Posts Categorized: Community Builders

Community Builders: John Condon

John Condon: Teaching the builders of tomorrow

By Sara Friedl-Putnam • Originally published in the Fall 2017 Inspire(d)

This July, as they do each July, crowds lined Water Street during Decorah’s Nordic Fest to treat themselves to homemade Norwegian fare – kringla and krumkake, varme polse and rømmegrøt – all dished up from festive food booths. The sturdy structures – 14 in all! – are a signal that Nordic Fest is upon us, but they weren’t constructed by hard-working Nordic Fest volunteers; they were built by John Condon and his hard-working carpentry classes at Decorah High School (DHS).

“We’re turning our focus outward,” says John. He joined the DHS faculty in 2000 and has since shaped an industrial technology program that offers “a café menu of choices,” including woodworking, electrical, cabinet-making, and construction-metals classes. “We’re focusing our projects less on the individual student and more on the wider community.”

In addition to the Nordic Fest booths, John’s classes have built the infrastructure for the popular Winneshiek Farmers Market – including a barn-themed storage shed and two picnic tables – as well as numerous bike racks found throughout the city of Decorah. A rack shaped like the state of Iowa stands in Freeport Park, while another in the shape of a softball enhances the main DHS softball diamond. Both of the bike corrals on downtown Water Street were built by his classes as well. “Students learn best by doing, and that’s why I’m so big on incorporating hands-on projects into my classes,” he says.

This fall, inspired by the success of the community projects his classes have completed to date, John introduced a new class, community construction, to the DHS curriculum. “I’m trusting that the community will continue to come up with cool things for the class to make,” he says with characteristic optimism. “Decorah is a bustling little town, with all sorts of potential projects.”

John’s investment in community building dates back much farther than his employment at Decorah High School though. In 1987, he joined with three other individuals to found Hometown Taxi, a community-minded transportation service. Since 1990, he and his wife, Teresa – a Spanish teacher at Waukon High School – have brought together folks through music as the popular Buck Hollow Band. “We play whatever it takes to get the crowd together out on the dance floor,” he says, noting that they have taken on more than 3,400 gigs over the past 27 years. “We’re a big part of people’s social lives, and we do not take that commitment lightly.”

John is clearly committed to his day job on the same level. He discovered this new passion and direction in midlife (age 40) while working as an electrician in Winneshiek County. After hearing that Northeast Iowa Community College (NICC) was starting an industrial technology education program, he signed up and became one of the program’s first graduates. A member of the school’s Alumni Hall of Fame, he has also completed carpentry and industrial electrician programs at NICC.

“I believe every human has a desire to build, that we are all builders in one way or another,” John says of his teaching philosophy. “And that’s why my goal is to prepare students to live and to serve in a world full of construction, not necessarily to become construction workers.”

Community Builders: Liz Rog & Brad Crawford

Liz Rog & Brad Crawford: DecorahNow.com

By Kristine Jepsen

“I think this started because I would get asked by someone on the street, or in the Co-op, if maybe there wasn’t some Norwegian dancing and music they could learn, or go listen to?’” says Decorah community champion Liz Rog, her hands flying to her temples, incredulous wonder spreading on her face. “And I thought, ‘How could these wonderful, engaged people live here for years and NOT know about Foot-Notes dances?’” (Local string band, Foot-Notes, plays traditional Scandinavian schottisches and other Scandinavian-American music for public dances year-round.)

“I realized that people just needed to know about the cool things going on around them in this wonderful place, and that no one should feel they have to be in the ‘in’ crowd to be invited to events. So, I became the messenger,” she says.

Now, it’s not hard to imagine Liz Rog as a networker, community catalyst, person who knows stuff. One look at her black daily planner, crammed with notes on bits of paper and filled to every margin, tells you that community and the facilitation of it are her life’s work.

At the time, in 2008, she was already emailing 100-odd supporters of historic East Side School, who were fighting to save it from demolition, ultimately unsuccessfully. Late one night, using wi-fi at Oneota Community Food Co-op (she still doesn’t have Internet at her rural home), she sent this group a list of everything she knew to be happening in town that week.

Thus began DecorahNow.com, an online listing of events (especially music), classes, and resources in Decorah and surrounding communities. Today, 800 users view the site daily and more than 200 buy/sell/want ads turn over in its classified section each month.

But in those early days, as residents of all ages were just beginning to use digital calendaring and communications daily, much of Decorah Now compilation happened by hand. “People would call me and leave messages, and I’d be sitting until 3 a.m. typing these notes into one massive list for a weekly e-mail,” Liz says. “Every week I would swear off it. And every day someone would tell me about something they had attended or discovered because of it, and I didn’t want to disappoint them.”

Eventually, she started color-coding sections and highlighting new items, in an attempt to make the email more readable. Her earnestness caught the attention of Decorah native Brad Crawford, who was working in California at the time.

“I got an email from Brad with a QuickTime video tutorial attached,” Liz explains. “And after I got QuickTime installed so I could view it, I realized an angel had been sent to save me.”

The clip demonstrated a Ruby on Rails database Brad had built that automated much of the formatting and allowed readers to subscribe and contribute their own news items. And so began their partnership in problem-solving for the public good. The two meet regularly, often in Java John’s coffee house, now that Brad has moved back to Decorah and works with Northeast Iowa Resource Conservation & Development.

They knew they were on to something when amazing things started coming through, Liz explains. “At one point, a parent posted about their child dropping $5 of hard-earned money on her walk home. Within a day, someone had found and returned it.”

And some listings say ‘small town’ in a big way, Brad adds with a chuckle. “One person posted that they were headed out of town for the weekend and that others were welcome to the two bananas, a kiwifruit and an apple in their fridge.”

In 2016 Liz and Brad began migrating the site to WordPress, an industry-leading website platform where new features are contributed by developers around the world. DecorahNow.com, for its part, continues to be free to use and accepts donations to offset the time it takes to answer reader questions, debug site features, and catch new scams that crop up in the classifieds section.

“It’s really a big experiment in seeing what the community needs and using technology to get it out there,” Brad says. And, thanks to the Internet, word has spread. New residents credit the vibrant diversity showcased in DecorahNow.com as one reason they decided to move. And Liz and Brad have still bigger dreams for the future, such as building a Skills School Network for practical arts and developing a sharing economy to help out elderly or other citizens who need a hand.

“I wanted to shine a light on the people here and foster appreciation for what we have together – and make it plain that anyone can fit in by offering what they have to offer,” Liz concludes. “And it has done exactly that.”