The heart of the heartland Carlisle, Iowa, home to Bobbi and Kenny McCaughey and their septuplets, is a small town with a big sense of civic spirit.

November 30, 1997|By Ken Fuson | Ken Fuson,Sun Staff

CARLISLE, Iowa -- There, it happened again. See that? The driver of that pickup truck -- never met him before -- looked over and waved.

It's the oddest thing. Stroll down School Street in the middle of this small town, future home to the world's only set of septuplets, and complete strangers smile and say hello. Every time a car passes, the driver -- you won't know him from Adam -- waves his hand as if you were the best man at his wedding. Happens all the time.

City people assume that folks are just being friendly, and there's some truth to that, but there's another explanation.

If you understand why Carlisle residents reflexively greet strangers, then you'll understand why they live here, and why they are confident that Bobbi and Kenny McCaughey will get all the help they need in raising their seven babies, and why this town kept the family's huge secret for months, and why people here will protect the McCaugheys' privacy for years to come.

This is why Karen Baldridge waves:

"That just might have been somebody who helped you."

When the McCaughey septuplets eventually leave their Des Moines hospital, and doctors say that could begin as early as mid-January, they will follow a route familiar to people in their home town.

Just 20 minutes from downtown Des Moines, separated by acres of corn and soybeans, Carlisle sits on the side of a hill, built there by the two founders after the original town washed away in the North River flood of 1851.

By Iowa standards, Carlisle and its 3,500 residents represent a robust metropolis. After all, this rural state has 680 towns with fewer than 1,000 people; Carlisle is one of 271 with more.

Like a children's book version of a small town, Carlisle appears to have at least one of everything (except a swimming pool, a sore spot with teens). There's one grocery store, two bars and three traffic lights. Residents joke that you can buy anything here except a Big Mac.

Downtown consists of two banks and 20 or so one-story businesses, many built at the turn of the century with bricks manufactured by William McKissick, for years the town's largest employer and the great-great-grandfather of the McCaughey septuplets.

The brick plant -- and most of the work force -- is long gone. Nowadays most town residents work in Des Moines, 10 miles to the north, then return home to the lower tax and crime rates that Carlisle promises. (A murder in July 1995 is believed to have been the first ever within the city limits.) You can leave your keys in the car here. You can leave the engine running, for that matter. It'll still be there in the morning, out of gas but untouched.

Heading south on Iowa Route 5, Carlisle residents know they're almost home when they see the town's two water towers, both painted cardinal red and school-bus yellow, the colors of Carlisle High.

Twenty-three years ago, on that same highway, 16-year-old Doug Baldridge was returning home with friends when a car accident left him paralyzed from the neck down. He remained in intensive care for five months and was hospitalized for a year and a half.

His parents, Joe and Karen, lived in Hartford, a town of 800 people about five miles away, so close that Carlisle and Hartford share schools and are considered one community.

Neighbors volunteered to baby-sit the couple's other two boys, 2 and 4 years old. They didn't have to be asked.

"Heavens, no," Karen Baldridge says. "They were just there."

An account was opened at the bank. Neighbors, friends and complete strangers donated money to buy Doug a specially equipped van so he could drive. School-kids wore buttons that said, "Doug's Van Supporter." Thousands of dollars were raised -- and the van was bought.

This wasn't charity. The family wasn't poor. This was the way a small town could show its affection.

"I was shocked," Karen Baldridge says. "Doug just couldn't believe that people could care so much. That van is what gave him his independence."

Today, Doug Baldridge is 39. He lives in Liberty, Mo., and works as a counselor for the U.S. Social Security Administration.

"We never did find out who all contributed," his mother says.

This is the way it works. Just last week, a woman called the Rev. R.D. Streeter, pastor of the Carlisle United Methodist Church. The woman had been shopping in the grocery store and spotted another woman buying bologna and milk. She didn't think the woman had enough money to buy anything else.

Escort her to the grocery store, Streeter said. Tell her she can buy $50 worth of groceries. Send the bill to him.

Here's the kicker: Neither woman belongs to his church.

It happens all the time.

Last year, Streeter received a call: A boy on the football team needed cleats.

"I know what strings to pull and what buttons to push," says Streeter, a gregarious man with curly black hair and Buddy Holly black-frame glasses. "The kid needed football shoes. The coach called me, I called somebody else, the kid got the shoes."

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