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Iowa Capitol tour guide retires after nearly 50 years

Joni Arnett laughs in the rotunda of the Iowa State Capitol
Madeleine Charis King
Iowa Capitol tour guide Joan Arnett on "Under the Golden Dome" with Host John Pemble.

If you've toured the Iowa State Capitol in the past 47 years, there's a good chance you've met Joni Arnett.

"When you came for your field trip in 1976, I probably gave you the tour," she told IPR's Ben Kieffer on River to River.

That was the year Arnett got a job as a tour guide, at age 19, right after she graduated East High School in Des Moines. At that time she would only do small, hourly tours up to the golden dome and back again, but for the past 24 years, she's served as the knowledgeable top supervisor of a team of 26 other guides.

Now, she's planning her retirement.

Even before she got the gig, Arnett was strongly connected to the Capitol. Her church sat behind the building, her great-grandparents lived in the area and her family often visited on the weekends. Her first memories of the building are from when she was just three years old, and while she doesn't remember much from the tour, she recalls just how massive the structure appeared to her.

"It's a grand old building, and when you enter, that's apparent," she said.

As a teen, Arnett chose running around the Capitol over shopping with friends downtown.

The interior of the Capitol is known for its grandeur. Visitors can see up more than 200 feet into the dome when they stand at the center of the building's rotunda. Large paintings, statues and the grand staircase are all visible from the first floor. A sprawling law library with glittering spiral staircases awaits on the second floor. But when Arnett first began working, most of the building was painted white and largely undecorated. She's seen it through its 40-year restoration, which brought back its splendor and sparked a newfound interest in researching the building's deep history.

"The Capitol building really was designed by individuals who wanted to build a grand, beautiful building, and they wanted to build that not just for people who were alive at that point," she said. "They wanted to build a building that people would be proud of for hundreds of years to come."

Other changes she's seen working at the Capitol included a bill that transferred ownership of the tour guide program to the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency. She joked that she and her team are probably the "least controversial" group present in the building.

While Arnett doesn't have specific plans post-retirement, she does intend to spend time with her granddaughter in Cape Cod. She's certain she'll be back someplace volunteering before long, most likely a museum with plenty of history for her to learn and share.

Samantha McIntosh is a talk show producer at Iowa Public Radio. Prior to IPR, Samantha worked as a reporter for radio stations in southeast and west central Iowa under M&H Broadcasting, and before that she was a weekend music host for GO 96.3 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River
Josie Fischels is a Digital News producer at Iowa Public Radio. She is a 2022 graduate of the University of Iowa’s school of journalism where she also majored in theater arts (and, arguably, minored in the student newspaper, The Daily Iowan). Previously, she interned with the Denver Post in Denver, Colorado, and NPR in Washington, D.C.