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Photo of Steve McGuire
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STEVE MCGUIRE River rescues, flood recovery, and award-winning teaching illustrate a faculty member’s knack for helping out when it’s needed most.

Woven through the tapestry of Steve McGuire’s life are altruistic acts, storytelling, long-distance bicycling, teaching, and art.

But one thing he’s best known for—even off campus—is rescuing people from the Iowa River three times. Iowa Governor Chet Culver presented the Lifesaving with Valor award to McGuire and three other men who helped save a woman and her two children in 2007. He received the same award in 1993 from Governor Terry Branstad, and in 2003 from Governor Tom Vilsack. McGuire, however, shies away from the h-word.

“You know, honestly, being called a hero is a bit embarrassing. I’m glad to have been of help when I was needed,” says McGuire, whose career at the University began in 1990. He earned a master’s in sculpture (1983) and doctorate in secondary education (1990) here as well.

A professor of art education in the Colleges of Education and Liberal Arts and Sciences, McGuire would rather be known for his research interests, which are eclectic to say the least. They encompass art, the teaching of art, and storytelling—imagine a 1,400-mile bicycle ride around the perimeter of Iceland, where the professor gathers stories, videos, and photographs that show local storytellers atop one of his sculptures. Many of his other expeditions span North America and, sometimes, the width or length of its states.

McGuire has traveled extensively, both in and out of the country, to present lectures and perform stories that illustrate how art and story are part of life.

Some of his accomplishments have garnered national press attention: Outside magazine featured him biking across the Montana part of the Continental Divide Trail, and Reader’s Digest reported his series of river rescues.

Bicycling is not just a hobby for McGuire. The man who finished the mid-winter Iditasport race in Alaska finds cycling a psychological exercise that feeds his teaching and artwork.

His first taste of distance bicycling began with the 36 miles he pedaled to and from his school in urban Kansas City. He upped the ante as a UI sculpture grad student in the early ‘80s, when he decided he’d bike the 300 miles home. He didn’t have a car and didn’t think it was worth $102.50 to take the Greyhound bus.

“Long-distance biking, for me, is not about ability, but durability. It’s about mindfulness,” McGuire says. “After riding my bike for 36 hours, I say to myself, ‘Why am I so slow? I can’t do this,’ but five minutes later I think, ‘I’m the fastest person. I’ve set a new record.’ What I’ve learned is, your thoughts are not you.”

To teach his storytelling students this concept of self-discovery, he asks them to illustrate or reinterpret proverbs and sayings with autobiographical accounts about why they chose particular actions. He received a 1997 Collegiate Teaching Award from the UI Council on Teaching for his classroom work.

His latest art-bicycling-storytelling experiment is called “Poetics of Endurance,” which has him riding back and forth across the Continental Divide from Banff, Canada, to the Mexico/New Mexico border in a start-to-finish time trial—traversing 2,711 miles and 200,000 feet. The project was waylaid by the 2008 flood that forced him and the residents of 135 other houses from their neighborhood.

As the flood loomed, McGuire and a neighbor, another UI faculty member, rallied the neighborhood to create a sandbag levee that reached nine feet high in some places, often working from 6 a.m. to midnight. He was featured as one of the Iowa City Press-Citizen’s community heroes of the flood.

McGuire’s home was on the 100-year flood plain, and he was able to claim flood insurance. But many of his neighbors were not as fortunate. Now he’s helping both community and campus recover, coordinating a new Mosquito Flats neighborhood association and overseeing the relocation of flooded studio arts programs to a former Menards store on Highway 1.

Though the flood held up his plans, McGuire still plans to complete the bicycle journey next summer, partnering with Kidneeds and raising $40,000 for the study of Dense Deposit Disease.

McGuire has been actively involved in campus life, serving on the faculty senate, university president and provost searches, and the art school’s curriculum committee. He also took 42 high school students to the Iowa Special Olympics last year and started a group that paired able-bodied and disabled students on tandem bikes.

He's used to seeing large groups make decisions, yet his neighbors have impressed him with their approach. “Everybody in the neighborhood has always maintained a sense that everybody’s voice, whether in direct opposition to his or her own, is to be recognized,” he says.

Although McGuire would rather not be lauded as a hero, it’s clear that people around him have benefited from his abilities—whether administrative, academic, or athletic. He continues to influence lives, both in and out of the classroom, exemplifying a philosophy that keeps him from staying on the sidelines.

“Nothing ever bridged the gap between the person who went and the person who stayed,” he says.

Story by Po Li Loo; Photo by Tim Schoon

Sept. 22, 2008