Philanthropist Morgan Cline, a native of Exline, Iowa, died Sunday in Middletown Township, N.J. / The Des Moines Register
EXLINE, Iowa -- It's fair to ask whether this former coal-mining town that has dwindled to about 150 people would still be on the map if not for the economic lifeline extended by millionaire Morgan Cline.
Cline, 81, died Sunday at his home in Middletown Township, N.J., after he had built a fortune in advertising and real estate.
But he was born and raised here humbly among this rolling farmland within eyeshot of Missouri. During the Great Depression and World War II, his father toiled in the mines to eke out a living.
Cline and his family were poor, often subsisting on a diet of, say, 10-cent cans of sardines.
It is to this southern rural tier of Iowa that Cline will return: His ashes will be carried inside the family mausoleum that he built beneath a shade tree in the cemetery on the east side of town.
The doors of the vault face west from a picturesque hilltop, toward not only the sunset but also downtown Exline, which Cline had fussed over as caretaker from afar.
The Cline name is etched across the front of this mausoleum, while the man's imprint can be found everywhere in Appanoose County. He and opera singer Simon Estes, another famous son, are the first two names that tend to be mentioned in the same breath as Centerville, the county seat.
Cline once had aspirations to become a doctor but ended up a pharmacist - and has donated millions of dollars to Drake University in Des Moines, where he earned his pharmacy degree.
He worked his way up in the advertising industry, and 30 years ago co-founded the Cline Davis & Mann firm. Thanks in large part to his pharmacy background, he earned millions devising ad campaigns for such blockbuster drugs as Viagra and Lipitor.
Bill Burch continues to manage Cline's business as president of Morgan E. Cline Cos. His second-floor office view overlooks the Appanoose County Courthouse on Centerville's town square.
In 1997, Burch, then the president of the local Chamber of Commerce, met Cline in a reception line.
The philanthropist was in the middle of restoring Centerville's Continental Hotel into a showplace that also made room for apartments for senior citizens. Their next conversation was a phone call from Cline with the job offer.
Cline leaves behind no children. His partner of 52 years, Benjamin D'Onofrio, died three years ago.
One assumes that it wasn't always easy for a gay man growing up in rural southern Iowa in the mid-20th century. But Cline, Burch said, preferred to remain private, although D'Onofrio often returned home with him to visit.
Cline was a fiscally conservative, socially liberal businessman who wore neither religion nor politics on his sleeve.
When he wined and dined clients at fancy restaurants, he would opt for the basic meat and potatoes on the menu.
Two of the late magnate's lifelong friends in Exline were Donald and Dorothy Haines, who lived next door to his parents.
"He had a beautiful voice, and he did a lot of singing," Dorothy said.
She should know: Cline sang "I Love You Truly" at the couple's 1949 wedding.
As kids, Donald and Cline played cards by lamplight. And Monopoly.
"He'd cheat every chance he got," Donald grinned.
Cline later remarked to Donald that buying and selling real estate in real life had a lot in common with the board game.
"I hope you didn't cheat like you did at those games!" Donald shot back at his friend.
Cline graduated as valedictorian of the final class (of seven) from Exline in 1949. As a young man, he was itching to leave.
"The cows were in the barn all night because it was cold, lying in their own feces," Cline told the Register in 2000. "You'd take a piece of gunnysack and wipe 'em off. And then you'd sit down in front of them and wipe their udders off with old rags. And I thought to myself, 'God, there's got to be a better life somewhere. There's got to be something better.'"
Though he made his fortune elsewhere, Cline remained unapologetically nostalgic for his Iowa roots.
"He loved his friends," Burch said from New Jersey. "He loved his education there. He loved the pan-fried chicken and everything out of a black skillet. I think he just really loved those formative years."
"He's just always been interested, it seems like, in old things, preserving the past," Dorothy said.
Cline poured an estimated $20 million into projects in downtown Centerville alone.
One of his latest was Morgan's Ice Cream Parlor on the square - a throwback to the days when Cline worked behind the soda fountain in the former Red Cross Drug Store.
When his parlor opened in September, in time for Centerville's annual Pancake Day, he told manager Penny Sharp to phone his former fountain co-worker from the 1940s, Gretchen Fadiga, so that she could train the staff on how to mix perfect ice cream sodas.
Exline, meanwhile, has been lavished with its own combination restaurant, convenience store and antique mart, which Cline opened as a community social hub.
"The only thing you could buy in Exline was a postage stamp before he built the store," Dorothy said.
A new group of modest, tidy houses called Coal Miner's Commons caters to seniors. His own family farm was redeveloped into a Ponds & Prairies residential community.
It's hard to find a structure here that Cline hasn't touched, whether in terms of a single new appliance or a complete renovation.
Cline's local memorial service will be scheduled within a month or two at yet another of his projects: Centerville's Majestic Theater.
But who will pick up the gauntlet from Cline on behalf of a county that has languished at or near the bottom of statewide income and health statistics?
To start with, it will be Cline's childhood friends and neighbors: He handpicked not only board members for a new charitable trust but also named alternates in case people are unable or unwilling to serve.
"The community basically inherits what he's done," is how Burch put it.
A committee seems unlikely to obsess over such obscure nostalgia as the proper way to mix an ice cream soda just like Gretchen did 70 years ago.
But Cline as caretaker of the Appanoose County he loved obviously didn't end with his death Sunday.
Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com
Read the original story: Philanthropist never forgot small-town start