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Political Mercury

The Considerable Substance of Art Neu’s Voice

1/21/2015

(The following is the text of the eulogy delivered by Douglas Burns for Art Neu at memorial services for the late Carroll mayor and lieutenant governor on Saturday at the Carroll Recreation Center.)

 

I’ll just come right out with it. Art Neu and I were in prison together.

I’ll let that hang there for you to absorb. We were in prison.

And not just one prison or some easy federal hideaway.

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Nine of them. All of the prisons in Iowa, in fact.

Now, of course, we weren’t inmates. Art served as vice chairman of the Iowa Board of Corrections, which oversees prisons. I had the privilege, as a friend and reporter, of driving across the state with Art — from Fort Madison to Fort Dodge to Clarinda to Mitchellville to Anamosa.

I’d always known of Art Neu.

My grandfather, James W. Wilson, and Art’s father, Arthur N. Neu, were friends who worked closely in Carroll as a newspaper publisher and mayor, from the Great Depression to 1960.

They were passionate conservatives who loved Carroll as much as they detested President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

They thought the only thing Carroll got out of the New Deal was a fence around the cemetery.

Art’s daughter Mara and I were in the same fifth-grade class in 1979 (remember Miss Olson, Mara?)

I recall visiting the State Capitol on a field trip, and seeing Mr. Neu, the lieutenant governor of Iowa.

Eric, Towle and I all went to Northwestern University, Art and Charles’s alma mater, too.

The connections are deep. Meaningful.

But as a teenager and young man, I didn’t know Art that well.

I figured he was aloof, imperious, not the kind of guy who’d spend a lot of time — or give much thought — to the work of a 27-year-old fresh in town and ready to write at his family’s newspaper.

Soon, though, I found myself at regular lunches in the late 1990s with Art, who became my mentor, and despite the generational divide of 40 years, one of my closest friends.

In prison, walking among the 8,000 or so inmates in Iowa, I witnessed Art Neu’s heart.

You see, Art Neu believed you don’t discard people like spent pop cans.

Art believed in rehabilitation. Second chances. The resilience of men and women.

And he was fearless to the point of, well, scaring the hell out of me in the prisons. He had this habit of wandering off the official tour route in the prisons.

One minute he’d be talking to guards in the kitchen. Most prison riots, Art would tell me, started because of bad food. He understood the guards, their needs. The guards treated Art, like well, a governor. There was that much respect.

At Anamosa, where one turns left at the Casey’s and runs right into the Gothic nightmare of a maximum-security prison built in the late 19th century, Art would stroll to a table of hardened inmates in the prison yard like he was at the Rotary Club or the old American Legion swimming pool or a Chamber coffee.

Here’s kind of how the conversation would go with the prison inmates:

Art Neu: “How you doing, guys?”

Prison lifer covered with tattoos: “Well, I’m in prison.”

Art: “Guess that’s true. What are you reading these days? The library here any good?  I think the selection of books could be better.”

And then we were off to an ad hoc book club with Art Neu as the earnest leader, giving these inmates something they don’t often get: a few moments to feel human.

Driving back from the prison in Rockwell City a few years ago, I observed to Art, right around Lohrville, that if he were governor, and I was his press secretary, I’d advise him against ever commuting a sentence of a prison inmate. Ever. For any reason.

“Art, you do that, and you own their lives. You own all their future mistakes,” I said. “Your signature on the wrong man’s commutation could mean the end of your career, or at the very least, derail other parts of your agenda.”

Art looked at me for a moment, clearly disgusted, and said: “Doug, if you gave me that advice, I’d tell you, thanks, but go screw yourself. Sometimes you have to do what’s right. Some of these guys just shouldn’t be in prison, Doug. It’s wrong. And you know it. Governors have to lead and take the consequences. Forget the politics. It’s not that big of a deal to lose an election. Trust me, I know.”

We didn’t talk for a while as we headed west on that drive. Which was rare.

I think Art felt bad about coming down on me so hard. Around Lake City, Art said, “You know, Doug, you’d be doing your job if you gave me that advice. I just wouldn’t take it.”

Then we stopped for pizza.

While we shared an interest in corrections, Art and I talked a great deal about politics, and spent even more time talking about Carroll.

What irritated Art as much as anything were politicians who invoked God in their campaigns, especially those who would go so far as to suggest that they speak with God, that God wants them to run for office.

This, obviously, was an invitation for me to have great fun with Art. Art used that term a lot — “great fun”  — things like having lunch with interesting people or going to presidential-candidate speeches or presiding over meetings or reading good books were “great fun,” Art would say.

One day, in his office, I told Art that, “Well, Art, I think Rick Santorum and Steve King are going to heaven. They are really persuasive. I’m sold, Art. I just think they are going to heaven.”

Art crossed his arms, gazed down, thought quietly for a moment about my next-worldly prediction of King and Santorum joy-riding on heaven’s clouds, and responded, “Poor God.”

You know, it’s fitting that we are here today, in the Rec Center. Art Neu lost a mayor’s race in this room back in the 1980s with his support of Des Moines Area Community College’s arrival.

DMACC wanted their spot. Right where DMACC is today. If they didn’t get that spot, and just that spot, they were headed to Atlantic or Harlan or Denison or somewhere else.

The Little League fields would have to go north, and that would mean, according to the twisted logic of petty revenge that prevailed at the time, that Art would be defeated as mayor — defeated for doing what history shows us is so very right for Carroll.

Sometimes, you just have to lead. Damn the torpedoes. Damn the moment, and yes, sometimes, damn the voters.

Not re-electing Art Neu as mayor is the greatest collective mistake this city ever made. People all over Iowa will tell you that, too.

In preparing our final stories on Art, we noticed something at the newspaper. In so many photos, at so many events, Art is there. Only not in the forefront. Here was Carroll’s most-prominent citizen in the background. Supporting other people, their ideas.

What Carroll has lost and so desperately needs to find again, Art would tell me, is this ability for people to support other people’s ideas.

Finally, as I say goodbye to our dear friend Arthur Neu, I recall not just the considerable substance of his voice, but its distinctive tone and texture — a little raspy, ever rascally, sometimes a bit too excited, or over-exuberant, and, always, always, projecting love for his family, his friends and our beautiful city. CV

 

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who resides in Carroll. He and his family own and publish newspapers in Carroll, Jefferson and other neighboring communities.

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