that now includes glowing newspaper reviews.

As many authors know, actually getting published is also a challenge once the book is written. What was your experience? 

As is often the case in life, many problems can be solved if you have time and money.  I retired as a teacher in the Minneapolis Public Schools in 2014, so I have the time.  At about that same period in my life my Uncle Pat McTigue passed away and left me just enough money to purchase the services that are necessary for every aspect of the publishing of this novel, including promotions.  I’ve signed on with a professional marketing company that is generating good leads in media.  It helps immensely to be from Burlington, Iowa where people are unbelievably gracious and supportive.

What’s next for you? Are you working on another novel? 

There’s a line in the cable television series, The Affair, where a grizzled old writer remarks to a younger writer, “Everybody in the world has one novel in them.  Writing a second novel is the real challenge.”

I actually wrote a novel many, many years ago about a ninth-grader and the trials and tribulations that he must confront in his life.  The Empty Set was a young adult novel before there was such a genre with subject matter about suicide, before we talked about that subject.  Now it is somewhat dated, so I’m doing a massive rewrite in hopes I can make it more relevant for today.

I’m hopeful that it doesn’t take me another 40 years to rewrite and get this story published.

To read a review of Fathers, Sons, and the Holy Ghosts of Baseball, click here.  The book is available at Burlington By The Book in Burlington, Iowa, and by mail order from Itasca Books. 




Des Moines County Historical Society seeks wedding photos

1920s flapper wedding dress
Rubye Ekstrom married Raymond Sutter on Sept. 24, 1924.

I just love this photo of my maternal grandmother, Rubye Ekstrom Sutter. She married my grandfather, Raymond Otto Sutter, on Sept. 24, 1924 at St. John the Baptist Church in Burlington, Iowa.

How cool that she wore a flapper-style hat and dress. She was 25 years old. I don’t have a lot of memories of her, as she died on her 60th birthday on May 13, 1964, when I was 5 years old. I do recall that when I visited her at her home at 1515 N. Eighth St., that we would walk down the alley to Heinie’s Grocery at Ninth and Oak streets where she’d buy candy for me.

I have this photo in a frame in my office, and I recently shared it with the Des Moines County Historical Society, for its upcoming “Desserts by Design.”

I’ve never attended the event, as I haven’t been in Burlington when it’s been held in the past. It’s an annual event (held April 19 in 2018) and sounds delicious! This year’s theme is “Wedding Customs: 1900 to 1950.” The planning committee is seeking photos from 1900 to 1950, including photos of the bride and groom, the wedding party or the general event.

wedding party 1952
Barbara Louden married R. Joseph (Joe) Sutter on Sept. 27, 1952. Harriet Jones and Pat Curley were attendants.

I also shared this photo of my parents from their wedding, which was Sept. 27, 1952 also at St. John’s. According to the  news clipping that I have, my mother wore a “white strapless ballerina gown of nylon tulle and imported Chantilly lace over satin, the bride carried an arrangement of white roses centered with a white orchid.  Her gown was styled with a basque bodice with a white lace Spencer jacket with long pointed sleeves and bouffant skirt bordered with Chantilly lace. A bonnet of white satin with lace ruffles and seed pearl held her fingertip veil of imported silk illusion in place.”

I just love how newspapers used to write these long stories about weddings, what the bridal party wore, who attended, etc.

The maid of honor was my mother’s good friend, Harriet Jones (who later became Harriet Shetler), and friend Pat Curley was the bridesmaid. Too bad this photo isn’t in color, as the newspaper stated: “They were dressed in companion gowns of Nile green and emerald green with short-sleeved Spencer jackets and matching tiaras. They carried bouquets of rust pompons with wheat and green velvet leaves.” I’m sure my mother picked that color scheme with the idea that the colors epitomized a fall wedding.

Do you have wedding photos from that era? If so, you can email them to or Or you can take them to the Heritage Center Museum, 501 N. Fourth, to be digitized on site. They need submissions by March 1 to be considered for the slide show that will play during the event.

Questions or for more information on the event, call 319-752-7449.

Joe Sutter’s B&L science award connects Iowa to Rochester

Bausch+Lomb, University of Rochester
Joe Sutter won this award in the early 1940s while a student at Burlington, Iowa, High School.

A few years ago when my siblings and I were going through some things of my dad (Joe) after he passed away, we found a small brown case. When we opened it up, we found a gold medallion featuring a woman who appeared to be dressed in a traditional Greek robe.

Engraved on the medallion were the words “Bausch & Lomb Honorary Science Award.” We asked our mother about it. “Oh yes,” she recalled. “Your dad won that when he was in high school.” My mother didn’t know my dad then, but she recalled that his mother, Rubye Ekstrom Sutter, had told her that when Dad won the award, he was so modest that he came home from school, didn’t mention it, and just started mowing the lawn at their home on Summer Street.  Apparently he told his parents about it later!

The award specifically caught my attention because I now live in Rochester, N.Y., where Bausch & Lomb was founded and still has a plant.

Turns out that Bausch + Lomb (as the company is now called) has been giving out this science award to high school juniors since 1933. The history is on the company’s website; the criteria involves academic excellence in rigorous  high school science classes.

This is one of the few photos I have of my dad when he was in high school. He looks snazzy in his band uniform.

I’m sure my dad did well in his science classes; it was in his blood as he was the son and grandson of pharmacists (Ray and Joseph R. respectively) and he was bound for the University of Iowa Pharmacy College. Interestingly, by being awarded the B&L honor, he was eligible to compete for a scholarship at the University of Rochester. I doubt that he had any interest in leaving Iowa for upstate New York, and he didn’t have a clue that his future daughter would end up living here.

When I worked at the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, we had a saying that “There’s always a Rochester connection” when it came to big, national news stories. So it’s amusing to me that my dad had a Rochester connection, but unfortunately I never knew about it until after he passed away.  He never mentioned it and I’m sure the award was long forgotten.

Looking at the medallion, I’m wondering who is this woman on it? Anyone got a clue?


My dad’s award came nestled in this nice wood case on a bed of velvet.

3 must-do’s when I visit Burlington, Iowa in the summer

I just love my trips back to Burlington, Iowa, especially in the warm months. The highlight of my trip in June was attending my reunion for the Notre Dame High School class of 1977. It was a blast to see old friends, meet their spouses, and see a few of our teachers, too!

Class reunions don’t happen every summer of course, so I’m sharing with you my top three things to do when my husband, Gary Brandt, and I visit Burlington. (There are lots of other things we love, but these are at the top.)

Look at this huge tenderloin from The Som!
  1. Eat a pork tenderloin sandwich at The Som (formerly known as The Sombrero). I started being a “regular” at The Som in the early 1980s, when I launched my journalism career as a reporter at The Hawk Eye. I think Gin and Tonics cost 90 cents back then. I also honed some pool shooting skills there too, hanging out with my Hawk Eye colleagues Jane Daly, Mike Sweet, and others.  For this last trip, Gary and I took my mother there for lunch and she surely enjoyed her tenderloin and beer!
Enjoying cold beer and the Bees with my Notre Dame High School classmates!

2. Cheer for the Burlington Bees. Fortunately, that was the Friday night activity for the Class of ’77. I have to say that I was so busy talking to my classmates that I barely watched the game, until the final inning when the Bees had a chance to tie the game. Alas, that didn’t happen and they lost to Peoria, 3-2.

All that remains of my favorite chips is this crumpled bag!

3. Buy some Sterzing’s potato chips to take back to Rochester. I found out at my reunion that one of my classmates (Gary Schmeiser) is a co-owner of this iconic company! How cool is that. The bag of Sterzing’s never lasts long but at least I didn’t eat all of them on the 14-hour car ride home.  (Yes, I could take more than one bag home but if I ate them too often, then they wouldn’t taste so special when I do get some!)

What are your must-do’s in Burlington?



Remembering Ray Sutter, my grandfather

Raymond Sutter in the Sutter Drug Store in West Burlington in the 1960s.

I’ve written several columns about my father,  Raymond Joseph (Joe) Sutter, so for Father’s Day, I’ve decided to write about my grandfather, Raymond Otto Sutter.

I remember Grandpa Sutter quite well, as he was a part of my life until I was almost 17 years old. Ray was the second son of Joseph. R. Sutter, my great-grandfather, who founded Sutter Drug Co. Ray was the first of the Sutters to graduate from the University of Iowa; he graduated in June 1921 with what was then called a PHG (Pharmacy Graduate) degree.

Ray Sutter on Jefferson Street in the 1920s.

A newspaper article touted his accomplishments, including being vice president of the senior class, chairman of the Iowa Memorial Union drive conducted in the College of Pharmacy, and a member of Delta Tau Delta and Phi Delta Chi.

“Perhaps the honor that he values highest is the membership that he won in the American Pharmaceutical Association that was given in recognition of a thesis on organic drugs, a prize that was offered by Dean Teeters of the university, ” the article stated. Ray was put in charge of the Sutter Drug store located at Eighth and Jefferson streets, which had been purchased in 1920 when it was Froid’s Drug Store.

When I was a kid, Grandpa lived in the house at 1515 N. Eighth St., not far from where my family lived at 912 N. Seventh St. He inherited the house from his father, who had built it in the 1920s, overlooking the Mississippi River. His father died in 1948, and in 1949, Grandpa oversaw a major remodeling of the flagship store at the corner of Jefferson and Third streets. Plans for that remodeling were at least being discussed in 1948, and it fell to Grandpa to see them through, which by all accounts, was a big deal for downtown Burlington. Hundreds came for a three-day celebration; it didn’t hurt that the store remodeling was revealed in August, and air conditioning had been installed!

Ray Sutter around 1940. I think he looks very handsome with his mustache!

Grandpa’s wife, Rubye (my grandmother), died on her 65th birthday in 1964. Grandpa was very active in the Knights of Columbus (fourth degree) and the Rotary club and Elks and Eagles lodges.

I remember he loved to grow roses and play cards, as noted in a 1972 article written by Lloyd Maffitt for The Hawk Eye newspaper. “I love to play rummy,” (Sutter) declared. “I love gardening, too — I gave up golf for gardening.”

Despite dramatic changes in the pharmaceutical profession, “we still have a few old-time customers who come in for refills on prescriptions that no one else has used for years. They request elixers given them by family doctors who died 30 years ago.”

Rubye and Ray Sutter in 1947 in the yard of their home at 537 Summer St., where they lived before moving to North Eighth.

“The introduction of antibiotics is by far the biggest improvement I’ve seen in my 50 years of pharmacy,” Sutter declared. 

And what will be the next major pharmaceutical breakthrough? “I don’t know,” said Sutter with a smile. “But when it comes, we’ll be ready for it.”

When I was in high school and I worked at the soda fountain, Grandpa Sutter was getting rather frail. But he still came to the drug store every day, although he no longer filled prescriptions. He would walk up the tiny staircase to the office that overlooked the store, and come down at lunch time for a sandwich and a cup of coffee. He always had a great smile and sense of humor.

He passed away at age 75 on Oct. 21, 1975 at Burlington Memorial Hospital.

Want to buy the Sutter’s sign?

This sign hung on the Third Street side of the Tama Building. 

On my recent trips to Burlington,  Iowa, it’s been so great to see the steady progress being made on renovating the Tama Building, where my great-grandfather founded his first store at 311 N. Third St., before moving it in 1929 to the prime spot at the corner of Jefferson and Third.

Now you might be able to own a piece of that history. Steve Frevert, executive director of Downtown Partners, Inc., has obtained the Sutter’s sign that hung on the Jefferson side of the street. The sign was covered by other signs for years after the store closed in 1981, but in recent years it was visible again.

With the new owners of what’s called the Historic Tama Complex making great progress on the building, it was time for the Sutter signs (one on Jefferson, the other facing Third) to come down. In an email, Steve told me, “The sign they removed was on eleven porcelain enamel panels on the Jefferson St. side. Much of it has brown paint on it, but I think we can figure out a way to strip it off. I took the panels to Preservation Station, and hopefully sometime this summer we can get them stripped.”

This photo shows Sutter Drug Store in 1976. (Photo courtesy of Downtown Burlington Partners.)

When I asked what might happen with the sign after the stripping, Steve wrote, “I imagine we will sell it, either in the shop or online.”

So there you have it! I do hope the sign gets a good home in Burlington. As the Tama building renovations began, I did think about the future of the signs, but where the heck would I put them?

I understand the sign on the Third Street side of the building went to someone named Sutter in Wisconsin, who contacted the building’s owners about it after seeing it while visiting Burlington. As far as I know, this person is not related to my family but I would love to find out his/her plans for it.


Soda fountains and Cara Nome cosmetics resonate with reader

I so enjoyed reuniting with Maria Hileman Montgomery, right, and then finding out she has her own family connection to Rexall drug stores and soda fountains.

You never know how something you write will resonate with a reader. Such was the case recently when I gave a copy of my book, Sutter’s Sodas Satisfy: A Memoir of 90 Years of Sutter Drug Co. , to a former colleague.

My husband, Gary, and I, were driving back to our home in Rochester, N.Y., from Florida, where we had a spent a few months. At the last minute, we decided to stop overnight in Winchester, Va., which just happens to be where my good friend, Maria Hileman Montgomery lives. She is a former Democrat and Chronicle colleague of mine, and now is the managing editor of the The Winchester Star newspaper. We were lucky that Maria and her husband, Roger, were available for dinner on such short notice. We had a great time catching up, especially since Maria and I had not seen each other in several years. I gave her a copy of my book, never dreaming that even though she had not visited Burlington, Iowa, let alone Sutter Drug, the story would touch a chord for her. She wrote this touching column, and it was published in The Winchester Star.

Localizing the universal

Before the 1960s and ‘70s, when people started flocking to strip malls and chain restaurants and, more recently, to “virtual” internet communities like Facebook, they often met at lunch counters in drug stores, diners and five-and-dimes.

My own parents met in 1947 in Washington, D.C. when he was a soda jerk and she was a customer at People’s drug store across 10th Street from Ford’s Theater.

One of my earliest and fondest childhood memories is of ordering mouth-watering buttered toast and “sunny side up” eggs on Sunday mornings in the late 1950s with my mother at a lunch counter in downtown Staunton after Mass at St. Francis of Assisi church.

A friend and former newspaper colleague of mine from Rochester, N.Y., Jane Sutter Brandt, has just published a book of memoirs about her family’s 90 years in the pharmacy business in Burlington, Iowa. Her father, grandfather and great-grandfather operated the Sutter Drug Co. in several locations in that city from 1902 to 1993, and the lunch counter was an intrinsic part of the business.

When she and her husband, Gary, stopped in Winchester and had dinner with us a couple weeks ago on their way back to Rochester from Florida, she gave me a signed copy of her self-published book “Sutter’s Sodas Satisfy.”
I started to read it this past weekend more out of devotion to Jane, who was managing editor of the Democrat and Chronicle during my half dozen years as metro editor there, than out of any real interest in the topic.

But after burying myself in the book for an afternoon, I came away impressed with how careful attention to historical detail and strong narrative writing can uncover the universal nature of so much of human experience.
While Sutter’s was a particularly local institution, I found threads of informational nostalgia that resonated in surprising ways with me.  Her explanation of how Sutter’s carried Cara Nome cosmetics, for instance, took me back to conversations between my mother and father in the 1950s and ‘60s, when he would ask her what she wanted for her birthday or anniversary.

“Cara Nome,” she’d reply, rolling the ‘r’ expressively and lifting her eyes heavenward. I haven’t heard the phrase in years.

As Jane explains in her book, Cara Nome was a popular Rexall brand for high-end cosmetics. Her great-grandfather, Joseph R. Sutter, became a “Rexall agent” in 1907, meaning he held an exclusive franchise to sell the products in Burlington and West Burlington.

Rexall distributors displayed a distinctive bright orange and navy blue sign, and it was the name brand for products sold by United Drug Co. of New Jersey. Other Rexall products included Super Plenamin vitamins and Liggett’s $50,000 chocolates.

The word “Rexall” meant “king of all,” and was probably an allusion to the Rx used in prescriptions. Customers will recall the popular semi-annual Rexall One Cent sale when you could get a second item for a penny if you bought one.

Photos in the book show customers lined up the whole way up the city block and cramming the newly air-conditioned store and soda fountain when Sutter’s reopened after remodeling in 1949.

The photos show not only Cara Nome products and Kodak’s new Hawkeye cameras, but the gleaming “full-vision windows” on the display cases and the modern fluorescent lights.

In a chapter headed “Changing Times,” Jane describes the changes that came in the 1960s with the advent of chain pharmacies, costly prescription drugs and third-party prescriptions such as Medicaid. The death knell sounded in the 1980s when insurance companies forced customers to buy prescriptions from certain pharmacies and big-box retailers added pharmacies to their stores.

It is hard, in the end, not to bemoan the passing of the era of the independent drug store when you view it through the prism of such a long-time family business.

Sutter advertised his “up-to-date drug store” when it opened 1903

A page from the scrapbook showing the interior of the first Sutter store.
A page from the scrapbook showing the interior of the first Sutter store.

I found this cardboard in the Sutter Drug Store scrapbook that my great-aunt Ursula Sutter Schuetze compiled. The little newspaper clipping is the only printed reference we have to the first store, which was located at 311 N. Third in the Tama Building. (Although Joseph bought the store in 1902, he did not officially open it as Sutter Drug until 1903.)

The photo is of the interior of the first store. Notice how all the merchandise was behind glass doors or in cases, so the clerks had to get it out for the customer. Shopping wasn’t self-service like it is today!

Aunt Ursie was the youngest of four children that my great-grandfather Joseph Robert Sutter and his wife, Anna Schlacter Sutter, had. Being the youngest and the last to leave home, she was probably considered “the baby of the family.” Neither of her parents ever drove and so she drove them around in the car my great-grandfather owned.  I recall her telling me that when she was about 18 years old, she drove herself and her mother all the way from Burlington, Iowa, to Boise, Idaho, so they could visit Gertrude Sutter Moore, the elder daughter. That would have been around 1923! I remember being amazed by that story. It probably took them at least a week to get there, given the roads and slower speeds of cars. My great-grandfather must have had a lot of confidence in his wife and daughter to let them take such a long trip by themselves.

Cover of the scrapbook kept by my great-aunt.
Cover of the scrapbook kept by my great-aunt.
The Sutters on the 50th anniversary of Joseph R. and Anna. From left, Ursula, Gertrude, Anna, Joseph, Clarence Joseph (C.J.) and Ray (my grandfather).
The Sutters on the 50th anniversary of Joseph R. and Anna. From left, Ursula, Gertrude, Anna, Joseph, Clarence Joseph (C.J.) and Ray (my grandfather).


Sutter’s Swedish S cookies are Christmas tradition

The Swedish S cookies melt in your mouth.
The Swedish S cookies melt in your mouth.

Every family has their favorite holiday recipes, passed down through the generations. In my family, one of them is the Swedish S cookie. When I was a small child, I thought that every family had a cookie made into the letter of their last name, because we Sutters had the Swedish S cookie. S would be for Sutter, right?

You can see this cookie gun is quite old!
You can see this cookie gun is quite old!



“Swedish S’s” as we call them are a melt-in-your-mouth butter cookie. I’ve heard them called Spritz cookies when they’re not shaped as an S. Every Christmas, the Swedish S cookies were a staple. My mother would make a couple batches (each batch makes about 170 cookies!), using the cookie gun that had been used by my paternal grandmother, Rubye Ekstrom Sutter.

The cookie gun has a variety of attachments to make different shapes of cookies.
The cookie gun has a variety of attachments to make different shapes of cookies.

Now I make them every Christmas using the hand-written recipe from my mother and that same cookie gun. My Rochester, N.Y., family and friends love the Swedish S’s, too. My grandmother was Swedish and I assume this is her family’s recipe.

Cookies ready for baking.
Cookies ready for baking.

Here’s the recipe for Swedish S’s:

1 lb. butter (as my mother says, “Be sure to use real butter!”), just soft enough for mixing, not melted.

2 cups powdered sugar

2 eggs at room temperature

1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

1/2 tsp. almond extract

4 1/2 to 5 cups flour

1 rounding tsp. baking powder (be sure baking powder is not outdated)

Cream butter and sugar together in bowl of electric mixer. Add eggs and flavoring, and mix. Mix baking powder into flour, and add flour slowly to mix all ingredients thoroughly. Chill dough for about 10 minutes in refrigerator. Put dough through cookie press and form cookies on parchment paper-covered baking sheets.

Bake in oven that’s been pre-heated to 375 degrees. Bake until cookies are lightly brown on top, about 8 minutes.

My grandmother, Rubye, died in 1964 on her 60th birthday. I was only 5 years old. But her legacy lives on in so many ways, especially these cookies. I think she would get a kick out of that!

I’d love to hear about your family’s cookie baking traditions.

My grandparents Rubye Ekstrom Sutter and Ray Sutter in the 1940s.
My grandparents Rubye Ekstrom Sutter and Ray Sutter in the 1940s.

3 life lessons from my father, Joe Sutter

David, Joe, parents Rubye and Ray, Bill Sutter in the 1940s.
David, Joe, parents Rubye and Ray, Bill Sutter in the 1940s.

My dad was born Dec. 8, 1925. He lived to be 87 and I think of him every day. In honor of my dad’s birthday, I’m writing about three life lessons he taught me. Of course, I learned much more than these three, but these are the ones on my mind today.

  1. Don’t be a quitter. During the summer between my sophomore and junior year at Mizzou, I had a hard time finding a summer job in Burlington. I finally was hired to work at the local LaMont Limited plant down on Bluff Road. (Apparently now called LaMont Home.) The year was 1979, and the plant manufactured wicker bathroom accessories (hampers, shelving, armoires, etc.) that were popular then. I had to be at work at 7 a.m. (much too early for me as a college student who wanted to be out and about late). All the people working there were my parents’ age, so I felt out of place. I think my job had something to do with a staple gun. I came home after a couple days and that night, when Dad came home, I announced, “I’m quitting that job.” Of course I had no other work lined up. “No, you’re not,” Dad replied emphatically. I was so surprised I don’t think I even argued. My Dad seldom was so stern.

So I came up with a solution. The next day, I went into the office at LaMont, and asked if I could switch to the second shift. No problem. The following Monday, I reported to work at 3:30 p.m. and I got off at midnight. There were a lot of 20somethings working that shift, so I made some friends. (We occasionally went across the river to Downers nightclub in Gulfport when our shift ended — don’t tell my mother!) And best of all, I could sleep as late as I wanted each morning, and still fit in some sun-bathing time at the club pool. I’m glad I stuck with that job, because there were life lessons I learned there, but that’s a topic for another blog. Another lesson I learned was…

2.   Do business with those who do business with you. As part of the family owning Sutter Drug, my dad made sure that when it came time for us to buy a product or service, we were buying it from merchants who did business at Sutter’s. I remember one day suggesting we buy something from someone (I don’t remember the details), and my dad said, “No, we’re buying it from (fill in the blank), because they do business at Sutter’s.” Oh. Now that I own Sutter Communications, I practice the same philosophy and I try to buy from local merchants and entrepreneurs as much as possible, even when it may cost more. And the third rule I learned…

3.  Follow the Golden Rule. My dad led by example on this one. He was a quiet man, respectful of others and their opinions, and extremely kind. I seldom heard him complain or say anything negative about anyone. On the rare occasions when his temper flared at something we kids had done, we knew we had really screwed up. As an editor for many years, I tried to keep that Golden Rule in mind; some days I succeeded and other days I failed.

So, happy birthday to Joe. Thinking about you today, with a smile and a tear.

Related post: Joe Sutter had patience in abundance.