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Offenburger: Iowa Central official made special graduation for South African student

Writer Chuck Offenburger has had contact with Fort Dodge and Iowa Central Community College for decades.

But one event at the college sticks out in his memory, and he recounted it for the audience at the Greater Fort Dodge Growth Alliance Annual Dinner Thursday evening.

In 1995, Offenburger, then a columnist for the Des Moines Register, accompanied opera singer and Iowa native Simon Estes to South Africa. There, he said they visited a school in a Black township where children lived in “poverty below our imagination.” But the school had an outstanding choir.

Estes arranged for some of those students to go to high school for one year in Iowa. Offenburger and his wife were the host parents for one girl, who went to high school in Johnston where they lived at the time.

That girl then returned to live with the Offenburgers while attending Iowa Central Community College. She earned her degree, but could not stay for commencement. Her degree was issued the day before she was to return to South Africa.

Offenburger described standing in an office in a building of the Fort Dodge campus, while a secretary showed the newly printed degree. Then Tom Beneke, the college’s vice president of student services and enrollment management, walked in and asked what was going on.

Offenburger explained the situation. He recalled Beneke saying something like, “It’s too bad there’s not a ceremony for her.”

He said the college vice president then found a graduation cap and gown, which the new graduate put on.

“Tom Beneke, on the spur of the moment, delivered a graduation speech for her,” Offenburger said.

The new graduate returned home to South Africa the next day with her degree in hand.

Offenburger said he sometimes gets emotional repeating the story.

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