[tabs style=”default”] [tab title=”Book Excerpt”]The Wider World

The following is an excerpt from “The Real Deal: The Life of Bill Knapp” by William B. Friedricks, a professor of history at Simpson College and director of the Iowa History Center. The book was recently published by Business Publications Corp. Inc.

Bill understood that business was based on connections, and knowing the right people often created opportunities or greased the skids for making deals. This understanding originally led him into politics, and over the years, he developed relationships with local officials. Such activity did not always guarantee he got what he wanted, but it did grant him access and allowed him to “get an ear” with almost any local official. More often than not, his work with city officials, school board members, planning and zoning commissioners, and the like moved his projects forward. Of course, it was this interest in politics and his penchant for the Democratic Party that led him to become acquainted with gubernatorial candidate Harold Hughes in 1962. A truck driver who had overcome alcoholism, Hughes had gone on to head a trucking association and was elected to the Iowa Commerce Commission in 1958. From this job, Hughes launched his run for governor. Bill liked the charismatic politician immediately and became a major supporter. Out of this working relationship, a warm and close friendship developed.

For Hughes, Bill became a key fundraiser over his next few campaigns, but maybe more importantly, he became a confidant of the governor’s, one of the few people with whom Hughes said he could “let his hair down.” The two spent quite a bit of time together, occasionally hunting and fishing, pastimes enjoyed by the governor but only tolerated by the businessman. Bill said, “I remember sitting in duck blinds by the hours, freezing to death, while he [Hughes] loved every minute of it.” When Hughes needed to get away to think or just relax, Bill made his Sugar Creek retreat west of Des Moines available to the governor.

For Bill, Hughes opened his eyes to the wider world, pointing out inequities in society and encouraging him to help the less fortunate. Over the years the Allerton native had had little contact with minority groups such as African Americans, but two experiences early in life had left an impression. When Bill’s father had taken the family to Florida in the late 1930s, the children encountered the harsh reality of Jim Crow racism for the first time. While in Miami, Bill’s mother and father operated a small restaurant. Local law and convention at the time dictated that African Americans could not enter the café; if they wanted food, they could only place and pick up an order at the back door. Although Bill did not completely understand the situation, the injustice did not seem right and stuck with him. Several years later in the Navy, he again saw African Americans treated differently than whites: They were allowed only the lowliest of jobs aboard ship. Again, he was struck by the unfairness of the system.

Once in the real estate business, Bill saw residential segregation in Des Moines, based on both deed restrictions and economic realities: Most of the area’s African American population lived in the older and poorer sections of the city. But he was a salesman trying to make a living and build a business, and he focused on selling homes within the current system. As Hughes became better acquainted with Bill, he saw compassion beneath the aggressive, business exterior. He tapped into this by taking the real estate man to see the most blighted areas of Des Moines and introducing him to those in greatest need. Bill acknowledged Hughes’s role: “Harold broadened my outlook. He made me more focused. He helped me in caring more for people who don’t have much because early in his governorship we worked with the inner city. … Harold got me interested in that arena.”

As part of this effort, Hughes appointed Bill, John Grubb, and several others in the real estate and construction industries to a state committee on low-income housing. By 1967, there was a serious push to build such housing as part of an urban renewal project sponsored by the Des Moines Area Council of Churches in the city’s Oakridge neighborhood, northwest of downtown. The plan faced several stumbling blocks, however, one of which was that the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was dragging its feet in providing low-interest loans necessary for construction to begin. That fall, Hughes led a delegation that included Bill, Grubb, Les Calvert, Eldon Woltz, and Dick Bryan of Des Moines Savings and Loan on a two-day trip to Washington, D.C., to address the issues of urban renewal in Iowa and break the logjam for FHA funding. The group had a roundtable discussion with Housing and Urban development (HUD) officials and lunch with its undersecretary Robert Wood, but the highlight of the stay was the ten-minute private meeting scheduled with President Lyndon Johnson, which turned into a memorable forty-five-minute conversation with the president.

The trip was successful, and the group won assurances that the FHA would ensure the necessary loans for the Oakridge development. The initial housing units of the Homes of Oakridge, which was the city’s first and largest low-income housing project, were opened in 1969, and a second, bigger complex was built the following year. This would be the small beginning of Bill’s interest in downtown Des Moines and in helping the less fortunate, which would blossom over the next few decades.[/tab] [tab title=”Art”]showcase

Untitled (2012) by Des Moines artist Rick Van Oel, silver and aluminum leaf and tar on board, 48 x 72 inches.
Find more images of Van Oel’s works on Facebook at “Rick Van Oel – Artist.”[/tab] [/tabs]

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