Maybe you’ve had a picnic at Haines Park or rode along the Vern Willey Trail.
But how much do you know about the people that these and other landmarks in Altoona are named after? We set out to learn more about these influential individuals.
Vern Willey Trail
Vern Willey started riding his bike as a way to combat high cholesterol.
Today, he’s an avid cyclist who’s made developing the trails a personal and professional mission.
That’s in spite of breaking his back in 1997 while on an organized ride. It left him paralyzed from the chest down but didn’t diminish his passion for riding.
Willey began working for the city in 1974 as a laborer, working his way up to water superintendent, assistant to the public works director and eventually the director. As he held these specific positions, he continued to oversee and work in multiple departments.
He now serves as community services director, with responsibilities that include overseeing public works, public utilities, maintenance and the building department, just to name a few. He also serves on the Central Iowa Trails Advisory Committee, Central Iowa Bicycle-Pedestrian Roundtable and Iowa Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee.
Willey says there were few trails when he first began riding, so he started working with a group to build trails in east Des Moines, Pleasant Hill and Altoona, and later, throughout central Iowa.
“We came up with a plan for the Central Iowa Trail Network that would eventually have two, 100-mile loops,” Willey says. “I have promoted and worked with developers to install trails in developments throughout Altoona for many years now.”
Willey logs 3,000 to 4,000 miles annually on his handcycle and has participated in The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa for more than 20 years, 14 of those since breaking his back.
Aaron Putnam, the city’s public works superintendent, says Willey sets an example as a dedicated worker who cares about his colleagues, even as he has to contend with his physical challenges. He’s also very family oriented.
“Vern is a very fair boss; he is passionate about the community and providing good service to the residents,” Putnam says. “Vern also acts informally as an employee representative, assisting people when they encounter health problems or when they near retirement.”
Willey says he’s very proud to have a portion of Altoona trails named after him, and hopes to expand on them.
“Hopefully they will help get more people out and exercising,” he says. “Altoona is truly my favorite place to live.”
One of Altoona’s earliest settlers, Thomas E. Haines, was a businessman and civic leader who was “very generous with his talents and money,” according to “One Hundred Years of Altoona History 1868-1968.”
Born in Ohio in 1831, he lived in Altoona from 1868 until his death in 1908. When he arrived in Altoona, he was working as a grain buyer for a Keokuk business. He went into the grain-buying business himself after that venture was unsuccessful.
Haines went on to build a 10,000-bushel elevator, also building and operating a tile and brick plant.
He worked in the Sabbath School and served as Sunday School superintendent, and took an interest in civic service, holding all the local public offices and serving in the State Legislature from 1882 to 1883.
Haines donated about four acres to the town to be used as a park.
According to “One Hundred Years of Altoona History”: “The deed to the park contains a forfeiture clause to protect the land from being used for anything other than park purposes.”
Bob Larson Avenue
Bob Larson is remembered as being a devoted educator, father, husband and community leader.
Larson was a longtime principal at Centennial Elementary, served on the City Council and was involved in numerous community activities.
But his favorite place was with the kids, says his wife, Linda Larson.
It was not unusual for her husband to bring kids home with him who were having problems. He’d spend time with them, doing yard work, she recalls.
“It made those kids feel loved,” she says.
In 1970, he became the elementary principal in Runnells and was there for four years. He transferred to Centennial Elementary, where he worked until his death in 1997.
He was also on the City Council for eight years, and worked on the park and library boards, and planning and zoning. He was a member of the Altoona United Methodist Church and Lions Club.
Tim Burget says the same attributes that made Bob a successful principal made him a successful councilman, namely his caring nature.
Burget served 24 years as mayor of Altoona and eight years on the City Council, sitting on the council at the same time as Bob.
He cared about the community and the kids, Burget says. He took an interest in the parks and worked on a major sidewalk program ensuring a safe route to Centennial.
Burget’s two kids went to Centennial while Larson was principal and “adored” him. He shares his favorite story about Bob, which involves Burget’s son, David. Bob called one day to tell Burget that the two were having lunch together, and said they had a problem. Burget asked what kind of trouble his son was in.
“He said, ‘Nothing. He just likes having lunch with me,’” Burget says, smiling.
Linda says Bob lives on in their two daughters, Julie Svec and Jill Piagentini.
“Whatever he did was reflected in his daughters,” she says. “They’ve turned out to be super good people. He was my best friend, and he was a very good dad.”
Sharon Townsend steps out onto the driveway of her home, pointing up the street to a white house.
It’s where her late husband, Bob Townsend, spent the majority of his childhood. Next to it is the land he started his business, Townsend Industries, on.
There was nowhere else he wanted to live but Altoona, Sharon says. Over the years, he lived within about a half-mile radius from this home.
“He traveled in big circles but lived in a very little circle,” she says.
Townsend became internationally known for inventing a printing press attachment that allowed offset printing machines to print two colors in a single pass. At the time, it revolutionized the printing industry, Sharon says.
Townsend Industries opened in the mid-1950s. At its height, there were offices in England and Japan, his wife says. The business closed following Bob’s death in 2010.
He supported many causes and organizations, including the Altoona Campus, Southeast Polk Community School District, Altoona Public Library and Altoona Area Historical Society. Sharon continues to give to the causes today.
“He was very proud that we had such fine facilities as the Campus and the library, and fine schools,” Sharon says.
Bob thought it would be nice for the city to have a pocket park, she says, and put in a gazebo and had landscaping done on some property he owned. Sharon donated Townsend Park to the city after his death.
Burget, the former Altoona mayor, says Bob’s significant contributions will impact generations to come.
“He shared his success back with his community in a big way,” Burget says. “He was a very warm, congenial person. Just a nice, honest, giving man. That’s hard to find.”
Sam Wise Youth Complex
Longtime Altoona Mayor Sam Wise served in the role off and on for nearly three decades before deciding not to seek re-election in 1987.
He “earned a reputation for being impulsive, impatient and stubborn — traits supporters said made him a leader and traits opponents said led to a one-man show,” according to his obituary in The Des Moines Register on May 14, 1991. He was 72.
In addition, Polk County Supervisor Jack Bishop of Altoona described Wise as a “very hard-working, hands-on type mayor. There isn’t any question that Sam was controversial, but I think his critics — for the most part — respect him a great deal.”
Born Leslie J. Wise in DeWitt, he was drafted into the Army and ran a tank company during World War II, sustaining injuries during his service that led him to receive three Purple Hearts.
Wise operated grain elevators in Altoona and Mitchellville, was a farmer and briefly served as Polk County sheriff. He was also involved in the League of Iowa Municipalities and Iowa Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Committee.
Burget sat on the City Council while Wise was mayor and says he had a “cutting edge” view of infrastructure and believed it was important to be proactive when it came to the city’s water/sewer systems and putting in paved streets.
Wise taught him how to approach disagreements with individuals over city business. You could get angry at a meeting, Burget says, but “your disputes are only business, not personal.”
Wise was one of the driving forces behind the youth complex, he says.
“I think that was why it was natural to name it after him because he took so much time to see it accomplished,” Burget says.