CEDAR RAPIDS -- Gov. Tom Vilsack unveiled Iowa's quarter design Thursday, a country school scene based on a painting by native artist Grant Wood that trumpets the state's commitment to education.

The governor said his choice was clear after a months-long process that sparked a spirited debate among Iowans over how best to condense the state's identity onto the back of a 25-cent piece. In the end, no coin flip was needed.

"Iowans take very seriously the responsibility we have to well educate our children," Vilsack said, standing in a break room at PMX Industries, a company that makes metal strips sold to the U.S. Mint for use in stamping quarters. "We have always done that. It's been a part of our tradition and history."

Vilsack's selection is a variation of Wood's 1932 painting "Arbor Day." It depicts a one-room school set against a backdrop of rolling Iowa farm fields. In the foreground a teacher and a group of students gather to plant a sapling.

That "Foundation in Education" design was one of five finalists Vilsack, including Wood's farm landscape "Young Corn." The other three designs, all titled "Feeding the World," depicted corn, soybeans and livestock.

But Vilsack said the Foundation in Education design sends a multi-dimensional message about the state, showing Iowa as a place that values schooling, rural life, the environment and art. The quarter should start appearing in U.S. cash registers in August 2004.

"No doubt, everyone will have an opinion about what was done and should have been done," Vilsack said, after unveiling the design to a flurry of camera flashes and a round of applause. "And that's OK. That's the Iowa way.

"What we attempted with this selection was to say as much as we possibly could about the people of this great state and what's important to the people in this great state," the governor said.

Most of those who came to watch Thursday's unveiling praised his pick. Ron Miller, Fairbank, who served on the commission that pared down a lengthy list of concepts, called it a "fine choice."

But Miller, a retired John Deere employee, preferred the agriculture-centered designs Vilsack ultimately rejected.

"I felt all along those designs were what Iowa's all about: livestock, corn. To me, that's Iowa," Miller said. "That's what got us here and that's what keeps us going."

Alvin Flyr, a school board member and coin collector from Colfax, called the design an "excellent choice." Flyr also served on the quarter commission.

"I think it's unique from what the other states offered on their coins," Flyr said. "It tells the world what we think is important in Iowa."

Vilsack contends a work by Wood is an especially appropriate choice. Wood was born on a farm near Anamosa in 1891 and grew up in Cedar Rapids. After a series of trips to Europe to study and paint during the 1920s, Wood came back to Iowa, where he composed his most famous works.

Like his home state, his paintings were sometimes misunderstood by outsiders who dubbed his rural scenes naïve and quaint while missing their subtle sophistication.

"If anyone really depicted what Iowa is, it would be Grant Wood," said Lennis Moore, a Mount Pleasant artist who served on the quarter commission.

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