By William Smith
Kay Weiss doesn’t take Burlington for granted. She lived in 10 different places in 10 years after marrying her late husband, always fascinated by the buildings surrounding her.
But Weiss has never seen a town as architecturally magnificent as Burlington — not until she moved here in 1987. Her outsider perspective isn’t uncommon.
“I had not lived here too long, maybe a year or two. And I was walking along the river one day, and there was a group of people, and it turned out they were from an architecture class at the University of Minnesota. They were extremely impressed with the buildings,” she said.
Weiss earned the Downtown Distinction award Friday night, Jan. 27, during the Greater Burlington Partnership award dinner – and for good reason. She has been a part of the chamber of commerce in Burlington since 1987, back when it was called Main Street Iowa.
Before that, Weiss was involved in Chamber of Commerce organizations in practically every city she lived in.
“I think it goes back to the way I was raised. It’s a matter of stewardship of the resources that we’ve been given,” Weiss said. “You just have to look around and see as a nation, we have a lot more resources than the majority of people in the world. We need to make good use of those resources.”
An Illinois native who eventually ended up in Minnesota, before landing in Burlington, Weiss grew up as an assertive volunteer. Her father was a volunteer. Her mother was a volunteer.
Volunteers don’t typically seek recognition, and Weiss would just as gladly avoid it. She didn’t even know she was up for consideration for an award until hearing her name.
“I was very surprised. It was very humbling,” she said.
Aside from her volunteerism, Weiss is best known as the former director of the Burlington Public Library — a position she held from 1987 to 2007. She moved to Burlington to take the job and promptly slipped on ice on her first day of work.
Weiss laughs about her awkward introduction to her new staff every time she tells the story. There was no hiding her condition when she walked into the library.
“One of the first things I said when I came in was, ‘I think I broke my arm,’” she said, still grinning. “So I spent my first day on the job in the emergency room.”
Weiss loved that old library building. It was transformed into the Des Moines County Heritage Center after a new library was built in 2006, and she returned to the building as interim director of the Des Moines County Historical Society from 2011 to 2013.
Weiss was instrumental in moving the library into the new building at 210 Court Street. Advocating for the need for a new facility was nearly as monumental a task as building it, and she credits the library’s board of directors for raising the money to make it happen.
“It was a very emotional event for the community. And there were many people who were opposed to building a new library,” she said.
Her argument against naysayers was simple and passionate. A new library would act as a community center for the residents of Burlington and the surrounding area.
A place with free Internet, access to community resources and history, and endless programs for children and the general public.
Her argument against keeping the library in the cramped corners of a building constructed in 1898 was just as simple.
“The old library was built with gas lights. It just couldn’t accommodate modern technology very well,” she said.
Considering about 90 percent of the library’s construction was funded by private donations, most of the community agreed with her.
Weiss is a dedicated genealogist and a voracious reader and spends much of her free time conducting research in the library. She’s also quite involved with her church — Trinity Lutheran Evangelical.
Parishioners recently said goodbye to their church building, which will be demolished later this year due to damage from an internal explosion. Weiss joined the church just after arriving in Burlington in 1987 and was heartbroken that it had to be condemned. There was no safe way to save it.
“Here I am, a preservationist,” she said, briefly lowering her head into her hands. “But the building is compromised. It makes me sad.”
Watching downtown Burlington blossom with new businesses, apartment complexes, and historic building renovations has filled Weiss’ heart with joy.
Weiss will never stop advocating for downtown — or for Burlington in general. As always, she will lead a kindness and empathy she would never admit to.
“We can promote the fact that people here cared enough to build unique and special buildings, and we should try to keep as many of those as we can,” she said.