Tom and Nancy Coates recount walnut trees

Carl Coates, who passed a year ago, once planted 2,300

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Carl and Nancy Coates together and in love.

It has been one year since Nancy Coates lost her husband Carl Coates. His influence on Wayne County can still be seen in the form of a plastic tree edger he once patented, handed down to a few landowners in town.

Marking the anniversary with his mother last week in Corydon was Tom Coates of Consumer Credit of Des Moines fame, along with his wife Lee Ann. On the way down, the couple drove past the walnut tree forest Carl once planted near his old home north of the railroad tracks on Highway 14, which was once the City’s trash dump.

Tom gave the eulogy at his father’s funeral.

Long before that, Carl was the Corydon Hornets’ starting quarterback all four years of high school, wearing the school’s iconic number 24. Judge Ted Miles was his volunteer head coach.

Carl Coates in his Corydon Hornets football uniform.

Carl was always a star on and off the field. After he and Nancy married and Tom was a newborn, Carl became the youngest Chevrolet salesman in the country at the age of 23. This was after Carl had left Drake University Law School one semester away from earning his degree to become an attorney.

Following a few months selling automobiles at a dealership in Seymour, he started off earning $5,000 a year working for his father-in-law, Marshall Whiteley, who had just opened a Chevrolet branch in Centerville.

After five years there, Whiteley and Ted Miles asked Carl to come to the Corydon State Bank to start its first small loan department.

“He was a Chevrolet dealer, and then all of a sudden he’s a small loan officer,” Nancy said, laughing. “He went to a bank in Des Moines once a week to learn what he was supposed to do.”

Business always stayed in-family. In 1987, when Tom had brainstormed the idea of Consumer Credit, he asked his father to join him as an entrepreneur. This venture would make Tom’s face one of the most recognizable in Iowa thanks to television commercials; it would also lead to Carl and Nancy sleeping in the backroom of the Consumer Credit shop. Tom did the counseling, and Carl did the paperwork. Tom’s wife was the receptionist.

While Carl and Nancy still lived in Corydon, they spent three days a week in Des Moines.

“We had a small office with a bedroom,” Tom said.

“Before that, we had an even smaller office,” Nancy said, “and Carl slept on a mattress on the floor.”

“When a doughnut shop next door closed up, we expanded,” Tom said. “And we found all the cockroaches there—we were glad we hadn’t eaten more doughnuts than we had.”

It could have been a scene from Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, in which the main character is suddenly transformed into a giant bug.

“I picked up the dead cockroaches every morning,” Nancy said, shrugging.

The office that Consumer Credit now occupies was procured in 1992, sans infestation.

Love story

When they were growing up, Carl and Nancy lived across the street from each other in Corydon.

“Right before we started kindergarten, I married Joe Piper,” Nancy said. “Another boy, Jerry O’Dell, performed the ceremony.

“All through grade school, Joe was my husband, and I didn’t like Carl at all—Carl was the only person in the whole school I didn’t like.

“So, right before I went into seventh grade, I was staying with a friend, and when I woke up the next morning I ran home as fast as I could, and told my mom, ‘I had the craziest dream last night. I dreamed I liked Carl!’

“This was crazy to me. It gets a little stranger. This was on Sept. 1, my parents’ anniversary. After the dream, I went out into the front yard, and Carl drives up on his bicycle, stops and says, ‘Would you sit with me at the movie on Saturday?’

“I said yes, and that was it.”

Though she cannot remember that first film—which they watched at the upstairs of the Corydon American Legion hall, before the Wayne Theatre had been built—a couple years later, their first kiss came during a showing of Bing Crosby and The Andrew Sisters’ Pistol Packin’ Mama in 1943.

Carl also shot craps in a metal building across from the high school versus professionals from Centerville.

“I didn’t get to see Gone with the Wind,” said Nancy, on a side note. “Because when Clark Gable’s character carries Scarlett O’Hara up the stairs, that would’ve been too suggestive for me to see. I was in sixth grade. What my mother told me was, ‘That movie is too long for your eyes.’ And I believed her, so I didn’t watch it.”

After that fateful first day of September, Carl and Nancy broke up five times. But they kept trying, and at the beginning of their senior year, they bought their engagement rings from Grismore Jewelry Store without telling their parents until the night they graduated.

From left to right, Tom Coates, Nancy Coates and Lee Ann Coates. The family gathered together
in Corydon last Thursday to remember the passing of Carl Coates. / Photo by Jason W. Selby

Walnut ranch

When they were growing up, Carl and Nancy lived across the street from each other in Corydon.

“Right before we started kindergarten, I married Joe Piper,” Nancy said. “Another boy, Jerry O’Dell, performed the ceremony.

“All through grade school, Joe was my husband, and I didn’t like Carl at all—Carl was the only person in the whole school I didn’t like.

“So, right before I went into seventh grade, I was staying with a friend, and when I woke up the next morning I ran home as fast as I could, and told my mom, ‘I had the craziest dream last night. I dreamed I liked Carl!’

“This was crazy to me. It gets a little stranger. This was on Sept. 1, my parents’ anniversary. After the dream, I went out into the front yard, and Carl drives up on his bicycle, stops and says, ‘Would you sit with me at the movie on Saturday?’

“I said yes, and that was it.”

Though she cannot remember that first film—which they watched at the upstairs of the Corydon American Legion hall, before the Wayne Theatre had been built—a couple years later, their first kiss came during a showing of Bing Crosby and The Andrew Sisters’ Pistol Packin’ Mama in 1943.

Carl also shot craps in a metal building across from the high school versus professionals from Centerville.

“I didn’t get to see Gone with the Wind,” said Nancy, on a side note. “Because when Clark Gable’s character carries Scarlett O’Hara up the stairs, that would’ve been too suggestive for me to see. I was in sixth grade. What my mother told me was, ‘That movie is too long for your eyes.’ And I believed her, so I didn’t watch it.”

After that fateful first day of September, Carl and Nancy broke up five times. But they kept trying, and at the beginning of their senior year, they bought their engagement rings from Grismore Jewelry Store without telling their parents until the night they graduated.

Carolyn Willey’s painting of Carl Coates in a hot-air balloon floating over the family’s house.

Drifting over

After 50 years at their walnut ranch home, Carl’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s forced the couple to move to where Nancy lives now on the west side of Corydon. She still hangs the painting given to her by Carolyn Willey in exchange for the blue spruce, which shows the back of the old house and the farm pond.

Above the home, several hot-air balloons float. In those days, a person could get a ride, paying near the Wayne County Hospital.

“It was August,” Nancy said. “I gave one to Carl for our anniversary.”

The balloon depicted in the painting is the one Carl rode in that afternoon. He also collected coins.

“He was in a good business for that,” Tom said. “In the evening, he’d sort through the change at the bank, and he’d know from sight if that was a coin of value. So, he’d flip his own in and pull that out.”

Much of Carl’s life was fate—a coinflip before drifting back home.

His best friend, Dwight Sullivan, got his military physical the same day as Carl. Sullivan passed, while Carl did not.

A United States Air Force pilot during both the Korean War and Vietnam, after over 70 missions, Sullivan’s wingman’s jet got shot down, rolled into his plane, and Sullivan spent the next five years in the Hanoi Hilton as a POW.

“Prisoners had to communicate with each other by tapping on the wall in Morse code,” Tom said.

Sullivan also recently passed away. His good friend Carl drifts overhead with him in a hot-air balloon, still keeping watch over the Coates family.