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In this Dec. 21, 2016, file photo, Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen looks to throw the football against BYU during the first half of the Poinsettia Bowl NCAA college football game in San Diego.

Longtime Cedar Falls educator among 75 volunteers honored by governor

CEDAR FALLS — With a table full of rocks, volunteer and longtime former educator John Focht ignited the imagination of more than 20 first-graders Thursday in Sonya Kremer’s classroom.

Each “pebble pet,” as he calls them, is decorated with glow-in-the-dark paint, a sticker or painting on one side and a note on the other, “Please read to me.”

“And if you read to them, sing to them or say your prayers to them at night, and turn off the lights, they’ll glow for you,” he said.


Volunteer John Focht explains to Southdale Elementary first graders how to care for their pebbles Thursday in Cedar Falls.

The children were awestruck when he told them a few more tricks their new pets could perform.

“If you roll them over half way, they’ll roll the rest of the way all by themselves,” he said as the children enthusiastically tipped their rocks on their sides.

“Oh, and they tell you some things about the weather — very important things,” he said. If the rock is rolling in a circle, that means there’s a tornado, and if you take it outside and it gets wet, that means it’s raining. “Oh, and if you put them in your pocket, they’ll even go running with you.”

After a 30-plus year career in education, Focht, now 85, has spent the last 25 years of retirement volunteering every week in Kremer’s Southdale Elementary classroom.

“John comes to my classroom with the vigor and vitality of a 20-year-old. His enthusiasm is contagious,” Kremer said. “And he has an amazing connection with the kids.”

Which is why Focht is one of more than 70 volunteers receiving recognition for volunteerism today at the 34th annual Governor’s Volunteer Awards ceremony at the Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center on the University of Northern Iowa campus.

Kremer met Focht 26 years ago at Lincoln Elementary School in Cedar Falls during her first year as a teacher. Focht was looking for a volunteer opportunity.

“I said absolutely, I need all the help I can get my first year round,” she said. “It’s been so fun, he’s just like family to us.”

Focht, who also received the Cedar Falls Education Association Friend of Education award in May, began his career as the principal of Main Street Elementary School, now known as the Cedar Falls Recreation Center. He also was the principal at Lincoln Elementary in Cedar Falls and assisted at North Cedar Elementary, Valley Park Elementary and Cedar Heights Elementary in Cedar Falls.

Since retirement, he also has found new hobbies, including painting, photography and music, which he shares with the students along with stories about his family and life experiences, including his time as a writer for the Cedar Falls Record. Kremer keeps photos up in her classroom of him growing up on a farm and of the one-room schoolhouse he attended.

Focht and the children couldn’t help but smile as they all sang “Happy Birthday” to their newly adopted pets.

“It’s such a benefit for me because I miss the principalship in many ways. I had a good time,” he said. “And being able to keep in contact this way and have interactions with teachers and kids has meant a lot to me. It does more for me, I think, than it does for the kids.”

The pet pebbles have served as a way to engage children’s senses and imaginations, but also to stay connected to Mr. Focht.

“I run into kids constantly. Adults see me and say, ‘I still have my pet pebble.’”


Southdale Elementary first graders Aishani Nimbalkar, left, and Mia Raines show off their pebbles from volunteer John Focht Thursday in Cedar Falls.

Also being featured at the awards ceremony are about 30 organizations that demonstrate volunteerism, exemplary leadership, creativity, cooperation and hard work in service to others, according to Lauren Finke, executive director of the Volunteer Center of Cedar Valley.

Although Finke says she has seen a downturn in the number of nominations for the Governor’s Award in recent years, the Cedar Valley still ranks 34th in the nation for mid-size city volunteer rates, with 28 percent of the population involved in formal volunteer opportunities.

“Volunteers are part of the heartbeat of organizations … taking time to recognize and honor them provides an opportunity to show the impact they have on our clients, organizations and community as a whole,” Finke said.

NEW PICTURES: Crews work to remove huge dead trees from river

WATERLOO — City workers are clearing dead trees cluttering the Cedar River downtown.

Waterloo firefighters used inflatable rescue boats to ferry two city forestry employees to a massive trunk stranded on a rock pile just below the dam.

“They are huge trees, and they are too big to float away unless we have a major flood event. … Some of the council people asked us if we could do it, and we’ve been waiting for perfect conditions,” said Battalion Chief Mike Moore with Waterloo Fire Rescue.

Using chainsaws and axes, forestry workers Luke Even and Crager Cook carved the deadwood into manageable pieces and sent them downstream, although larger chunks of the tree won’t be washed away until water levels rise.

The crews also tackled a second dead tree was stuck on the dam.

The tree-removal job was also good training for firefighters, who used two inflatable rapid deployment crafts normally used for river and ice rescues, Moore said.

“It’s really designed for water just like we are in. It’s very durable, and you can’t sink it, so it’s extremely safe,” Moore said.


Luke Even, left, and Crager Cook with Waterloo forestry chop up tree trunks in the Cedar River on Thursday.

Waterloo firefighters took part in a similar operation in 2011 by hooking a cable to trunks caught on the dam and pulling them with a vehicle-mounted winch on shore.

Dam removal project in Littleton still being opposed

LITTLETON — The public has had twice the typical amount of time to weigh in on a dam removal project here, but a meeting this week proved there’s still skepticism.

Littleton resident Nancy Coventry summed up the sentiment.

“I think they like to spend money that we don’t really need to spend. That’s my opinion, and that’s the opinion of a lot of people. The status quo, to us, right now is all right,” Coventry said. “Why ruin something that’s been status quo for just about 90 years?”

UPDATE: Floods soak Northeast Iowa

SUMNER — Heavy rains Friday night and Saturday deluged the community of Sumner, and basement flooding and sandbagging were taking place in several Northeast Iowa communities.

The project is part of a long-term DNR effort to mitigate the hazards of low-head dams, man-made structures typically hidden below the water’s surface that can pose a drowning threat.

Nate Hoogeveen, river programs coordinator for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said the Littleton Mill Dam is dangerous. He said low-head dams create swirling eddies experts call “drowning machines.”

“I’m sure there’s people who are still frustrated about what’s happening. But on the other hand, it is my job and responsibility to work on these problems, and it’s one that once we’re sort of on this path, we couldn’t really just walk away from it,” Hoogeveen said.

There have been nine deaths near the dam since it was built in 1934. Hoogeveen said that’s not the highest in the state, but it is concerning given the dam’s rural location. A DNR study from 2010 found only two low-head dams with as many or more fatalities, in Polk and Wapello counties.

But Coventry, whose son, Randy, owns property on one side of the Wapsipinicon River where an easement was granted, and others stress the vast majority of users use appropriate caution.

Such a project typically takes three to four years from beginning to end. Since the program began in 2008, the DNR has completed 19 mitigation projects and has around 25 more in the pipeline.

The dam in Buchanan County has been eyed for removal since 2008. The department had a property easement on one side of the river but not the other. That changed this summer. The second easement made the estimated $401,000 project likelier to move ahead.

The plan is to replace the aging dam — that as of the 2010 study was still in good condition — with a rock rapids. Hoogeveen said that will preserve the recreation and wildlife the area is known for while removing the swirling eddy hazard and be easier for fish to navigate.

He calls it “a very reasonable alternative that keeps most of what they like about the dam.”

Coventry said the plan Hoogeveen presented at this week’s meeting is the best yet proposed, but she worries it won’t live up to the promise.

She also is frustrated the meeting was called — after a two-year hiatus when the DNR did not have the right to access to the private property — when the time frame for moving ahead is still uncertain.

The easements move the project closer to reality, but it’s uncertain when it will move ahead. The easement was unexpected so the project wasn’t budgeted, and the state’s financial woes make funding such projects difficult.

Hoogeveen said the project is at a phase where funding and permitting processes are the only remaining obstacles. There will be another update for the public when the project gets underway, but this week’s meeting was the last public input session.

Once started, the project should take a month to six weeks and will briefly interrupt recreation.