Category Archives: columns

Today’s Column – Every House Has a History

Ray and Jean Petrzelka are grateful someone is working to save a big piece of their life story.

That someone is Linda Seger, whom I wrote about a few weeks ago. Seger and her family are working hard to repair their flooded home at 1629 Eighth St.NW. The 100-year-old house is in the “construction zone” around a planned levee. But the Segers, who drained their savings to save the home, are determined to stay put.

Now, thanks to Ray and Jean, the Segers also know the rest of the story about their home. “The more I hear about the house and the people who lived here, the more I feel I must save it,” Linda Seger said.

Jean Petrzelka’s grandfather, Carel Votava, built the house for his family, which emigrated from Czechoslovakia and landed at Ellis Island. Jean lived there with her grandparents, parents and brother. And the old place still echoes with stories of life, love, happiness, sorrow and comedy.

“I loved my grandma and grandpa. The house is very sentimental for me,” Jean said when I sat down to talk with her and Ray. They both grew up in the Ellis Park neighborhood during the 1930s and 1940s, when their parents often went to dances together and brought them along. They joke that they were “born married.”

It was quite a neighborhood and a remarkable time in the city’s history. Jean’s family, like everybody else, did whatever it could to get by in hard times. Both families at one time ran beer parlors peddling bootleg booze. Jean’s father once was storing a bootleg stash in the oven when her mother fired it up. “It just exploded,” Jean said.

Her mother, Frances, was a self-reliant, tough-minded “soldier,” as Jean puts it.

She held down multiple jobs. Frances also came from Czechoslovakia, alone on a ship as a young girl. And her language skills helped Frances become a big asset to Killian’s Department Store, where she was sought out by Czech-speaking customers.

But her toughest job came after Jean’s father took his life in 1941. “My mother was very good about making sure we didn’t get too far down in the dumps,” Jean said.

And in those days, you could depend on your neighbors to help pull you through. Ray and Jean tell endless stories about people lending a hand and looking out for each other.

Ray got a scholarship to play baseball at Notre Dame and later signed a professional contract with Cleveland. Injury cut his baseball career short, which was also what the Indians did with his name. They made him go by “Peters” because the team thought Petrzelka would be too tough for radio announcers to pronounce.

Ray and Jean were pronounced man and wife in October 1949. Their rousing wedding reception was at, you guessed it, 1629 Eighth St. NW, with beer kegs “upstairs and down,” Ray said.

Jean’s Uncle Frank, the family’s most prolific provider of comic relief, drank too much, got sick and lost his false teeth down the toilet. A plumber was dispatched to retrieve those choppers.

So many stories, and all a reminder that nearly every house has a rich history. We’ll be saying goodbye to many as spring arrives.

But not this one.



Filed under Cedar Rapids, Cedar Rapids City Council, columns, Iowa Flood, Uncategorized

Today’s Column — Staying Positive

Last Tuesday, I used this space to chronicle some of the stuff that’s making me uneasy. So in the interest of equal time, and to please the people who say I’m too negative, here are some things making our frozen life bearable.

Recent headlines tell us it’s dangerous to be a good Samaritan, especially on slick highways. Yet, thankfully, the do-gooders persist. They’re picking up buried motorists, helping dig out elderly neighbors and doing countless other good deeds big and small.

I was on my way to work Monday morning when a kind gentleman rolled down his window to inform me I had a flat tire. Ah, Monday. Mercifully, I was just a few blocks from a tire joint, which, in turn, is just five blocks from work.

What an invigorating walk. I’ll get feeling back in my ears any minute now. But thanks to that attentive guy.

Did you see stories about Kosovo declaring its independence over the weekend? It was a stirring moment that Americans had a big hand in creating. It’s also oddly comforting to be back at odds with Russia. If they can wheel out Sylvester Stallone to do another “Rambo,” maybe we also can set up a “Rocky” rematch with Ivan Drago, or maybe his grandson.

It’s handy to get school closings beamed to my BlackBerry at 5:15 a.m., although it will never replace huddling around a staticky radio in dawn’s early light waiting to hear those magic words, “no school.” My fancy phone also is an invaluable time-waster as I wait in a long line to buy bread, milk and beer at Hy-Vee every other day.

On the bright side, the more snow we get, the longer I can delay cleaning the dog dookie out of my backyard.

And there’s nothing like walking into a warm, dim and crowded bar in the winter. My wife and I ducked into the Irish Democrat Friday night after a movie and it was the perfect place to be.

Old constants are comforting, like the gambling lobby getting its way at the Statehouse. This smoking ban bill with the casino loophole will be the biggest financial boon to the industry since, well, every other time the Legislature has voted on casino-related bills in the past 20 years. Jackpot.

The Pentagon’s plan to shoot down an ailing spy satellite gets a thumbsup from the 10-year-old Atari 2600 player still trapped in my body. And it was heartening to see my 6-year-old daughter come home with a foil box jammed with little Valentine’s Day cards, just like the old days. One difference: I noticed Dora the Explorer’s Valentines are bilingual. No word on whether U.S. Rep. Steve King will try to make her Dora the Deported for violating official English.

It’s good news that the Cedar Rapids Public Library won’t be cut to the bone and that the Linn County Board of Supervisors will have to make a tough call on salaries themselves. It’s also nice Karl Rove’s Iowa City speech was postponed so that we can hear a few more weeks of vitriol from folks who think he ruined American politics with vitriol.
I’m glad my alma mater, Drake U, won the Missouri Valley Conference.

I’m glad my snowblower still works.

And I’m glad the tire joint takes plastic.

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Today’s Column — Uneasy

I’m feeling uneasy lately. Don’t care? Tough darts. It’s my column. Maybe it’s the abominable weather, or the clouds of economic recession, or that I read Saturday in black and white that Gov. Chet Culver thinks he might someday be presidential material. It was in the Des Moines Register. No joke.
Who knows? I’m just uneasy.
I’m uneasy about the statewide smoking ban racing through the Iowa Legislature.
Don’t get me wrong. I understand that smoking is a deadly scourge and that clearing the air is a good, healthy idea.
I just think this call should be left to local governments that are much closer to the individuals and busi nesses that will be affected by this very personal wielding of state power. Legislators should give locals the final say with no strings or exemptions attached. If people in gambling towns want to exempt casinos, that should be up to them, not to some lobbyists and a few legislative leaders in a backroom.
Perhaps I’d feel less uneasy about this courageous effort to make workplaces safer if I hadn’t watched some of these same lawmakers vote a few years back to make it nearly impossible for workers injured twice on the job to get fully compensated. I also watched them block strict air-quality standards aimed at hog confinement operations. I’d believe their life-anddeath overtures more if they hadn’t jacked up the speed limit and shot down state obesity studies under pressure from farm groups.
I admit I have a hard time marching with the “We know best” crowd.
My heart will always be with the working stiffs huddled outside for a smoke break. When I hear the suits talk about how those 10-minute siestas “hurt productivity,” I wonder about all their long lunches and corporate junkets and fact-finding trips and golf outings and retreats with catered lunches.
It’s the same uneasy feeling I get when $3 mocha slurpers and the buyers of $20 blocks of high-cocoa, antioxidant chocolate and $8 chocatini drinkers start railing about food stamp recipients buying candy and pop. I know it’s not healthy and I know it’s taxpayer money, but aren’t we just a bunch of big fat hypocrites?
Speaking of we know better, don’t get me started on same-sex marriage.
Backers of a constitutional ban can dress this up all they want in talk about judicial activism and preserving the sanctity of civilization, but this is pure politics. Marriage would convey new social, economic and political power to gays and lesbians who don’t agree with social conservatives on a whole range of issues. Denying them marriage denies them political clout, it’s as simple as that. And if they can fire up the Republican base at the same time, all the better.
Democrats, our champions of civil rights, are pathetic cowards on this issue, paralyzed by polls, scared of their political shadows.
I know a lot of good people disagree with me on this, and you have every right to push for a ban. It’s just that I was hoping to finally be part of an American generation that didn’t draw the disapproving head shakes of history. Guess not.
Yep, I’m still uneasy. And now I’m out of space.


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Today’s Column — Winter fun with Dr. Compassion

Your driveway is full of snow.The sky is full of clouds. The newspaper is filled with downer headlines. It’s a cold time of trial and tribulation.
So it’s high time to call in my dear old friend, Dr. Compassion.

I’m handing over the rest of this column to Dr. Compassion, with hopes he can use his special therapeutic talents to help readers handle troubles big and small.

He listens. He cares.

(Warning – Dr. Compassion is not a real doctor, nor is he a licensed therapist.
In fact, he holds only an honorary doctorate from the Barbados Bartending Academy. And he won that in a poker game. But his price is right. Free.)

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Today’s column — no consensus on Trashmore names

Thoughtful and clever readers have spoken on the issue of what to name Mount Trashmore, once local leaders transform the old landfill into a recreation destination.
Trouble is, those readers did not speak in one voice.

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Langston responds

Today’s column on pay for county supervisors has generated a lot of response, including a note from board chair Linda Langston. Here’s my column and her note. 

Let me know what you think.

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Today’s Column — Last-minute gifts

Last-minute presents you won’t find in stores

If you’re like me, you’re not finished Christmas shopping. Not even close.
  Perhaps you’re exhilarated by deadlines. Maybe you thrive under pressure. Well, I’m here to help.

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