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Robert Lucas

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

When Robert Lucas arrived in Burlington in 1838 to become the first Territorial Governor of Iowa, appointed by President Martin Van Buren, few legislators could have guessed that the new governor harbored a dark, deep secret in his heart.

Lucas’s reputation as a man with “an aggressive strength of character” had preceded his arrival. A descendent of a fiery Virginia family, Lucas had distinguished himself in the War of 1812. As a member of a frontier militia group, he had often taken the law into his own hands, putting him at odds with civil authorities. In Ohio, when Lucas had resisted a sheriff’s attempt to arrest him, the sheriff had resigned rather than confront the Virginian.

Lucas had gone on to serve as Governor of Ohio during a bitter boundary dispute with Michigan. He was ready for Iowa. In Burlington, Lucas wasted little time making enemies of legislators who wanted reckless appropriations for their district. As territorial governor, he had the power of absolute veto, and this he used to push Iowa toward statehood, a move resented by many Iowans who shunned the tax burden that would bring. Under his firm hand, Iowa got off to a solid start. The beginnings of railroads in Iowa owed much to Lucas. Petitions to Congress to have him removed fell on deaf ears. He was just the man for the job.

Fortunately, Governor Lucas carried his dark secret to the grave. Not until his death in 1853 was it discovered that all this time, the man of flint and steel had secretly been writing poetry. He had collected hundreds of poems together in his retirement years. Poetry which revealed a humble heart, religious poetry—often visionary—full of angels, poems to his wife, poems for fallen soldiers, hymns set to common tunes, prayers, metaphysical poems. He wrote of Heaven, where “cities have pearly gates / the streets are paved with gold / with seas of glass, with crystal lakes / and beauties yet untold.”

If only his political enemies had known. It would not have taken much—a manuscript or two slipped to the right member of Congress—and the gossip would have begun. “the man has a heart,” senators would whisper to each other.

He would not have lasted out the first session of the Iowa Legislature.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Humanities Council and Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, with additional funding from Humanities Iowa, the Iowa Arts Council, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.