When Leo Chisholm opened his mailbox earlier this year, he found an envelope he believed was junk mail. But, what was inside surprised him.
It was a letter from Marquis Who’s Who in America. Chisholm was to be included in its pages to represent entrepreneurs, business owners and professionals.
Marquis Who’s Who is self-described as the world’s preeminent biographer since 1899. Its mission “is to profile those individuals who have made a difference by virtue of the positions of responsibility they hold and/or due to noteworthy accomplishments they have made.”
Chisholm is not short on accomplishments. They range from winning a free throw competition to a governor’s award for saving a woman from a burning vehicle to being entered into the Knights of Columbus Hall of Fame.
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Chisholm grew up on a farm near Osage, attended school in Mason City, and owned a funeral home in Riceville before entering the insurance business.
He is a veteran of the U.S. Navy, spending his time in the service during the years after World War II, ending in 1951, as America became involved in the Korean War. It was a time of nuclear experimentation in the Pacific Ocean.
“It was the atomic atoll,” Chisholm said of being stationed in Enewetak Atoll, when decommissioned naval ships in the Marshall Islands were subjected to nuclear detonations. Chisholm studied the vessels’ levels of radiation.
Afterward, Chisholm became a member of the American Legion. 2022 marks his 72nd consecutive year with the organization.
Sometimes Chisholm is just in the right place at the right time. In 1985, driving home in the dark with another couple north of St. Ansgar one night, he and his wife came upon a vehicle in a ditch. It was on fire. Seeing she was pinned inside, Chisholm helped pull a woman from the car onto the road shoulder.
“Moments later, that car exploded,” Chisholm said.
According to Chisholm, the Iowa State Patrol awarded him with a governor’s award for valor. It would not be his last recognition from the state. Later, he received two other governor’s awards for volunteerism. He was inducted into the Iowa Volunteer Hall of Fame in 2013.
He served for six years on the Advisory and Leadership Council for the American Cancer Society for Iowa and the Midwest region. He was named a Longtime Friend and Champion for the American Cancer Society in 2019. After being with the American Cancer Society for over 30 years, the issue hit home, as he was diagnosed with cancer. It did not stop him.
At 91 years old, he says he still has the energy of a young man, and the determination to give back.
Besides being named to their Hall of Fame, Chisholm has received numerous awards from the Knights of Columbus, including winning their Iowa free-throw contest at age 57. During his time as Iowa Membership Director, the Knights of Columbus grew to over 30,000 members in Iowa. He started five new Knights of Columbus councils.
He could not have done it without his family. In the 1970s, the Knights of Columbus named them as Family of the Year.
“All of Leo's children are proud of their father's accomplishments and his dedication to the organizations he is involved in,” his son Jon Chisholm said in 2021. “He is always up for a challenge and rarely says no when asked. I think his involvement in the different areas keeps him going and gives him energy for the next thing he may encounter.”
After being named Iowan of the Day at the Iowa State Fair in 2011, he rubbed shoulders with the ubiquitous Bill Riley.
He has been a Eucharist Minister at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Osage for over 30 years.
Marquis used the words “compassion” and “empathy” to describe Chisholm, noting his dedication to charitable projects.
In the end, Chisholm says his greatest accomplishment was being married for 67-and-a-half years to his late wife, Elsie, who passed away earlier this year, and raising a wonderful family of three children, six grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.
Chisholm was involved with a visit from National Geographic for a July 2014 article with Tracie McMillan, with photographs by Amy Toensing, entitled “The New Face of Hunger.” McMillan and Toensing were documenting food insecurity in America, and as a town surrounded by farmers growing crops and raising livestock, Mitchell County seemed appropriate.
Toensing used her camera to document people in need, and Chisholm is all about people in need, from cancer victims to the hungry of America’s breadbasket.
It is not often National Geographic, a magazine known for documenting some of the most exotic, foreboding and wonderful locales, comes to small-town Iowa. For Chisholm it was an honor. He had plenty to say.
“I chose to spend time with three different families, and I had the help of a gentleman named Leo Chisholm, who started the local food bank in Osage,” Toensing wrote. “Leo represents a very important part of this whole story, because the federal government and state governments are slowly cutting things like the food-stamp program, which is now called SNAP, and they’re cutting tax-based food aid, and they’re pushing that responsibility on the private sector. So I went to Leo, and he directed me to families that he knew and was assisting through the food bank.”
Chisholm guided Toensing in what she described as the tricky issue of finding families willing to share their stories. He helped find families brave enough.
“Why would any of us want a reporter, photographer, writer, whomever, come into their lives and document something that can be shameful?” Toensing asked hypothetically.
In Chisholm’s eyes, there was no shame, just hardworking folk, and he found the right families for Toensing. His expertise came from serving as director of the Northeast Iowa Food Bank, which he founded in 1985.
Mitchell County Press News, in turn, documented National Geographic’s documentation: “Some Americans may still connect hunger with images of food lines from the 1930s, or the Life Magazine photos of Appalachian children in the 1960s.
“‘That’s not what contemporary hunger looks like today,’ said McMillan.”
Toensing added that wages had not kept up with the cost of food, something Chisholm was keenly aware of – one reason he did not relinquish directorship of the food bank until a few years ago. Families in McMillan’s article praised the help they received from organizations such as the Northeast Iowa Food Bank. In the span of 35 years, Chisholm and the food bank provided over 1,000,000 meals to needy families in Mitchell County.
In addition, Chisholm also appeared in a September 1985 issue of Columbia Magazine, where Father Thomas Carpenter covered the annual Thanksgiving meal in Osage, when Chisholm would help feed the public for the Holidays.
“I’ve been given so much in my life,” Chisholm said. “That’s why I give back.”
Jason W. Selby is the community editor for the Mitchell Country Press News. He can be reached at 515-971-6217, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.