‘Flying University’ Draws Meditating Entrepreneurs to Quiet Midwest Town
In the quiet of the morning, when the sun peeks over the rolling fields, the trek to the golden dome begins. One by one, businessmen arrive, ready to start their day--by sitting in silence.
There are oil brokers and engineers. A toy maker, too. Many are successful entrepreneurs. And all are meditators.
Thousands of souls have flocked to this meditation mecca, home of Maharishi International University, to study, share a lifestyle and build their own businesses. It is a trend that has brought prosperity and growth to an isolated part of America’s heartland.
“It is a remarkable community,” said Daniel Dittemore, head of the Iowa Product Development Corp., a state-sponsored seed capital investment program. “They have an uncommon appetite and knack for entrepreneurship.”
In the last several years, scores of transcendental meditators have moved their companies to Fairfield or begun new ones here. An ice cream maker here markets to stores in New York, Chicago and other cities; a chimney sweep supplier serves thousands of customers; a studio photographs marathon races. And there is the maker of the Zube Tube, a hot-selling toy touted as the “ultimate cosmic sound machine.”
Others are engineers, attorneys, insurance agents or computer experts. By one estimate, there are about 20 computer companies, thus the nickname “Silicorn Valley.”
“There’s a remarkable population of technologically oriented companies out of all proportion of what you’d expect to find in a community that size,” said Dittemore.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad has dubbed Fairfield, a town of 11,000, one of the state’s economic “superstars.”
The local business chamber doesn’t track the number of companies run or owned by meditators, but some in the community claim that such firms employ about 1,000 people and more than 50 do business nationally or overseas.
“We’ve put a lot of energy into this town, a lot of money, a lot of talent and a lot of job opportunities,” said John Narducci, president of Chappell Studio-Marathon Foto, which also photographs hundreds of thousands of high school graduates annually.
“Any small town in the Midwest would like to have 2,500 people,” said Jerry Leahy, a meditator who is board chairman of Overland Outfitters, a family-owned chain with 11 stores nationwide. “It just isn’t often you have them come in and bring their own jobs and bring their own payroll.”
Though meditators contribute to Fairfield’s success, they are not the prime movers, said Mike Brouwer, executive vice president of the Chamber of Commerce, which has about 400 members.
“I’m not willing to slight 22 major manufacturers in this community--some have been here over 100 years,” he said. He gave the meditators credit for developing ways to support themselves.
Some come because of the university, others because “the benefits seem to grow when you’re meditating with other people,” said Patty Schneider, public affairs chief at the college, founded by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Indian guru who dazzled the Beatles and other celebrities.
Transcendental meditators believe if they gather in large numbers, they create the “Maharishi Effect"--a positive influence on events world affairs to the rate of traffic deaths. More than 7,000 meditators gathered here in 1983 for the “Taste of Utopia.”
Each morning and afternoon, meditators practice their technique in the Golden Domes of Pure Knowledge (one for ladies, one for gents, to avoid distractions).
Estimates of the meditators’ numbers range from 2,000 to 3,000; many study or work at the university, which moved from California in 1974 to the campus of defunct Parsons College and has a full-time enrollment of 799. Meditators also run their own elementary and high schools.
Male MIU students often wear ties and jackets, and jeans are discouraged.
The strait-laced appearance fits in well with mid-America, and meditators work side by side with non-meditators in businesses and the City Council.
Yet “there’s still the dividing line between those people and some people in the community,” said Royse Huff, president of the Fairfield Economic Development Assn.
Some things remain destined to stay separate, such as the yogic flying competitions, which prompted one enterprising company years ago to sell cushions to soften levitation landings.
Yogic flying, according to Vedic tradition, has three stages: hopping (usually cross-legged on a padded course), hovering and flying. “We have been in the first stage quite a number of years,” Schneider says.
Such practices have earned the school the nickname “the flying university.”
Brouwer doesn’t mind. “I have such a thick skin over it over the years, that it doesn’t bother me, because there are so many good things that come out of the relationship between MIU and Fairfield,” he said.
Mayor Bob Rasmussen sees envy behind the teasing.
“We don’t have a lot of empty buildings; valuation of houses has increased substantially,” he said. “They can make all the fun they want. We’re doing just fine, and thank you.”
The town, he added, is not about to lose its identity. “I’m a strong believer we have enough of a solid base. . . . It’s not going to be a matter of them taking over the city,” he said.
The mayor also noted that attitudes have changed since the early days when some townsfolk wondered if the meditators were a cult or a religion.
“There’s certainly a stronger acceptance (and) less divisiveness,” he said. “They’ve integrated much better. We respect each other and get along.”
“Iowans have a work ethic and a sense of clean living that we fit very well with as a group,” said Rob Glazier, a meditator whose engineering firm has grown from four employees to 75 in three years.
Some say the acceptance just took time.
“People in a town like this have been here three or four generations,” said Bob Daniels, the meditator with the chimney sweep supply company. “They may want to take 10 years checking you out. That’s not bad.”
Glazier said that old-line business leaders also realize that “we’re a larger economic force,” attracting outside capital.
Indeed, Huff praised the meditators for demonstrating “how business can be done internationally.” Others say they have brought a cosmopolitan flavor to Fairfield.
Although the meditators are terrific promoters, Brouwer said that a credibility gap remains. “They traditionally say things before they do things,” he said, and “market before the fact.” Huff also said there has been a “tremendous turnover” of meditator businesses.
There have been legal troubles too. The state sued a self-proclaimed “millionaire maker” after he failed to make refunds to 10,000 customer who bought his no-down-payment real estate courses advertised on TV. A $3.5-million judgment was entered against him, but he has filed for bankruptcy.