One of the good ones

One of the strangest but ultimately funniest moments in my “professional” career thus far sprung out of a sarcastic column I wrote about a sarcastic comment that now-former Grundy County Supervisor Harlyn Riekena made in reference to the fate of some decaying trees on the courthouse property. Harlyn and I, I thought, were both in on the joke, but a few people felt otherwise and tore into me—I should note, however, that I’ve still heard much worse from my mother and my fiancé.


I remembered the ordeal a month or so ago when I saw woodcarver Gary Keenan’s finished product on the south side of the lawn: a beautiful and heartfelt tribute to Harlyn’s late son and all of the other local kids who passed too soon. For all of the political jabs that sprung out of one of his trademark quips, the end result transcended them and reminded me just how much we’ll miss our most quoteworthy county official now that he’s retired.


Harlyn wasn’t much for sentimentality, as I can recall him telling me about a year ago that he didn’t really have a good reason to step down or any big plans come 2019.


“I’m just getting too old,” he said.


In the three years plus that I’ve covered the supervisors, I can’t recall a single instance in which Harlyn said something and then requested that it not be quoted. He was decidedly unpolished—never in an inappropriate or unprofessional manner—but simply in the fact that he said how he felt without forcing anyone to read between the lines. Perhaps, in that sense, he was a trendsetter.


Selfishly, I wish he could stay on the board forever. On more Monday mornings than I can count, the only thing that got me through the morning was an off-script comment or Iowa-Iowa State banter as Harlyn carried the banner for the Hawkeyes in hostile territory (as a fellow fan, I always appreciated it).


Changes are inevitable, but the lack of turnover on the board has always impressed me. Now that Heidi Nederhoff is sworn in, she’s the first new supervisor in over a decade. It’s a strong unit, and each member brings different strengths and areas of expertise.


Now that Harlyn won’t be at every meeting, the least we can do is give him a radio show or a weekly column to air all of his grievances with the world. It’ll certainly take some getting used to the first time I’m sifting through my notes and I don’t have any of his wisecracks to plug into the story.


It’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to get in to public service these days: everything you do will be scrutinized by jerks like me (and on bigger stages, jerks a lot smarter than me), you’ve got to sell yourself to voters again every two to four years and you’ll almost certainly make at least one mortal enemy by the time you’re finished.


But there’s something to be said for the folks who do it, especially on a local level, where they may never make headlines in an outlet bigger than The Grundy Register. There are tough decisions to be made, and some of them may alienate you from people you thought were your friends.


Harlyn was one of the good ones. I have a hard time believing that he’ll suddenly revert to keeping all of his opinions to himself, and I hope he’ll spread his wisdom at coffee tables, barstools and public forums all over the area. Or at the very least, I hope he’ll come back to take a few jabs at his old colleagues once in a while.


At Harlyn’s final meeting on Monday, he cast one last dissenting vote on the kind of thing he’d spent most of his political career railing against: an airport ordinance that, to me at least, illustrated the strange bureaucracy and Kafkaesque machinations of modern government—why does it cost $8,000 to modify the height restrictions at a sparsely used grass strip?


He was a staunch opponent of laws and regulations for the sake of laws and regulations, and although he wound up in the minority on a 3-2 tally, he took one last stand before shaking hands and bidding farewell to the supervisors who had just voted the opposite way.


“Thanks for putting up with me,” he said before adjournment.


From one ornery rabble rouser with too many opinions to another, thanks for the memories, Harlyn. I won’t forget about you anytime soon.