Perry’s 10-year City Administrator and 23-year Water Works Superintendent Butch Niebuhr will retire at the end of the month after working for the city 35 years. In an exclusive video interview with ThePerryNews.com, Niebuhr reflects on his life in Perry, his long career in local government and his plans for the new chapter of his life now starting.
Niebuhr is highly respected, even revered, not only in the Perry City Hall and departments of the city’s local government but among the many engineers, urban planners, economic developers and regional and state administrators and politicians he has worked with over the years. All praise his faultless memory, the wide range of his competence and the breadth of his progressive vision for Perry and its future.
Former Perry Mayor Viivi Shirley, for example, who came to office shortly after Niebuhr became city administrator in 2004, commends him in the highest terms.
“I think Butch has been extraordinary as a city administrator,” Shirley said. “There’s absolutely no doubt about it. He’s going to be missed. Not only missed as a person but for his extraordinary capability to see the connections. If you go through the alphabet, Butch can take B and C and see the connection to Z. He is steadfast. He is very, very bright, and he has the ability to get along with just about everybody. He has vision. Butch is extraordinary.”
Shirley is not alone in her opinion about Delbert “Butch” Niebuhr, the youngest of seven children of Bert and Martha Niebuhr. The Niebuhr family moved to Perry from Webster City in 1963, when Bert took over management of the Perry Lutheran Home. Eventually, both of Butch’s parents shared the task of managing and administering the long-term care facility.
Butch graduated from Perry High School in 1968 after working at a variety of local jobs–at Don’s Shoes, Scotty’s Super-Valu and the Perry Foundry–but the one steady job all through high school was at Royer’s 66, a gasoline and auto service station at 2810 Willis Ave. in Perry.
After graduating, Butch spent a year studying petroleum marketing at Ellsworth Community College in Iowa Falls, and he did a brief stint as a management trainee with Phillips Petroleum, with an eye toward eventually running his own station. But his career progress was interrupted when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in December 1970.
Niebuhr served with the First Infantry Division, which had returned from Vietnam to its Fort Riley, Kan., base the previous January as the war in Indochina started winding down. He was stationed stateside but recalls coming close to shipping out for Vietnam.
“On the day we were supposed to ship out,” he said, “we were on a bus, ready to go to the airport. A guy comes running out of the dayroom and says, ‘Hold the bus! Hold the bus! Your orders have been changed. You’re going to Fort Riley, Kansas.’ And everybody’s just in shock. Nobody says anything. All of a sudden the bus driver turns around and says, ‘Get off my goddamn bus.’ We get off the bus and everybody runs down to catch a taxi to get to the airport and get out of there. We had two weeks’ leave before we had to report to Fort Riley.”
Through the good offices of Iowa Congressman William J. Scherle (pronounced Shirley), Butch received an early discharge from active service and mustered out of the U.S. Army June 22, 1972. He returned to Perry and picked up where he had left off, becoming part-owner of Royer’s 66, first in partnership with Joe Royer and then with Clarence “Jack” Hawn. Butch became the sole owner in 1974 and changed the name to East Willis 66.
Perry Mayor Jay Pattee, who has been in office five years and was a city council member for 10 years prior, said he thinks Niebuhr’s experience as an owner of a small business paid off later when he moved into work in the public sector.
“Butch owned his own gas station when he was young,” Pattee said, “and I think he learned how important the coming and going of dollars and cents are to a business, and that carried over into his work in the public line. Butch has always looked over the city like it was his own private business. I don’t mean that he felt like he was the only guy that benefitted from what happened with the city. What I’m saying is that he had the same respect for the money of the city as if–and I always say this about me, too, that I always try to treat the city’s money like it was my own, and I feel Butch did that as well. He was good at finding things that needed to be done but every time he found something that needed to be done, he found a way to pay for it, too.”
Niebuhr ran the East Willis 66 on his own for five years. “It was East Willis 66 up to December 1979,” he said. “That’s when I sold out. It was the worst winter day of that winter, but we had a good sale.” The site now houses the Bluejay Market.
Butch started working for the Perry Water Works Jan. 2, 1980, and became Water Works superintendent in 1986. “My dad was happy to see me get on with the city,” he said. Bert Niebuhr died in 1981. Martha Niebuhr died in 2007, fittingly, at the Perry Lutheran Home, where she had devoted many years of labor.
Jeff Stewart of Perry has worked 34 years at the Perry Water Works, 29 of them alongside Butch. “At Christmas every year, Butch would bring down some peanut brittle that his mom made,” Stewart said. “She made the best peanut brittle ever. He’d bring a can down, and it was just kind of a thing he did every year.”
Everyone who works with Butch mentions this homey side of his character. Perry Finance Officer Susie Moorhead, for instance, who has worked 17 years for the city of Perry and who, along with City Clerk Corey Eastman, makes up the administrative nucleus of city hall, said Butch always puts family first.
“Corey and I have daughters in the same class,” Moorhead said, “and Butch has always been a real advocate of family first, so if there’s an event, like a choir concert or youth sports that our kids are involved in, Butch will stay here if we need to go to an event. He really cultivates that atmosphere of family first.”
He will “definitely be missed,” she said. “He knows so much about the infrastructure of Perry and the history and why projects were done, and it’s going to be hard to find someone–I mean, nobody’s going to have that history.”
Perry Public Library Director Mary Murphy also notes Niebuhr’s human touch with city workers, and she remembers a particular instance of his generosity toward her. She said Niebuhr and another city employee each donated 40 hours of their vacation time to her to use while she coped with a medical issue in 2013.
“It was a huge boon to me, who had two three-week absences in the same year for surgeries,” Murphy said. “It is a statement about the work culture in Perry that two employees would be so generous to another employee.”
Eastman, who worked 10 years in the Dallas County Auditor’s office, said Butch “opened the door to get me back home from the county.” Now Perry’s City Clerk for five years, Eastman said he and Moorhead intend to help in the transition to new leadership and provide continuity in programs and projects.
“Butch felt it was time to retire,” Eastman said, “and it was his choice, so of course we’re supportive of him, but we’re also supportive of the council’s choice of Sven (Peterson) coming in and being the next city administrator. Susie and I have agreed to keep the current projects going and are looking forward to new ones.”
Perry Public Works Director Jack Butler is a 16-year veteran of the city of Perry who works on a daily basis with Butch.
“I’m really going to miss him,” Butler said. “He’s great to work for. Working with Butch, he’s very level headed and he knows what’s going on. We communicate every day. I go in and tell him our plans for the day and what we have going on, and that way he knows so when the phone rings, he’s already got an answer as to what we’re doing.”
In 2003, after a period of frequent turnover in the city administrator’s position, Perry Mayor Alan Shirley offered the administrator’s job to Butch, who was then superintending the Perry Water Works. Butch accepted the double duty, contracting with the city to hold both positions beginning in January 2004. He maintained this balancing act until becoming full-time city administrator in 2009.
Shortly after appointing Butch to the city’s top administrative post, Alan Shirley fell ill and died after a brief illness in the summer of 2004. He was succeeded in the post by his wife, Viivi Shirley.
“Butch had not been city administrator very long when Alan died,” Viivi recalls. “He was very, very supportive of me. He guided me. He educated me about issues that I know nothing about. I think we were a good team. No, I know we were a good team. I cannot imagine having a better partner than Butch was when I was mayor. He kind of held my hand and showed me the way and also allowed me to be who I am and do what I wanted. And that’s pretty rare.”
Viivi also recalls the turbulent period prior to Butch’s appointment to city hall.
“I know it was stressful for Alan,” she said. “We talked about what would happen if the city administrator position fell vacant. I was real worried about the stress on Alan at that time, and he said, ‘Don’t worry about it. I have someone in mind who I think would be an excellent administrator.’ And I looked at him and said, ‘Well, who?’ and he said, ‘Butch Niebuhr.’ And I remember looking at him and thinking about it and saying, ‘You’re brilliant.’ The minute he said that, I felt a kind of peace of mind for the city but also for the stress level of my husband. And then he was sick, but he knew the city was in good hands.”
Butch is often praised for knowing Perry’s infrastructure–the gas, water, electric, storm and sanitary sewer lines–like the back of his hand. And he is also praised for an almost uncanny ability to attract grant funding for city projects, such as the Environmental Protection Agency grants for cleaning up the brownfields west of Perry. These are strengths all his admirers note. A third talent is his far-sightedness when it comes to Perry’s future and the likeliest direction of development.
Alan Vandehaar, communities specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach and project manager at the downtown Center for Towncraft, gives the highest marks to Butch’s spirit of progress.
“In my 28 years of doing community development work around Iowa, I’ve never worked with a city manager more dedicated to improving his city than Butch Niebuhr in Perry,” Vandehaar said. “In the 10 years I’ve known him, Butch has worked tirelessly on a multitude of projects to make Perry a better place to live and work. I’ve been impressed with his boundless energy and ability to secure so many grants for the city to address a wide range of local needs and his openness to trying new ideas while often forging a coalition of people and resources to address local issues, from infrastructure to recreation to making the Perry community more inclusive.”
Vandehaar especially lauds Niebuhr’s commitment to regionalism in the development of the Raccoon River Valley Trail and its eventual linking with the High Trestle Trail.
“Butch really embraced the Towncraft Center, and we brought many ISU professors, students and classes to work in Perry. He was a driving force in creating the Common Thread regional group of towns on the two bicycle trails. This has brought more people out of the Des Moines metro area to Perry and other trail towns and organized two bike trail tourism conferences in Perry the past two years. It’s been a real pleasure to work with him and I, like many, will miss him.”
Equally bullish on bike trail development is Chuck Offenburger, retired Des Moines Register reporter and founder and continuing spokesperson for the Raccoon River Valley Trail Association.
“Butch was invaluable when it came to developing the trail,” Offenburger said. “He has so much credibility around Perry, and he really believed in it and could see its importance from the start. Plus, coming up as a water guy and then taking on the full administrative workload, it really shows what a bright and versatile guy he is and a real family man, too. Coming from Perry, he knows all the city workers and their families and really brings the community together.”
Thanks to Butch, Offenburger said, the bright future of central Iowa bike tourism “is etched in people’s imaginations. When you take Butch and (Dallas County Conservation Executive Director) Mike Wallace, who is probably the best trail builder in the state–you get those two together and pulling in the same direction, and what can’t be done?”
Linda Wunsch, executive director of the Greater Dallas County Development Alliance, said Butch’s vision for economic development will be missed at the agency’s board table.
“Butch is really going to be missed,” Wunsch said. “He’s been the president of our agency for the past six-plus years and while at the helm of the agency, I feel like he helped direct us through some innovative changes that we went through. Butch has an intuitive way of looking at economic development and with that, I feel it’s been very valuable for our agency to have his intellectual properties at our board table. We’re going to miss him, but we also wish him the very best.”
Perry’s economic development is also close to the heart of Perry-Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Bob Wilson, who has worked closely with Butch on promoting Perry.
“It’s going to be sad to see him go,” Wilson said. “As far as working with him from the Chamber, it’s been awesome. Butch is more progressive for a rural town than the stereotypical administrator. He has more projects going than any administrator around. The staff can tell you that. He’s an animal at leveraging grant funds. But I don’t think he’s going anywhere. I don’t think he can get out of here. He’s got so many things that he needs to do that he’s not going anywhere.”
Incoming Perry City Administrator Sven Peterson has spent two years as the assistant city administrator, shadowing and playing understudy to a man who will be a tough act to follow.
“Sven’s got big shoes to fill, but he’ll be just fine,” predicts Public Works Director Butler. “He’s had a good teacher, so he’ll be able to jump right in there and do what he needs to do. But we’re definitely going to miss Butch.”
City Clerk Eastman is similarly optimistic about the transition in the city’s top administrator position.
“There’s always that sense that you’re letting a lot of knowledge walk out the door,” Eastman said, “and you’re going to miss that until Sven gets fully into full swing. We’ll miss that the most, the knowledge that Butch is taking with him, but he’s still within a phone call.”
Mayor Jay Pattee agrees. “I can’t say but that Sven will have Butch on his speed dial for a while,” Pattee said.
Peterson says he is ready for the new responsibilities.
“I’m going to miss having Butch around,” he said, “but he’s been a great mentor to me. I’ve learned a lot from him. Every day he shows me something that I had no clue of before. It’s going to be an adjustment. It’s been a good transition so far, and everybody up here (in city hall) has been extremely supportive of me.”
Like most Iowans of his generation, Butch is a hard worker, and he already has offers coming in for work as a consultant. With his wide range of personal contacts and intimate knowledge of the ins and outs of municipal government, it is no surprise he is in demand. He is also a serious golfer and says he intends to start playing his share for a change.
Denise Niebuhr, Butch’s wife of 36 years, recently retired after 32 years at DuPont Pioneer but still keeps the books for the Perry Golf and Country Club and works a few mornings a week at the McCreary Community Building in Perry. She is proud of her hard-working husband.
“Butch has lived in Perry most of his life, and this is where we plan to retire,” Denise said. “Butch is proud of Perry and our future. He’s been instrumental in our bike trail and hopes to see the trail connector between Perry and Woodward completed. He’s working to improve our local airport and is also proud of the working relationship our city has with Iowa State University and Drake University. Seeing the Hotel Pattee come back to life has been great for Perry. There are many projects Butch has been involved with and is proud to have played a part. He is a wealth of information on grants and funding as well as staying up to date on the county. We both are hard-working people so even though the hours are demanding, we’re able to find a balance between our work and personal lives.”
At the same time, a slightly slower pace of life sounds like it would suit Denise.
“Retirement will be different,” she said, “but we are looking forward to it. I am sure Butch will still be active in our community. He is happy to pass the torch on to another Perry resident, Sven Peterson, who also has a vision for Perry’s growth.”
ThePerryNews.com photos by Mark Summerson
June 15 Perry City Council highlights courtesy of PEGASUS TV 12 volunteer Doug Wood