Derecho among 12 top stories of year

Election, leader changes. Volunteers make news in 2020


Although the COVID-19 pandemic stole the headlines this past year, there were a lot of other things happening in the West Liberty community that was also extremely newsworthy.

The Index put together 12 local community top stories for 2020, from the highly damaging derecho wind storm in August to the election in November, but also including recreational upgrades, volunteer efforts, top prep sports achievements, school construction, fire department endeavors, social justice issues, business moves and finally, community leader changes.

Because of the size and depth of the COVID-19 pandemic, we wrote that story entirely separate from the other 11 top stories featured here. Although your opinion may differ, we prioritized these stories listing the most important news events first.

Surprise summer storm of furor

In the early afternoon of Monday, Aug. 10, winds up to 100 miles per hour roared through Central and Eastern Iowa, creating damage all across the state including hitting the West Liberty area hard in what is known as a derecho, a unique, surprise, high-powered wind storm that swept a path through Iowa and Illinois for hundreds of miles, hitting the entire school district area but in particular West Liberty and Ataliss and rural areas north.

Fortunately and incredibly, no one was injured, but the winds uprooted trees and tore down giant branches all over the area, causing damage to homes, buildings and vehicles while leaving many without electricity for days, except in West Liberty where the city electric department fired up an old generator and kept the lights on – especially for the West Liberty Foods plant. The city was without electricity only for a short time because of it’s aging power plant.

Emergency crews from the city and the local fire departments went immediately into action, clearing streets of debris and bringing electrical lines back for local residents, all lauded for their quick response and fast thinking in keeping the West Liberty alive while other area communities were without electricity for nearly a week, including Nichols and Atalissa, as well as many rural areas. West Liberty city crews worked for weeks loading up limbs and tree carvings and the city fired up an old electrical generator as it went off the main electrical grid to keep the lights on..

Some still say it was the worst wind storm to ever hit the community.

New political leaders elected

From the looks of things, the United States will have a new president as former vice-president Joe Biden, a Democrat, defeated President Donald Trump in one of the biggest voter turnouts in history, winning the popular vote as well as the electoral vote although Trump is still fighting the results, refusing to concede despite moving into his final weeks in the White House. Many people voted by mail and ahead of Nov. 3.

On a local standpoint, the Muscatine County election was dominated by Republican candidates including county supervisor positions (Scott Sauder and Nathan Mather), the Sheriff’s office (Mike Channon), county auditor (Tibe Vander Linden) and attorney (James Barry).

Although U.S. Senator candidate Teresa Greenfield was the only major candidate to visit West Liberty, hosting a town hall meeting with business and community leaders, she did not get elected, defeated by incumbent Republican Joni Ernst, even locally by nearly 2,000 votes in the county. Democrat Rita Hart also won the seat for U.S. Congress representative in one of the closest elections over Mariannette Miller-Meeks. Democrats won back the House of Representatives while the Senate is still up for grabs thanks to two Georgia races that were so close they will be decided in this week in a special run-off election.

On the state level, David Kerr won back his seat as the local state representative along with Mark Cisneros, both Republicans while the District 44 & 46 senate races were claimed by Tim Goodwin and Mark Lofgren.

West Liberty held two caucuses at the West Liberty Community Center in late January for the presidential race, Democrats campaigning for their candidate in putting their best foot forward in finding the right candidate to defeat Republican President Donald Trump. Bernie Sanders won locally.

Where did the leaders go?

There were a lot of leader changes in the community this past year, from city positions to churches and in the local schools, it was a devastating year of personnel changes that was quite unusual.

First, the city struggled with replacing city manager Lawrence McNaul, who took a county manager position in Florida in late 2019. City clerk Lee Geertz was appointed interim city manager, but she was replaced in June when the council hired Elizabeth Hansen, who operates a municipal consulting business, as the new interim manager. She remains in that position to date.

The city also replaced West Liberty Public Library Director Deb Lowman with Allie Paarsmith and lost the library’s children’s department director Dennis Cooper in the process.

WeLead also had problems after losing A.J. Garton early in the year. The economic development arm of the city, the board replaced the director with Rustin Lippincott, who had a lot of success in Fairfield in building business, but Lippincott left the organization just weeks later to return to Fairfield and the hunt was on again for a new director, while many of the board members handled pertinent business. Finally, the WeLead group hired Joseph Taylor of Eldridge in mid-November, the city giving him some additional tools to work with in putting together a new Urban Renewal program that benefits businesses.

The city police chief Kary Kinmonth resigned his position and was replaced by Sergeant Dave Lira as interim chief before the city council hired Jeremy Burress, a former county deputy from the Newton area in April, but he left the position late this year to take on a new career, replaced again by Lira as the city hunts for a new chief. In the meanwhile, Atalissa also lost its long-time chief of police, Matt Bower, and is currently searching for a new chief as well.

In Atalissa, new mayor Bob Schmidt is making a lot of changes while Nichols also has a new mayor in Lindsay Reimer, who also has a different outlook for the city.

The school district had a lot of changes and lost some long-time personnel in retiring teachers Curt Diemer, Gene Nelson and Mike Gunn, while district secretary Melody Henderson left at the end of the school year.

The district had an administrative change at the Early Learning Center, losing long-time director Melissa “Missy” Johnson, who was replaced by Dr. Lindsay Meeker, despite a battle at the end of the school year to rework the position into an assistant principal for the West Liberty Elementary School, where ELC students will eventually reside.

The biggest blow came as a surprise when Superintendent Dr. Diego Giraldo said he would be resigning his position at the end of the 2020-21 school year and the school board has already begun that search to replace the school leader.

There were also a lot of changes in the religious world, with First Church United, St. Joseph Catholic Church and the West Liberty United Methodist Church all getting new pastors.

Organizations step it up a notch

Despite the pandemic, volunteer efforts by organizations, churches and individuals still thrived, filling needs, beautifying the community and even creating a new Salvation Army office in West Liberty at First Church United, spearheaded by the Rotary Club of West Liberty.

Local organizations figured out ways to meet virtually and sometimes in person for special occasions using social distancing and it seemed Rotary was the most active, meeting weekly.

The group hosted a fundraiser early in the year to benefit the fight against state human trafficking, putting together beautification projects throughout the community in cooperation with the West Liberty High School FFA Chapter and honoring some of it’s long-time members with world-wide recognition including the district’s “Guardian of Integrity” award going to Jim Conrey while Ken Nobel and his wife, Jo, were honored internationally as “PolioPlus Pioneers.” Spearheaded by Bob Cline, Rotarians also proposed to the school district a new half-mile loop to the Hoover Trail on the west edge of the city.

A couple of district school art teachers, Shawna McLeod and Steph Paulsen, put together a plan and painted a huge mural on the side of a two-story building in downtown West Liberty on the corner of Third Street and Spencer Street while they were battling through the early life of the pandemic.

West Liberty’s 100 Women Who Care helped out the Eulenspiegel Puppet Theatre in West Liberty with a major donation toward their fine arts/entertainment work during the pandemic while the West Liberty Lions Club stepped up efforts to place more “Flags Over West Liberty” and gave money to a number of causes, including annual scholarships for WLHS seniors.

The biggest effort came during the holidays, where the Voluntary Action Committee, local churches and organizations put together the annual Christmas Box distribution, helping out dozens of families in the area during the holidays with food, household supplies, winter wear and Christmas gifts. It truly was a community effort.

A group of parents and fair enthusiasts from throughout the county also created a make-shift “Memory Makers” livestock show in July for local youths. Although unassociated with the Muscatine County Fair, the events were held at the fairgrounds.

Atalissa hosted one of the only fireworks shows for the July 4 Independence Day celebration in the area, attracting one of their largest audiences in several years of hosting the small-town event put together by a local family.

Attempting to revive the heart of Nichols, Lynn Pruitt, a member of the Muscatine County Preservation Society pinpointed seven properties in the community in April the group would like to see designated for historic preservation by the Iowa Historical Preservation Society.

WLMS construction project underway

A multi-million dollar addition to the West Liberty Middle School got underway in the fall, a construction firm from North Liberty winning a bid that was well below estimated costs, saving the district well over $1.5 million dollars, as about a dozen contractors went after the work.

The 10-classroom addition/courtyard being built on the northwest corner of the school is on schedule for opening at the beginning of the 2021-22 school year and includes moving the band room while the gym floor in the school was also replaced, along with other exterior and interior grades.

The savings were big enough that the district decided to accelerate their building plan to begin the process of talking about a need to add classrooms to the West Liberty Elementary School, initially proposed on the north end, to house preschool and kindergarten students that would be moved from the aging Early Learning Center.

The process began with the long overdue completion of the district’s new $1.532 million Liberty Park transportation center and maintenance facility, allowing the district to move buses and maintenance from WLMS. With the next school year, fifth grade students will become middle school students, creating more room in the elementary school to eventually host all the students from the current ELC building, which doesn’t look to have a future with the district.

Recreational dreams come true

West Liberty got a big recreation boost this year with the completion of a new $225,000 first-class playground at Kimberly Park organized through the city’s park department, donations coming from all over the community.

Because of COVID, the city had to cough up a little extra to get the playground built, opening in late August to the delight of local youngsters. The extra money had to be taken from a plan to upgrade Friendship Park on the south side of the community, but the city landed a grant and local funding to plan for a $60,000 update to the facility later this year.

Nichols also updated it’s Northside Park with some new equipment.

Another major upgrade came in the form of $120,000 in lights and poles for the West Liberty High School softball field behind the elementary school, a campaign spearheaded by a local grandmother, Letha Ottaway.

Wrestlers shine for sports teams

As usual, the West Liberty High School sports teams had a lot of success this past year, but none were more successful than the varsity wrestling program, which crowned another state champion in senior Will Esmoil while junior Kobe Simon finished runner-up, half the team that made it to the state final mats in Des Moines.

The girls softball and boys baseball teams were the first WLHS teams back in action following state approval because of the pandemic and the Comet girls had another big run, just missing an opportunity to get to the state finals when a superior Davenport Assumption team put an end to their dream of a state repeat performance. The girls finished at 14-2 and were the “unofficial” River Valley Conference champs at 12-1.

The girls took that momentum right into the volleyball season, where the Comets again lost to Assumption – just one win away from getting to the state finals again. The team finished 26-7 and won the River Valley Conference Tournament with an upset over neighboring rival Wilton.

The WLHS football team also had some great success, just one win away from an appearance in the state finals at the UNI Dome. After a strong start, the team had to sit out two games because of COVID-19 concerns and came back in the expanded playoff system to win three straight games including two exciting last-play upset wins before losing to Camanche, 34-20.

Fire departments seek help

The local fire departments made a lot of strides this year toward getting new equipment and gear, but they were held back by the Coronavirus.

Nichols is expected to get new gear after the first of the year after getting a matching grant from the Ryan Trust while Atalissa launched a campaign to create a community heating/cooling station in their fire station as part of the aftermath of the derecho, also obtaining grant funding for the project that will provide a place to stay should there be another electrical failure like the week following the wind storm. Nichols also obtained a donation to help firemen in grain bin rescues.

In West Liberty, the first responders not only got an upgrade to paramedic status before the end of the year, but the department is also asking for donations toward a rescue gator to be used in emergency situations where a larger vehicle is unable to maneuver such as wooded areas or field fires.

All the area departments had to cancel major fundraisers this year because of the virus, limiting their ability to make money although Nichols did put together a drive-thru breakfast and Atalissa also benefited from a small fundraiser at Halloween.

City Hall downtown no more

The West Liberty City Council gave up on a plan to convert a downtown Third Street building into a new city hall/police department facility after falling into a “money pit” that eventually took more of the building during demolition than anticipated, resulting in the sale of the structure.

The city lost about $100,000 on the project and turned funding that had been earmarked for remodeling into recreating the present Waldo C. Myers Municipal Building on the corner of Fourth Street and North Calhoun, making the building more efficient by moving offices including the police department thanks to a lot of input from city employees, leaders and the city’s engineering firm.

Major implement expansion

In October of last year, the 82-year old Case implement dealership owned by the Cline family was sold to J.J. Nichting Company of Pilot Grove. A year later, the new company announced they would be building a staate-of-the-art 45,000 square foot facility north of West Liberty on the south side of Interstate 80, combining facilities in Tipton and West Liberty.

With construction on the 15-acre site well underway, the new state-of-the-art, high-tech service, sales and training facility to be functioning by mid-summer.

The new facility opens up some opportunities for business expansion in West Liberty as the implement dealer is presently housed in a number of buildings for service, storage and sales on the south side of the community.

There were also a couple other changes in business this past year as Tater’s Spa, Pet Grooming and Boarding opened in early December by Kennedi Simon on Route 6, kitty corner from Giri BP, while Donna Alberti and Stacie Teel are opening “Savor By Chef D/Serving Sweet Life by Stacie,” a new bakery/restaurant/catering business in downtown West Liberty at the corner of Third Street and North Calhoun in the former Mango Landia location. The business will opened this week and will offer “date night dinners” as well as breakfast and lunch on specific days of the week.

The Miller brothers, Bruce and Larry, sold the decades old family business, Fred’s Feed, in downtown West Liberty to Ben Probst with the beginning of the new year and 46.5 year West Liberty dentist Dr. Michael Tharp retired, leaving his downtown business in the hands of his daughter, Dr. Melanie Womachke.

Social justice helps school band

Social justice took a step forward in the nation and it became even visible in West Liberty when a “Peace Walk” was held in July following several questionable deaths of black citizens by police. About 100 people turned out for the peaceful rally that was organized at the Depot Museum.

The protesters marched through the west end of West Liberty carrying signs like “Black Lives Matter” and conversing about the situation after a number of leaders who put together the event spoke about racism and the need for a change in the country. West Liberty police were also involved, marching in the event with the crowd and directing traffic at intersections.

The demonstration may have helped establish a racial justice grant through the Community Foundation of Greater Muscatine, which awarded the West Liberty High School band to create the Los Cometas Mariachi band.

The grant will be used to fund instruments, instruction and sheet music and will allow the school to hire local musicians from the area to assist in teaching lessons and rehearsals, enabling an uplifting of Latinx voices while maintaining the integrity and authenticity of the mariachi tradition.

Those are THE stories of 2020!