Eulogy for Bill Stowe

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Liam and Amy, we want to thank you for sharing Bill. You have always allowed us to feel as if he was ours. When we saw Bill, we saw the better city, the greater Iowa, the nobler country, the kinder, more caring selves we wanted to be. Bill knew we were capable of being more than we are and he motivated so many of us to try to rise to his high expectations. In sharing him, you gave us a part of yourselves, revealing the heart of your family. Now at this most painful and personal of moments, you allow us to stand next to you again, to share in all things Bill. All gathered here today, and many who are with us in spirit, thank you for your sacrifices, kindness, and generosity. Thank you for sharing William with us.

When Bill asked me to be his eulogist, he stipulated two things, to be short and funny. Classic Bill, tasking others to do what he could not. When you think of Bill, joke telling does not often come to mind. And, I am hard-pressed to recall a time when Bill kept his comments brief.

Before I go further, if you are a member of a union, have ever been a member union, or had a union member in your family, I would like for you to rise. Thank you.

Bill understood how important it was for workers to stand together. He developed a management style rooted in the firm belief that we are stronger when we work in concert. Bill knew when the few succeed at the expense of others; humanity falters, and our national promise goes unfulfilled. He believed no worker should forfeit respect, dignity, and safety just because she needs to provide for her family. We paused to recognize union workers who contribute to our collective well-being because workers like you and the concept of fairness in the workplace were at the foundation of who Bill was as a manager and a person.

To the environmental, social justice, education, and clean water activists, each of you represents part of Bill Stowe, too. Bill was committed to the struggle for equality, fairness, clean water, environmental reform, and restoring the rights of the silenced. He was painfully aware, as we all are in these uncertain times, the job is far from finished.

Bill knew the key to overcoming is preparation – we must steel ourselves for it is unlikely the view from the next summit will be of verdant welcoming valleys. The next section of the path to a better tomorrow will be littered with more, even higher obstacles than those we just crossed. The challenges will increase before the bright horizon we seek begins to peek through the clouds. But, do not misunderstand, his was not the message of a pessimist, but a strategist. Bill was unwilling to allow today’s reality to be the master of tomorrow’s possibilities.

Most of us could stand to be more like Bill – to pick ourselves up, brush ourselves off, hold our heads high, and fight on. Of course, keeping one’s head high might be easier for those blessed with a head-full of flowing white locks than it is for the rest of us, but we must try to do so anyway.

Bill was a lot like my brother Greg who I also lost far too soon. Both were big men, with oversized bear-hug personalities. Like Greg, Bill was a child of the turbulent sixties who came of age during the uncomfortable seventies and began to make his mark on the world as our country squandered the opportunities of the eighties and nineties. As America turned inward and many focused on self, Greg and Bill saw the value of the individual, the brilliant hope to be found by recognizing, celebrating, and making the most of what makes us different. In the obituary Bill penned for himself, he wrote, “He was privileged to graduate from several schools; Grinnell College, the Universities of Illinois and Wisconsin, and the Loyola Law School of New Orleans.” He appreciated that many of the most skilled, kind, and influential people never attend college.

Bill wasn’t much for guidelines designed to reward conformity, rules crafted to ensure some people stay in their lane. He was known to look past policy so he could promote a person he knew had what it took – every rubric had some flexibility. Bill saw that which cannot be documented by a diploma. He occasionally discounted personnel file blackmarks because Bill knew a person’s promise nearly always outweighs his past mistakes.

Mistakes, Bill made those, too. I would not do Bill justice if I painted a portrait of him free of blemishes. He was not perfect and never wanted anyone to see him as such. He was fully aware of his mistakes, errors in judgment, and human faults. He was not remarkable because he avoided failure. Bill was exceptional because he faced his short-comings and did his level best to learn from his missteps so he could become the stronger person he hoped he could be. Bill knew he was flawed, but he never stopped trying to be a better man.

Bill and I fought a battle for clean water in a state we love, but one where powerful interests maintain a stranglehold on the political machine. When Des Moines Water Works filed its lawsuit in 2015 against drainage districts that operate pipes through which nitrate pollution flows into our watershed, big agriculture set loose a few of its pawns to sow disinformation using a shadowy political action committee. Their goal was to distract attention from Iowa’s increasingly polluted waterways and the one #1 national ranking those in power desperately want to hide, that Iowa is the top contributor to the growing dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

It didn’t take long for Big Ag to go personal, turning to their ally, the Governor, who named Bill Stowe an enemy of the farmer. Bill Stowe who grew up on a farm and still owned farmland in this state. Bill Stowe who was seeking a solution to protect the natural resource of water, something as vital to farming as it is to life itself. As the legal process churned and Des Moines Water Works stood mostly alone against the power structures in this state, Bill endured personal attacks, threats, and a campaign of innuendo. Bill remained resolute, undaunted. He knew our shared future was at stake. It was more than just Water Works. It was more than just Bill. He was willing to shoulder the criticism, to do what was right because doing so was in the interests of generations to come and the planet.

It was his role as Des Moines’ public works director that first brought Bill to our local television screens. His service to our city, his magnetic personality, and, good God, that hair was refreshing and reassuring. By every measure, Bill was an outstanding administrator, and as one of his former employees told me, “the damn finest boss there ever was!” I will confess that when the board at Water Works decided to hire Bill as CEO and general manager, I was not entirely convinced the public works/community phenom had what it took to lead. It did not take long for me to see that Bill was as good an administrator as he was a visionary. He set DMWW on a course using better planning and sound management practices to create a safer more trusting environment.

His track record at the city and DMWW spoke for themselves. Bill Stowe was a solid, proven leader who got things done. That is why it was so hurtful when Des Moines’ elected city leaders, who in exchange for a short-term, short-sighted political benefit, silently sided with the legislative pawns of Big Ag who wanted revenge for the clean water lawsuit. Representatives of the city Bill served so admirably supported legislation to dismantle DMWW which, under Bill’s care and leadership, was then and, thankfully, still is serving its ratepayers well. Leaders of Bill’s city turned against him, but he refused to play the detrimental political games that are so commonplace today.

I tell this story not to open old wounds, but to highlight how Bill handled challenges that would cause most of us to lash-out or turn inward. When others might have sought retribution or retreated, Bill pivoted, kept moving forward, crafting plans to protect and safeguard the interests of those he served. Bill solved problems, sought consensus, looked for common ground, and projected fairness. In this day and time, Bill’s brand of leadership is far too rare.

The other day, Bill and I reflected on our efforts as the golden sunlight of a spring evening flowed into the caring Kavanagh House. Bill told me how proud he was to have led the charge to protect the natural resource of water. We spoke of our regret about not reaching that summit on that try. We griped about others and laughed at ourselves as friends do when alone. We talked about our disappointment in those who did not join us in the fray. Bill and I sat quietly for a moment before I said, “you know, Bill, if I talk about the lawsuit, saying some of these things at your funeral, it is going to make a few people squirm.” He pursed his Bill Stowe lips, that flash of blue light still glinting in his eyes and said, “that is why I asked you to do this, change would never come if people didn’t squirm now and again.” Now, that was Bill Stowe.

To do what is right, we must sometimes voice inconvenient truths. Doing so may make us unpopular. In his sermon at the start of World War II, C.S. Lewis said, “He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God: himself.” Bill was true to himself.

Bill and my conversation quickly turned to how gratified we were to know others have begun sounding a renewed battle cry, rallying to protect water and nature’s life-providing gifts. Bill stands with you.

I am as angry as any of you that Bill Stowe was snatched from us so soon. I am going to leave it to Monsignor Chiodo and Father Dan to try to guide you away from anger and toward acceptance. Cancer robbed Bill of the end he richly deserved, depriving him the chance to complete his life’s work. I am not at peace with that.

The way I see it, Bill was just too…He was too big. He was often too smart for his own good. He was too kind. He had too many pairs of weird glasses. His ringtone choice of “Hotel California” was just too unsettling. And, he had, as we all know, too much hair. Most irritating of all, in the end, cancer won because Bill was just too human.

Where some seek star status, want buildings named after themselves, or monuments erected in their honor, Bill saw his work as his legacy. And it is, but he was not ready to ride off on his Harley quite yet, and it is not fair he was denied that final ride. Yes, Bill may be the only one in this sanctuary who had Raygun T-shirts printed for him, and he could claim a particular cult-like following, but that was not his aim. Bill was interested in making a difference, not the trappings of celebrity. Celebrity was a joke with which he was willing to play along. Don't get me wrong, Bill liked the joke and took pains to encourage people to keep telling it, over and over and over again.

It was an honor to walk a portion of my life journey with Bill. The other night as we took a few final steps together, he stopped and said, "I am proud to have made a small scratch on this orb.” Your mark on this world was not small, my friend. It was meaningful, and we are better because of you.