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THE PASSING OF BILL STOWE, CEO OF DES MOINES WATERWORKS
Des Moines Register reports:

Bill Stowe, a community leader known for his wavy silver hair and unwavering commitment to Iowa's water quality, has died. He was 60.

Stowe, the CEO and general manager of Des Moines Water Works, announced he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just three weeks before he was moved to hospice. He died Sunday.

Stowe spent his career as a public servant. He was Des Moines' public works director for 13 years before taking the helm of the water utility in 2012. He stayed in that post until his illness forced him to retire April 2.

"He's a real-deal guy. He was concerned about making sure that he's not being a bad steward with what he was entrusted with," said Tom Turner, who worked with Stowe at MidAmerican Energy in the 1980s and later at the city.

"From flooding to storm sewers, to drinking water, he had a pretty big impact on central Iowa."

Stowe grew up on a farm in Nevada, Iowa, and played basketball at Grinnell College. He was later proud when his son, Liam, chose to attend his father's alma mater, friends said.

Stowe went on to earn a master's degree in engineering at the University of Wisconsin and a second master's in labor relations at the University of Illinois. He later earned a law degree at Loyola University.

He worked in the oil industry in Houston and New Orleans and in the coal mining industry in Illinois before joining MidAmerican Energy (then known as Iowa Resources), Turner said. His job in the operations department for the electric utility later took him to Iowa City.

Stowe eventually made his way back to central Iowa, where he served a stint as Des Moines' human resources director before taking on the public works role.

With his long, silver hair and resemblance to the actor Russell Crowe, Stowe garnered a cult-like fascination as public works director for his calm demeanor throughout each snow season and in 2008, when Des Moines dealt with historic flooding.

"Bill Stowe stands out like Jedi directing city crisis," headlined a column written by former Register writer Marc Hansen that year. Stowe became a steady presence in the twice-daily media briefings, speaking with a type of tranquil authority only he could portray, Hansen wrote.

"He's a gentle, soft-spoken giant," said Denny Linderbaum, a friend and fellow member of the Interchange Business Club, a weekly breakfast club among local businessmen. "That white mane of hair that he has, it was his persona.

"We're all lucky to have been able to know him."

His local celebrity led to The Bill Stowe Fan Page, a now-defunct Facebook group made up of hundreds of Des Moines-area admirers. His likeness was immortalized on a Raygun shirt that read, "It's Stowe Season!" for his frequent media interviews in the winter while the city grappled with snow removal.

A Raygun e-newsletter announcing the T-shirt included Stowe edited onto the cover of People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive issue. Barbra Streisand proclaims she "shoulda never broke up with Bill" on the parody cover.

"There was always something about him that struck me, personally," Raygun owner Mike Draper said. "And then, as the company grew and we started interacting with the community more about content, we got more and more sporadic messages about, 'Do a shirt for Bill Stowe,' and, 'Winter is coming, which means Stowe will be back on TV.'

"If you can build a fan base talking about plowing snow, you've got something."

In true fashion, Stowe remained humble throughout the hullabaloo. He always brought the praise back to his team, whether it was the public works employees working behind the scenes to plow snow or clean up after flooding, or the waterworks technicians providing central Iowa's drinking water.

"Five hundred people in this department have put 200 weeks working on this issue. I just happen to be the up-front person," he told Hansen in that 2008 flood-response column.

His employees were the focus of his retirement letter this month, too.

In it, Stowe wrote that he "thoroughly enjoyed and relished" working with his "great team" every day. On his way to Kavanagh House hospice, Stowe called interim CEO Ted Corrigan to be sure he had everything he needed to take over the utility.

"While this was not the time or the way I had hoped to make this announcement, I am able to make this difficult decision because I have the faith and confidence in the employees of Des Moines Water Works and the Board that oversees the organization," Stowe wrote. "It was one of the high honors of my life to be entrusted to lead DMWW."

More recently, Stowe was the face of a controversial lawsuit filed by Water Works against three northwest Iowa counties, alleging drainage from their district tiles acts as a conduit that allows high nitrate levels to seep from farm fields into the Raccoon River.

Stowe advocated for clean water. He maintained it was not just the utility's responsibility to spend millions of dollars removing nitrates from water so it could be safe for its 500,000 customers to drink.

The utility sought federal oversight of the drainage districts and indirectly, farmers.

Stowe faced criticism for his efforts, from city councilmembers who wanted to shy away from controversy, to farmers who felt personally attacked, to the state Legislature, which later moved to dissolve the organization and force a regionalization of all water utilities. Gov. Terry Branstad once blamed Stowe for starting a war between rural and urban Iowa.

"One of the things that just irritated me was when people said that Bill was anti-farm," Linderbaum said. "He's not anti-farm. He was not fighting against farming, he was fighting for water quality for the state of Iowa. And he was strong enough to bring the issue up and to the forefront. I admired him then, and I admire him now."

He faced personal threats during that time, "and that weighed on him," Linderbaum said.

But Stowe remained steadfast, articulating his viewpoint without throwing muck.

Bill Stowe meets with the Des Moines Register editorial board in 2017 to talk about water utility regionalization.Buy Photo
Bill Stowe meets with the Des Moines Register editorial board in 2017 to talk about water utility regionalization. (Photo: Register file photo)

Linderbaum recalled a breakfast club meeting in which Stowe and an area farmer debated the merits of the lawsuit and their differing views on water quality.

"It was such an intelligent conversation with no rancor at all," he said. "That was Bill. He led that battle courageously."

Water Works ultimately lost the lawsuit when a federal judge ruled drainage districts do not have authority to mediate pollution, and that damages could not be collected from drainage districts.

But Stowe's efforts started an honest conversation about Iowa and "accelerated a conversation that had been taking place in quiet corners," wrote Art Cullen, editor of The Storm Lake Times, in a letter to the Des Moines Register after Stowe's diagnosis was announced.

"Not everyone would have had the steel," Cullen wrote.

Stowe's decision to file that lawsuit, no matter how controversial, was made with the same consideration he took to fighting floods and investing in the city's infrastructure, said Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie.

"He wanted to do what is right not only for today, but for his kids and grandkids and future generations. What we do today affects what's happening way off into the future and we have to make decisions based on the long view, not just the short one," Cownie said.

"It doesn't seem like we're much closer, but the fight continues," he added of the state's ongoing struggle with water quality.

In his personal life, Stowe was a six-year member of the Rotary Club of Des Moines, a service organization dedicated to causes that help improve lives around the world - something near to his heart both personally and professionally, said Executive Director Kitte Noble. He attended the club's meetings every week, always sitting with Noble at her table.

"He was always quick to sign up for donating time and money to particular projects that we would have undergoing for the year," she said. "And he always had a great big smile on his face."

Stowe was active at St. Anthony Catholic Church on the south side of Des Moines, where he and his family called home.

He regularly read scripture from the pulpit at the beginning of Saturday Mass, which he attended every weekend, Monsignor Frank Chiodo said. He worked hard to deepen his faith and participated in spiritual direction and guidance at the Emmaus House in Des Moines, he said.

"He loved it," Chiodo said. "I could see he's very committed to his Catholic faith, and it showed in the way he presented himself on the altar and in his devotion to God."

Stowe was a "motorcycle guy" who loved taking rides on his Harley, Cownie said. The two shared a love of music, especially the blues, and regularly took their children to concerts together, he said.

When asked to describe Stowe's legacy on Des Moines, Cownie refers to a 1998 song by Bob Seger, "Roll Me Away," about a man who is on a lifelong journey - on his motorcycle, of course - to find what's right in the world:

Roll, roll me away
I'm gonna roll me away tonight
Gotta keep rollin', gotta keep ridin'
Keep searchin' till I find what's right
And as the sunset faded I spoke
To the faintest first starlight
And I said next time
Next time
We'll get it right


"Next time, we'll get it right," Cownie said, pausing to hold back tears as he described the last words of the song.

"You can strive for perfection, and it's hard to achieve. But I think, for Bill, that was always what he was hoping for and wishing for."

Stowe is survived by his wife, Amy Beattie, and son, Liam Stowe.

His body has been donated for scientific research. Services, including a public open house, are pending.

His family requests that memorial gifts be donated to St. Anthony Catholic Church or the Emmaus House in Des Moines, in lieu of flowers.


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