A salute to Dick Hunt, a grand character and longest-serving mayor of my ol’ hometown

By CHUCK OFFENBURGER

SHENANDOAH, Iowa, Dec. 21, 2021 – This evening here in my ol’ hometown, our longest-serving mayor, Dick Hunt, probably one of our best ever, will swear-in his successor, Roger McQueen. What makes this especially noteworthy is that Hunt is also one of our grandest characters.

I now interrupt this salute to once again tell you my all-time favorite Dick Hunt story.

It goes back to the spring of 1954, his sophomore year at Shenandoah High School, and actually this was kind of a predictor of all the delight he’s provided us the next seven decades. In track, he was a very promising young half-miler, and was the lead-off runner on the Mustangs’ two-mile relay team.  At the famous Drake Relays in Des Moines, when Hunt stripped off his sweat suit and toed the starting line, on the back of his jersey was pinned a hand-written sign: “You have just been passed by Hunt of Shenandoah!”  Then he ran dead last.

(Those are the facts. In the various re-tellings of that story over time, it has “evolved,” as good stories do.  In the latest re-telling of it, Hunt is claiming that the track team’s student manager Roger Harms pinned the sign on his back, Hunt didn’t know it was there, and thus he was kind of a victim. Believe that if you want to, but I’m sticking with the straight facts.)

Hunts honored in Shenfest 2021 parade Shelly Warner photo - CROPPED.JPG

Mayor Dick Hunt and his wife Lucille were the grand marshals of last September’s “Shenfest” parade, which especially celebrated the town’s sesquicentennial. (Photo by Shelly Warner)

Now back to City Hall.

The newcomer McQueen, 60, will be O.K. with my referring to him as the “successor” to the 83-year-old Hunt, but not as his replacement. “No one is going to replace Dick Hunt,” the incoming mayor told me last weekend.

So much good has happened in the past 16 years in Shenandoah, a southwest Iowa town of about 4,900, and Hunt has been an important partner in all of it.

In the four terms he has served, there’ve been at least two major new industries move here and open – the Green Plains Renewable Energy ethanol plant and its innovative ancillary businesses, and that’s meant the Burlington Northern Railroad has rebuilt is freight connection into Shenandoah from the northeast. The SE Delta Harrows’ agricultural equipment manufacturer has also started up.

In addition, a major employer, Pella Corp., makers of custom windows, doors and other products, is now expanding its operations here.  The century-old Brown Shoe Fit Co. is solid as ever with its corporate headquarters here and a total remodeling in the past year of its flagship store in the central business district.  And Lloyd, Inc., has survived the 2017 death of its founder Dr. W.E. Lloyd and is now building on its half-century reputation for production of high-quality pharmaceuticals for the healthcare industry.

Hunt spent much of his mayoralty leading the city through the occasionally contentious planning, construction and opening of the $17 million Shenandoah Water Treatment Plant.

There was the disastrous fire in 2008 in the heart of the business district that destroyed two business buildings and threatened three more.  Hunt and his constant ally, economic development director Gregg Connell, veritably shocked the community with a bold idea to demolish all five buildings and partner with local entrepreneurs to build the 42-room Shenandoah Inn & Suites hotel. “I’ll tell you, when Gregg and I started talking about tearing down all those buildings and starting over,” Hunt said, “there were a good number of people who thought the two of us must have just fallen off the turnip truck.”  That hotel, which is constantly busy, is now one of the town’s best amenities.

Dick Hunt running for mayor in 2017 KMA photo.jpg

Mayor Dick Hunt walking the parade route in his 2017 campaign for re-election. (Photo by KMA News)

Hunt was one of the biggest cheerleaders when, in 2019, the iconic KMA radio station’s owner Ed May Jr., deciding it was time to retire, agreed to sell the station to a team of investors from the Shenandoah area, keeping ownership local.  Ditto with Hunt’s support for a new middle school, an expanded early learning center, and several major additions to healthcare facilities in the community.

One program he has started that I’ve really admired is his “High School Liaison.” Every two years, he picks a junior at Shenandoah High School who attends council meetings until he or she graduates. “My idea has been that it’s important to hear from the young people here, what they think about the issues we are dealing with,” Hunt said. “You know, they don’t always see things the way we older people do. We’ve had eight of those ‘liaisons.’ They’ve all been great kids, very bright and their input has been real important to us.”

He recalled becoming especially close with Scott Hastings, an outstanding student and football player who was the liaison in his senior year, 2013-2014.  “He graduated with a 3.95 grade point average,” the mayor said. “When we were talking, I congratulated him and mentioned that I’d been a 4-point student myself.  He looked at me funny, and I said, ‘You don’t believe me, do you?’ He said no, he didn’t. Then I explained, ‘Well, I got one point my freshman year, one point my sophomore year, and one point each of my last two years. Add them up!’ ”

And there’s one more recent project important to mention – the conversion of the local 18-hole golf course from being a private country club to being a city-owned “public” course.  “I’m not so sure that might not wind up being one of the biggest deals yet for Shenandoah,” Hunt said.

The “country club,” as everyone has long referred to it, was going broke, the condition of the golf course had badly deteriorated, golfers were abandoning it.  But Hunt persuaded other city officials that it was time to take over ownership and run it like another city park, accepting the reality that 1) any good town simply must have a decent golf course, and 2) you don’t expect to make money on the city parks, do you?

They hired 30-year-old Craig Connell as the new golf course superintendent. He is a native of nearby Harlan, earned his Iowa State University degree in turf management for golf courses, has worked at the Des Moines Golf & Country Club, and already had ties to Shenandoah – he is Gregg Connell’s nephew.  And Craig’s parents, John and Lisa Connell, had recently retired in Harlan and moved back to Shenandoah.

“He’s basically rebuilt the course,” Gregg Connell said of his nephew. “It’s never looked or played better.  And it’s gone from losing $70,000 a year to making $70,000 to $80,000 in just a two-year period.”

Mayor Hunt, who has not been a golfer “but now might have to become one,” loves seeing crowds of golfers returning, weekend tournaments again being held, and the city’s take-over working well.  “I think that golf course might well become our biggest tourist attraction,” he said.

That’s a whole lot of progress.  And that’s required a whole lot of negotiation, some financial wizardry and real courage from the leadership.  It’s often much harder than it looks.

That came up when Hunt was describing his duties to the successor McQueen.  “Dick said, ‘Now, Roger, the thing about this job is that it doesn’t pay all that great’,” McQueen said. (The annual salary is $6,000.) “It’s just about enough to pay for the Excedrin you’ll need.”

Mayor Hunt has made it all work.

“Dick Hunt has been a great mayor,” said Gregg Connell, who actually preceded Hunt in that position. “There are not enough good things you can say about his leadership. This will mean something to older Shenandoahans and not much to people outside, but Dick could be Father Robbins when he needed to be, and he could be Don Tebbe when he needed to be. Dick could lead with the soft hand or with the firm hand.”  (Rev. Henry Robbins, was the kindly Episcopal priest in town years ago, one who ran something of a local Boys Town in addition to his parish duties.  Tebbe was the rough but revered coach who took the Mustangs to long ago football glory.)

Oh, my, I’ve gotten all this way into this story, and I have not told you the most remarkable things about Richard Norton Hunt: He has been a public servant for 57 years!

Or you could count it as 63 years, because as a high school sophomore – the same year he became a Drake Relays legend – he and some other school buddies joined the Iowa Army National Guard and served six years there.

Hunt was a good 4-year, 4-sport athlete at SHS, probably best in basketball and baseball.

Dick Hunt in 1956 Shenandoah yearbook.JPG

Dick Hunt, as he appeared in the 1956 Shenandoah High School yearbook.

What was he like back then?

“He was ornery!” said his classmate Sue Offenburger Polk, my sister, now living in Elkhorn, Neb. “You’d have never expected that he’d do all he’s done in life, that’s for sure.  But there was something else about him back then that’s never changed – he was always everybody’s friend. He’s amazing.”

Ornery, did she say?

Muriel Keenan, Shenandoah High’s American government teacher who in fact could be tougher than Don Tebbe, one nice day had to run an errand from her third-floor classroom.  The windows were wide open, and “Nort” Hunt (his nickname back then came from his middle name) hatched a quick plot with Dick Livermore, a big strapping lad who was a high school football All-American and later played for the Iowa Hawkeyes.

While Miss Keenan was away, Nort ran into the hallway, then down the three flights of stairs, out the east door and sprawled on the ground beneath the window of the government classroom, with Livermore standing at the open window up in that room.  When Miss Keenan walked back in, all the students were abuzz and Livermore feigned desperation and said, “Oh my goodness, Miss Keenan! I was horsing around with Nort here, somehow I slipped and dropped him!”

She looked out the window, saw Hunt motionless on the ground, “thought I was dead,” gasped and ran for assistance from the principal A.S. Carlsen.  The two adults stormed into the classroom just as the grinning Hunt strolled in himself.  “Livermore and I knew we were in trouble,” Hunt recalled. “We knew Miss Keenan could whip both of us. But they turned us over to Coach Paul Wilson to do the detention.”  Wilson was a Don Tebbe disciple.

Honor from classmates last fall.jpg

An honor from Dick Hunt’s classmates at their reunion last fall during “Shenfest,” when Dick and his wife Lucille were grand marshals of the parade.  The brick was from the old Shenandoah High School building.

Hunt attended Northwest Missouri State College in Maryville for a year, playing football there.  He returned to Shenandoah, worked a couple years at Earl May Seed & Nursery Co. and began umpiring baseball games around the area.

“I liked umpiring so much that I decided I wanted to go to umpire school and see if I could become a professional,” he said.  He did that in Florida, graduated and signed to umpire a year in the Western Carolina League, then one of baseball’s deep minor leagues.

“I was assigned the next year to a league out in Idaho and Wyoming, but that summer I married my first wife, Lois, and she already had three kids,” he said. “I had to get a better-paying job to support my family, so that was the end of my professional umpiring,” although he continued umpiring in southwest Iowa amateur baseball for 20 or more years.

Back in Shenandoah, he landed a job with Johnson Tire Co., developed a good reputation around town, and in 1964 was invited by Police Chief Ray “Frail” Johnson, a very large man, to become one of four patrolmen on the police force.

“Back then, they gave you a flashlight and a whistle and told you to go out and learn what you could,” Hunt said.

Two weeks later, he learned how to deliver a baby!

“About midnight, we got a call for help from a couple who were staying in one of the Mayfair Cabins just north of downtown,” Hunt said. “I went rushing down there, and the husband was outside the cabin, pretty frantic, waving his arms and yelling that his wife was having a baby. He said, ‘What do I do?’ I went running right in there and yelled, ‘Boil water!’ The man said, ‘What are we going to do with that?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know but I’ve seen them do that in movies so it must be important!’ ”

The young policeman indeed delivered.  There was tiny little Roberta Runyan in his hands.  He got her cleaned and placed in her mother’s arms, just as a local physician Dr. George Powers arrived with an ambulance to take over. And Officer Hunt made national news.

Two years later, Page County Sheriff Stanley Edgar hired Hunt as a deputy.  In 1972, he was elected sheriff when Edgar retired.  Hunt was re-elected in ’76.

As Page County Sheriff.jpg

Dick Hunt, second from left, as the Page County Sheriff.

“I enjoyed being sheriff, but it was a lot of driving, all over the county, and there are a lot of other duties a sheriff has with the courts that I didn’t like as much,” he said.

So in 1980, he accepted an offer from Shenandoah Mayor Kaye Norton – his first cousin – to become Chief of Police in the community.

Six years later, Shenandoah had one of its best days ever.  As you know, the Everly Brothers, who were charter members of the national Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame, spent their grade school and early high school years in Shenandoah singing on the local radio stations with their parents.  In the summer of 1986, they came back for their first hometown concert since making it big.  More than 8,000 people attended.  Earlier that day, the brothers were walking the business district, visiting their favorite old haunts, stopping and chatting with old friends.

Chief Hunt was driving his police car up Thomas Avenue, when he saw the Everlys crossing the street headed for the Public Library.  He stopped, jumped out of the car, gave them handshakes and hugs, and welcomed them home.  They were totally surprised.  “When the three of us were going to Central School together,” said Phil Everly, “we sure never dreamed you’d be police chief some day.”  The chief certainly wasn’t caught speechless.  “Yes,” he said back to the Everlys, “and I wasn’t dreaming you’d both be millionaires, either!”

Dick Hunt speaking at Shenfest in 2021 at Everlys tribute.jpg

Mayor Dick Hunt (right) introduces Edan Everly, the son of Don Everly, and Edan’s wife Keri during the 2021 “Shenfest” celebration, in a program at the restored boyhood home of the Everly Brothers, now moved adjacent to the Shenandoah Historical Museum.  At the left is Bill Hillman, a Shenandoah businessman who has been a longtime friend of the Everly family.

From his time as police chief.jpg

From Dick Hunt’s time as police chief.

Hunt retired from police work in 1994.  About that same time, his wife Lois died during surgery to replace a heart valve.  “The kids were pretty well raised, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with myself,” he said.

But Iowa District Court Judge J.C. Irvin, of Shenandoah, a good friend who was Page County attorney when Hunt was sheriff, encouraged him to consider a judicial magistrate position that opened in Fremont County, the neighbor county to the west.  Hunt quickly accepted. “All the dealings I’d had with justices of the peace, county attorneys, clerks and judges really helped me,” Hunt said. “I fell into magistrate work pretty quick.”

He moved to the Fremont County seat of Sidney, struck up friendships with all the other courthouse officials and thrived personally there over the next 12 years.  Then he retired as magistrate in 2006.

One of those new friendships was with Lucille Zimmerman, who earlier had worked in the county treasurer’s office and then served three terms as county auditor.  Her husband, Larry Zimmerman, had died of a heart attack.  Eventually, she and Hunt began seeing each other, fell in love and married.

“Dick and Lucille have made a good team in leading Shenandoah,” said Gregg Connell. “With her experience serving as a county auditor, she has a real knowledge of local government finances, and she’s been very helpful to Dick when he’s dealing with that.” 

Hunts photos at home (2).jpg

The Hunts in a collection of formal photos on display at their home.

She’s also given him a solid family base.  Between them, they have “four kids, oodles of grandkids and great-grandchildren,” he said.  She added, “There’s 62 of us, counting spouses, when we’re all together.”

Lucille also helped turn him into a devout Catholic, after his Episcopalian boyhood and later participation at Faith Christian Fellowship.

His health is “really pretty good,” after a painful bout with kidney stones in the past couple years. “I exercise and I walk 30 minutes every day, and now that I’ll have a little more time, I’ll probably start using the local fitness center, too.”

He retires as mayor “feeling real good about Shenandoah, and I’ve got a real good feeling about Roger McQueen taking over.  He’s got just the right personality for this job.  And it’s good that Gregg Connell is staying on in economic development.  We’ve got good schools, a good hospital, a lot of people wanting to move here.

“The good Lord always seems to take care of Shenandoah, even when we’ve had big challenges, like major employers changing.  We’ve always found something to carry us on.”

Good leadership is a key, of course.

“I remember when Dick first decided to run for mayor, and I was having a conversation with somebody here and this person mentioned Dick’s police work and time as a sheriff,” Connell said. “This guy said, ‘You know, Dick’s really just Barney Fife.’  My answer was, ‘Right show. Wrong guy. Dick is Andy!’  He is a real people person, and he has incredible common sense.  In fact, one time he and I were talking about that, and he said, ‘You know why they don’t teach common sense in college?’ I asked why. ‘Because they can’t find enough qualified instructors!’ “

Connell’s final assessment of his old friend is as profound as it is simple: “Dick Hunt is a man who had the will to do the best he could for the town he loves.”

*

As I said in starting, Dick Hunt is Shenandoah’s longest-serving mayor, at 16 years, from 2005 through 2021. For my hometown readers, here are our other long-tenured mayors:

–Paul Ambler, 15 years, in three hitches: 1929-1932, 1935-1944, and 1956-1957.

–Karl Bond, 12 years, 1962-1963 and 1966-1975.

–Kaye Norton, 12 years, 1976-1987.

–J.M. McGlore, 10 years, 1911-1914, 1917-1919, 1923-1925.

–Robert Creighton, 10 years, 1988-1997.

New mayor Roger McQueen has already been involved in city government, serving the past six years on the Shenandoah Park Board.  Probably his best leadership training has been in his active membership for 28 years in the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks. He served as state president of Iowa’s 9,000 Elks in 2015 and has held several other state positions with the organization.

He is a 1980 graduate of nearby Farragut High School. He owns his own carpet cleaning business, and his wife Julie has been with a local sheltered workshop program, Nishna Productions, where she now serves as outside employment coordinator.

“The reason I decided to run for mayor is to give back to Shenandoah,” Roger McQueen said. “This community has been really good to me in business, it’s provided a good education for my children, and given my wife a good job for 30 years.”

He made the decision “last March or April” to run for mayor.  “I’d been asked to run four years ago, and I said then ‘not as long as Dick Hunt is running’,” he said.  “So last spring, I was asked again to run.  I went over to Dick’s house, told him what I was thinking, but that I would not run if he were running again. He said, ‘Nope, I’m all done – 57 years of public service is enough.’  At the next council meeting, he announced he would not run for re-election. That was a Tuesday night, and Wednesday morning, I put out a press release that I would be a candidate.”

McQueen began attending all council meetings, making appointments and meeting with city department heads, school officials and other leaders in the community.

Seven other candidates also ran for mayor, but McQueen was the clear winner last November, with a 200-vote edge over his closest competitor.

Interestingly, the new mayor’s cousin, Jada McQueen Hallberg, was elected mayor of Pocahontas in northwest Iowa that same night.  She had earlier served on the city council there.

“We’re just a couple of Farragut kids who came off the farm and love our communities,” McQueen said.

You can write the columnist at chuck@offenburger.com or comment by using the handy form below here.

One thought on “A salute to Dick Hunt, a grand character and longest-serving mayor of my ol’ hometown

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.