If there is a cause to be championed, a perceived wrong to be righted or an organization that needs joining then Burlington’s Jeff Heland is the man to call. The Falstaffian-figured financial planner with an encyclopedic memory for names is, has been, or will be a member of just about every worthwhile organization in eastern Iowa.
You’d almost expect Jeff to leap into the room clad in a red cape and brightly colored Spandex shorts. But his is not Super Hero flashiness. Rather, he comes armed with a convivial manner and a belief that the disadvantaged and unfortunate need someone or something to stick up for them.
The graduate of Burlington’s Notre Dame High School has seen life’s inequities first hand. His teenage years in Ottumwa were interrupted where his father’s long time tenure on the cutting floor of Morrell Meat Packers was terminated by the plant’s cutbacks.
“That was quite a shock to the family,” Jeff remembers. “One day he had a well paying job and the next they showed him the door. Corporate America betrayed my father. He was given $3,000 and referred to a community college for training. But we came to Burlington and he got a job in the West Burlington Railroad Shops.”
The Heland family was deep into the Catholic faith so upon settling into their new home, Jeff was given a much needed haircut and sent off to Notre Dame. There, his imposing bulk and football abilities earned him an invitation to attend Iowa Wesleyan College and play football.
However, it was the 1970’s and temptations for a young man abounded. It was a rock-and-roll existence and Jeff’s ambition to study forestry fell by the wayside. But he garnered workplace experience working for a local landscaper while hawking Christmas trees in season.
He, however, considers the river his first real place of employment. At 17 he wrangled a spot as a deck hand on a tow boat and a variety of that experience began to work its magic.
“At 17, working on a tow boat was really something,” he explained. “It was a real man’s job. It was important and it paid real money so I was able to get my own car. Dangerous, but really a lot of fun and if things had worked out differently, I’d probably still be on the river as a pilot.”
The river’s seasonal employment prompted Jeff to seek a more permanent land based employment so he followed his father to the shop floors in West Burlington.
“When you started with the railroad you had little seniority so you often got laid off and when that happened I’d try to return to the river. My brother had become a pilot but he had a crew member removed so I was able to get back on. But when I was called back to the shops, I walked away from the tows,” he said.
“There is something similar about working on the river and for the railroad. It becomes a lifestyle more than a job. It is a lot like farming in that it becomes so consuming,” he added.
Jeff’s day on the shop floor usually began with a meeting around the shop foreman where work assignments were issued. All assignments shared the attribute of being difficult, dirty and occasionally dangerous.
“One day there was something different,” Jeff reports. “A union backed state council for machinists had been formed and there was to be a meeting in Des Moines and someone from West Burlington would attend.
“I remember standing there waiting to go to work and someone shouted ‘send Heland. He’s really into politics.’ And I thought why not?”
Even in those early years, Heland was “into politics.” He remembers working with his mother when he was just five-years-old in Ottumwa as she rang doorbells for local Democratic politicians.
“At the Des Moines meetings I came to know Earl Robinson who was involved in the Machinist Non-Partisan League. He convinced me to spend $12 a year to join and that’s started it.
“Back in Burlington Millie Bell got me involved in the Democratic Party and we worked on a Lunch Box to Ballot Box project.”
Local politics were in somewhat of disarray in those years as political factions attempted to roll back the Council Manager system recently adopted to the Commission form of government. There also was a concern that city government could derail union influence.
Jeff was a rising factor in union involvement and was collared to run for the city council. He was elected mayor in 1989 as part of a sweeping change in council membership. “I learned early on that for local politics, being Democrat or Republican is not all that important. What is important is that the garbage gets picked up.”
He went on to be elected to the council for a second term but lost by 74 votes in his try for a third term. “Losing that election was probably a good thing,” he said. “If I had served a third term I would have probably been so unpopular that I would not have been elected or appointed for anything else ever.”
Although Heland can now be philosophical about the council defeat, at the time, the loss hurt. “You lose and then what? I figured you have to pull on your pants the following day and get busy with what has to be done next.”
One of the things facing Jeff was the need to find a new career. Rumor was rampant that’s the shops were about to close and Jeff with wife Cindy and daughters, Dusty and Allison, were once again at the mercy of corporate America. After 23 years he left the Shops.
Jeff carefully considered his interests and abilities in charting a new career and in 2000 he decided to take his passion for the investment markets and his ability to work with people into the financial management field.
What followed was a grueling training period that entailed driving to Cedar Raids three days a week for a year for training. Then there was second year of weekly trips before Jeff emerged as a certified financial services professional with New York Life.
Somehow and in spite of the pressures of re-inventing himself professionally and his family responsibilities, Jeff was able to continue his involvement with area organizations.
The walls of his Jefferson Street office are covered with plaques attesting to his service as a city council member, a county supervisor, a community college trustee, chair of the league of cities, chair of the Iowa Humanities Committee as well as his involvement with local health organizations.
He has long been in the catbird seat as local and national politics have evolved from the simpler days when collecting the garbage with the main concern of all involved.
“I have to confess,” he said, “I am pretty disappointed. I have become just an old guy making observations but it seems like we have lost our ability for reasoned discourse and ability to find a compromise. It’s disappointing we haven’t come further in solving the big issues.”
Heland is uncertain if political office still holds its allure but he remains passionate about a wide range of projects. Perhaps he is keeping his Spandex shorts and cape ready for when the right opportunity appears.
Everybody has a story to tell. Tell yours, or encourage someone you know to tell theirs, in 52 Faces, each week in The Hawk Eye. Call (319) 758-8148, or write to email@example.com.