REGIONAL—Ken Fuson wanted to clear up something about his name early in his first regular “Letter from Des Moines” he wrote for The N’West Iowa REVIEW on Sept. 12, 2009.
“My name is Ken Fuson,” he wrote. “That’s pronounced ‘Few-son,’ not ‘Fusion,’ so you can spare me the jokes about how much my name sounds like ‘Confusion.’”
The Des Moines-based writer, who died Friday, Jan. 3, at 63 from liver cirrhosis, often injected his columns with levity.
At the end of the article, Fuson even hinted at a humor column he used to write for The Des Moines Register: “I wrote a humor column — allegedly — for The Register for three years, and I quickly learned that readers are not shy about calling you an utter failure. So let me just say this, right at the outset: I’ll try to do better next week.”
Fuson carried out that promise for more than seven years afterward, during which he faithfully wrote his weekly “Letter from Des Moines.” He had taken over the column from his friend and fellow journalist Jay P. Wagner, who died July 15, 2009, from cancer. Wagner’s family owns The REVIEW.
Fuson’s first sentence in his April 1, 2017, column informed REVIEW readers the column would be his last one for the paper.
“(Stop applauding. It hurts my feelings),” he quipped in the second sentence.
Before 2017 was over, however, Fuson’s words returned to The REVIEW’s opinion section on Dec. 30, when he began writing his column every other week.
“He was just one of the funniest guys I know,” said Mark Siebert, associate professor of multimedia communications at Simpson College in Indianola, who worked next to Fuson at The Des Moines Register during the late 1990s.
“Of all the times I laughed the hardest in my life, he’s probably in about half of them.”
Fuson went to work for Simpson in the Office of Marketing and Public Relations in 2011, three years before Siebert began teaching there.
As the college’s go-to writer and media strategist, Fuson employed his gift of storytelling to highlight the success of students, faculty and staff in marketing material and news stories for the college.
“You wouldn’t be able to find a person at Simpson who would have a bad thing to say about him,” said Bryan Geelan, Simpson’s acting director of marketing and public relations.
Geelan, 35, collaborated with Fuson for the college’s marketing and public relations office while working as Simpson’s athletics communications director.
Having grown up in Ruthven and being close to 30 years younger than Fuson, Geelan had not been familiar with the Fuson’s storied career in journalism when he first met him.
“I was kind of coming at it from a fresh perspective, but I could tell right away how great of a writer he was and he was just a genuinely good person,” Geelan said.
As accomplished of a writer as Fuson was, he also relished the chance to tell other writers when they did a good job and would often do that by writing them personal notes or e-mail.
That’s what Siebert best remembers about Fuson when the two worked at The Register.
“You felt like you belonged,” Siebert said when speaking of Fuson’s notes.
He added that Fuson did not shy away from building others up even while he struggled with personal issues, such as his gambling addiction and health problems.
“He was always there to say, ‘Hey, great job on this,’ not ‘Woe is me,’” Siebert said.
At Simpson, Fuson continued his practice of dropping everything to give feedback on his colleagues’ writing and encouraging student writers and interns in the public relations office.
“You are a revelation,” Fuson wrote in a note to Katie Eichelberger, a 2016 Simpson graduate who had interned in the office with him.
“It’s not simply your talent, which is considerable. It’s your eagerness to learn and willingness to take on anything.”
Blake Carlson, a December 2019 Simpson graduate who grew up in Spencer, was one of the last student interns who worked next to Fuson in 2018 before Simpson laid off the veteran wordsmith toward the end of that year.
Carlson, 21, will never forget the first time he had met Fuson.
It had been the year before, when Fuson visited a freshman class for which Carlson had been a writing tutor. He remembers Fuson had compared a good news story to a ticking clock.
“It should have the reader on the edge of their seats and hoping that time doesn’t run out,” Carlson said.
He got to know Fuson in earnest in the public relations office, where he frequently chatted with Fuson while the latter was on his lunch break.
Carlson recalled one conversation where the two were discussing the importance of the arts.
“I used the phrase, ‘The arts create a thriving ecosystem’ and I don’t know why or how that came up, but I just remember Ken stopping me and saying, ‘Use that phrase in an interview and somebody will hire you,’” Carlson said. “And I’ll never forget that.”
When Fuson left the office for the final time, Carlson was there with him. He remembers Fuson turning around and telling him, “Always have a backup plan,” before walking out of the door.
Urges writing notes
Fuson kept writing his biweekly column for The REVIEW while at Simpson and after he left the college. His last one was published on Oct. 19, 2019.
In it, Fuson wove together a tale involving sports, politics and a trip he took to the emergency room at Mercy Hospital in Des Moines that resulted in a three-day stay due to liver problems.
Whether intentional or not, Fuson gave a nod to the opening of his first regular REVIEW column from September 2009 by noting confusion was one of the symptoms he experienced in the emergency room.
Later, however, he said he felt no confusion at all when discussing his support for Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg in the Iowa caucuses.
The caucuses will go on without Fuson, but his impact on the lives of others will remain.
Carlson, who will start a full-time position at Principal Financial Group in Des Moines on Monday, said Fuson’s idea of a ticking clock continues to inspire his writing.
“I always think, ‘How can I make this like snappier? How can I make the clock tick faster? How can I make this more concise?” Carlson said.
Siebert, meanwhile, said he plans to carry on Fuson’s legacy of writing notes to others.
The practice of random notes of kindness is one Fuson encouraged everyone to do per Wagner’s request in a REVIEW guest column he wrote for his friend on July 4, 2009:
“Surprise somebody. Write a note and tell someone you are thinking about them, that you have appreciated their friendship through the years, that they are important to you. Send a card out of the blue to an old friend you haven’t heard from in awhile. Send a note of congratulations to a local youngster who accomplished something. Do something kind for somebody.”