Nora DeJohn, RIP (1940-2011) Print
News/Features - In Memorium
Written by Karen Anderson   
Thursday, 05 May 2011 14:04

Nora DeJohnOn May 21, Nora DeJohn’s children will bring their mother back to Davenport for burial. Nora died in Pennsylvania on January 10 after a five-year battle with breast cancer. This will be a funeral to remember with a mass at St. Ambrose Chapel, Celtic bagpipers leading the way to the cemetery, and live Celtic music at an afternoon luncheon/reunion at the German American Heritage Center.

Her early career as a public-school teacher, community organizer for Eastside Development Corporation, and nutritional counselor for the Iowa State Extension service took her to all corners of the central city and familiarized her with many diverse public causes. Friends from a broad spectrum of community groups will be attending her Davenport memorial to help celebrate the indelible mark she left upon our town.

In the mid-1970s, the Davenport school board doggedly ignored three defeated public referendums in their quest to sell off Davenport High School, threatening to denude the central city of an irreplaceable core community resource. Nora successfully led the public’s fight to save their iconic school – by proving that the historic building was both structurally sound and economically feasible to renovate up to modern code standards. The courage of her convictions was never more apparent than the night that a school-board member unplugged her microphone – and had a police officer escort her out of the public meeting – for no more a show of civil disobedience than standing at the mic, repeating over, and over, the passage out of the school board’s own operating procedures that would not allow it to deplete the school’s 10-year maintenance fund on a new construction project. Thanks to Nora’s successful effort to save venerable old Davenport High School, as many as four generations of Davenport families – including my own – have now graduated from that historic building.

In the early 1970s, the Cross-Town Expressway threatened to destroy every historic district in Davenport, from the Village of East Davenport to downtown’s Washington Square/West Third Street old-town district to the Gold Coast. All to get truckers from Jersey Ridge to Marquette Street three minutes faster. Nora stood up against a bevy of highway men/engineers at the local public hearings. She proved that out-of-date traffic counts had been used to justify the $33-million construction project – and that aldermen had never been notified of the federal mandate that would require the city to build new relocation housing for the 1,200-plus moderate-income residents displaced from their homes along the highway’s path. (Nora, and members of the Cross-Town Coalition, spent weeks walking miles of the highway corridor, knocking on doors and compiling a head count of the human collateral damage caused by such an arbitrary construction project disguised as “urban renewal.”) Today, such highways are considered passé in planning circles and are no longer built.

Davenport has one of the most spectacular open riverfronts in the nation. It did not come without a fight. When nine miles of that Davenport riverfront were threatened by a 14-foot-high flood-wall project in the 1980s, Nora successfully led the fight against the wall, encouraging the city to pursue more modern, nonstructural flood-control alternatives – and proving that the $41-million-plus wall project could not even meet the the minimum cost/benefit standard of paying one dollar of benefit back for each dollar spent to build it. In 2001, that local flood-wall fight was elevated into a national debate when George W. Bush’s FEMA director, Joe Allbaugh, made the mistake of standing on the Centennial Bridge and chastising Mayor Phil Yerington over the fact that Davenport was the only major city on the Mississippi without a flood wall. Mayor Yerington, not known for being a shrinking violet in a fight, held the high ground in that debate and defended nonstructural flood control. The 1993 benchmark flood tested structural walls up and down the river, and it was reported that 90 percent either failed or were at the point of collapse. Such temporary structural flood-control measures cost cities tens of millions to build, then millions more to maintain each year. The life expectancy of such walls is only 20 to 25 years – after which, it is time to pay for a costly rebuild again.

Nora laid the very groundwork upon which Yerington stood in that national debate, which forever changed Mississippi River floodplain-management policy. Davenport now boasts 15 miles of open, primarily city-owned, riverfront park land, stretching from the Bettendorf border to I-280. After decades of floodplain buy-out programs, Davenport now has only 21 buildings that ever find their feet in the water during major floods or require alternative control efforts. Other river cities routinely come to Davenport to tour our expansive riverfront and marvel at our unfettered access to it – and the many festivals and historic venues we celebrate on its banks. All because Nora had the courage to lead the way a better alternative that was a win-win for everyone.

Nora’s courage exemplified true leadership, and she will be missed greatly.

Nora DeJohn Memorial Service
Funeral, Christian Burial, and Celebration of Life
We are gathering to say goodbye to Nora Kelly DeJohn and to celebrate her life. She did not want this to be a somber occasion; she wanted a “party” and hoped for lots of music. To honor her life, we return to the places she deemed special. We invite all who knew Nora to join us as we say goodbye to a wonderful mother, friend, teacher, and advocate.

Saturday, May 21, 2011
10 a.m.: Funeral Service
Catholic Mass at Christ the King Chapel, St. Ambrose University, Davenport.
Music: Cantor and bagpiper for end-of-mass escort to gravesite.

11 a.m.: Christian Burial
Mt. Calvary Cemetery, 804 East 39th Street, Davenport.

Noon: Celebration of Nora’s Life
German American Heritage Center Banquet Room, 712 West Second Street, Davenport. (Nora helped save this building from demolition by the Cross-Town Expressway.)
Music: The Barley House Band (Celtic musicians).
Food/drink: Light lunch – sandwiches, platters, salads, coffee, tea, wine, and beer.

Memorial donations can be made to: Scott County Historic Preservation Society, P.O. Box 5017, Bettendorf IA 52722; Oaks of Mamre Catholic Worker House, P.O. Box 4618, Davenport IA 52802; hospice/visiting-nurses organizations; and cancer support/research groups.

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