Gnagy retires after 42 years

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John Gnagy has retired after more than 40 years practicing law in Elkader.

By Pam Reinig

Register Editor



When John and Sue Gnagy arrived in Elkader in 1972, the almost-newlyweds had a plan: They would give small-town living a six-month try. If they didn’t feel comfortable at the end of their trial run, they’d return to the familiarity of big-city life. John grew up in Cedar Falls and Sue in Davenport.

“Long before we hit the six-month point, we were hooked,” said John. “There’s something special about this town and we knew we’d always want to be a part of it.”

Forty-two years later, the couple has made an indelible mark through their active involvement in the community, their church and their professions. For many years, Sue was a high school English teacher. And just last week, John ended more than 40 years as an attorney with the firm now known as Ehrhardt, Gnagy, McCorkindale and Vorwald.

Though fortuitous, the couple’s selection of Elkader was a last-minute action. John was a senior at Macalester College in Northfield, MN in 1969, which was the height of the Vietnam War. Because he had a low draft lottery number and no hope for a deferment, he decided to sign up for ROTC. John finished his studies at the University of Iowa Law College in the spring of 1972.

“Since I was expecting two years of active duty, I didn’t interview with any law firms the previous fall, which is when that sort of thing usually takes place,” John said. “But then the war ended and I found out I wouldn’t have active duty, so I decided I’d better do some interviewing.”

John soon learned that long-time Elkader attorney Roy Ehrhardt, who has been busy with tax work during the traditional interview cycle, was interested in talking to prospective associates so he threw his hat into the ring.

The firm that John joined has a long history. Elkader was platted in 1846; D.D. Murphy founded his law firm in 1889 in a Main Street storefront. Offices were moved to Central State Bank in 1903 and remained there until a year ago when the team moved to space at the corner of Main and Mulberry Streets. Names and faces have changed, too. For many, many years, John has practiced with Steve McCorkindale. Justin Vorwald joined them about four years ago.

John and Sue have never regretted their decision to put down roots here. They can’t think of better place to have raised their daughters, Katie and Barb. And they’re also pleased to share the town’s amenities with their five (and one more due any day) grandchildren. Their close ties to the community are the reason they won’t be relocating now that John is fully retired. John said they couldn’t imagine living anywhere else though he admits that they will take regular breaks from winter.

While Elkader remains the same bucolic town they moved to in 1972, there have been plenty of changes, especially in the business community.

“When we moved here, Elkader was a huge regional retail center,” John said, adding that people would drive in from several towns to shop at McTaggart Furniture, Schmidt Pharmacy and Thies Clothing.

“I remember thinking when Thies closed that this was the end of the town,” John said. “But retail remains strong here. The town has morphed into a vibrant place that offers many amenities not seen in other towns this size like the hospital, library, pool, opera house, cinema and river front.”

John credits volunteerism for keeping the town alive.

Said John, “The ’08 flood could’ve been the death knell; it could have been the time that we all threw up our hands and surrendered. But people stepped up in so many different ways, and look at what we have today.”

John and Sue have been part of the cadre of volunteers who have been committed to Elkader’s sustainability. Both have been active in the riverfront redevelopment project. John is on the boards of the Elkader Public Library and Central State Bank. He will continue in those capacities, living out his belief that “if you have some abilities, you have an obligation to use them.”

Though he is now fully retired, John will keep an office at the law firm so that he can enjoy a cup of coffee and shoot the breeze. That might lessen the impact of the hardest part of leaving his job.

“It’s the people,” John said. “The people I’ve worked with as well as my clients. You forge close relationships over a long career and picking a date to stop working is really, really difficult. I know almost everyone who walks through the door, everyone who works in the courthouse. That’s what I’ll miss, the people.”

And the people will miss John, too.

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