Over the past 21 years, Bill Cahalan became a household name in Fairmont, his byline appearing on countless stories he wrote for the Sentinel. He died overnight Tuesday, age 53, at his apartment in Fairmont.
Funeral arrangements are pending at Hogan-Bremer-Moore Colonial Chapel in Mason City, Iowa.
The last story he wrote was printed in Wednesday’s paper on Fairmont Area Schools’ referendum — appropriate, considering the time he put into educating the public about the academic and extracurricular activities of area children.
Deb Foster knew Cahalan professionally, as his co-worker the past 12 years and from when she served on the school board for five years prior. The two also became friends.
From the beginning, she remembers “how interested Bill was in education. He had a genuine interest in young people.... He always wanted what’s best for children and wanted what’s best for their future.”
Education and agriculture were Cahalan’s beats at the paper.
“He was a great supporter of the educational system, and also the FFAs and 4-H programs,” said Charlie Sorrells, who worked with Cahalan for nearly 19 years. “That’s kind of what he lived for, I think.”
Sorrells described Cahalan as a quiet, kind-of-shy guy, with a dry wit “that would always make you smile.”
“He was definitely a newspaper-aholic,” Sorrells said. “On a regular basis, he probably read seven or eight daily newspapers.”
When he wasn’t interviewing someone or researching and writing a story, Cahalan often could be seen at the Sentinel, peering into a computer screen as he looked up news online. He would print or photocopy some of the news he found and pass it along to co-workers and non-newspaper colleagues who also might be interested.
That’s one of the things Butch Hanson, superintendent for Fairmont Area Schools, will remember about Cahalan — and his accuracy as a newspaper man.
“He was very careful about being up to date on his homework and doing the background work,” Hanson said. “I appreciated his effort — that what he put into his articles was accurate.”
“We certainly will miss him,” he added, “and not only because of his coverage of the school district and his positive attitude on the events in education and in our community. On a personal level, I will miss our conversations.”
Cahalan’s diligence and professional attitude were the same regardless of his subject.
Lori Pomerenke, 4-H program coordinator in Martin County, remembers meeting Cahalan around 1986, when her kids were young 4-H’ers. He frequently wrote articles about her children’s accomplishments, as well as many of the other 4-H participants. He even wrote a story about her husband, Steve, who judged livestock.
“Everybody knew Bill,” Pomerenke said. “He has a lot of ties in 4-H. They’d be having an event and kids would ask is, ‘Is Bill coming? Is Bill coming?’”
“He really enjoyed kids,” she said. “I could see that from his demeanor with them. He was always careful and knew how important it was to get their information correct and how much they enjoyed having their picture taken.”
County fair season brought together nearly all the things Cahalan loved — children, FFA, 4-H, agriculture and his favorite — the food. He looked forward to writing about different food stands and trying something new each year.
“Oooh, it was so good,” he would say when he returned to the Sentinel to write the story, rubbing his hands together as he described whatever treat he’d just tried, probably looking just as pleased as he did when his grandfather would buy him candy at the pool hall as a little kid. That was one of his own stories that he liked to tell, though most of his time was spent writing other people’s.
Bill enjoyed sports, including local athletics and news from his alma mater, Iowa State University. He also paid close attention to politics and was excited as a Democrat about the prospects for the upcoming presidential election.
Cahalan was a bachelor and lived alone. When he wasn’t working, either at the Sentinel or his part-time job at REM, he would travel to spend time with family, often driving down on weekends to Mason City to visit his mother. He also enjoyed being with his siblings and their children, of whom he was proud.
“Family was very important to Bill,” Foster said.
He had told her she was his sister away from home.
“I will miss him,” she said, tears in her eyes. “I will greatly miss him.”
She’s not alone.