- 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 (https://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).

The Pusher simply called Wind (yes, his name matches his business), her fellow 1969 Jefferson High grad whom she hadn’t really kept in touch with, to get him involved.

“This is one project where we can make a multiyear commitment and really make a difference,” Wind said of why he consented.

Wise’s next goal is to win a $250,000 Vision Iowa grant.

A community center looms large in Grand Junction (and throughout small-town Iowa) as the crucial social hub that cradles thousands of personal milestones. Family reunions. Weddings. Anniversaries. The Lion’s Club pancake supper. Cub Scout meetings. School and civic fundraisers.

Grand Junction hopes its new community center, Herrick said, also provides a positive “spark” to revive its downtown area.

Speaking of a spark, these centers can represent exactly the opposite sentiment, too. A blaze a week ago 50 miles south in Casey engulfed that town’s community center, which has become a symbol of division: Records consumed in the blaze have stoked suspicions of mismanaged funds.

The first social center in 145-year-old Grand Junction, according to the local history books, was the Ashley House, commonly called the Depot Hotel. Citizens gathered in the first-floor dining room for lodge meetings, to worship or to dance.

Grand Junction had ambition to match its name. It was designed as the “prairie metropolis of the future.” The town founded at the intersection of two railroad lines actually was platted as four towns: Central, West and South Grand Junction, in addition to Grand Junction.

The town’s heyday by some accounts began just prior to the turn of the 20th century and lasted more or less until the Great Depression.

Freight trains rumble through Grand Junction yet today, but U.S. Highway 30 (the old Lincoln Highway) has long since bypassed Main Street.

Even so, the Greene County Lincoln Highway Museum still welcomes travelers just across the street from where the new community center would stand.

Donna Delp’s “Hair Junction” salon is housed in the back of the museum building. She relocated here a couple of years ago after 29 years spent clipping hair in a building across the street that was razed to make way for the new community center.

Steve Hillman sat in Delp’s chair. His Grand Junction roots run five generations deep on both sides of his family.

He remembers when there used to be 10 gas stations in town, thanks to the Lincoln Highway.

Hillman also uttered a quote that I should just keep scrawled in my notebook for such occasions: “Main Street used to be packed on Saturday nights.”

The new community center project, Delp said, “has brought a lot of the town together.”

Wise may be the Pusher, but she’s concerned that she not be characterized as pushy. Let me emphasize: I admire her gumption and that of Herrick and all their neighbors working toward whatever sort of “prairie metropolis” remains possible.

If Wise could swap nicknames she’d prefer “the Motivator.” She got involved a year ago by attending a meeting in which she thought she might simply donate a little money to the cause as a memorial to her late husband.

“I see a need,” she said, “and I work to get it done.”

One $5 bait box at a time.


Information from: The Des Moines Register, https://www.desmoinesregister.com



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