Cindy Toopes

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

heart.


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

their dictionary.


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

recognize it.


“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

Toopes.


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

important creature.


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

This Week's Circulars

Born in New England, reporter Mark Newman has lived in Iowa and Nebraska over 20 years, with 12 years as a Courier staff writer. He covered education news, but is now focusing on social issues as well as feature stories of local interest.