• Lunch with a Leader: JON CREWS

    • Posted on Apr 07, 2017
    Jon Crews, Cedar Falls' longest serving mayor (15 terms) died yesterday.  Last April 23, the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier published my extensive lunchtime conversation with Jon.  Seems timely to republish it now.  


                “Steady as she goes” may not work as a campaign slogan, but it surely worked for Jon Crews as mayor of Cedar Falls for over thirty years.

                Crews began his mayorship in 1974 when he was 24, and ended last summer when he withdrew from the campaign.  

                He had won fifteen two-year elections, most of them easily. He left the position twice for a total of 14 years, then returned for 16 more years.   “I successfully succeeded my successors,” as he put it.   We met over lunch, and I found him down to earth, funny, honest, self-aware, and moving on without a trace of bitterness.  

                While deciding to retire, “I was worried about filling my days after so many years in City Hall,” he said, “but I’ve found plenty to do.”

                 Besides visiting six grandchildren from a blended marriage, he’s enthusiastic about two projects, both community-oriented.  He works locally with the “Senior Medicare Patrol,” which alerts seniors locally and nationwide to Medicare fraud and abuse.  He speaks to seniors and concerned groups about where such scams are found and how to thwart them.

                “Medicare fraud is a multi-billion dollar business, and can wreck seniors’ lives.” 

                He’s also helping develop a new de-stressing tool that involves electronic signals to help calm anxieties—which he believes show promise for helping vets with PTSD, as well as people on the autism spectrum and anxiety issues.    

                So Jon Crews still contributes to his community, and does so with energy and good will.

                He acknowledges that he was “ubiquitous” as mayor, a tag that describes his ongoing attendance at most community events, from art shows to jazz concerts to school plays to bicycle races.  “Even if we didn’t see you,” one citizen told him, “we knew you were there.”

                Crews’ leadership style amounts to “hiring good people and getting our of their

    way—I didn’t micromanage.”  And that means collaborating, cooperating, and compromising.  Not flashy, but refreshing in our current politically stalemated culture.        

                Using this approach, Crews saw the city develop a huge and successful industrial park, with 170 businesses.  It barely existed when Crews began.

                 Downtown Cedar Falls now vibrates with energy, with a Main Street that’s a model for similar cities. Eyesore buildings are being replaced, new restaurants are starting, old ones are remodeling condos are filling up along the riverfront.  All manner of small businesses fill the street and attract customers from across the Cedar Valley.    

                It’s how College Square used to look as Main Street went moribund. Now that’s reversed.  

                Crews recognizes that not everyone has been happy with his leadership, and cites the roundabout controversy as a current example.  “I tried to do the right thing rather than what’s popular.  All the data showed that roundabouts are safer and better for traffic flow.  So we listened to objectors, but found they couldn’t back up their complaints.  So we went ahead.” 

                He agreed it’s a mess on now, but street repairs are always disruptive, especially on major roads.  

                Of all his accomplishments, he cites a humble but important innovation: the one-person garbage pickup truck.  “Garbage pickups used to be the most dangerous job in the city.”  Now it’s safe and cheaper, thanks to his administration’s support for changing garbage pickup protocols.

                His low point?  The flood of 2008, which all but inundated parts of Cedar Falls, causing serious damage to neighborhoods and buildings.  

                However, it was not all dark.  “That flood and the cleanup did show the resiliency of the city.  We were back on our feet fairly quickly, with little lasting damage.”

                The city also re-zoned flooded areas so that fewer buildings now stand in harm’s way from inevitable Cedar River floods.   

                Another controversial area was “cross training” police and firefighters, so that both can be certified for policing and firefighting.  This doesn’t sit well with either group, but Crews supported it, and it still stands.   “Many firefighting jobs aren’t very specialized, so we thought it made sense to offer double duty.”

                What’s the purpose of city government? I asked, and he immediately answered,
    “the health and safety of its citizens, and prosperity, to the degree we can influence that.”   Overall, he’s satisfied with all three, but took little direct credit.  “The good people I hired and supported did their jobs well.  I always appreciated how good they were,” and that included a number of local volunteers, as well as Main Street Cedar Falls, a group that oversees downtown activities. 

                I wondered about Cedar Falls as a city without much racial diversity, and he agreed.  “Real estate costs more everywhere in Cedar Falls, and that may be part of it.”

    That’s an issue that deserves attention, I thought, and has been all but neglected.

                He mentioned two high points of his career: the day he started, when he realized that he actually had been elected mayor of a good-sized city.  That news made the Wall Street Journal---“above the fold,” he said proudly.

                And when he left office, his son organized a retirement party at City Hall that provided an overview of his career. “That’s a day I won’t forget.”  He felt a tide of gratitude that still makes him smile.

                Finally, he’s been surprised that he received so few angry or even complaining phone calls.  “One a year—that’s it.”  

                Collaborating, cooperating, compromising, few complaints.  I’d say Crews discovered the secret to good leadership, and implemented it.  

                Steady as she goes indeed.









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  • Robert James Waller Remembered Fondly

    • Posted on Mar 19, 2017

    Published in this morning's Waterloo/Cedar Falls Courier.  

                So much of what I know about Robert James Waller comes from memory.  Recent direct experiences have been spotty, mostly via email, and then only occasionally.  We’ve often gone for months at a time with no communication due to distances and general busyness. 

                The first half of our friendship, from late 1961 until the mid-1980s, consisted of finding, arranging, and performing songs we loved. It was all great fun because we gravitated toward intensely poetic lyrics and ballads, and our voices blended well.  We often played Waller’s songs, and they were among our most-requested pieces.         

                As our lives grew more complex with fewer shared interests, we gradually moved on. 

                He became more of a jazz musician and certainly more of a writer, beginning with his Des Moines Register columns and moving into longer essays and fiction, the first novel being his blockbuster “Bridges of Madison County.”  He kept writing, too, and his novels continued selling, though nothing reached the wild popularity of “Bridges.”     

                Our post- “Bridges” friendship was less intense.  When he did visit the area from his Texas ranch, we got together for lunch or dinner, and sometimes even sang a few of the old songs.   

                I still well remember those songs, recorded in the mid-1980s.  We went to Catamount studios, where ace producer Tom Tatman recorded, in one day, eight of Waller’s songs.

                His songs were full-on poetry, with complex stories and melodies that still challenge listeners with their density and soaring mystical visions.

                For a time he even wondered whether he could make it as a songwriter, and traveled to Nashville with melodies in hand.  Producers there told him his songs were not commercial.  “Go home and be a college professor,” they told him. “We’re selling toothpaste.”

                So he did, but I have little doubt that had some enterprising producer taken a chance, we’d all remember Waller’s songs. 

                Little known fact:  “Bridges” was a song before it was a novel. 

                It was a long lyric called “North Dakota Transfer,” about a powerful erotic tryst between a farm wife whose husband was on the road and an itinerant harvest worker who falls for her:

    She was sweet apple blossoms, in her old faded jeans,

    Forty-five years old, and shinin’ like the sun,

    And the touch of her hand on your face was like a breeze

    Blowin’ sweet and clear when the long day is done.

                The smitten couple endure a bittersweet parting.  A few years later, Waller fleshed the story out, set it in Iowa, made the harvest worker a photographer, and the rest is his story. 

                He succeeded as a writer far beyond anything he could have imagined.  Yet he also created a set of memorable songs, just as potentially popular as his fiction.

                As a friend, he left a legacy of warm memories of laughter, long talks into the night, and performing for large and loyal audiences.

                He sought modesty.  As he wrote in his final book “The Summer Nights Never End—Until They Do,” “We come, we do, we go—nothing more, and that’s about as serious as we ought to take ourselves.”     

                Robert James Waller certainly came, did, and went, and now his old friends and fans seriously remember him, fondly. 



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