Volunteer of the Year - Chandler receives Main Street honor

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Governor Kim Reynolds, right and James Engle, left, director of the Iowa Downtown Resource Center congratulate Tom Chandler on this award. Also pictured is Emily Yaddof-Gibbs, Elkader’s Main Street Director.

By Pat McTaggart

Freelance Writer

It’s said that history repeats itself—and that’s certainly true for Tom Chandler. The Elkader man was recently honored by Main Street Iowa—for the second time.

On April 13 Chandler was named a Main Street Volunteer of the Year at a ceremony in Des Moines. The award is given to people who make significant contributions to the local Main Street program. The car and sailing enthusiast and former Central teacher received the same award nearly two decades ago.

 “The first one was in the early 2000s,” Chandler said. “It was for a variety of things. This one is for what I have done as a member of Main Street Elkader.”

Born in Johnston, Chandler’s family moved to Oregon for a time before moving to Cresco, where his father purchased a Coast-to- Coast store. After graduating from high school, he attended the State College of Iowa (now UNI), where he graduated in 1966.  During college, he met his wife, Barb. They were married in 1964.

“I really wanted an Air Force career,” Chandler said.  “I wanted to become a pilot. My father had a pilot’s license, and he used to take us flying in his plane. I got my own pilot’s license, and still have one, although I don’t use it these days.”

It turned out that Chandler is slightly color blind, so being an Air Force pilot was out.  “They offered to send me to navigator school but I turned that down, so it was a change in plans,” he said.

Chandler taught junior high band for two years in Reinbeck, before applying for a job at Central in Elkader.  He was accepted, and the Chandler’s moved to the community in 1968.

“I wanted to come to a school of Central’s size,” he said.  “We thought that we would stay here for five years and then move on to a larger school, but we fell in love with the town and the school.  It’s a great place to raise kids and the country landscape is beautiful.”

Instead of moving on, the Chandlers stayed in Elkader, where Tom taught band for 32 years. Barb also taught school at Central and the couple raised three girls during their teaching careers.

“I retired young,” Tom said.  “I wanted more time for outside interests.”

Outside interests he certainly has.  Upon moving to Elkader, Tom became involved in the Opera House Players, who convinced him to be in the chorus in their 1968 production of Oklahoma.

“I just got hooked on it,” he said.  “It didn’t take me long to realize what a wonderful hobby that is.  I’ve been involved in directing music in the pit, set planning, design and special effects.  I’ve also made some great friendships.”

His involvement with the Opera House did not end with plays.  Tom became interested in woodworking at a young age while watching his father, who had a woodworking shop in his basement.  He was one of several volunteers that were instrumental in the restoration of the interior of the Opera House, which started in 2001 and was completed in 2003.  Virtually all of the interior of the main floor and second story was renovated, including installing a new staircase and seating, matching, the originals, and new inside woodwork.

 His skill in woodworking is also helping him with another project—the restoration of a sailboat that he has in his shop just off Main Street in Elkader.  He has been working on it since the mid to late 1990s.

“I really enjoy sailing,” he said.  “The boat that I bought was originally built in the 1970s as a Canadian sailing ship.  It also served at the U. S. Naval Academy as a training vessel and was originally designed for a crew of 12.  I am refitting it for cruising and for a smaller crew.  There is a lot of finishing left to do, but the modifications are about done.”

Another section of Chandler’s shop is used for his other passion—car restoration.  His interest dates back to his boyhood.

“I think that I have always been interested in cars,” he said.  “I worked in a small engine repair shop in the basement of the Cresco Coast-to Coast.  That grew into car restoration.  I was self-taught.  I get the manuals and just go from there.  My brother and I got a vehicle running before I even had a driver’s license. It was out of necessity, because we really didn’t have the money to buy one that ran.  I also got involved in amateur racing, which was really exciting.”

Chandler now has a collection of 12 classic cars.  He recently built a 50x50 foot building next to his home to display them.  He also has another six or seven that are in various stages of repair.  If he cannot find original parts, he makes many of them in his shop, or scours catalogs to find ones that fit the bill.”

Volunteering also extends to Chandlers involvement with the George Meier Rural Heritage Museum in Elkader.  “Around 2010 or 2011 I started spending time sitting and talking with George,” he recalled.  “There was a 1915 Studebaker that George said had a locked up engine.  I talked him into letting me look at it, and not only did I get it running, he let me do some restoration on it as well.  I’m now Chairman of the Museum Board instead of just a car advisor.  As a result of my and some of the board member’s efforts, I was able to push for a new addition for the museum, which is now underway.”

Tom’s involvement with the Main Street Program started almost from the beginning. “I was on the board very early, and I helped get the application for the Elkader program approved,” he said.  “I have remained on the Design Committee since the committee’s inception.”

Volunteering and his hobbies have given Chandler a lot of satisfaction.  “It’s being able to share with other people,” he said.  The things that I enjoy are the variety of people, places and experiences that come with it.  It also gives a person a sense of accomplishment.  There hasn’t been a day that goes by that something good hasn’t come along.”

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