Lessons on Life, In My Own Words
One For All
By Frank Cownie as told to Christine Riccelli
Last December, Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie narrowly won an unprecedented fifth term, beating challenger Jack Hatch by 289 votes in a runoff election. First elected to the City Council in 2002 and now the longest-serving mayor in the city’s history, the 72-year-old Cownie has earned national recognition for his sustainability and conservation initiatives and has served in leadership roles on a number of national committees and boards, including the International Council for Local Environmental Issues, Mayors for Peace, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Task Force on Hunger and Homelessness. The Des Moines native also owns Cownie Furs, which has been in his family for more than 100 years. He and his partner, Christine Manbeck, live in the Ingersoll Park neighborhood; Cownie has four children and seven grandchildren. In an interview condensed for publication, Cownie reflects on everything from the brother he never knew to the election he almost lost.
Focus on Service
My Scottish ancestors settled in Hancock County in the 1860s, and in the 1880s my grandfather and his brother left the farm and moved to Des Moines. In 1888 they started a business and in about 1905 they split it. My grandfather’s part of the operation eventually became Cownie Furs. My grandfather died in 1928, and my dad, who was going to Harvard at the time, came home to take over the business.
My oldest brother and sister were born in ’30 and ’31, then my other brother was born in 1940 and I was born in ’48, so it’s almost like my parents had three families. At age 19, my oldest brother, Chuck, was killed in a car accident on Christmas Eve. I was only a year old at that time and don’t remember him, but when I was young, I never understood why Christmas Eve was more like a séance than a celebration. I used to think, “Why are we burning candles underneath my brother’s picture?” My parents never talked about it; the only thing my mom ever said was, “Our children are supposed to bury us, not the other way around.”
My parents strongly believed in community service. My dad believed that when you have a business, it’s your duty to give back to the community and to try to improve it. He believed we were all in it together—and that if you improve your community it would help expand employment and opportunities for all and ultimately improve business. My parents emphasized volunteering beyond your day-to-day business, whether it’s for your church, United Way, the YMCA or whatever.
Consider Unexpected Opportunities
I graduated from Roosevelt High School, then went to Iowa State on a swimming scholarship. The Vietnam conflict was going on then; every day, you’d watch TV and see those body bags coming back home. I couldn’t understand why we were sending Americans over to die, but I still wanted to serve. I got into the Iowa Army National Guard, and in 1968 I went on active duty and served for about a year at Fort Gordon, Georgia.
After serving, I spent a semester at Drake and then returned to Iowa State. In my senior year, my dad called and said he wanted to come up to Ames and take me to lunch. We go to a greasy spoon, we’re talking about everything under the sun, and then he asks, “What are you going to do with your life?” I tell him that I think I’d like to go to law school. And he turns about as red as the chairs we’re sitting in, leans over, grabs onto the edge of the table and says, “We’re businesspeople; we hire lawyers, we don’t become them.” Fast-forward all these years, and my two oldest children, Katie and Charlie, are both lawyers!
At any rate, he then said, “Why don’t you come back to Des Moines and let’s see whether you like working in our business.” At the time, my brother Bill was working in the business and I said, “I love my brother, but there’s no way that I’m going to be able to work with him.” Then my dad told me that Bill was leaving to take a job in Nebraska. He said, “You can decide if you like the business and if this could be a career for you.”
I said, “OK, I’ll try it and see how it goes.” I came back to Des Moines … and I’m still trying it to see how it goes!
Walk in Others’ Shoes
Now I’m at an age— about the same age my dad was when he and I had that conversation—to see whether any of my offspring want to be involved in our business. My oldest son and daughter are lawyers. My youngest son, Frankie, has ADHD and suffers from a depressive disorder. He lives in a group home and has trouble getting from Tuesday to Wednesday, let alone being able to think about running a business.
Parenting a child with mental health challenges certainly gives you a much broader and deeper perspective. It’s not like you can say, “Oh, take two aspirins and everything is going to be fine.” So this issue is important to me not only because it’s important for the community but because of my personal experience.
We’re trying to figure out how to set up a Youth Emergency Mental Health Response Team to hopefully quell some of the disruptive activity that’s been taking place in our schools. Some people say we need more police officers in the schools, but I don’t think a kid who’s in trauma and acting out will have their life enhanced by a yet another traumatic experience, facing someone who’s carrying a Taser and handcuffs.
Law enforcement isn’t who should be taking care of kids’ mental health issues. As a community, we need to work together and involve all providers—whether they’re hospitals or organizations like NAMI or Optimae—as well as parents and educators to figure out how to support the school district so it can deal with these issues and promote strong mental health.
An awful lot of people who are homeless suffer from mental health issues. Often, addictions or traumatic life experiences have made them end up on the street. I’m always astounded when I hear people say, “Well, those free meals that are being given away—those people ought to just get a job.” And I think, “Have you ever spent
even five minutes with a homeless person?” You’re never going to hear the same story.
You can’t just expect people without any kind of support to permanently improve their situation.
As mayor, I’ve discovered that if there aren’t services in place to help and follow up with them, like making sure their medication is refilled and that they’re getting proper counseling, they end up getting picked up by the police or an ambulance and taken to a hospital or jail. We need to focus on providing the right services so at some point they can get back on their feet and begin to become productive members of society.
Channel Anger Into Action
For a while in the 1970s, I became a concert promoter—John Denver, Mason Proffit, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, Peter Frampton. We also did the concert promotions for the Des Moines Grand Prix when it was here [1989-1994]. I thought it was pretty cool, and it motivated me to get more involved with the city.
I joined the board of the then Des Moines Convention Center and when I got off of that board in about 1995, I was appointed to the Planning and Zoning Commission. I became chair and decided that we ought to write a new comprehensive plan; it was a vision for 2020. One hadn’t been written since 1965, and we were functioning off of a set of zoning ordinances that were almost 35 years old.
All 15 members of the Commission were engaged to look at everything from streets to sewers to zoning and neighborhoods. We reached out to the broader community, holding neighborhood meetings to get input. We worked on it for over two years. I took it to the then city manager, as we were going to have to rely on the city staff to follow through on the recommendations. He looked at it and said, “There’s no way this is going to pass. I’ve got seven [City Council] votes against it.” And
I said, “What? Why?” And he said, “Because it involves too much citizen input.” And I said, “You don’t want to listen to the people you serve? What are you talking about?”
The community development director thought we’d have to start over and develop an entirely new plan. I said, “No, I’m going to take it to the neighborhoods.” So, we proceeded to have about 30 meetings all over town. I took people from the planning department, a police officer and a public works guy to the meetings as well.
It ended up that all seven City Council members voted for it. But then the city manager laid off half the community development department that would’ve seen to its implementation. We had done all that work and gotten all that input on how to move the city forward and the plan ended up on a shelf.
I was angry enough that I wanted to change what was going on. I was like that guy in the movie “Network” who said, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.” So I decided that I would resign from the Commission and run for a City Council at-large seat. Somehow or another, I got elected in 2002 in a very contentious race—almost as contentious as last year’s race.
In Iowa, you don’t really lose your opportunity to participate in any aspect of business because you’re in elected office. But I have always tried to be very careful and make sure that I avoid any perception of conflict of interest.
For example, I want it to be clear that even though my cousin [developer Jim Cownie]—we shared a great-grandfather—has done development in Des Moines, I’ve never been involved in any of his business deals. I don’t even want there to be that perception; because we share a last name,
I recently abstained from a couple of votes that involved his company.
Listen and Connect
When I was growing up, my parents drilled into me the importance of openness and honesty. They were very good to all their employees, and they always had the attitude that you should listen to the customer, that the customer is always right and that you build relationships over a long period of time.
My dad taught me that the purpose of being in business is to find out what the customers’ needs are and to serve them and to stand behind our products. That’s the approach I take as mayor too. Sometimes folks have unreasonable expectations, but whether their sewer needs to be fixed or something else is going on, I always go back to that training I got from my dad on satisfaction, always.
I take my cellphone everywhere and answer the call right there. Rather than taking their name and number so someone else can return their call, I like to connect them right then, while I’m on the phone, and have a three-way conversation. I think it’s important to take care of those calls as expeditiously as possible and to be open and honest.
Focus on the “We”
We’ve been working on the new PlanDSM Comprehensive Plan for several years. We’ve looked at who we are today and what we’d like to be in 30 to 40 years—where will people live and work, what are the corridors that connect people to places, what will transportation look like. Out of the comprehensive plan came LiveDSM [parks and recreation], InvestDSM [neighborhood revitalization] and Move DSM [transportation]. We’re putting $300 million into repairing and replacing streets and $145 million into working on our flood protection, sewers and levies, among other investments.
I wanted to run for mayor again because I felt like it was my responsibility to make sure that we deliver on that plan. And I didn’t like the thought of handing it off to people who haven’t been to neighborhood meetings or haven’t contributed to the process. I go to hundreds of meetings all across town every year; wherever people have a voice and want us to participate, I try to be there.
When I was first elected, I quickly discovered that the mayor’s seat is not a dictatorial one. You have to build relationships, build trust, collaborate and give others the credit. I’ve defined my job more as a convener. One of the lessons I learned early on was that the job is not about me; it’s about leading the way and everyone working together. That’s the only way to move the city forward. When people feel they’re part of the process, that’s when we make progress.
Planning is a dynamic process. We have to be thoughtful. We have to adjust to new circumstances to meet the needs of citizens and to continue to make Des Moines that No. 1 place to raise a family, get a job, start a business and even retire.
Never Give Up
When my daughter, Suzanne, was in high school, she made a little pin for me that says “never give up.” I still have it up on my refrigerator. That’s what we did in this most recent race, even though there were a lot of false claims and negative advertising. We dug in and we didn’t give up.