Posts Categorized: People

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.”

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

Community Builders: Liz Rog & Brad Crawford

Liz Rog & Brad Crawford: DecorahNow.com

By Kristine Jepsen

“I think this started because I would get asked by someone on the street, or in the Co-op, if maybe there wasn’t some Norwegian dancing and music they could learn, or go listen to?’” says Decorah community champion Liz Rog, her hands flying to her temples, incredulous wonder spreading on her face. “And I thought, ‘How could these wonderful, engaged people live here for years and NOT know about Foot-Notes dances?’” (Local string band, Foot-Notes, plays traditional Scandinavian schottisches and other Scandinavian-American music for public dances year-round.)

“I realized that people just needed to know about the cool things going on around them in this wonderful place, and that no one should feel they have to be in the ‘in’ crowd to be invited to events. So, I became the messenger,” she says.

Now, it’s not hard to imagine Liz Rog as a networker, community catalyst, person who knows stuff. One look at her black daily planner, crammed with notes on bits of paper and filled to every margin, tells you that community and the facilitation of it are her life’s work.

At the time, in 2008, she was already emailing 100-odd supporters of historic East Side School, who were fighting to save it from demolition, ultimately unsuccessfully. Late one night, using wi-fi at Oneota Community Food Co-op (she still doesn’t have Internet at her rural home), she sent this group a list of everything she knew to be happening in town that week.

Thus began DecorahNow.com, an online listing of events (especially music), classes, and resources in Decorah and surrounding communities. Today, 800 users view the site daily and more than 200 buy/sell/want ads turn over in its classified section each month.

But in those early days, as residents of all ages were just beginning to use digital calendaring and communications daily, much of Decorah Now compilation happened by hand. “People would call me and leave messages, and I’d be sitting until 3 a.m. typing these notes into one massive list for a weekly e-mail,” Liz says. “Every week I would swear off it. And every day someone would tell me about something they had attended or discovered because of it, and I didn’t want to disappoint them.”

Eventually, she started color-coding sections and highlighting new items, in an attempt to make the email more readable. Her earnestness caught the attention of Decorah native Brad Crawford, who was working in California at the time.

“I got an email from Brad with a QuickTime video tutorial attached,” Liz explains. “And after I got QuickTime installed so I could view it, I realized an angel had been sent to save me.”

The clip demonstrated a Ruby on Rails database Brad had built that automated much of the formatting and allowed readers to subscribe and contribute their own news items. And so began their partnership in problem-solving for the public good. The two meet regularly, often in Java John’s coffee house, now that Brad has moved back to Decorah and works with Northeast Iowa Resource Conservation & Development.

They knew they were on to something when amazing things started coming through, Liz explains. “At one point, a parent posted about their child dropping $5 of hard-earned money on her walk home. Within a day, someone had found and returned it.”

And some listings say ‘small town’ in a big way, Brad adds with a chuckle. “One person posted that they were headed out of town for the weekend and that others were welcome to the two bananas, a kiwifruit and an apple in their fridge.”

In 2016 Liz and Brad began migrating the site to WordPress, an industry-leading website platform where new features are contributed by developers around the world. DecorahNow.com, for its part, continues to be free to use and accepts donations to offset the time it takes to answer reader questions, debug site features, and catch new scams that crop up in the classifieds section.

“It’s really a big experiment in seeing what the community needs and using technology to get it out there,” Brad says. And, thanks to the Internet, word has spread. New residents credit the vibrant diversity showcased in DecorahNow.com as one reason they decided to move. And Liz and Brad have still bigger dreams for the future, such as building a Skills School Network for practical arts and developing a sharing economy to help out elderly or other citizens who need a hand.

“I wanted to shine a light on the people here and foster appreciation for what we have together – and make it plain that anyone can fit in by offering what they have to offer,” Liz concludes. “And it has done exactly that.”