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.”

Read the Fall 2017 Inspire(d) Online!

Here’s what’s happening in the Fall 2017 Inspire(d) – our 10 YEAR ANNIVERSARY ISSUE!!!

10 Years of Inspire(d)! 10 Community Builders from Across the Driftless, Sum of Your Biz: Empty Nest Winery, Infographic: 10 Truths We’ve Learned, Chicago Train Trip, Unicorn Presents! Fun Fall Events, Cool New Driftless Places, & More!
Read the whole thing online here!

A note from Aryn:

Roxie and I were reading the Disney book, Pocahontas, recently. It’s not one I love (I’m not sure when it even made it to our shelves)…but it did spark a good conversation. We were discussing what happened to Native Americans when settlers came to this “brave, new world,” and how they’re treated still today. We talked about how people from different parts of the world might look a little different from each other – different sizes, shapes, and definitely colors – but we’re all the same on the inside. And Roxie – who just turned five – says, “Mom, wouldn’t it be SO COOL if there were pink and purple people?!” I smiled, “Why, yes, Roxie. It would be so cool. And isn’t it so cool that the people and colors we do have are all different from each other anyway? It makes the world so much more beautiful, I think.” “Yeah, totally, Mom,” she says.

More colors, more variety, more beauty – we humans all come together to make this amazing, diverse work of art.  And we’re all connected through a community called humanness.

This is our 10-year anniversary of Inspire(d) Magazine. We dubbed it an “experiment in positive news” when we first started out, so I decided to think on what that experiment has taught us. I compiled a list of truths that have risen to the top of my list – check out the infographic on page 25 – but the clearest lesson of all is that community is the most important thing we can build in this life. Big or small, these communities and connections are what we’ll remember at the end of our lives.

So this milestone Inspire(d) is all about community-builders. Our region is filled with them, but we narrowed it down to 10 amazing groups or people: Liz Rog and Brad Crawford, John Condon, Lissa Carlson, Patrick ‘Red’ Longmire, Mike Ashbacher, Roxanne Schnitzler and Jessica Rediske, Shannon Dallenbach Durbin, Lora Friest, Adam Wiltgen, and Greg Wennes.

Wow, am I excited for you to read these stories this fall. I was inspired by every single one of them. They start on page 29.

These are some crazy times we’re living in, but there are some crazy exciting things happening too. There are great events and activities to check out all over this fall (pg. 56) and lots of local friends taking the leap to launch new ventures (pg. 14). We are so excited! Veteran business-owners Dave and Pam Kruger of Empty Nest Winery have some good tips for new business-owners in this issue’s Sum of Your Business. They are a husband-and-wife duo that this husband-and-wife duo truly admire!

And we couldn’t have a magazine birthday without unicorn presents, amIright?!? Check out the paper project on page 28, and the full tutorial right here on iloveinspired.com (coming soon!).

Finally, we got out for a little Family Reseach Adventure: We took Amtrak from La Crosse to Chicago! Hop aboard and check out our itinerary to get some ideas for your next train trip!

I am so grateful to you all for reading this magazine for the past 10 years. (C’mon, stop crying, Aryn!) The fact that I’m 36 years old and have been running a business for 10 years makes me feel proud as hell, and surer than ever that we really CAN do this. We can change the world. It’s so easy to feel completely helpless about things when we read the daily news. “What can I possibly do?!?” we ask ourselves. Talk to your neighbors. Make friends. Build community. Start to understand each other a little more every day. This is what you can do.

People often ask me if I will ever run out of ideas for Inspire(d) and my answer is always, “Definitely not!” It’s because of you– you continue to inspire me, and you inspire the people around you. Keep it up, you guys. It’s working.

Looking forward,

Aryn Henning Nichols

Read the whole thing online here!

Sum of Your Business: Empty Nest Winery

Empty Nest Winery was born out of  – you guessed it – an empty nest.

Once Pam and Dave Kruger’s kids flew the coop, the couple took a leap of faith into their next phase of life: Business ownership. They looked at shifting their milking operation away from cows and into wine, and never slowed down for a second – except to maybe enjoy a glass of wine!

When meeting Pam and Dave, it’s clear they are tireless and passionate about their work and products. From the first tasting room added on to their old farmhouse, to the thoughtfully decorated interior of the new tasting and event space that now houses Empty Nest Winery’s main operations, their century farm has been put to grand use.

That winery building, built on the Krueger’s property in 2015, has been busy pretty much the minute the doors opened to the public. Part of the success? Tireless hours poured into making sure that each event – small or huge – is a big success in the guests’ eyes. Making tasty products like distinct fruit wines and ever-changing house-made ciders is no small deal, but Empty Nest’s attention to every detail creates not only the foundation of the business, but a literal sparkle to this destination winery.

www.emptynestwinery.com

Name(s): Dave & Pam Kruger
Age(s): 50s!
Business: Empty Nest Winery
Years in Business: Started building in 2010, opened in 2011, built new winery building in 2015

1. Tell us about the “leap” moment. When/how did you decide to jump in and become your own boss?

Both Dave and I grew up on dairy farms – this is Dave’s home farm that his family has owned and where they lived for about 100 years. When we were married, I moved here to the farm and together we milked Registered Brown Swiss cows and farmed for years. We have both also worked off the farm during those years, but for us the “leap” was starting a new winery business from scratch after all our kids graduated and moved out. Hence the “Empty Nest” name for the winery. A lot of people say that at that age of the “Empty Nest”, parents are starting to slow down and not work so hard, but that thought never crossed our minds.

Another huge “leap” was in February 2015, when we held our annual “Blind Wine Tasting” which is always the weekend after the Super Bowl. We had over 500 people come to our small tasting room and vote on their favorite wines. Even though we were both over 50 years old, we knew we had to build a bigger winery. With the help of our son, two neighbors and a local crane operator, we carefully took down our 100 year old barn, reclaimed all the beams, boards, corrugated steel and pretty much anything we could use in the new winery building. We designed the building using new technology like geothermal heating and cooling and spray foam insulation, while also incorporating those reclaimed materials. We made sure the building with a spacious tasting room, larger event room and warehouse/production area for wine. We found a general contractor who would run with those plans (working out the details) and broke ground in May of 2015 for a new building.

We moved in and held our Grand Opening Thanksgiving weekend 2015 with over 3,500 people coming to see and celebrate the new winery building. Since November 2015, we have hosted over 450 private parties and events either in our front Tasting Room or our spacious Event Room. There is something going on every weekend from Murder Mystery Dinner Theaters, to weddings, reunions, bachelorette parties, birthday and anniversary celebrations, graduation parties, wine and painting parties, baby and bridal showers, Christmas parties, vendor shows like our ‘Wining with the Arts’… we have pretty much hosted any kind of party here. People love the new building with its outside patio and relaxed fun atmosphere. Our latest addition is a stunning new gazebo a short walk from the winery, where you can sit and relax in a more private setting.

2. What’s the best thing about being your own boss?

Probably setting your own hours

3. How about the worst?

Probably setting your own hours… lol. We are both “workaholics” and have a goal to make every person’s event here the best it can possibly be, even if this means working through the night to achieve that.

4. Was there ever a hurdle where you just thought, “I can’t do this?” How did you overcome it?

Probably our first wedding here. There is so much that goes into a wedding at the winery that you have to get it perfect, that is why we only host six weddings a year. We host the whole wedding day from decorating the event room, to the perfect wedding picture backgrounds, then onto making the outside ceremony flawless, back inside catering the reception dinner and hearing those tear jerking speeches, seamlessly tearing down and flipping the room into the best wedding dance ever, all while everyone is enjoying a drink at the bar and having a great time. How did we overcome it?? We had some help from our kids, help from some great friends, we worked our tail off, and just trusted and believed we could do it!

5. Any mentors/role models you look to/have looked to?

It might sound crazy but our role models are each other. We both love working with each other, we make great partners in business each doing what we are good at. And make great partners in life. Our sum is much larger than each part.

6. What’s the one thing you wish you had known before you started?

All the behind the scenes work there is to both the making quality wine/winery business and the catering / venue business. Trying to keep everything inside and outside perfectly clean and beautiful for Empty Nest Winery to be a destination for many people to come, relax and enjoy!

7. How do you manage your life/work balance?

That is a constant struggle for us. Being “Empty Nesters” we don’t have kids at home to set mealtime or bedtime hours, or attending all those sporting and fine art events at school as in younger years. Those family hours of younger years are now more working hours. So our scales are too tipped on the working hours and not enough family hours right now. We are working towards more balance in our lives, so we can enjoy our four children and their growing families more.

8. What keeps you inspired? Any quotes that keep you going?

What keeps us inspired is two-fold.

First our kids keep us inspired. They are all successful in their own chosen professions and balance that with their family lives. We are so proud of each and every one of our children! When they come home, they are amazed at how the business has grown and jump right in and help. Every event we host also inspires us. For example, it is so inspiring to have a bride and groom find us at the end of their wedding day and say that it was the perfect wedding they had always dreamed of. Or the excitement of a mother-to-be at a baby shower. Or pulling off a surprise birthday party that really was a perfect surprise. Or having a winery guests that drove hundreds of miles to come here, write reviews on Facebook that they loved the homey relaxed atmosphere here… and the wine!

We have several quotes:

• Do whatever it takes
• I will… until
• If it was easy, everyone would do it
• If you build it, they will come or If you pour it they will come
• Make every day count
• Treat people the way you want to be treated