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Rock 'n' roll legends' music lives on at Clear Lake Winter Dance Party 60 years later (with photos)

CLEAR LAKE | It’s been 60 years since rock 'n' roll’s brightest lights were extinguished.

But through the Surf Ballroom & Museum and the annual Winter Dance Party tribute in Clear Lake, their lights still shine.

“The music may have died for a brief moment, but here we are 60 years later and the music is alive,” said Jeff Nicholas, president of the North Iowa Cultural Center & Museum of Directors, the nonprofit that runs the Surf Ballroom.

The Winter Dance Party, a four-day event that began Wednesday, was started in 1979 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson’s last performance at the Surf Ballroom.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the infamous Winter Dance Party concert tour and the Feb. 3, 1959, plane crash that killed the three rock ‘n’ roll legends — and pilot Roger Peterson — near Clear Lake.

Photos: Plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, others in Clear Lake, Feb. 3, 1959

The crash was memorialized as “the day the music died” in Don McLean’s 1971 hit “American Pie.”

“That’s not what put the Surf on the map,” said Connie Valens, one of Ritchie Valens’ sisters. “What put the Surf on the map is that it was the last performance of three of the greatest artists of the 1950s, and what happened afterward just added to the legacy.”

The original Winter Dance Party concert tour, including stops in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, took place from Jan. 23, 1959, to Feb. 15, 1959.

Connie Valens was 8 years old when her brother Ritchie Valens died. He was 17.

“Everybody’s got a golden boy; Ritchie was ours,” she said with a smile Friday morning at the Surf Ballroom.

Many years passed before Connie Valens and her brother Bob Morales, who died in September, stepped foot in the Surf Ballroom — “the last place our brother was happy” — for the first time.

“It was surreal,” she said, recalling how cold, damp and musty it was. “It was like he was there.”

Within the past 10 years, Connie Valens has found the Surf to be anything but what she remembers then. While she still feels her brother’s presence, the venue is warm and welcoming.

“It’s family, and that’s what brings us back and that’s what brings our family back,” she said.

More than 30 family members of Ritchie Valens are attending Winter Dance Party this year to celebrate what he’s done for them — and rock ‘n’ roll — within the past 60 years.

Ritchie Valens’ family has been joined by members of Buddy Holly’s and The Big Bopper’s families, as well, over the years.

“We find that from the Surf’s perspective that the people who were affected the most by what happened here find the greatest peace by coming back,” Nicholas said.

The Winter Dance Party draws hundreds new and returning from near and far annually to celebrate the last performance of Holly, Valens and Richardson, their music and the influence they had on music today.

“The longevity of this music is just absolutely amazing, and that’s what it’s about,” Nicholas said. “Obviously, (the Surf) is bricks and mortar, but the music brings people together and that’s where the friendships and relationships build and last a lifetime.”

Photos: 2019 Winter Dance Party at Surf Ballroom (Updated Friday)

Photos: 2019 Winter Dance Party at Surf Ballroom

CHRIS ZOELLER The Globe Gazette 

Couples dance in the back of the ballroom as Austin Allsup performs Friday night at the Winter Dance Party at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake.

CHRIS ZOELLER The Globe Gazette 

Austin Allsup performs Friday night at the Winter Dance Party at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds visits Mason City to talk jobs, education

MASON CITY | Gov. Kim Reynolds visited Mason City on Friday afternoon, as she and Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg wind down their weeklong "Condition of the State Tour."

During her one-hour visit with representatives for Henkel Construction and NIACC, Reynolds listened to plans about how they're working to recruit young, talented workers to the area.

Reynolds noted that "(we're) having trouble getting contractors and construction workers in Iowa," and that with that particular problem, what NIAAC and community colleges are offering is "critical to what we're trying to do."

One major issue, according to Henkel Vice President of Operations Kent Brcka, is that no curriculum exists to address the needs of a construction company, such as Henkel.

So the 127-year-old company presented to Reynolds that its been collaborating with NIACC to "develop a curriculum that works" and offer "building traits programs."

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A program that Henkel has taken to offering in-house is a six-week, three-hour foreman program taught by people who have had experience running projects in the hope of "upskilling" workers who might come on as laborers with only a high school diploma or high school equivalency diplomas. 

In addition, Henkel is offering tuition reimbursements to individuals who want to pursue further education to help them advance in their careers.

But as Brcka noted, it "takes a lot of time and effort to find workers."

"Not unlike a lot of other contractors, we struggle with finding workers," Brcka said. 

There can be hesitation from parents, counselors and teachers alike about younger, fresher people getting into construction and engineering work.

Henkel and others work to overcome that by offering job shadowing and hosting hands-on building competitions.

In the past 12 months of outreach, Henkel estimated that its reached 1,200-plus students while attending six career fairs and events.

Collaborations, such as the one with NIACC, are good starts for recruitment.

NIACC President Steve Schulz said that the community college is working to "customize the curriculum to meet the needs of all students."

Reynolds acknowledged that the problem, as of now, is that states such as Iowa "have jobs looking for people."

Which is why, Reynolds said, her administration is recommending $17.2 million be routed to Future Ready Iowa. That program aims to get 70 percent of Iowa's workforce properly "credentialed for success" by 2025.

"The first state to figure this out...wins," Reynolds said.

Photos: NIACC Diesel Technology Center

Photos: NIACC Diesel Technology Center

Iowa Democrats playing the field

Iowa Democrats will have an overwhelming number of choices for the biggest decision they will make over the next 12 months.

In almost exactly one year, assuming the political calendar does not change, Iowa Democrats will begin the process of selecting their party’s nominee for president by conducting the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses.

In the 12 months between now and then, those Iowa Democrats must sift through what likely will be an expansive field.

Ultimately, they will have to choose one candidate to support as they begin their party’s process of choosing who will take on Republican President Donald Trump in the 2020 election.

As of Friday, 10 candidates have declared their candidacy or are running in an exploratory phase. The size of the field could grow to two dozen or more before it’s finished.

Some of the more well-known are jumping into the race and visiting Iowa – the past month has featured declarations and visits from Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker.

Choosing a candidate to support will be a daunting challenge, Iowa Democrats say, because they expect the field to be great not only in quantity, but also – and more importantly – in quality.

It’s a good thing Iowa Democrats have a full year to make up their minds.

“It’s going to be exhausting, fun, interesting,” said JoAnn Hardy, chairwoman of the Cerro Gordo County Democrats in northern Iowa. “I’m looking forward to it.”

Wide-open field

Because they are pleased with the ever-growing field of candidates, Iowa Democrats are keeping their options open and doing some candidate shopping.

“Everyone that I’ve talked to up here in Woodbury County is really open-minded about it. I don’t think anybody’s picked anybody that they’re going to caucus for yet,” said Jeremy Dumkrieger, chairman of the Woodbury County Democrats in western Iowa. “I think everyone’s excited about the challenges.”

In past years many Iowa Democrats went into the caucuses having a good idea who they would ultimately support. A smaller share of party activists was truly undecided, Democrats say.

That’s not the case this time.

Bagniewski said some of the campaigns are frustrated because they have been unable to secure endorsements to accompany their candidacy announcements.

“It’s an embarrassment of riches. All BS aside, there are a lot of really good candidates,” said Sean Bagniewski, chairman of the Polk County Democrats in central Iowa. “Unlike past years when people kind of went in knowing who they were going to be supporting, I would say 75 to 85 percent of Democrats who are going to be caucusing have no idea who they’re going to end up supporting. That’s pretty rare. ...

“I think that’s a reflection of how many people are in the race, but also the quality of people who are in the race. There are a lot of rock stars this time.”

Those rock stars are drawing big crowds. Candidate events have regularly drawn dozens and often hundreds of people, even though the caucuses are a year away.

Bagniewski said he helped Kirsten Gillibrand’s campaign put together an event, and on short notice with only an email blast and a Facebook notification, an event that was expected to draw roughly 50 people was attended by 200.

Dumkrieger said the morning Kamala Harris announced he was getting phone calls before he heard the news himself.

“People are super excited,” he said. “Hopefully we can maintain that throughout the general election.”

Caucus criteria

So how will Iowa Democrats make such a difficult choice?

Bagniewski said the successful candidate will have to be different than previous caucus winners, some of whom leaned on policy and others on personality, he said. The successful candidate will have to have both, Bagniewski said.

“In the past you had people who tapped into the passion, like Howard Dean. And you had people who tapped into more of their record and policy and leadership traits (like) John Kerry and Hillary Clinton,” Bagniewski said. “I think the people who will do well this time, and you kind of see the leaders already going toward it, is people want somebody who is experienced, who is a leader, who has policy chops, but who also captures the fire of the moment. ...

“You can’t have somebody just firing bombs all day, but you can’t have a candidate from central casting, either. They have to be both, and that’s harder than it sounds, for sure.”

Because many of the candidates will have similar policy proposals that most Democrats will be able to support, personality and an ability to deliver that message will be crucial, Hardy said.

“I think a lot of them are going to say sort of the same thing. (So) they’ve got to be somebody who can spark some excitement,” Hardy said. “They’ve got to inspire. ... I think it’s related to their personality. There are people who want to be like that, but it’s innate. You can either do it or you can’t. I don’t think it can be trained.”

On those policy issues, one topic came up most: health care.

It’s a broad topic, with many sub-levels. But there is no doubt Iowa Democrats want to hear their presidential candidates talk about health care issues.

“I think the takeaway from the 2018 election is the Democratic base, and really all Democrats, are motivated by health care,” Bagniewski said. “I think what we’re discovering really quickly is what we mean by health care is very much up for debate.”

Bagniewski noted the discussion over myriad types of so-called universal health care plans the candidates are proposing. Some include lowering the age to qualify for Medicare, others call for a hybrid of both public and private insurance options for everyone, and others may push for a Medicare-for-all system that eliminates private insurance.

The health care discussion could also include issues like prescription drug prices, Democrats said.

“The main focus is still the same ol’ same ol’. It’s jobs and it’s health care,” Dumkrieger said. “We all know people who have been through (health care issues). My wife had thyroid cancer and lost her health insurance before Obamacare. ... I think that’s a big worry for a lot of people.”

Taking on Trump

Iowa Democrats also know part of their calculus will be to nominate someone whom they believe can beat Trump in a general election.

That means different things, Bagniewski said, including trying to win over Trump voters who previously voted for Democrats, and going head-to-head with Trump throughout a campaign, on the debate stages and in social media.

“The desire to defeat Donald Trump is all-encompassing at this point,” Bagniewski said.

But at the same time, the Democratic candidate’s campaign cannot be all about Trump, Hardy said.

“Donald Trump cannot be the focus. And the reason he can’t is he’s a shapeshifter. He has this position today and tomorrow you can’t nail him down. He can’t be the focus,” Hardy said. “(The focus) has to be the people of this country, the regular, working people, the middle class, and the lower (income) class. ...

“We need to encourage unions, better prices for medicines, build up schools, no tax breaks for millionaires.”