Monday, May 21, 2018

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Civic Skinny

Kirk Blunck estate pays off defaulted debt to city. Ireland honors snubbed Cullen. A history lesson.

5/2/2018

The estate of Kirk Blunck has paid off two long-delinquent loans the city provided to help Blunck rehabilitate two buildings in the East Village. That leaves just one claim remaining against the estate of the architect and developer who died under puzzling circumstances in one of his buildings on a Sunday afternoon of January 2016, leaving a trail of claims and lawsuits and messy finances and assorted rumors.

With the encouragement of the city, Blunck was a pioneer developer of the East Village, seeing its potential long before other developers did. In 1999, the city lent him $700,000 at very favorable terms to help him rehabilitate the Teachout Building at 500 E. Locust and the Hohberger Building at 504 E. Locust. The loans were subordinate to mortgages at Iowa State Bank and were not personally guaranteed by Blunck, and the city declared both in default in April of 2010. The amount grew as interest mounted.

The estate lawyers renegotiated the deal, providing some security and getting a lower interest rate in return for a promise to pay off by the end of 2017. Filings in the Polk County Recorder’s office show they met the deadline. The city says the final payment was for $920,276.85 and was made on Dec. 1. The debts were released that day.

Blunck’s death at age 62 remains a mystery. Friends and the police believe he fell or was shoved to his death in a stairwell of the Teachout Building, perhaps after confronting a young couple who appeared to be casing the place. The Polk County coroner said the death was caused by “multiple blunt force trauma, manner undetermined.”

The family believes he was murdered by Zachary Allen Gaskill, a convicted would-be burglar who was on probation at the time. (And who has been in and out of jail since for violating his probation.) The police questioned Gaskill, but no charges were brought. Not satisfied with the lack of charges, the family sued Gaskill for wrongful death, seeking $6,250,000 in damages. Gaskill, now 27 years old, never answered the charges and never showed up in court, so Judge Samantha Gronewald entered a default judgment for the entire amount. Unless Gaskill wins the lottery, the Bluncks’ chances of recovery are nonexistent.

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The city’s claim against Blunck was just part of an outpouring of claims and lawsuits against the estate from vendors, associates, banks, credit-card companies and his own lawyers, totaling millions of dollars. The only remaining claim is from the Jeffrey Tyler family, who hired Blunck to be general contractor and architect for work on their home at 2814 Forest Drive in Des Moines. The Tylers say they paid Blunck more than $625,000, and they say he botched the job. In June of 2016, they sued the estate for “not less than $250,000.”

A trial is set for Aug. 13 in Polk County District Court.

People in the real-estate industry say the Bluncks received some offers for their East Village buildings, but they say that the family is keeping the properties for now and that one of Blunck’s daughters, Kaitlin, is overseeing them. …

Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi has left the Senate because of ill health, and Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah has decided not to run for re-election. That means that come January Chuck Grassley will be the ranking Republican in the Senate. That’s a powerful post, and if the Republicans maintain control after the November elections, Grassley will in all likelihood be named president pro tempore of the Senate, which in recent history has gone to the ranking member of the majority party. And that means he’d be third in line for the Presidency — right after the vice president and the Speaker of the House.

The only Iowan to be president pro tem was Albert Cummins, a Republican who held the post from 1919 to March 6, 1925. Cummins was born in Pennsylvania, moved around a bit and ended up practicing law in Des Moines in 1878. (Thus, Cummins Parkway.) There was much political fighting in the Iowa Republican Party of that era, and Cummins’ faction — the so-called Insurgent Faction — ended up in control.

Cummins was elected governor of Iowa in 1901 and served three two-year terms. He argued for more regulation and more taxation of the railroads — which had immense power — and for more regulation of industry in general. Today, with his belief in prison reform and arguments against child labor and for pure-food laws, he would be a Democrat.

In 1908, the Iowa Legislature appointed him to the U.S. Senate following the death of another political giant, William Allison (thus Allison, Iowa, the county seat of Butler County). He was elected in 1909, 1914 and 1920. He was immensely powerful. Iowans supported him for president in 1912, when he ended up backing Theodore Roosevelt’s third-party effort, and he sought the presidency again in 1916, finishing fifth among 12 men seeking the Republican nomination at the party convention.

For two years, from 1923 until 1925, he was in effect the acting vice president after Calvin Coolidge ascended to the presidency upon the death of Cummins’ friend Warren Harding. (In those days, the Senate President Pro Tem was second in line to the presidency, ahead of the Speaker of the House, and a vacancy in the vice-presidency wasn’t filled until the next general election.)

Cummins died in office on July of 1926, not long after he had been defeated in a Republican primary by Smith Brookhart. …

In January, Grassley will be the second-ranking Senator, behind only Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont. Leahy took his seat in January of 1975, Grassley in January of 1981. Grassley is currently the 14th longest-serving Senator in U.S. history, and if he serves the remaining four years of his term he will be the ninth longest. …

And the (dead)beat goes on: The Iowa Department of Human Services has notified Marty Tirrell that he owes $14,462 in back child support. …

If at first… A guy took the Iowa bar exam in February for the sixth time. And passed. But the two folks taking it for the fifth time and the person trying for the fourth time all failed again. So next time you hire a lawyer, you might want to ask how many times he, or she, took the bar. …

A 14-room house at 321 37th St. in Des Moines just sold for $1.1 million, matching the highest price for a single-family home sale in Des Moines in nearly four years. The stucco house, which sits on one acre and was built in 1910, was purchased by the Macfee Family Trust from Michael Reynal. Polk County records indicate Reynal bought the house in 2006 for $660,000. It is assessed at $712,400. …

Kristian Day, who writes the Couch Surfing column and other occasional pieces for CITYVIEW, produced a 3-minute horror film with a handful of Iowa crew members in one day while in Los Angeles. “Bath Bomb” was released on Friday, April 13 by CryptTV and can be seen at http://bit.ly/2qv2V74. Brace yourself. …

CITYVIEW joins those congratulating Andie Dominick of The Des Moines Register for winning this year’s Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. The award follows last year’s award to Storm Lake’s Art Cullen, keeping the prize in Iowa for a second year.

And, while we’re at it, shame on the Iowa Senate Republicans for refusing to bring to the floor a resolution honoring Cullen. But a politician in Ireland, hearing of the snub, has seen to it that Ireland will honor the Storm Lake editor and his Irish family. “Although his own state will not recognize him,” the Irish legislator says, “an entire nation does, and they are of our nation.”

(The Iowa Legislature has found time, though, to honor the Graceland basketball team, University of Iowa wrestler Spencer Lee, Iowa Women’s History Month, retiring Senate employee Theresa Kehoe, National Boy Scout Day, Tim O’Connell (“a native of Zwingle, Iowa…and the first Iowan to win the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Bareback Riding World Championship”), the 175th anniversary of Iowa Wesleyan University, Canada Day, University of Iowa wrestler Cory Clark, the Drake women’s basketball team, the Grand View University wrestling team, the Iowa Pork Congress — a resolution introduced by Representatives Fry, Moore and Bacon — National Speech and Debate Education Day, the 50th anniversary of the Illowa Council of the Boy Scouts, the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives, Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month, Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disease Awareness Month, the Hoover Uncommon Public Service Award winner, John Wayne Day and the Southwestern Community College men’s basketball team. Among others.)

The House of Representatives also has passed a resolution this session coming out foursquare for the incandescent light bulb. …

And CITYVIEW notes with particular sadness the death of Donna Red Wing, a fighter for equality and civility and peace, an advocate for gays and lesbians and transgender people, and a protector of the poor and the abused and the downtrodden. She was 67 when she died of lung cancer on April 17. ♦

Dan Miller

Michael Gartner was one of the speakers at the memorial service for Dan Miller on April 7. Here are his remarks.

A year or so ago, when Dan could still mouth words and whisper a bit, he asked me, haltingly, if I would speak at his funeral.

I said I wanted to think about it.

His eyebrows kind of arched, like “C’mon, it’s my funeral, for God’s sake. Don’t screw with me.”

“I will,” I told him, “if I can think of anything good to say about you.”

“And right now,” I said, “I can’t.”

He laughed — God knows how, but he could laugh or smile, in a way, until almost the day he died — but the truth is this:

You could rack your brain and not think of anything bad to say about Dan Miller.

You could take a poll and not find anyone who could find a flaw with Dan Miller.

You could offer a prize and still not find anyone who didn’t like Dan Miller.

He was a lovely man.

He was smart…and funny…and quick…and caring. He could tease…and be teased. He was great fun to be with. And he was ever-so creative with the language.

But besides being all that — and being a great husband to Diane, and a proud father of Maya, and a true friend to all of us — there is this:

He held this state together.

I don’t think most people realize that.

Dan ran Iowa Public Television at a time when the state was fragmenting: The state-wide newspaper was pulling back, the one-issue voices were multiplying. More and more people were screaming, fewer and fewer people were listening. Discussion had turned into cacophony, debate into confrontation. And more and more things were happening — good things and bad things — that none of us knew about.

He realized he ran about the only remaining institution that could hold us together as Iowans — that could give us all a set of facts and a sense of purpose. That could inform us and inspire us.

He set out to ensure that Iowa Public Television would rise to the moment — and he succeeded. He re-imagined it — as a network with many channels, one for news, one for kids, and the like. He figured out the programming, he figured out the technology, he figured out the money, and he figured out the politics.

Then he did it. Single-mindedly, and almost single-handedly.

He found the funds — yet preserved the independence to investigate and report.

He amplified Iowa’s voices in the hopes of provoking thought, encouraging dissent and fostering consensus.

And all the while, he enshrined variety and entertainment as part of the public television mix.

And he made it look easy. I submit that no one else could have done that. No one had the news judgment, the technological knowledge and the political instincts that he put together for the people of Iowa. He almost always got what he wanted from a Legislature that rarely gave anyone what he, or she, wanted.

His logic was so sound and his vision was so clear — and his manner so low-key, his charm so irresistible, his persistence so unshakeable, his smile so genuine — that no one ever said no. He was also very stubborn.

So we, and our children, and our grandchildren are in his debt.

The disease that struck Dan those many years ago is an especially cruel and unforgiving one. It robbed him of his ability to walk, and then to talk. But while it stole from him his body, it let him keep his brain — that wonderful brain that ensured the state would always be informed and his friends would always be amused.

For that, I am eternally thankful.

Dan might have made us cry these past few years. But he also made us smile.

I’d like to say two other things:

First, two of the bravest people I’ve met in recent years are Dan Miller and Diane Graham.

Not necessarily in that order.

Second, Mayo Clinic wanted Dan’s brain. Of course, so did I.

But I would have settled for the hair. ♦

— Michael Gartner

4 Comments

  1. Michael, Chuck Grassley didn’t become a U. S. Senator until January, 1981.

  2. Longtime bluesman, Bob Dorr, was also honored by the Iowa Legislature.

  3. Michael, I love the remarks you made at Dan Miller’s funeral. Dan was a true Iowa treasure….he enriched this state, its citizens and our quality of life. He is one of those rare breeds that only come along once in a lifetime. I also appreciate your perspective and humor….especially the hair!

  4. Mari Jo Corley
    May 16, 2018 10:03 am

    Michael Gartner must have learned how to write about “truth” from Murdock. Unethical to print lies without verifying the facts. If it is a matter of public record, do your job before you print your pathetic Des Moines’ version of The National Enquirer.

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