When I first found out Scott and Steve were brothers, my reaction was something like, “Wait. What? Those guys are related? Are you sure?”
Somehow I knew each of them independently from the other, and in my brief interactions with the two, I had firmly placed each in a distinct camp. Scott was the tree-hugging hippy. Steve the preppy (probably conservative) Pro Am golfer.
In my defense, these guys clearly do, in some ways, act their respective parts. Scott, with his big, bushy gray beard and outdoorsy clothes, spends his time teaching kids about compost and promoting local foods for New Pi Co-op. If you’ve got a child in an Iowa City or Cedar Rapids school, they’ve probably met Scott and his earthworms.
But my confusion was not based simply on appearances. The two brothers do think and act differently in other obvious ways. Take religion for example. One of the bumper stickers on Scott’s vehicle reads, “Treehugging Dirt Worshiper”. His brother Steve is an evangelical Christian.
Other basic life choices the two have made illustrate their differences. Scott spent a good chunk of his life elsewhere, wandering. He served in the Peace Corps in Senegal, lived in Southern California, and even now visits thirty-five area schools to teach his self-designed “Soilmates” curriculum rather than stay in one classroom. Steve, on the other hand, has never lived outside Eastern Iowa and today teaches at Taft, the same middle school both of them attended as boys.
Their apparently disparate personalities are the main reason I wanted to get the two of them into a room and talk with them. I wanted to move past the initial appearances and get a sense of what made the two of them tick. Were they really as different as they seemed, or was there some underlying thread that could explain both of them?
Early in the interview, I told them about my own surprise at finding out they were brothers. “You guys probably get that a lot, right? What’s your reaction to that?”
Scott: “I don’t know if I even agree with it, necessarily. I mean, obviously you’re seeing us from a different perspective. Maybe if I shaved off my beard and, you know, cleaned up a little bit-”
Steve: “Or, I could grow a beard. You should see me during no-shave November through January, when I grow my winter coat. I got a little salt in my pepper now.
“Actually,” he continues more seriously, “a number of teachers will email me and say, ‘Your brother’s teaching my kids right now, and if I closed my eyes, I thought you’d be there.’ Just because of his cadence and my cadence, how we speak and the sound of our voice. You know, I guess with any family there are similarities and differences.”
And truthfully, as we visited I could start to see a lot of similarities myself, especially when the two talked about teaching. Both Scott and Steve are passionate educators. As Scott describes it, “Education is in our DNA. There are just so many people in our family who are teachers. You almost want to think there is something genetic about it at a certain point.”
Though the nuances might lend their teaching styles different flavors, many of the core lessons they try to impart are essentially the same. Echoing Steve’s earlier comment, Scott says, “When I hear him talk, I hear myself talking. I don’t care if it’s the golf course or the garden, we’re both dealing with children. What I love about it too is having people approach me in public and acknowledge that some of the same stuff I’m teaching in gardening is directly applicable to the content and life skill stuff he teaches and coaches.”
I asked them what they fight about. Steve replied, “I can’t remember the last time I had a fight with my brother. Politically we’re different, but not totally different. We’re polar opposites and then right next to each other. I don’t really recall full-on fights.”
Part of that might be because the two brothers aren’t very close in age and so didn’t have much occasion to argue growing up. Scott is eleven years older than Steve, so he left home when Steve was still in elementary school. They do have their disagreements, but as Steve puts it, “I’ve always just felt like he loved me and I loved him. He was my hero, and it’s just been an incredible blessing to have him as a big brother.”
After he left home, Scott was away from Cedar Rapids and his immediate family for more than a decade. When he returned, his younger brother was an adult. “When I did get back to my home, to my roots, and started to reconnect with [Steve], I realized that it’s starting to come full-circle for me. Because now I kinda want to be like him. Now he’s kind of my hero. I’ll just give you one example. Last year I got the honor of being his caddy on these tournaments, because he’s a Pro Am golfer. And I didn’t think I was qualified to do it. And he says, ‘Look man, you taught me this game. I wouldn’t ask you to do this if I didn’t think you could do it.’ And it’s just one small example of how I am the little kid now around him when I get to be with him on the golf course. I’m this giddy little boy, just so honored that I get to tag along with him. Over time, he’s really become my best friend.”
The mutual respect they have for one another despite their differences also affects how the two interact with others. “We’ve had arguments and stuff,” explains Scott, “but it never was estranging. All of us know families that are estranged. I’m so blessed that I have the family I do with my siblings and my mom right now. We are really a tight crew.”
Steve adds, “One of the best things he ever taught me was the ability to agree to disagree. That is a skill. It is a trait that is not encouraged much now by our leadership, where you can still see the value in somebody, where you can vehemently disagree with somebody but do it civilly. Disagree but be nice! For the most part, issues are not nuclear all the time, but we make them. We make them deal-breakers when they don’t have to be.”
My original curiosity was whether the two brothers are really as different as they seem, or if there is some underlying thread that could explain both of them. After spending time with the two together, the best explanation I have for that underlying thread is love. Scott and Steve Koepke seem to have the good, deep, abiding love that we all hope for in a family. That rich ground has allowed both of them the freedom to grow into the people they felt called to be, without fear of whether or not they conformed to some idea of what others thought they should be.
Honestly, the Koepke brothers spent most of our conversation gushing over one another (in a nice, not annoying way). That was touching for me to hear, and fun for the two of them. As Scott said, “I was so excited to have a chance to just kind of free associate about this stuff, because no one’s ever asked me. And I probably need to think about it more, about what this man means to me. I’m just so blessed to have the brother I have, my only brother. I love him so much, and it just keeps getting better and better. I don’t know what else to really say except that I’m so excited for so many good things ahead to share with him.”
Steve feels the same way. “This guy. He’s my brother, you know? He’s one of the people in my life I would have to point to who instilled in me the very qualities I’d want to instill into my own children. I’m absolutely blessed to call him my big brother.”
Story by Courtney T Ball. Photos by Braden Kopf.