Mayor Don Kessler had a 'passion' for the city
by Gregory R. Norfleet · News · March 01, 2013

West Branch Mayor Don Kessler, who had been recovering from heart surgery, died Sunday morning at the home of his son. He was 69.

Kessler’s death surprised many who knew him, as it was believed he was recovering well from his heart-valve replacement surgery Jan. 7 at the Mayo Clinic.

“I still haven’t gotten over the shock of it,” Mayor Pro Tem Jim Oaks said Sunday night. “I always liked Don. He had his goals and the things he strived for. He’s been around a long time.”

Council member Jordan Ellyson said she had recently spoken to Kessler’s son, Cory, who had invited his father to recuperate at his home. Cory’s children had also visited her at Indulgence Hair Salon, which she owns, talking positively about their grandfather’s recovery.

“It’s extremely shocking,” she said. “I thought he was doing better.”

Ellyson said the mayor was “trying to get too involved” while recuperating and that Cory was encouraging his father to “relax.”

“He was a very tough, stubborn character who wouldn’t let anything hold him back,” she said.

Mike Owen, president of the West Branch Board of Education, said he chatted with Kessler through Facebook on Feb. 8, and the mayor “seemed upbeat.”

“He was optimistic things were going better,” Owen said.

Kessler was in his third year as mayor and planned to run for a second term, Ellyson said.

“It’s really, really too bad,” she said.

Council member Colton Miller said Kessler told him he originally only wanted to serve one term, but changed his mind.

“He really liked the current council,” Miller said.

City Administrator Matt Muckler, in a statement, said the city staff “was saddened by the news of Mayor Don Kessler’s passing.”

“I will remember Don Kessler as a man who cared deeply for his family and his community,” Muckler wrote. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of Mayor Kessler during this time.”

Emergency call

West Branch Fire Department received a call at 11:09 a.m. Sunday about a subject who was not breathing. West Branch Police Officer John Hanna was the first on the scene at 11:12 a.m., Police Chief Mike Horihan said.

Fire Administrator Dick Stoolman said that there was nothing they could do. The Cedar County County Medical Examiner was contacted.

He and emergency responders began calling city leaders to notify them of Kessler’s death.

Kessler was elected in November 2009 and seated in January 2010. He had a heart attack in August 2010 while visiting the family of his daughter, Traci Phllips, in Felicity, Ohio. At that time, he underwent surgery to receive two stents.

Connie Knutsen, director of Cedar County Medical Examiner Investigations, said she responded to the scene and determined Kessler’s death to be from natural causes.

“We looked at his health history, the circumstances, how he was found and where he was found,” she said. “Everything pointed to a natural death.”

That being the case, Knutsen said, no autopsy was necessary.

‘He will be missed’

Public Works Director Matt Goodale said he “liked working with him” and the two worked well together. Goodale said Kessler seemed to “like the direction we were going” with the public works department.

“He will be missed,” he said.

Muckler wrote in the statement that city staff will remember Kessler for helping “create a culture of commitment and dedication to West Branch.”

“He truly cared about the West Branch community and that passion was contagious among city staff,” Muckler wrote. “I believe that Don Kessler’s accomplishments as mayor will be felt for (a long) time to come.”

City council member Mark Worrell said he grew up just a half mile from the Kessler home and remembers Kessler’s father, a farmer, died in a tractor accident, and Kessler’s mother died young, too.

“He had no parents when he graduated from high school” in 1961, Worrell said.

Worrell and Kessler met at St. Bridget’s Catholic Church. Worrell remembers Kessler as a hard worker who “enjoyed plenty of fun” and was “pretty vocal.”

“Nothing slipped by, he didn’t pull any punches and he could get in your face,” he said.

Worrell said Kessler helped the town prosper.

“We got more accomplished with him as mayor than the prior 10 years,” he said. “He was frugal. A lot of people think he didn’t listen, but he would. You just had to prove yourself.”

Oaks had known Kessler for probably more than 50 years.

“I guess I can’t hardly remember when I didn’t know him,” he said, recalling that Kessler once worked Bradford Motor Co., then Culligan water company, then City Electric. Oaks, who worked for the city in the public works department for three decades, including serving as director, remembers dealing with Kessler weekly both when he worked at Culligan and City Electric.

“Different people read him a different way,” Oaks said. “But whatever task he was doing, he always took it pretty seriously. It was the same in his position as mayor. He was doing what he thought was best for the community.”

Kessler named Oaks mayor pro tem when Kessler assumed office, and Oaks said they agreed on many issues.

“I think the image of the city was important to him,” Oaks said. “It’s a shame he didn’t get to finish his term.”

Council member Dan O’Neil also met Kessler in his youth, sitting near him at sporting events as Dan’s brother was about Cory’s age.

“Don was a super nice guy,” he said. “He would do anything for you. You could truly trust him.”

O’Neil said that, as mayor, Kessler “had a lot of passion for the town.”

“He was not one to sit around and complain,” he said. “He was a very active mayor.”

Ellyson said she first met Kessler when he was running for mayor. He won, and she ran successfully for council two years later. The two talked at least weekly about city business.

“He wanted to get my opinion and wanted to let me know how he felt,” she said. “98 percent of the time, we saw eye to eye. … I feel we’ve seen a lot more accomplished with him in office and with Matt Muckler as city administrator.”

Miller said he knew Kessler for about 15 years, meeting him at McDonald’s Restaurant while playing cards. He agreed Kessler was passionate about the town.

“He seemed to be the watchdog,” he said. “Nobody was going to take advantage of the residents of West Branch.”

Miller said Kessler was a conservative spender, too.

“He took his role as mayor very seriously,” the council member said.

West Branch Public Library Director Nick Shimmin said he first met Kessler during his campaign. When Kessler took the mayor’s seat at city council meetings, “there was a change.”

“I was really impressed when he started,” Shimmin said. “I thought he controlled the meetings really well.”

Kessler attended the library board’s site selection meetings, and that interest and involvement impressed Shimmin.

“He was going through his heart surgery for the second (site meeting), but I was sure he would have been there otherwise,” the library director said.

Horihan said he felt a “strong loyalty” to Kessler since the mayor hired him. He remembers during the interview process that Kessler wanted a “good, viable police department” and a chief who was conservative with tax dollars.

“He picked me to head that effort, and felt I would fit well with the community,” Horihan said. “And he had the best interests in mind for the city. I appreciate that in a leader.”

He said the two worked well together since they both believe in community policing. Kessler tried to get the police department going “in a new direction” and succeeded.

“We’ve definitely lost a good leader,” Horihan said.

The police chief said Kessler often said he would rather have a peace officer than a police officer — someone who would not be “overbearing.”

“He was a good, honest man,” Horihan said. “He said what he thought, and I respected that.”

Muckler noted Kessler’s efforts to reshape the police department as well as his work updating the comprehensive plan and putting into motion many water, sewer and road infrastructure projects.

Fire Chief Kevin Stoolman was out of town when Kessler died and was called about 11:30 a.m. Sunday with the news. He had known him since he was “a little kid.”

“He was ornery,” Kevin Stoolman said. “But he was a good guy. I had a lot of respect for him.”

The fire chief said he was surprised at Kessler’s death, though he knew about his heart problems.

“He was a super guy and a great mayor,” Kevin Stoolman said. “He turned a lot of things around.”

Working with partners

Other community leaders said Kessler worked well with their agencies.

Main Street West Branch Program Director Mackenzie Krob said she grew up next to Kessler’s sister, Karlyn “Sue” Piatt. Krob said her opinion of Kessler changed not long after he became mayor.

“He came across as a grumpy old man,” she said. “I honestly could see the transition from being somebody who just ran for mayor. … He realized it is harder than it looks. His perspective did change a little bit. … And he was in that office more than anybody, working for the betterment of the town.”

She said Kessler felt strongly about community events staying that way — about community — rather than becoming for-profit events.

Krob said Kessler sometimes would be driving by, see her and stop to get her thoughts and opinions. He attended all of the summer concerts, Christmas Past, Hoover’s Hometown Days events he could. He also donated money for Hy-Vee gift cards which were given away at Christmas Past.

“We had hundreds of people sign up for those gift cards,” she said. “They were so very valuable (to them) and he was so excited about that.”

Owen, who also owned the West Branch Times for a decade, said he met Kessler before even moving to town. Owen, while still in college, got a summer job at City Electric, where he met Kessler.

“He was the person I’ve known the longest in West Branch,” Owen said. “I was very sad to hear (he died).”

Owen visited West Branch while still in talks to purchase the Times in 1993. Working for the Associated Press at the time, he just finished covering the Daytona 500. Yet in West Branch, the streets were covered in snow and deserted when he pulled up to the office to meet with then-owner Vid Johnson.

“It was all preliminary, hush-hush — all’s quiet,” Owen said. “As soon as I got out of the car, Don came driving by ‘You talking to the newspaper editor?’ It was incredible — the one person I know in the entire town ...”

When Owen and Johnson reached an agreement, Owen got permission from Johnson to tell two West Branch residents prior to the newspaper’s announcement: Owen’s cousin, and Don Kessler.

“Don was always so full of a certain amount of bluster,” Owen said. “But he had such a big heart under all that. I always saw it as an act.”

Owen felt Kessler “really did a good job” as mayor, and seemed to enjoy it.

“I think he really had a good sense of what the role of the mayor is,” he said.

Hoover National Historic Site Superintendent Pete Swisher said Kessler was “welcoming and accommodating” when he first came to town. And he was “very honest.”

“He came across as a man who definitely stood by his convictions,” Swisher said.

He remembers the council wrestling with a controversial and sensitive issue when he first arrived, and Kessler wanted to know his opinion about it.

“We had a nice talk,” he said. “I really liked the mayor. I enjoyed working with him.”

Swisher said it is “really tragic” Kessler died.

“The park has lost a good friend in the mayor,” he said.

When Kessler and he talked, it was often about how to get the city and Hoover Complex to partner together on events for the community.

“He challenged us to think of engaging themes and topics so that people could understand the relevancy of Hoover, but also about the town of West Branch,” Swisher said.

The two also got to see each other outside of work, as Swisher would see Kessler picking up his grandchildren from school, or watching them play soccer.

Kessler served on the West Branch Board of Education for a three-year term that covered the school years of 1994-1997.

He frequented McDonald’s Restuarant for coffee with his friends. The group of mostly retired men jokingly call themselves the CAVE men — Citizens Against Virtually Everything.

Norm Bickford, who is part of the coffee group, said Kessler is going to be “greatly missed.”

“I’ve respected Don for all he’s done,” like serving on the school board to his mayoral concerns about the local economy.

Bickford said Kessler “would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it worse than he did.”

“He might appear gruff on the edges, but he had a heart of gold,” Bickford said.

Bickford and Kessler attended school together and rode the bus together.

“Sometimes I thought he was on the wrong side (of an issue) but it was what he felt was right,” Bickford said.

Bickford said Kessler asked him a lot of questions about the city budget when he first became mayor.

“When he first took the job (as mayor) he was green, but he wasn’t afraid to ask for help,” he said. “I can’t say a bad thing about him.”

Members of the coffee group often “quizzed” Kessler over city affairs, “but not in a bad way.”

“He wore the hat of mayor, and told us what was going on,” Bickford said. “We didn’t get into political arguments and try to tear him down.”

Sometimes, coffee club members “harassed” each other, he said, but that was “just the nature of the group. Don enjoyed it.”

“He’s going to be missed,” Bickford said. “We enjoyed having him up there in the CAVE club.”

Francis Abel taught agriculture classes at West Branch High School, and had Kessler as a student for four years. Kessler graduated in 1961. Abel was also part of the coffee club.

“He’s a little rough,” Abel said of his former student. “But he did an awful lot of major things that had to be done (for the city) that required a lot of backbone, and he had it.”

Abel said Kessler was always very honest, a hard worker, and “very well respected in the jobs that he held.”

Kessler was divorced and has three children: Cory, Traci and Jayme.

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