- Associated Press - Sunday, August 31, 2014

GRAND JUNCTION, Iowa (AP) - Diane Wise is known on these streets as “the Pusher.”

Earlier this month, the Pusher - she acknowledges her nickname to a point - drove through the heart of downtown with a black garbage bag in the passenger seat stuffed with what she’s been peddling lately at $5 apiece.

I riffle through the bag and see junk destined for Goodwill or the garbage: dozens of unused bait containers labeled with “Jack’s Cat Fish Bait” from a long-defunct bait shop operated out of the home of a local game warden.

But Wise sees opportunity, The Des Moines Register reported (http://dmreg.co/1qkIvHm ). She’s sold 35 of the relic cardboard cylinders as stocking stuffers for antique lovers - another $175 toward Grand Junction’s goal.

The Pusher doesn’t even live in this town of 800. Her address is rural Jefferson, qualifying her as an outsider by the strictest standards of small-town America in which claims of residence must end at the welcome sign.

Yet this crusade is personal for her.

Her late husband, David, a Vietnam veteran who died in 2002 from lung cancer that she says was linked to Agent Orange, grew up here. Their two children attended school in town. Wise is a member of the local Presbyterian congregation that for the last half a dozen years has served Sunday morning breakfast to any kid that shows up to eat.

And for the last year this 63-year-old widow has led the effort to build a new, fully furnished $1.1 million community center and city hall on Main Street.

At first, this project may sound like raising a 6,000-square-foot palace in a town where not much remains to keep the bank, library and post office company. But in the everyday life of Grand Junction - not to mention as a symbolic boost to morale - it means everything.

“Three years ago they thought we were out of our minds,” said Shirley Herrick, one of the Pusher’s allies.

Herrick, 68, who does live in town and is married to the mayor, Gerold, led me inside the current, crumbling community center now being vacated. It’s a musty, gutted shell with paint peeling from the tin ceiling and dangerous soft spots in the floor.

This is where the town staged an outdoor auction on a Friday this month that, despite sweltering weather with rain, raised more than $18,300 for the new community center. Wise had scoured local garages and attics to stock the auction with merchandise.

The rattling old furnace drew $100. The refrigerator went for $25. The ceiling fans were snapped up for $5 apiece (making those bait boxes look all the more like an ingenious sales feat).

More money has trickled in from grants and other fundraising. The circle of half a dozen or so retired ladies who played cards each Thursday, Friday and Saturday in the community center raised more than $5,000 with an ongoing garage sale.

Wise flipped open her iPad to show the accounting of $680,171 raised to date. That includes a matching $300,000 challenge grant from Tom Wind’s nearby Junction Hilltop Wind Farm (with another $100,000 available if the town is able to build a center so efficient that its net energy use is nil).

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