Management by Murder – LaGrange, Ia. AKA Dubuque

Unless there is a flagrant reason to not, I try to be kind to the places I visit/live. I’m not sure why I decided to locate Management by Murder in LaGrange rather than Dubuque and to call the university LaGrange University rather than the University of Dubuque. In fiction, it’s common to lighten or darken the colors, expand and contract sizes, turn the volume up and down. The view as a transient certainly isn’t the same as that of a lifelong resident. Often the transient can bring the subject into sharper focus, the resident’s perspective having been dulled by the sameness of things.

Dubuque was a red brick Mississippi River town. It was a company town. The place survived by providing work at John Deer manufacturing and The Pack, Dubuque Meat Packing plant. Maybe you didn’t work for one or the other, but Aunt Thelma or Cousin Cyril certainly did.

One might think that the three small colleges in town would offer an antidote. Two of the colleges, Loras College and Clark College, were colleges for Catholic men and women respectively. Lots of nuns and fathers behind the podiums. The University of Dubuque was originally affiliated with the Presbyterian Church. When I lived there, the market for protestant parochial schools had diminished to the point where the school no longer required a religion course or attendance at morning prayers. The target market was secular and nationwide. Still, with only 500 students, there weren’t many faculty and students to provide much contrast to the homogenous social landscape. 

It is a widespread misconception and perhaps a social paradox that college faculty are sophisticated. These are people who, in the majority, spent their lives in libraries and classrooms. They lived on fellowships and scholarships and started out with a PhD as an adjunct professor in three different universities. Occasionally they backpacked or camped with friends and family. Absolutely no reflection on their character but they are not sophisticated. Where to properly place the cutlery, what to wear to a gala, the proper wine to serve and in which glass, why you don’t ever serve French onion cheese dip for any occasion, that sort of thing. A typical faculty party will feature plastic spoons and paper plates. Whatever you wore to wash the car is fine for a party. Chicken tenders and Michelob Ultra is one hell of a good combination. Pass the chips and dip, please. Sophisticated or not, those people can be one hell of a lot of fun.

Not to belabor this, but the second-best restaurant in Dubuque was the El Rancho. They served Chinese food. The best entertainment was in the bar at the Holiday Inn, Herbie on piano, Marie on vocals. The local brewery was Pickett’s. They sourced their water from the Mississippi. Sediment in the bottom of the bottle was the norm.

Even with all that, the town had a rugged charm. It was built and sustained by working men, glad to have a job that would support a family and proud of their work. A “local” is a bar that is within walking distance of where you live. Every worker in the city had a local where he gathered with his neighbors and buddies to throw some darts, exchange insights into the Packer offense and wonder what got into those damn kids that they look the way they do these days.

A few buildings in town gave the city an elegant charm. One was the Ryan house, transformed by Hog Ryan into a mansion for two families and later became a gorgeous watering hole. Another was Lachardee’s (surely misspelled), a mansion with marvelous stained glass, beveled spindles, stone fireplaces and a crowd that talked about the latest movies and thought Theatre of the Absurd represented the current social norm. These people pooled their dollars to buy another round.

It’s interesting that the workers who had money hung out in bars built to withstand a brawl and the penniless artists lounged in the elegance of a mansion.

My grandfather was the Grand Potentate of the Elks club in my hometown. My dad ruled over the pool tables. My parents danced there on Saturday night. Spiked eggnog was served free on Thanksgiving Day and Tom and Jerry’s on Christmas. Ergo, I was an Elk. I never went to a meeting so I always thought of the club as the quintessential small town social gathering place. I paid my dues and stopped in a local club wherever I traveled.

The Elks Club in Denver was a monument to Elkdom. The club in Dubuque was tribute to the club in Denver. The building was a statement. It said, we are substantial, we do good works in the community, dedicated to the betterment of the city, a damn good place to have a bourbon and a back.

LaGrange University is patterned only on the physical facility of the University of Dubuque. When I was there, the chairman of the board had ties to the church and the president wasn’t a hard charging, stop-at-nothing entrepreneur. He was a former librarian who liked to collect old railroad lanterns. There was no research component at the school but there was a seminary.

East Dubuque was across the river in Illinois. It was as depicted: a collection of homes that housed people in the town’s entertainment industry. Laws in Illinois were much different than in Iowa. The place was much like villages that sprung up around military bases around the world. Bars, massage parlors, cheap-assed hamburger joints and a place to buy a nice T-shirt.

I haven’t been back in forty years. The population was 60,000 when I lived there. Now it’s 58,000. Of the top 12 restaurants in town, five of them are breweries. Dubuque Meat Packing has closed but John Deere still has a manufacturing facility. The output is different. These days it’s crawler loaders, skid steers and knuckleboom loaders.

It’s hard to tell if the times are indeed a changing.

Management by Murder

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Rodney Romig

Rodney Romig has a BA in English and a PhD in Economics from the U. of Nebraska. He lived and worked in Asia for two years (Japan, Korean, Taiwan, Thailand) and Europe for ten years (Germany, England, Belgium, Holland, Portugal, Spain, Greece, Scotland, Italy). For nineteen years, he lived and worked in Hawaii, where he served as the Dean of the College of Business Administration and Professor of Economics at Hawaii Pacific University... Read Full Bio