Missing Dad Earl: Five Years Gone

On August 28, 2012, in Family, by Jody Ewing

This article has been cross-posted on the Iowa Cold Cases blog.

Mom and Earl

Five years ago today, my family received news no family ever expects to hear. We were fortunate, however, in that we received a gift few families get to experience when crime comes knocking on one’s door; we each got the opportunity to see and speak to our loved one — and him to us — one last time in conversation not focused on any final goodbye, but words of hope, love, and the promise of many more tomorrows.

Those tomorrows lasted just four more days before my stepfather, Earl Thelander, succumbed to burns sustained in a home explosion brought about by copper thieves. He died September 1, 2007, four months shy of his and my mother’s 25th wedding anniversary.

Mom and Earl had been out the night before working on the rural home they were preparing for a renter — the same country home where my maternal grandparents used to live — and the late-night or early-morning burglars who cut and stole propane gas lines and let the home fill with gas have yet to be apprehended or charged in the crime. My stepdad’s case remains unsolved.

Earl and Mom early on, fixing up a rental property.

Two months after his death, my mom, Hope Thelander, wrote about what she missed most about her husband and best friend; with permission, I’d posted her story to my blog. Read the blog post here.

Today I’d like to post the things I miss most about a good man I felt privileged to call “Dad Earl.”

I miss the way he always looked at my mom.

I miss how he’d always throw back his head in hearty laughter.

I miss the way he so carefully pushed up his glasses, his fingers wrapped around the outer edges, when deep in thought. 

I miss watching him carefully tend to his tomato plants and point out those he had marked for BLTs.

I miss watching his face when speaking on the phone to one of his kids.

Earl getting ready to plant tomatoes.

I miss witnessing his meticulous attention to detail whenever he went about fixing something … anything … he made sure things got done right the first time.

I miss hearing the way he’d begin a sentence with “If a guy were to . . .” because he never stopped considering new ways to approach a task at hand.

I miss seeing him sitting in his favorite chair at the kitchen table, sipping coffee from his favorite blue mug.

I miss his silent disapproval and how he’d slowly look down into his lap whenever he heard someone make a judgmental comment about another. 

I miss him at family birthday parties, at family barbecues.

I miss seeing him in his favorite pink oxford shirt that always made him look so handsome.

I miss seeing him behind the wheel in his maroon and silver Dodge pick-up truck.

I miss him. 

Earl enjoys a day at my grandparents’ farm outside Onawa, Iowa.

Teresa Heinz Kerry at Thelander Home – 12-21-03

On January 23, 2012, in , by Jody Ewing

Teresa Heinz Kerry at the Thelander home in Onawa, Iowa

December 21, 2003


On Dec. 21, 2003, Sen. John Kerry’s County Chair, Jody Ewing, and Jody’s mother, Hope Thelander, hosted a coffee for Teresa Heinz Kerry in the Thelander home. Teresa was there campaigning in behalf of her husband, Sen. John Kerry, who was seeking the 2004 Presidential nomination.

Photos by Jody Ewing and Dennis Ryan

NOTE: Click any image for larger slideshow with photo descriptions.

Bill Richardson at Thelander home – 9-13-07

On January 22, 2012, in , by Jody Ewing

Photos from Gov. Bill Richardson’s visit to my mother’s home in Onawa, IA

September 13, 2007

New Mexico Governor and Presidential candidate Bill Richardson knew he’d found an “uncommon” supporter in my stepfather, Earl Thelander (a lifelong republican), and when Earl suffered third-degree burns in an Aug. 28, 2007 explosion caused by copper thieves, Gov. Richardson made attempts to contact him at Clarkson’s Burn Unit in Omaha, NE. My stepdad, however, was kept in a medically induced coma due to pain from the severity of burns.

Though my stepfather succumbed to the burns and died Sept. 1, Gov. Richardson still wanted to know more about this man. On Sept. 13, 2007 — one week after Dad Earl’s funeral and the day following my mother’s breast cancer diagnosis — Gov. Richardson met privately with my mom and family in my mother’s home.

In that unhurried and wonderful afternoon, with no media nor any cameras present (except mine), we told a Democrat named Bill all about a Republican named Earl and, in the process, discovered the many common threads that connected this good man to another he’d never met.

Read my story about that day here.

* NOTE: Click any image for larger slideshow with photo descriptions.

Kysa’s Birthday 2007

On January 13, 2012, in , by Jody Ewing

Ain’t No Love . . . like ours



The event is my sister Kysa’s birthday, held in my 100-year-old home despite major kitchen and dining room renovations (which we completed the following month). That’s the great thing about a large, loving family; they’ll gather to celebrate a birthday or special occasion and somehow overlook the make-shift kitchen counters and yet-to-be refinished hardwood floors poking out beneath a host of mismatched area rugs.

They know what’s important.

Despite my first ever attempt at video recording (on a Digimax camera I received Christmas 2006 from my son Bill and his wife Jen), I managed to put together a short video encompassing the event.

I dedicate this video to my sister Kysa (after all, it was her birthday), and also to my late beloved stepfather, Earl Thelander, who lives on within all our hearts.


On November 20, 2011, in , by Jody Ewing
Jody Ewing

Jody Ewing

About Jody


Jody is an author and cold case journalist based in west-central Iowa. She began writing at age eight, both penning and illustrating her dog-napping short story, “The Mystery of Kalo’s Disappearance.”

She went on to work as a correspondent for The Sioux City Journal and a staff writer for the arts and entertainment newsweekly, Weekender.

She launched the Iowa Cold Cases website in 2005 after working on a Sioux City cold case series for the Weekender. A website that began as a handful of case summaries from the Siouxland area now has expanded to include more than 500 cases from all across the state. Iowa Cold Cases incorporated as a nonprofit agency in April 2010.

Two years after launching the cold case website, Jody’s stepfather of 25 years — Earl Thelander of Onawa, IA — died from burns sustained in a house explosion caused by copper thieves. Jody added her stepdad’s name to the ICC site in 2008 after officials announced his case had gone cold. It remains unsolved today.

Jody is the author of One Way: Bumps and Detours on the Road to Adulthood, a collection of humorous and inspirational essays about childhood and growing up, and when not researching or writing about cold cases, is working on revisions for other completed writing projects. Her work with Iowa Cold Cases is featured in Silvia Pettem’s 2017 book, The Long Term Missing: Hope and Help for Families.

Jody graduated magna cum laude from Iowa State University, where she earned her Bachelor’s degree in Liberal Studies (Communications and Social Science) and Criminal Justice Studies. In early 2015, she partnered with the Iowa Newspaper Association (INA) in a year-long “Gone Cold: Exploring Iowa’s Unsolved Murders” series, and in September 2015 was named a “Friend of Iowa Newspapers,” an honor conferred by INA board members to those who’ve made significant contributions to the newspaper industry in Iowa.

Siouxland News presented Jody with a Jefferson Award Foundation medal in March 2017. The Jefferson Award is given in recognition of outstanding public service.

Jody has three grown children, Bill, Jennifer, and Rhett, a stepdaughter, Vicky, two grandsons and two granddaughters. Her other “kids” include rescue dog Jack, and Clyde, an African Grey parrot who thinks he’s a World War II bombardier pilot.

The Tangled Roots of Hope

On October 30, 2007, in Crime, Family, by Jody Ewing
Earl Thelander getting ready to plant tomatoes

Earl Thelander outside his home preparing to plant his annual tomatoes.

In the film To Kill a Mockingbird, there’s a scene where young Jem goes back to the Radley’s collard patch late at night to retrieve the britches he’d abandoned earlier after snagging them in a fence. Some days later, when his sister Scout catches him admiring the trinkets he found in a tree near the Radley home, Jem confesses to her the truth about the night he went back after his pants.

When I’d left ’em, they were all in a tangle and I couldn’t get ’em loose, he says. But when I went back for ’em, they were folded across the fence… sort of like they was expectin’ me.

For the past two months, every time I pulled into my mother’s driveway and saw Earl’s tomato plants spread out further and thicker than they were the day before, I could hear echoes of those words … sort of like they was expectin’ him

Like a loyal dog sitting faithfully by the door — an ear tilted sideways, awaiting familiar footsteps and sounds of the master’s return — the tomato vines kept listening, leaning, yawning, spreading out their arms to sleep and curling themselves around the empty lawn chair’s legs where he once sat and then waking to another day to nudge against the bright yellow Tonka truck toy he’d parked in their bed … almost as if they still were expecting him to come back home and play and pluck an annoying weed from their loom like an unsightly burr from a retriever’s golden coat.

He had waited for them first, using his index finger and one good eye to sight the one he’d chosen as his favorite.

“Right there. It’s already turning red. See it?” he’d said, hunching over and pointing into the sparse vines. And I’d followed his gaze to where the small but plump orb blushed amidst its less developed sister fruit. “That’s the one I’m waiting for,” he’d said proudly. “That one’s mine.”

On his knees, he’d planted these seeds and gently blanketed them with soil and cared for and tended to them with the same kind of commitment he bestowed upon all things he molded and created with his own two hands. But some time in the night’s dark hours, the Boo Radley of Jem and Scout’s deepest fears came to rob this man of his life and loves and the pleasures he derived from taking simple moments like these and turning them into something spectacular.

Still, his tomato plants waited.

They waited while … six days after his funeral … my mother passed by them on her way to the hospital for the breast lumpectomy and returned with her breast cancer diagnosis.

They waited and spread out toward the east while … one week later … Mom’s doctor told her she needed to make a decision.

Earl Thelander's tomato plants

Earl's few tomato plants produced hundreds of tomatoes.

They waited and spread toward the west and wrapped around the heart-shaped sign reading “Grandpa and Grandma – Kids Spoiled Here While You Wait,” while … two and one-half weeks later … another car took her away for the mastectomy and returned with all these other vehicles and so many lively children.

They waited while … amidst all the muffled voices and words like metastasized and chemo and numerous close calls with small running feet and shrill laughter and surprising phrases like bad-year-for-tomatoes-everywhere and questions like he-did-what-with-his … new buds spurted forth and heavier vines swept down and around them like mother hens pulling rowdy chicks back and away from the busy traffic in Earl’s driveway.

They waited and snaked around the legs of his white chair and climbed up higher for breathing room and a view of dozens more green offspring below while … careening near the chair’s arm where he used to lay his elbow … they sucked in the late October sun as new words like collapsed lung and it’ll be freezing soon drifted over the rail near the door and filtered down between the effervescent green foliage.

And so, as the month drew to a close and I returned my mother to her home after the morning’s hospital visit where they made her blood radioactive to prepare for chemo treatments and she said we need to get the tomatoes out by nightfall lest they freeze, I looked down at the tangling vines and thought about how their roots of hope had somehow spawned hundreds of tomatoes, and, against all odds, continued to multiply and produce as if their very life — or, perhaps, ours — depended upon it.

“But some of them are still so … small,” I said. “They haven’t even had a chance to ripen.”

Yet, I knew.

Like Jem and Scout and Dill mourning summer’s end, Earl’s tomato plants hadn’t yet realized their season had come and gone. Their life cycle, like Earl’s, left so much still ripening on the vine.

Still, I could not bring myself to pick them. Perhaps I wasn’t yet ready to say goodbye to summer. Perhaps I wasn’t yet ready to say goodbye to the interlocking green stems that still drew energy from the sun and soil. Perhaps I wasn’t yet ready to say goodbye to Dad Earl. Cutting down his tomato plants — even in the face of a freeze that surely threatened to kill them all — was too much like severing all hope he’d return once again to gather his offspring in his arms … if only for one final moment.

In Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find, she, like Harper Lee, recognized that which separates good and evil and redemption from sin.

In Earl, we found a good man. In Earl, we found our own Atticus Finch.

And his spirit, I know, will be there with us when we go to sleep at night and it will be there when we wake up in the morning.

Sounds of Silence

On October 8, 2007, in Crime, Family, by Jody Ewing

It’s a strange sort of silence that’s settled over all our lives.

It’s not just the absence of “Dad” Earl. Or the soft tone of his voice. Or even the echo of Mom and Earl’s combined laughter that reverberated through a room in such a finely tuned harmony it sounded more like a symphony.

It’s something akin to a world sitting slightly off its axis, frozen in time, waiting to move once again but wary of doing so lest one squeaky turn unleash a thousand vociferous cries and the chokehold they’ve had around our hearts.

It’s a strange sort of silence that’s settled in tonight, despite today’s laughter as my siblings and I gathered ’round our mother at the hospital as nurses inserted IV lines for Mom’s 9 o’clock mastectomy and others arrived to wish her the very best and said the front desk told them just-follow-the-noise-and-you’ll-find-her-room and Mom kept telling us to hush because after all, this is a hospital and you know how your voices carry and we laughed and told more stories while carefully steering clear of one of the last jokes Earl had made in the very same hospital only one month earlier when Mom brought him in with those third-degree burns and he’d joked about everyone thinking he was “trying to steal the attention away from Mom” since her breast surgery for the biopsy was scheduled for the very next day.

It’s a strange sort of silence that follows fear but has deep roots in hope.

Tonight, I’m listening close to Andy DuFresne … trying to remember, perhaps not perfectly, the words he spoke to ‘Red’ in “The Shawshank Redemption” ….

Remember … hope is a good thing. And no good thing ever dies.