Des Moines paper's "man in Waterloo" was model journalist

Posted by Pat Kinney on Friday, March 1, 2024

WATERLOO - Some folks in Waterloo may not have known Jack. But Jack Hovelson definitely knew Waterloo like the back of his hand. And he loved it.

He proved that in a very fine piece published on commentary pages of The Des Moines Register on June 5, 1983.

It’s called “A reporter’s loving look at Waterloo.” It’s an unvarnished but affirming masterpiece of community journalism, by a master practitioner of the craft — a practitioner whose like we may not see again.

Jack Hovelson, the Register’s Waterloo bureau chief for nearly 30 years and a Waterloo Courier reporter and editor before that through most of the turbulent 1960s, passed away last week at age 91 in Arizona, where he’d been in assisted living near a daughter the past couple of years.
To me, Jack was a mentor and an icon — a very gracious and generous man who really kind of awed me with his friendship. I know I’m not alone in that.

Jack was one of us. Born in Osage, he grew up in New Hartford, just west of Cedar Falls, and graduated from Iowa State Teachers College, now the University of Northern Iowa.

But he earned his journalism chops in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. Based in Japan, he covered the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division. He talked about his Army experiences in an oral history interview for the Grout Museum District with historian Bob Neymeyer and myself a few years ago.
After military service he got his degree at ISTC/UNI, where he met his wife Ruth, and he worked for a time at the Fort Dodge Messenger before hiring on at the Waterloo Courier. The Register hired him to open a Waterloo bureau in the late 1960s, one of several the Register had in larger Iowa cities at that time. His office was in the landmark Black’s Building in downtown Waterloo.
Jack was a witness to local history. For example, Jack is prominently featured in an ESPN “Sports Century” documentary on Waterloo-born wrestling legend Dan Gable, the 1972 Olympic gold medal winner and longtime University of Iowa championship wrestling coach.

Jack covered a lot of the triumph and tragedy the Waterloo-Cedar Falls metro area saw though his decades with the Register. He was a Johnny-on-the-spot reporter. On one occasion, he arrived at a murder scene so quickly investigators took his footprints as evidence.

He was dedicated but affable, respected but also very well liked. And he had a great sense of humor. I remember one election night we were both at the Black Hawk County Courthouse as returns came in — he for the Register, me for the Courier.

During an idle moment as we were waiting for votes to be counted, a couple of elected officials we both knew well were chitchatting, perhaps a bit more than they should have in front of a couple of reporters.

In the middle of their conversation, Jack blurted out, “Waitaminnit, I gotta get this down!” and pretended to scribble their conversation on his notepad. It was hilarious. One of the elected officials cracked a smile and pretended to put a headlock on Jack and closed a fist as though she were going to rap him on the noggin.

We were definitely competitors. At the Courier we almost dreaded seeing Jack’s byline in the Register because he would frequently scoop us and send us scrambling to follow up. But it went both ways. In that competition, our stories complemented one another with additional information to deepen the public’s understanding of an event or issue — “advancing the story,” as we say, to the readers’ benefit.

Jack Hovelson’s “loving look at Waterloo” appeared in the Des Moines Register on June 5, 1983 (Newspapers.com)

Jack had ink in his blood and embraced Waterloo’s rough-and-tumble, bare-knuckles grittiness as he covered this city and Northeast Iowa. He covered this part of Iowa for the state’s largest newspaper like a community journalist because that’s what he was at his core. 

He really demonstrated all that in the June 5, 1983 Register commentary. It was written at a time of great economic and social distress in Waterloo, when the town’s two largest employers had been dealt staggering blows. There had been massive layoffs at John Deere and Rath Packing Co. was on its last legs. All this happened against a backdrop of generations of racial inequity.

Jack pulled absolutely no punches but he painted a picture of a town tough enough to take a couple of serious body blows and still keep going, and caring.

Jack quoted Betty Jean Furgerson, longtime director of the Waterloo Human Rights Commission and later a member of the Iowa Board of Regents, who said. “We have our problems, but one thing I’ll say about Waterloo is it doesn’t hide from them. It faces them, and it all hangs out in this town.”

Jack then wrote, “It’s good to be in a town where it does all hang out, painful as that may be sometimes. But the best thing about Waterloo is its people.”

A framed copy of Jack’s article was gifted to me by longtime community booster and sometimes gadfly Rosemary Beach of Cedar Falls a few years ago.

I keep it in my office at the Grout Musuem. It absolutely blows me away. Jack really nailed it with that one. When I read that piece, I think, “Yeah. That’s us.”

And the cool thing about Jack would be that after it was published, he probably sat back and said “Yeah, that was pretty good,” and moved on to the next story. Because in this trade you’re only as good as your last one and you always have to be on your toes.

Jack was a very “old school” reporter with a ton of grace and class. I honor the life of this good and decent man and cherish every kindness large and small he ever showed me - from talking at a journalism seminar I attended as an undergrad at UNI in the summer of 1976, to calling in news tips to me at the Courier years after he’d retired. He also served as an advisor to the Northern Iowan, the student paper at his alma mater.

One of the last works of journalism Jack performed was a labor of love for a neighbor at his retirement community in Cedar Falls in 2015.

World War II veteran Cleon Wood of Cedar Falls received France's highest decoration, the Legion of Honor, from French consul general Vincent Floreani in 2015 (Photos by Matthew Putney/Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier)

That neighbor, John Deere retiree Cleon “Woody” Wood, received France’s highest decoration, the Legion of Honor, for his service as a B-17 bomber crew member during the liberation of France from the Nazis in World War II. The medals were presented to living World War II veterans who served in France, commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day. Wood participated in that battle.

Jack handled the publicity and helped local veteran advocate Sid Morris with the program, in which French consul general Vincent Floreani came from Chicago to Cedar Falls and presented Wood with the medal, before a packed house at the Cedar Falls Community Center. It was a great “last hurrah” for “Woody,” who passed away a couple of years later.

It kind of brought Jack’s life and career full circle from his Army days covering the 1st Cavalry. It was a gesture to a friend and fellow veteran. It was also a helluva good story. That was what Jack was all about.

His family plans to pass on his legacy by directing memorials to a to-be-determined organization or project benefiting Iowa journalism.

A priest friend once told me journalism is “a valuable work of humanity.” 

Jack Hovelson exemplified that. His humanity shone through in every interview and with every keystroke.

About The Author

Pat is the Oral Historian for the Grout Museum District.