ATLANTIC — LaVon Eblen, former Iowa State Extension Director in Audubon County, said she always knew she wanted to be a teacher. It goes back to when she was very young and attended country school, where she worked with other students. By high school, she knew she wanted to go into Home Economics.
Today, while she’s been mostly retired for years, she’s still learning through groups she works with, and still educating, through her radio shows and programs she helps to put on.
Eblen has a radio show at KJAN, Backyard and Beyond, in which she interviews people about what they do or what is coming up. She said people often mistakenly thought her show was about landscaping or gardening, because the name includes “backyard.”
“Occasionally, we do talk about gardening,” she said, but really, the show is about “what is happening in your backyard, and what’s happening beyond your backyard,” talking with interesting people, keeping in touch with people from the area who might have moved and what they are doing now, and talking about upcoming events.
“Staying in touch has always been important to me,” she said, “and it continues to be important.”
LaVon came to Atlantic to work with the Iowa State University Extension office in 1961.
“I was a home economist, and we worked with 4-H, mostly with families and women,” she said, with the agriculture side of Extension mainly being the men.
That changed to include community development and managing all programs as Extension Director in Audubon County in later years.
When it came time to start thinking about retirement, she found she was not ready to sit at home. That’s how, in 1997, she ended up hosting her radio show five times a week. Now, after 20 years, she has cut back to twice a week.
“I got into radio because, as an Extension staff member, I did a weekly radio program,” she said. It seemed logical to use those skills, and KJAN radio was the station they had worked with at Extension, and at the county fair.
With over 20 years of hosting the radio program, talking in public isn’t really that hard for LaVon, “but when it’s a unique audience, sometimes my knees still get a little weak,” she said.
She does remember one particular speaking event where she definitely was nervous.
It was at the beginning of her work here with Extension, and she had to address a group of 4-Her’s and their mothers. “It was a new situation, leading up to county fair, and we had to do something inspirational.”
“Even though I’d been teaching — and then you know, you are supposed to be in charge — that I had to address a 4-H group at an Achievement Show.”
It wasn’t a big group, maybe 20 or 25 people, and she recalled wearing heels to the program. “I had on three inch heels, and I remember my heel tapping on the floor because I was so nervous.”
Not long after coming to Atlantic, LaVon met the man she would be married to for almost 50 years.
“We met at George Voss’s home, it was named Blue Haven, and they had a big room that they had a meeting for young people to get together at, once a month,” she said.
Back then, like today, young people had a hard time finding ways to meet each other, and the gatherings at Blue Haven were a good way for young people to socialize.
His name was Fay Eblen. He was born in Lewis, and worked as an architectural draftsman. The pair were married in 1964.
Fay’s interests in architecture and history led to their involvement in ARISE, the Atlantic Rock Island Society Enterprise.
ARISE got its start by restoring the Atlantic Rock Island Depot, and LaVon said she thought it was amazing that the group could have restored the building to what it looks like today, considering what bad shape it was in, back then.
“It was a shambles, it had gone to pieces,” she said. Work on the depot led to the group becoming a 501c3, finding a purpose and a mission.
The group owns both the Atlantic Rock Island Depot and the American Legion Memorial Building, better known to some as “the old armory.”
Work on the armory began after work on the depot was pretty much complete. “That was when the armory became available,” she said. “The city was going to tear it down, so they sold it to ARISE for a dollar.”
That building, as well, has come a long way. “It sat empty for some time,” she explains, noting people who come in for programs today are often surprised with all the work that has been done.
LaVon said she learned a lot about the history of both buildings by being in ARISE. “History to me has gotten to be so fascinating, it’s not just about names and dates, it’s (about) what happened to those people on that date,” she said.
Working on the depot she learned a lot about railroads in Iowa, and how important trains were to people around the state.
“Many people don’t think of the impact that trains had on our world, in so many ways,” she said.
Working with the American Legion Memorial Building meant learning more about military history — something else that Fay had an interest in.
He had hundreds of books about history and the military, and those books were donated to ARISE to go in the military library in the memorial building. The military library includes about 3,000 items today. The books are all cataloged, and individuals can come in and go through them.
“(ARISE needs) someone who is interested in library work to increase circulation,” she said, as check out is now on a limited basis.
Preserving history is part of ARISE’s mission, “Our mission, across the board, is to collect and protect all kinds of historical things,” she said. “It started with the buildings, and now we are doing that with the things inside,” like the military museum, military library and Atlantic history center.
LaVon is also the president of Cass County Genealogy, and while she hasn’t been with that group as long as ARISE, she finds genealogy very interesting.
It goes along with the work that ARISE is doing, she said, “It’s stories about people and what they did.”
LaVon is also interesting in growing things. She loves gardening — she’s a Master Gardener — and especially loves growing flowers. She explains that working with growing things and nature is special for her, especially seeing what happens with the things you plant. “You are never sure what is going to happen,” she said.
Gardening also provides a stress reliever, she said.
“When I’m pulling weeds, I forget everything else, nothing else is in my head. It’s a great stress reliever. Other people have other ways to relieve stress — but pulling weeds is my way.”
Her interest in growing things also is connected to her interest in locally grown foods and cooking. She spent 10 years running a bed and breakfast at Harrisdale, a farmstead north of Atlantic, where she did a lot of cooking.
“I’m concerned about having foods — especially local foods — available,” she said, adding she was very supportive of local food sources. She and two other volunteers managed Produce in the Park farmers market for several years and now are on the board of directors with a hired manager.
She said she’s seen more young people coming back to farm. “It doesn’t take 1,000 acres to grow a good crop of vegetables, and people are finding they can do that, and have a good income.”
She said promoting things like that are part of supporting your community, from your own backyard, and beyond.
But in the end, she said, “it’s all about connections. None of (what I’m doing) would be possible without the help of a lot of other people.”