Stories from the Plaza of Heroines

CATEGORIES: May 2017, Voices
Plaza feature image

This issue of Voices features three of the women honored in the Plaza of Heroines who have served in elected office at the local, state or federal level. You can use the search feature on the plaza’s website to find more women who have served in elected or appointed positions, or to search for any keyword to learn more about the women honored on the plaza.

If you are interested in purchasing a brick or a paver to honor a heroine in your life, fill out the online order form or contact the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics by calling 515-294-3181. To add or edit a narrative or photograph to the profile of a woman you have previously honored on the plaza, email the Catt Center at or mail your submission(s) to 309 Carrie Chapman Catt Hall, 2224 Osborn Drive, Iowa State University, Ames, IA, 50011-4009.

Mary Klitch Atherly

Mary Klitch Atherly
Mary Klitch Atherly

Mary Klitch Atherly was born in Hammond, Indiana, in 1937. She attended Western Michigan College in 1956 and married Alan Atherly on Aug. 29, 1959. After several moves, the birth of their daughter in 1964 and the adoption of their son in 1970, Atherly earned a B.B.A. degree from Western Michigan University in 1971.

After moving to Ames in 1968, Atherly began volunteering in the community. She served on the board of the Crawford School Parent Teacher Association, the board of directors of the Children’s Theater and the League of Women Voters of Ames.

In 1975, she was appointed to the Ames/University Bikeway Committee, where she helped write the city’s first bikeway plan. Atherly served on the Ames City Council from 1978 to 1986 and was appointed mayor pro-tem in 1980, serving six years. She served four years on the first board of directors of the Ames-ISU Transit Agency, assisting in hiring the first transit director and developing a system of bus transit in Ames that won an All-America City Award in 1982.

Atherly began working at Iowa State’s Brunnier Gallery and Museum in 1978 and was named curator of the Farm House Museum in 1988. She played a vital role in the growth of the University Museums, developing a registration and cataloging system used for the museum’s permanent collection. Atherly also was instrumental in obtaining national museum accreditation for the University Museums. Her research on the Farm House was the basis of a book published in 1995. She retired in 2000.

After serving on the Ames City Council, Atherly served two three-year terms on the Ames Parks and Recreation Commission, including two years as president, and continued to volunteer with numerous community organizations.

Atherly was honored on the plaza by her husband.

Janet Adams

Janet Adams
Janet L. Adams

Janet Louise Jeanblanc Adams was born in 1937 and raised near Vincent, Iowa. She graduated from Eagle Grove Community College in 1957 and married Ronald Adams the same year. She graduated from Buena Vista College in 1984.

While her seven children were young, Adams volunteered at their schools and in civic and church organizations. In 1975, she served as the first woman president of the Dubuque Archdiocese Board of Education. She helped establish a League of Women Voters chapter in Hamilton County, Iowa, and coordinated a statewide effort to revise the Iowa Juvenile Justice Code. Later, she established a Youth and Family Center for families and children in crisis in Webster City, Iowa.

From 1987 to 1992, Adams served in the Iowa House of Representatives. During her tenure, she served as an assistant majority leader. Her legislative priorities were education, environment, energy and human resources. Her concern for and active involvement in education influenced several pieces of education-related legislation. In addition, she was a member of the Environmental Committee that wrote the highly regarded Ground Water Protection Bill. During and after her term, Adams worked to educate legislators and the public on the need to improve Iowa’s mental health financial support base.

During the farm crisis of the 1980s, the family trucking firm that Adams and her husband, Ronald, owned and operated for 20 years was diminishing and the couple determined that they would each pursue other careers. Adams began attending night school to complete her degree in education at the Fort Dodge campus of Buena Vista College. After graduating, she taught reading in the Webster City School District and was active in the Webster City Education Association. She remains active in community organizations today.

Adams was honored on the plaza by the Hamilton County League of Women Voters.

Joni Ernst
Joni Ernst
Joni Kay Ernst

Joni Ernst was born July 1, 1970, and grew up on a farm near Red Oak, Iowa. She graduated from Stanton High School as the valedictorian of her class.

As a student at Iowa State University, Ernst entered the Army ROTC program. In her sophomore year, she led a group of young adults from Iowa on a visit to the Ukraine and was responsible for the planning, coordination and execution of the entire travel itinerary. While a student at Iowa State, she also volunteered at a safe house for battered and abused women and children.

After graduating from Iowa State with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, Ernst was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers. She moved to Savannah, Georgia, where she married Gail Ernst, whom she had met while at Iowa State and who was assigned to the 1st Ranger Battalion 75th Ranger Regiment. In addition to her undergraduate degree, Ernst graduated from the Engineer Officer Basic Course at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, and earned a master’s degree in justice administration from Columbus College (now Columbus State College).

Ernst served a combined 21 years with the U.S. Army Reserve and the Iowa Army National Guard. From 2003 to 2004, she served as a company commander during Operation Iraqi Freedom, where her unit was responsible for running logistical convoys through Kuwait and into southern Iraq. A lieutenant colonel, Ernst commanded the largest battalion in Iowa.

Ernst served as the Montgomery County auditor from 2004 to 2011. She was elected to the Iowa state Senate for District 12 in a special election in 2011 and re-elected in 2012. In 2014, Ernst became the first woman from Iowa elected to either house of the U.S. Congress and the first female combat veteran to serve in the U.S. Senate.

Ernst was honored on the plaza by her husband.