March 1, 2024

Editor’s note: Julie Gammack first told this story on stage at the Des Moines Storytellers Project’s “Bad Advice: Accepting, rejecting or just plain ignoring another person’s help.” The Des Moines Storytellers Project is a series of storytelling events in which community members work with Register journalists to tell true, first-person stories live on stage. An edited version appears below.
Thirty years ago, I made the toughest decision of my life. I walked away from one of the best jobs in the world as a columnist for the Des Moines Register. 
Everyone said, ‘don’t do it.’ So much for their advice.
A columnist job for the Register is glamorous. For example, we participate in the Celebrity Cow Chip Throwing contest at the Iowa State Fair to see how far we can throw a dried disk of cow s***. I never won, but I’ll bet I could fling a cow pie as far as the third row. There’s a skill. 
I was a legacy hire at the paper. My dad, Gordon Gammack, had been a war correspondent and daily columnist for the Des Moines Register and Tribune for decades. My first job at 16 was as a copy kid in the old building at Eighth and Locust.
I didn’t plan to work for the Register partly because I had two phobias growing up: writing and public speaking. But in 1985, I persuaded the managing editor to give me a weekly column for the grand sum of $50 apiece. He agreed to give me a tryout. Two years later, I became a full-time daily columnist with a paycheck, healthcare and 401K.  
I loved the newsroom and the people in it. And I still do. So who walks away from something like that? Me.
Why? I had turned 40 in 1990, and I thought: Will I do the same thing every day for the next 25 years? Was I grown up? With a steady job? An adult?
It wasn’t an easy job, but it had become routine. I was 40. Midlife. 
Then Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin decided to run for president in 1992. The same year Bill Clinton ran. I’d worked on Harkin’s congressional campaign in 1974, and he won, so we went to Washington. 
Now, I am not a detail person. And members of Congress need to have the time, date, and location of their committee meetings correct on their schedule cards. I realized I was not a fit. I returned home to Iowa and lurched from one thing to another before landing a job in talk radio and the Register. 
So when the call came to ask if I’d work on his presidential campaign, I was stunned. How could I not? How many times does one know someone who runs for president?
My heart said “absolutely.” My head said, “Are you crazy?”
I started asking a few close friends what they thought. Everyone, even my freest of free spirit friends, said: “Don’t do it.” 
My mother thought it must be another nervous breakdown. She was distraught. 
So, I called Dorothy Cunningham. Dorothy was an astrologer and card reader. And an insightful coach. I knew her reaction would be right on target. She lived over a garage in a one-bedroom apartment on 39th Street, north of Ingersoll Avenue. Her walls were hand-painted with purple swirls, and she looked like a white-haired little elf who occasionally smoked a doobie. She called marijuana “medicinal” before “medicinal” was a thing. 
The old steps creaked, walking the flight up to her one-bedroom, magical apartment. Her bookcases and tables were filled with objects representing the sun, moon and stars. I told her about my decision, and she said, “Let’s see what the cards say.” 
I shuffled the deck, we joined hands, and she prayed to “mother/father god, to reveal his or her will.” Dorothy told me to pick seven cards and put them face down. Then, one by one, she turned them over and interpreted what they revealed.
The first card, Bam! Not good.
The second, Bam! “Oh, here’s a challenge.”
Bam! “This is the card of death. But that can mean rebirth, too,” she added.
Bam. Bam. Bam. 
Oooh, Dorothy foresaw a lot of challenges to leaving my job. 
Bam! The last card. “Well, if you do it,” she said, “it will all work out … eventually.” 
And that was all I needed. Just one person to say I wasn’t crazy, and it would all work out. And this is what happened: I took the job with Harkin, and he dropped out of the race six weeks later. BAM.
The Register editor would not take me back because, she said, politics now tainted me. BAM.
I couldn’t afford my son’s Montessori tuition and mortgage, so I had to sell my house. BAM.
Bam. Bam. Bam. Use your imagination. It wasn’t pretty. I was a struggling entrepreneur, ahead of my time. I experienced firsthand how having a refrigerator break down while living below the poverty line could be devastating. 
Then the year 2000 came — the new Millennium. I reconnected with the man who is now my husband. 
Things started looking up! Richard believed I could be a Vistage chair coaching CEOs, which I thought was a stretch. How would they feel about me having Dorothy Cunningham on speed dial?
But Richard convinced me to go through chair-training, where I learned that asking questions was more powerful than having solutions, so I became certified as a chair. I built two groups in Annapolis, Maryland, then Chicago, where I worked and lived, retiring in 2020, just before COVID hit. That’s when we came back to Iowa, in 2020. 
Leaving my job 30 years ago led me to Richard Gilbert, the Chesapeake Bay, sailing, painting boats on nautical charts, and then working with business leaders in Annapolis, Baltimore, and Chicago. Had I heeded the advice of everyone around me back then, I would not have grasped the helm of a 41-foot sailboat, miles offshore, on a midnight watch. Alone on deck with stars sparkling in a pitch black sky. The only sound was the boat plowing through ocean waves and the flutter of the sails.
I wouldn’t have lived in a condo overlooking Lake Michigan. 
And I started column-writing again on Substack two years ago. I created the Okoboji Writers’ Retreat coming up in just a few weeks. 
We aren’t all risk-takers. And that’s OK. Some only do so under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Am I right?
When you face tough choices, ask yourself two questions: What’s the worst thing that can happen if you make the riskier choice? And what will you miss if you don’t take the uncharted path?  
We are more resilient than we know. Sometimes it just takes a detour to realize that. And sometimes, that detour can open up whole new worlds of possibilities. 
I wouldn’t change a thing about the decision I made 30 years ago. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. In hindsight, the advice was well-meaning, but I made the right call for me. I’ve been away from Iowa for 20 years, but coming back, I feel stronger, more grounded, and more clear about my purpose than I thought possible. The financial struggles made me better understand what way too many of us experience. It was a gift to deepen my empathy. Those years of reinvention were full. And I don’t regret one step of the process.  
Thirty years ago, I made a tough decision, not knowing what was ahead.
I guess it was in the cards.
BAM! 
ABOUT THE STORYTELLER: Julie Gammack is the founder/producer of the annual Okoboji Writers’ Retreat and writes a column on Substack called Julie Gammack’s Potluck. The Iowa native is a former talk radio host on WHO radio and a former Des Moines Register columnist. Gammack moved to Annapolis, Maryland, in 2000, where she became a CEO coach with Vistage International. She and her husband, Richard Gilbert, moved back to Des Moines in 2020.
The Des Moines Storytellers Project strongly believes that everyone HAS a story and everyone CAN tell it. None of the storytellers who take our stage are professionals. They are your neighbors, friends or co-workers, and they are coached to tell by Register journalists. 
Want to tell your story at one of our upcoming Storytellers Project events? Read our guidelines and submit a story at DesMoinesRegister.com/Tell.
Contact storytelling@dmreg.com for more information.
WATCH: Mediacom rebroadcasts stories from the most recent show on MC22 periodically; check local listings for times. A replay is also available at YouTube.com/DMRegister
LISTEN: Check out the Des Moines Storytellers Project podcast, which is available on your favorite podcasting platforms.
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