My old friend Cindy Toopes died a week ago. If she’d heard me put a little too much stress on the word “old,” she would have responded, “Hey, watch it buddy ...” But she would have been smiling. Probably laughing. Maybe even blushing a little. She had a lot of heart.
Cindy was a newspaper employee — clerk for a while before blossoming
into a columnist and reporter — when I was a middle school kid. So when
I got to the Ottumwa Courier a bit more than 15 years ago, she’d spent
at least that long in the newsroom already.
Lucky for me, Cindy was instinctively a mother hen, watching out for us
little yellow chicks. If we were bumping into the wall over and over —
which happened often — she'd reach down and turn us around. Gently. With
I don’t think I ever heard her shout at someone, or hurl an expletive
at them. And there were, at times, those of us who deserved it.
Instead, in the days before we put all of our trust in spellcheck,
someone would ask, “Are there two Cs or two Us in the word ‘Vacuum?’”
If longtime editor Judy Krieger was within earshot, she’d call out,
“Look it up!” But we rarely had to; Toopes would already have the
dictionary open and be flipping through.
“One C, two Us,” she’d say before anyone else could even reach for
In fact, once in a while, the newspaper got a call from a confused out
of town person asking if we knew the number to the library, a hotel or
the Wapello County Jail. Sometimes, they’d ask if we were the library,
hotel or jail. Cindy kept a phone book right next to her dictionary.
She’d flip through the book then give the stranger the correct number.
She didn’t need to flip through a book for most numbers in this
community. She knew the number for the switchboard at Ottumwa City Hall,
the Wapello County supervisors and the Ottumwa Police Department.
It was more than numbers she knew. After years in her former job —
administrative assistant clerking for the Wapello County Sheriff’s
Office — she had heard of just about everybody who spent time as a guest
of the jail. She’d help stack and file all the reports of people who got
in trouble. And as a reporter, she spent a few years going to copy, by
hand, police reports. After seeing the same name five or 10 times, she’d
“Cindy, have you heard this name before?”
“Oh boy …” she’d say.
That meant “yes,” plus there was a story to go along with the name. But
it wasn’t crime reporting Cindy was most known for. She was beloved in
the community for her columns, written in a homespun style that made
readers feel like they were one half of a conversation. Depending on the
news of the day, she could grab hold of a big, national trend and bring
it down to earth. Cleaning out my car recently, I found a photocopy of a
column about “Women’s Lib” from the 1970s written, of course, by Cindy
She mostly wrote about local issues. At one point she was the only
person on the reporting staff born and raised in Ottumwa. So besides
getting questions about phone numbers or the characters in specific
Wapello County dramas, she’d be peppered with questions about places,
times and occurrences: Cindy, why’s it called Turkey Island? Is it
Ottumwa Park or Greater Ottumwa Park? What murder? The parks director
was who? Wait, what does this guy mean, “north” and “south” Ottumwa? Is
there a difference?
It’s a wonder she got anything done. But she never got snippy.
My wife reminds me that before Cindy got married, we were able to have
her to babysit a few times. Well, catsit. She and her partner Apryl were
both cat people. As you may know, only cat people can catsit. They’d buy
our Allie a couple toys before showing up. They wouldn’t try to scoop up
kitty, or grab or pet. They both knew how cats operate. The cat found
them adequate — which Cindy would say was high praise from such an
My wife called Cindy “compassionate.” She was certainly sensitive to
the suffering of others; that sounds nice, but it can be a difficult
quality, to have such a big heart when you’re a reporter. She far
preferred happy news. But even in a small town, there was enough bad
news to occasionally get Cindy tearing up. She didn’t like to cry in
front of her co-workers.
“I’m going out for a smoke,” she’d say.
Just as an aside, maybe her smoke breaks tell something about her, too:
When we were out on assignment, if there was no ash can, she’d rip her
smoked cigarette butt into little pieces, then drop them in her own
pocket, to properly dispose of later.
Six years ago, Cindy got sick. Really sick. We had to imagine what
Ottumwa and its newspaper would be like without her. She got better,
mostly. Now, we’re left wondering: What will Ottumwa be like now that
part of its heart has been taken away?
Reporter Mark Newman can be contacted by email at MNewman@ottumwacourier.com.