For four decades, before his retirement in 2015, Kevin Cooney’s position as a KCCI news reporter placed him in correspondence with senators, governors, presidents and other men in positions of power, but when his memory fails him now, an evening spent with Belle McMurry in Bethlehem is indelible.
Though no snowflakes fell that day in Wayne County, Belle’s eloquence describing a Christmas on the old Mormon Trail is something Cooney cannot forget. He still holds it in deep reverence.
According to Cityview’s Jim Duncan, who wrote a September article about the news anchor’s career and connection to southern Iowa, Cooney was the longest serving anchor in Des Moines television history. Cooney’s face is etched in the memory of nearly every Iowan. He has interviewed world leaders and business magnates, but Belle’s face remains as the most influential from his days on TV.
It was the 1970s, and Cooney was early in his career seeking stories along a path that has always fascinated him. It was a business trip, he explained:
“I did a series that lasted for a few years called ‘Kevin Cooney Covers Iowa.’ It was an on-the-road human-interest feature series that would find interesting people, interesting places.
“A lot of times I found the best stories by just going out—I didn’t have a story lined up that day, I would just head out, stop in a café, a restaurant, a bar, a gas station or whatever and just talk to people and find out who the most interesting person was in town, or the most interesting part of history of that town—casting a wide net and seeing what I could catch.
“This would’ve been in the late 1970s. I was fascinated by the towns along the Mormon Trail route—along Highway 2 in that area, and their names—a lot of Biblical names, some optimistic, like Promise City, and things like this.”
Those towns included New York, Confidence, Harvard, Sewal and others.
“When I came around the corner to Bethlehem, and saw the little church, I thought, ‘the church at Bethlehem—certainly somebody here has to have a story.’ And maybe we could talk about what Christmas was like in Bethlehem.
“I went to a nearby home. My memory escapes me after all these years—specifically, where it was in relationship to the church, but I think it was close.
“I met Belle McMurry. Belle was this lovely, beautiful, elderly lady who was just so kind. Here’s a total stranger knocking on her door, and saying, ‘I’m looking for stories, and I want to talk to people, and tell me about this….
“Sometimes when you do a story, you sit there and thank the good Lord, or whoever, this person is sitting in front of you telling you this. You don’t have to embellish anything. That was Belle. She told a beautiful story of what a beautiful time it was to be in Bethlehem, Iowa, on a snowy night on Christmas Eve.
“Belle told of a quiet Christmas Eve and the snowflakes falling over the chapel. I didn’t have to use any flowery words at all, because she explained it in such a pure [way], I could see it. When she was talking to me, I was thinking, ‘oh, the soft snow on top of the chapel, and the moon shining up above—okay, that’s as good as it gets for a feature reporter—you just did my job.’
“If you ever saw a picture of Belle, she was absolutely one of the most beautiful women that you could ever imagine. A slender lady, she had her hair up on top of her head and well into her [70s], and her voice was so soft and gentle, it was like everybody’s grandmother. I remember she had a cute little laugh.
“It was one of those stories where everything came together. We saved it for a while, because I don’t think it was that close to Christmas when I talked to her. We ran it two or three times after that at Christmastime. Then I think some other radio stations or networks picked it up and did their own versions of the story.”
Belle McMurry passed away in 1996. She and her husband Merlin Brown lived in the pink house on the way to Confidence.
“Ironically, last year in 2016, I was on that stretch of RAGBRAI,” Cooney said. “It was so funny—it wasn’t on my radar at the time, and then I looked at the route, and it was like, ‘oh my gosh, we’re going to go by the church!’
“My cousin, Sally Baylaender, said, ‘what are you talking about?’
“And so I told her the whole story about Belle and her family and everything. We got to the little chapel and we went inside, and I saw a little plaque and it had a number of names on it. And there was Belle’s name. I had to stop for a minute or two to just remember the whole experience, and then relayed it to my cousin.
“We just sat there and said, ‘this is a special moment.’ I sat for a minute and thought about Belle.
“I will always be grateful to her. You can’t pay people for stories or anything, but gosh, you just want to say thank you for doing something that affected my life, and obviously affected a few other people’s lives.
“The Mormon Trail has always fascinated me from my days when I was doing [Kevin Cooney Covers Iowa], and this was long before the Internet, Facebook and whatnot, and just the fact you could see the Trail—you could still see the original ruts in places—I love that if you go back and find a map of Iowa from pre-1965, when unincorporated towns were listed on the maps, you’ll find towns like Bethlehem and all these other strangely named towns that really weren’t anything more than a bend in the road. But back then, the Highway Commission, as it was called, still reported those on the maps.
“And so that was one of the things I enjoyed doing, was getting hold of old maps and looking at these places before interstates and four-lane highways, and seeing some of these old towns.
“If you go around Highway 2 all the way over until you get to Council Bluffs—or Kanesville, as it was known during the Mormon Trail days—you’d find all of these little towns.
“I’ve always been partial, and I’ve always thought southern Iowa is one of the most picturesque parts of the state just because of its topography. Everybody goes up to Northeast Iowa in the fall. I like to drive through southern Iowa at times, too. There are pretty parts from one end of the state to the other.”
Cooney is not certain any recorded trace of Belle’s tale remains. It is the recollection of a memory.
“I don’t think that story exists anymore,” Cooney said. “That was back in the days of film. I have even tried to look for it myself, to see if I have it anywhere. I haven’t been able to find it in years.
“But I’ll tell you what I have done in recent months since I retired, I’ve gathered a bunch of old videotapes that I have not looked at in 20 years, and I may have some of those stories on there. Unfortunately, trying to find the machines to play those tapes back is almost impossible.”
As Cooney enjoys his retirement and rues the men who decided to remove unincorporated towns from Iowa maps, the cold descends over southern Iowa in time for Halloween. It has been over 150 years since pioneers dug ruts and died on the trail west to Kanesville. Some of those tracks are tilled over, sown and forgotten.
From his decades on dimly lit Iowa televisions to last summer’s bicycle trek that rewound the Mormons’ pilgrimage, a moon Cooney could only imagine still hangs over a Bethlehem church on Christmas Eve, snow gathering like dust.