John Cressey once explained to me the difference between cement and concrete. I was reminded of this when Pastor Jeff Dadisman offered the same recollection during the celebration of life service for John Friday morning, May 10, at First United Methodist Church in Maquoketa.

John, a lifelong carpenter and Maquoketa building contractor, died May 4 after a battle with cancer. He was 83.

I first met John shortly after I moved back to Maquoketa and joined the Sentinel-Press in the fall of 1981. One of my first stories was about a new truck that the fire department was putting into service. It wasn’t a new pumper or ladder truck, but rather a new kind of truck that would carry equipment for rescues — extricating people trapped in mangled vehicles or other predicaments.

I met John one afternoon at the fire station to do the story and take pictures of the new rig. He was as excited as a little kid as he proudly showed me its features and the heavy-duty power saws, breathing apparatus, portable generators and other equipment it carried. John, Dave Edwards and other firefighters had built the rig with help from some local people skilled in welding and metal fabrication. It was the department’s first rescue vehicle. John also helped raise funds to purchase a “Jaws of Life” prying tool for the truck.

If anyone exemplified selfless community service, it was John.

He served four terms — a dozen years — on the Maquoketa Community School Board. He served eight years on the City Council. He served on Maquoketa Volunteer Fire Department and the Rescue Squad for a number of years and was a 55-year member of the Masonic Helion Lodge. And he was active in the church in various capacities, including teaching Sunday school and serving on the building committee and the church board. In the latter role, he was always looking for ways to improve and expand the church.

“It didn’t take me long when I first got to know John that he was a little more than a carpenter,” the Rev. Dadisman observed. “He was always looking at the bigger picture.”

John was the youngest member of the church’s building committee and was a member of the building crew in 1959, when the church moved from its downtown location on West Maple Street to a new facility at the present location, an area that at the time was at the city’s western edge and otherwise undeveloped. He was on the committee when the second phase, the present sanctuary, was built some years later. He came up with innovations on a kitchen remodeling project, and the Rev. Dadisman recalled John was still proposing expansions and improvements in recent years, when he was chairman of the church’s board of trustees and by then its oldest member.

In his other roles, he wasn’t afraid to take stands that were unpopular with some constituents when he was convinced they were for the overall good of the community. In the early 2000s the council decided to attempt to enact a local building code that would set some basic standards for construction. Cressey was chairman of the council committee that wrote the code, which was done with input from other local builders and those in the building trades.

One impetus to the ordinance was a recent house fire in which a child had died. An investigation discovered that the residence was not equipped with working smoke detectors. A small but vocal minority opposed the proposed ordinance. The committee listened to the opponents, who expressed concern that a do-it-yourselfer wouldn’t be allowed even to do basic repairs, such as replacing a light switch, without having to hire a licensed electrician.

That was not the case, but the opponents were undeterred. The council was unable to change their misconceptions about the ordinance. The committee made concessions to try to appease the opponents, making it to apply only to new construction, while all existing housing would be “grandfathered” in. Eventually, with a much watered-down ordinance, the committee gave up the effort and scuttled the proposed ordinance.

Even though the council never did pass a local building code, the effort led to the formation of a building maintenance committee that has worked patiently and cooperatively with owners of dilapidated structures to get them either torn down or improved. The doomed building code also eventually led to the formation of the ordinance setting very basic standards and inspection of rental properties. That ordinance passed after a year’s study by a committee that brought landlords on board from the start.

During his tenure on the council, he also helped recruit Generac Power Systems (later replaced by HUSCO) and the Family Dollar distribution center to the then-new Highway 61 Industrial Park. He helped see the city-owned YMCA facility through to completion.

John was on the school board during a transition period from 1979 to 1991 — the same number of years the Rev. Dadisman noted, that the school district had served him. During that time, the enrollment of neighboring Delwood High School had dropped to the point closing the school was imminent. The Maquoketa and Delwood school boards formed the whole-grade sharing agreement in which Delwood students would attend Maquoketa Community High School. John was instrumental in bringing the two sides together.

Any concerns were soon alleviated. The agreement worked well from the start and Delwood students were assimilated into the Maquoketa curriculum. Some years later, after John left the board, one or two members of the Maquoketa board felt that Delwood was getting too good a deal and not paying its fair share of tuition. They wanted to end the agreement if Delwood would not pay an increased amount and set a deadline. The issue created some anxiety, particularly among Delwood patrons.

During the height of the negotiations, I remember a concerned Gerry Farrell, a former Delwood board member who also was instrumental in forming the original agreement, came to a joint meeting of the Maquoketa and Delwood boards to urge them to end the divisiveness and reach an agreement for the good of the students and the community. The issue was worked out and the Maquoketa district years later entered into a similar agreement with Andrew when its high school also was forced to close.

“When you sit around the table and discuss issues and express yourself, you really get to know each other,” Elaine Luett, a former longtime Maquoketa school board member who served with John, told me. “When John was on the board with me, we had a variety of difficult decisions that we had to make. But I have to say each of us felt free to express ourself and we all shared ideas and when everything was said and done, we made a decision or agreed to disagree and we moved on.”

During his more recent service on the hospital board, after weighing the pros and cons, John argued in favor of constructing the new hospital on the grounds of the present facility, noting among other things it would save the cost of developing a new site and extending services and utilities. When the split vote went the other way, he supported the decision even though he disagreed.

Maquoketa has lost two longtime building contractors in the past two months, with the passing in March of Bob Stockham, who was the third generation of  the Stockham firm now in its 122nd year. Both the Stockham and Cressey firms have literally built much of Maquoketa into the community it is today.

John got his start with the Stockham firm, a carpenter’s helper. He was on the Stockham crew that built the house for my parents in 1959 on the hill off Pershing Road, and I heard stories about working for Bob’s dad, “Punch,” whom John called “The Professor.” John eventually left the Stockham firm to start his own construction business.

Along the way, he built many homes and public buildings, including the present City Hall, a major remodeling of the middle school, the restoration and expansion of the Maquoketa Public Library, the Maquoketa Country Club and an addition to the fire station. In the 1980s he built a small shopping center along Creslane — named for him — that is now the home of Sunshine Learning Center. I worked with John when he did a remodeling project at the Sentinel-Press in the early 1990s. During the project, he discovered that a portion of the floor was slowly sinking due to lack of compacted earth under it. That didn’t sound good, but John devised a relatively simple way to correct it that didn’t involve what I feared would be a costly major excavation-and-replacement project. That floor is still as level as ever today.

“He had a sense of being part of history, history that was important,” said Colleen Petaros, chaplain-celebrant during Friday’s service. “He was building for the future.”

I recall, as Colleen noted, that John, a 55-year member of the Maquoketa Masonic Lodge, always arranged a Masonic cornerstone-laying ceremony as part of the dedication ceremonies for the new building or addition. It was part of the dedication of City Hall, the library and middle school projects. Colleen used the cornerstone ceremony as a metaphor for John’s dedication and leadership.

“In many ways, he was our cornerstone that was straight and true and that serves us well as we make our journey through life.”

A “gentle giant,” as Colleen described, John had the ability to listen, to hear out the views of others and ask questions before he weighed in with his opinion or made a decision.”

“John was really a supporter of anything in this community and area. He wanted to make this a better place to live and that was always first and foremost in his life,” Luett recalled.

“We’re going to miss him. He was just a big, tall guy and he always had this little smile on his face when he saw somebody. I’ll always remember that. He left his mark on many, many things. I think we have to accept that and take his place and try to finish what he wanted to do.”

John exemplified the quiet leadership that is needed for any community to move forward. As Colleen Petaros noted, “He showed us the value of family, hard work and giving back to the community. The buildings he built, the people he mentored remain as part of his legacy to us.” 

And yet next to his spiritual beliefs, his family always came first. Petaros noted that he reserved the word “love” only for his family — his wife, Connie, who was his partner in all phases of his life; his son, Brian, and his daughter, LuAnne, and their families. For all else, she noted, he used the word “care” to describe his feelings. “He cared about people and things. But his family, he loved.”

In 2009 John retired and he and Connie moved to a new home just east of Maquoketa. In retirement, he enjoyed nature, tending his vineyard and his dogs. LuAnne and son-in-law Tom Yearwood carry on his building legacy.

Oh, and the difference between cement and concrete? As John patiently explained, cement is the powder that comes in a bag that you mix with sand and water to make concrete, which is the finished product.