Mark Nessen loved Christmas. He grew up in the golden age of Wayne County, before the farm crisis, when every storefront contained a shop. He held a front row seat, living in an apartment above the businesses on the north side of the Corydon square.
After graduating from the University of Iowa’s College of Pharmacy, Mark returned to Corydon, and one of his first priorities was making certain the next generation experienced a Merry Christmas. He organized the businesses, including his own, Nessen Pharmacy, to decorate as one—white lights only in an elegant uniformity.
“Christmas meant a lot to him,” said Mark’s son, David Nessen. “We had Christmas dinner, and he would serve oysters—my uncle was at the table with a screwdriver—my dad tried to make it unique for us.
“He made his store festive. He really supported the Festival of Trees with Lee Peck.
“My dad would say, ‘I’m trying to do the best for everybody.’ But he never wanted accolades or awards—he felt like it was his duty. He grew up right there on the square, and he had nothing. Then he went away to go to school, and he came back. He didn’t have to come back.
“He cared for his children and his family, and that town was like a child to him.”
Mark cared not just for Corydon, but for the idea of small town communities and locally owned shops.
When small farmers were shoved out, replaced by the corporate mindset of nameless faces and advertising over quality, businesses died in this flood. The community entered a long reconstruction phase. In the end, Mark attempted to figure out what was best for Corydon, how to keep a pharmacy in Wayne County, and selling to Hy-Vee became his best answer. He also admired what Humeston was attempting to do for its Main Street.
“My dad’s cancer came out of nowhere,” David said. “He’d just had his bloodwork done, and he’d got a good bill of health.”
Mark passed away of liver cancer a few years ago. He had just sold his business and was ready to enjoy a life of semi-retirement. Though he never planned on selling his house in Wayne County, he considered a vacation home in Colorado to be near his son and the mountains.
“When my dad passed away, I felt like everything I knew about my life in Corydon was gone,” David said. “My dad was never going to leave Corydon—he just wasn’t. I felt like I needed something to continue my dad’s legacy. They’d taken the Nessen Pharmacy sign down and put it in the museum.
“I wanted to do something not only at the Corydon level, but at the University of Iowa level—my dad was huge fan of the athletic department. I felt like I grew up as an Iowa City kid.
“I had an epiphany. He helped so many pharmacists over the years, like Jeff Brock, Ginger Alley and Doug Petty. There’s a whole list of students he helped become pharmacists through encouraging education, support and friendship. I wanted to reward a small-town person like him.
“I’d done a lot of fundraising for the Red Cross. I knew I could do this—me and a team of people had raised a quarter of a million dollars in Chicago. So why couldn’t I raise a couple thousands of dollars for my dad’s scholarship?
“My cousin, Cheri Rockhold went to the University of Iowa’s pharmacy school. My dad mentored her, and she had connections there, so she hooked me up with the Dean.”
The Dean of the College of Pharmacy is Donald Letendre. When David met with him to discuss the idea of a scholarship in his father’s honor, Letendre remembered Mark fondly.
“He said, ‘We’d love to do a scholarship,’” David explained.
With Letendre’s blessing, David performed much of the legwork and planned fundraisers to make the scholarship possible. But he could not have done it all by himself.
In Denver, Colo., on Oct. 8, David held a fundraiser and auctioned off a Hawkeyes football helmet signed by Kirk Ferentz.
“I pulled some strings I had at the University of Iowa,” David said. “I have a Kirk Ferentz-signed helmet in my office right now, ‘Thanks for the partnership and support,’ because I used to do advertising for the university when I lived in Chicago. I knew I had the resources to get stuff like that.”
Appropriately enough, it was a Wayne County native, Randy Downs, who won the raffle for the football helmet.
It was a long and winding process, and on Nov. 3, the end product was a reward in itself.
“The actual Mark. A. Nessen scholarship came into fruition,” David said. “We awarded the first scholarship to a girl from Oskaloosa the night before the Ohio State game.”
The young woman was Alison Russell. She is in her third of four years of Iowa’s graduate program, after spending four years as an undergraduate.
“It was a great experience meeting David, and him telling his story about his dad and his whole pharmacy experience,” Russell said. “It used to be just a four-year program. His dad loved the community pharmacy side of things, and that’s where I have most of my experience so far. He wants to keep building it up, and that’s awesome, because it definitely helps out the students.
“I’m a volunteer at a free medical clinic for underserved populations. Some don’t speak English, and others don’t have insurance. It’s a place they can come to be seen by physicians and medical students. After that, they come to the pharmacy and we dispense the medication they need.
“Of course, receiving a scholarship was a great honor. It will help me to push my way through until I’m finished.
“The school has a group of donor scholarships. I didn’t know about this one specifically because this is its first year. They filter through everybody and see who matches with what scholarship. The college notified me and said I’d been selected.”
The timing was appropriate, as Mark, a life-long Hawkeye fan, posthumously provided a student an opportunity to pursue the success he had, while at the same time Russell earned tickets to a game in which Iowa beat the third-rated Buckeyes 55-24.
The Mark A. Nessen Memorial Pharmacy Scholarship will be presented at the Dean’s Appreciation Dinner each autumn. The emphasis is on community-minded students from small towns.
“I felt like that was the perfect expression of him,” David said.
While $1,000 was not the $25,000 a year David had imagined, it was a step in the right direction. David held a raffle in November for a football signed by all-time Iowa receptions leader Kevonte Martin-Manley.
The next item raffled will be a basketball signed by former Hawkeye Kenyon Murray, who happened to be the best friend on that team of David’s cousin, Chris Street. David’s mother is Christina Street Warnock. David’s grandmother, LaVerne Street, still lives in Cambria.
David and Chris were on the same junior high all-star basketball team.
“The next event will probably be near the end of basketball season,” Davis said. “Murray will probably come to the event with Chris Street’s family. Mike Street, Chris Street’s dad, donated a sweatshirt. I’ve got the original of that poster of Chris sitting next to Tom Davis, which his family gave me. I’m hoping my dad’s favorite player, Greg Stokes, might be able to do something.
“Next year, my goal is to get Tim Dwight. I’ve met him a couple times. I’ve got a [photo] of him in my office he signed back when we did a project together for Honda.
“I’m going to do another fundraiser in Des Moines and try to get all the pharmacy people he used to know.
“Every football season, we’ll do something to raise money. I’ll probably try to whittle it down to one nice item and do a raffle for that.
“The ultimate goal, if I can keep this going through a fifth year, is to have something at the College of Pharmacy in Iowa City. I’ve got to pull off two or three more years before I can even start thinking about that.
“How cool would it be to go back in 20 years as an old man myself, and say, ‘I’m giving this thing away to honor my dad.’”
David has a connection to another Hawkeye legend from Wayne County, Tork Hook. David’s and Tork’s mothers were best friends in high school at Wayne.
“When I was a kid, I’d go to Tork’s house all the time,” David said. “The legend that he was in high school, I’d see him at his house with his medals on, and I was a little sixth grader.”
A few more possibilities for memorabilia include Atlanta Falcons tight end coach Wade Harman and current Iowa freshman tight end T.J. Hockenson from Chariton, who has several Wayne County connections.
In Hockenson’s first season, he became witness to what has become a national phenomenon, ‘The Wave.’ After the first quarter of home games, everyone in Kinnick Stadium turned and waved to the patients at the children’s hospital.
“Being there for The Wave at the Ohio State game, the group I was with all started crying,” David said. “The amount of publicity it got on TV is such a great thing for the university.”
Donations to the Mark A. Nessen Memorial Pharmacy Scholarship are always welcome, as well, through www.facebook.com/nessenpharma/, or by typing in http://bit.ly/2yBKfcC.
Before David left this year’s dinner, Dean Letendre stopped him.
“If you need anything, give me a call,” Letendre told David. “Keep on it. It’s tough to do emotionally, but it’s for your dad’s legacy. Don’t give up on this.”