About 120 miles from Kansas City, the first exit in Iowa on Interstate 35 is for Lamoni, a remote town of about 2,300 named for a king in the Book of Mormon.
As you meander off the exit into town toward Graceland University, you’ll take in a serene pastoral scene that may include the passing of an Amish buggy.
There are no traffic lights in Lamoni, where it wasn’t so long ago that folk dancing was the only acceptable kind.
It was against this improbable backdrop that Caitlyn Jenner — then known as Bruce, a Connecticut Yankee in King Lamoni’s court — became a star decathlete and future Olympian before recently changing names and announcing she is a transgender woman. Jenner will be acknowledged publicly with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs on July 15.
That casting in itself has prompted controversy, and that is only the tip of the cynicism and puzzlement toward Jenner in a world that typically fears, ridicules or shrinks from what it can’t fathom.
And who that hasn’t lived the seemingly inexplicable feeling of being trapped in the wrong body — or been in a family sharing the experience with them — can quite comprehend this?
However you might feel, though, maybe it’s worth trying to suspend the thoughts and open your mind and listen to the men now in their 70s, 80s and 90s who helped make Jenner at Graceland, which commemorates Jenner’s athletic history with the “Bruce Jenner Sports Complex.”
The mission statement of the school, an extension of the Community of Christ, formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, says it bases its approach on the “Christian values of human dignity, mutual respect and social responsibility.”
Its stance on Caitlyn Jenner, athletic officials said, is that it supports the worth of all persons based on a foundation of unconditional love and acceptance.
It’s unclear to what degree its constituents might feel otherwise, but there’s no apparent movement of any momentum to remove or alter the name of the sports complex.
But it is clear that any such attempt would be resisted with passion by Jerry Hampton, 82, a 1952 graduate who has coached football, wrestling, track, tennis and golf, and served as athletic director and whose name adorns one of the athletic buildings.
“I would fight the college taking his name off,” said Hampton, a devoutly religious man who says that his views on many things evolved in the last 30 years as he has learned of relatives that are gay. “It isn’t complicated for me at all.”
More difficult, he said, would be the matter of Jenner seeking to have the name changed to, say, the “Caitlyn Jenner Sports Complex.”
“I would think no to that,” said Hampton, making the point that the complex was named in honor of the achievements of Jenner when she was known as Bruce. “Somebody might be able to talk me out of it, but my first thought is no.”
For now, Hampton mostly is concerned with finding an address to write Jenner to tell her “how I admire what he’s done and (that) really a lot of people would like to have the courage that he’s shown.”
Hampton added: “Finally, he is what he wants to be.”
Caitlyn Jenner was born in Mount Kisco, N.Y., in 1949 but grew up in Connecticut.
Jenner thrived in athletics, from football to basketball to track and waterskiing. But at least in part because of dyslexia, Jenner, then known as a boy named Bruce, struggled with school and wasn’t admitted to any of the local colleges he had hoped to attend in 1968.
Conscious of the Vietnam War and the draft that lurked without being enrolled in college, Bruce Jenner once told the Hartford Courant, he was eager to go to college somewhere, anywhere.
Enter Nick Zeoli, then the athletic director at nearby Wilton High School.
At a coaching clinic, Zeoli met a man from Graceland who told him they didn’t get many students from out east and to keep Graceland in mind.
Starting with a nephew, he established a local pipeline that ultimately by his estimate became about 60 Graceland-bound athletes over the years.
“All of a sudden, a Norwalk kid calls me; a guy from Boston calls me,” said Zeoli, now 92 and living in Vermont. “One day, my secretary said to me, ‘You’ve got a call from Mrs. Jenner.’”
Zeoli had known the name Bruce Jenner some from competition, and Jenner’s mother, Esther, had come to know of Zeoli’s connection to Graceland.
When she told Zeoli “all the schools in Connecticut turned Bruce down,” he told her, “Well, I can get him in a nice little college in Lamoni, Iowa.”
She was so happy, he added, when Bruce got accepted, and Zeoli reveled in what Jenner achieved over the years.
As for how he’s accepting Caitlyn Jenner now, Zeoli says her transition was “a bombshell” that has kept him awake as he lay in bed pondering it.
He says, too, he’d like to get in a room alone with Jenner and ask her “what the hell happened.”
Like Hampton, though, his fondest wish is to find an address and write Jenner a letter.
This is what he’d say:
“You were a champion. You’re still a champion. Do what you’ve got to do. — Nick Zeoli.”
The identity of Zeoli’s counterpart in Lamoni isn’t entirely certain. But after Zeoli placed the call on behalf of Jenner to Graceland, Jenner got a call from legendary track coach L.D. Weldon.
“L.D. invested the dime and made the call,” said Bill “Duke” Dudek, 72, who is about to begin his 49th year at Graceland in numerous capacities. “It was the best phone call they ever made.”
It’s generally understood that Jenner came to Graceland on a football scholarship, something like $250 for the year, and Dudek believes Jenner could have been a Division I safety.
Everything changed, though, when Jenner suffered a knee injury in an early-season game.
Whether it was from blocking a punt, on a kickoff or, as Dudek remembers it, playing quarterback, Jenner suffered a torn medial collateral ligament that required surgery.
Jenner initially thought a sports career was over and didn’t participate in college athletics again for 16 month.
But Jenner’s athletic career was just starting, thanks in immeasurable part to Weldon, a gentleman and renowned motivator who among other track champions previously had worked with Jack Parker, the decathlon bronze medalist in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
To understand how Weldon worked, Dudek recalled that when he’d come to football practice to time athletes, they always seemed to be a few tenths of a second faster than they usually were.
When Dudek protested, Weldon told him, “Duke, you’ve got to get to the psych of it.”
“You’d do anything for L.D.,” Dudek said. “L.D. could make you think you were better than you were. And Bruce picked up on this.”
Jenner became obsessed with the decathlon and had a work ethic unlike any athlete Dudek has seen in nearly five decades at the school. That effort first was tangibly rewarded when Jenner won the men’s decathlon in the Kansas Relays in 1971.
There were others, Hampton recalled, who were bigger, stronger and faster than Jenner.
“But they didn’t have what he had — whatever that is that you have,” said Hampton, who recollected how respectful and pleasant Jenner was. “That’s the part that I loved about him, when he’d give you that smile.”
Rich Harrop, who like Dudek, Hampton, Jenner and Weldon is in the school’s athletic Hall of Fame, remembers being Jenner’s student-teacher.
“He was so nervous dealing with the students: ‘Am I ready to take over today?’” recalled Harrop, 72. “And then to see that contrast when he was sitting on the Johnny Carson show.”
But there’s no contrast in emotions now for Harrop.
“I care about him like I care about (her),” he said. “That hasn’t changed.”
As much as Jenner was the center of attention after winning the Olympic gold medal in the men’s decathlon in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, she never has been in the spotlight more than now.
So much has happened since those days at Graceland: Jenner’s race-car driving, acting and a TV role with the Kardashians before announcing her transition on the cover of Vanity Fair earlier this month.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there has only been intermittent coincidental contact between Jenner and the school and the men who helped shape Jenner since.
Perhaps surprisingly, Jenner never has been much of a donor to the school.
But there remains a familiarity here with Jenner, a sense of wanting to understand and support Jenner because of what they’d all once shared, an abiding sense of believing in her right to become she and be loved the same even if this is a new frontier for all.
It’s not entirely simple, of course, starting with the complications of how to use pronouns related to Jenner in the past — a matter that came up repeatedly during a lengthy interview Tuesday with Dudek, Hampton and Harrop.
Meanwhile, Dudek would be uncertain how to greet Jenner and worries that there could be a crushing disconnect.
“I’m hoping that Bruce is Bruce; that Caitlyn is Bruce,” Dudek said. “The first time I see Caitlyn, I want to see: Will it be ‘Duke!’ and a hug, or she doesn’t want to talk to me? …
“I’m not too sure he’s ready, or she’s ready, and I’m not too sure where she stands on the past life. Maybe she wants to completely forget about Graceland, doesn’t want to hear a word about Graceland.”
Hampton, though, would be shocked if Jenner weren’t happy to see them.
That’s at least in part because he believes Jenner’s reconciliation of spirit has clarified much for her.
“‘I’ve come to terms with myself, and this is who I am,’” Hampton reckons Jenner thinks. “He’s one who stood up to be counted.”