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So how did Rowley get so tough? There's a certain kind of Midwesterner who looks across the long, flat plains and doesn't see any obstacles or vertical structures because, in fairness, there aren't any. In this part of America--the tiny town of New Hampton, Iowa, where Rowley grew up the daughter of a mailman who never graduated from high school and walked 14 miles a day to make his rounds--the socioeconomic topography mirrors the geographical one. Everybody is on the level because there is only one. In the Iowa where she was raised and in the Apple Valley community outside Minneapolis where she moved with her family, hierarchy never had much of a chance. Most people drive the same kind of car, have the same kind of yard behind the same kind of weatherboard house. The houses are spread equally across the expanse, not clustered in some pecking order around a town center. The status symbol is not to have one, to invest in public life, to treat everyone like the fellow next door.
So the girl who was informed at age 11 that she could not join the FBI went ahead and started the "World Organization of Secret Spies" with friends. She became known as someone who quietly righted small wrongs from the sidelines of the school. Her close friend Jane David was her lab partner all the way through high school, when Rowley would have occasional dustups with the science teacher over his inaccuracies, but always after class. "I'd see her shaking her head, and I knew he was going to get a talking-to," David remembers. Rowley would point out errors not to embarrass him but to make sure he corrected himself the following day, David says. "She wanted to make sure the rest of us understood it correctly for our college entrance exams. She wasn't trying to show off. She wanted to help us."
Most of Rowley's friends have a story about her bullying them into doing something they didn't want to do. In eighth grade, she became convinced that David should run for student-council president against the most popular boy in the class. David recoiled at the thought, but "you don't get into many arguments you can win with Coleen." Rowley wrote her speech and made her practice it again and again. David won.
In New Hampton, the community pool was the gathering place for students in summer, and when Rowley was in junior high, she wanted to learn the jackknife dive. "But of course there was no one to teach her," recalls her friend Vicki Kennedy. "The rest of us, we didn't want to try because ... there were boys and everything." But Rowley "worked and worked and worked all summer, and she belly-flopped a lot," Kennedy says. "By the end of the summer, she could do a real pretty dive where the rest of us had been too embarrassed to try."