May 28, 2024 4:56 PM

52 Faces: Never too old to make a difference

Posted May 28, 2024 4:56 PM
Photo by John Lovretta
Photo by John Lovretta

By William Smith

When Bob Fleming landed a job at the IBM computer corporation in the early 1950s, he thought his life was set.

“It was a good job with a good company,” the 93-year-old Fleming said.

But before he worked his first day, he met with John Winegard at the behest of his father. John had just started the Winegard antenna company a few years earlier, a growing business with no guarantee of success.

Inexplicably, Fleming decided to ditch IBM in favor of Winegard. His would-be bosses and future bosses at IBM couldn’t understand his decision. They tried to research the history of Winegard and found nothing.

Fleming couldn’t explain it either. His training in the Air Force had set him up for such a position, and he graduated from the University of Iowa with a business degree.

But he liked Winegard’s offer. More importantly, he loved Burlington. He was born there and has lived his entire life there.

“Why would I want to leave?” he said.

So Fleming and Winegard got to work. Fleming didn’t stop working for 40 years, retiring as vice president at the age of 65. By then, he working for John’s son, Randy Winegard.

“Eventually, I was hiring people and traveling around the country, talking to our top customers and helping to build the business,” Fleming said.

That was just the start. Fleming served eight years on the city council, becoming a key Burlington figure. He was the primary driver behind Burlington’s decision to change the city government and hire a city manager. 

Fleming was the only member of the council in favor of the change to a city manager — at first.

“So I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got myself into a mess now. These guys aren’t going to want to deal, you know.’ But I was wrong. They adjusted to it. We brought in a good city manager, and he got us oriented and got things organized,” Fleming said.

A few weeks ago, Fleming and seven other University of Iowa alumni, including Tom Brokaw, were honored with the “Eight Over 80” award. The award honors those who have made significant contributions after turning 80.

Fleming, a regular volunteer and board member, met that requirement 13 years ago. His son Kevin nominated Fleming for the awards.

“I was flattered,” Fleming said.

Born in Burlington in 1931, Fleming attended Catholic schools in town.  He would eventually become a substitute teacher for Notre Dame, and several of his children are teachers.

“My dad worked at the Leopold (Desk) Company for many years,” he said.

Fleming actually attended two colleges. He attended the College of the Holy Cross in Western Massachusetts for a few years, just as the Korean War was heating up.

One year, while back home on Christmas break, Fleming and more than half a dozen of his friends decided to enlist in the Air Force. 

While his father was not fond of the idea of Bob starting a military career, he told his son that he was “doing the right thing.”

After basic training, Fleming thought he would be shipped to Korea. But he was to be kept stateside, as an instructor in the school he had just graduated from.

“I never bragged too much about my military experience, because so many guys — and I thought I would be one — were being shipped to Korea. Well, I got shipped to Cheyenne, Wyo., to attend the school on radio electronics,” he said.

Though he was only in the Air Force for four years, Fleming’s skill set expanded greatly in that time. He even learned how to be a lineman, climbing poles with spiked boots as fast as he could.

Fleming also served as an MP (military policeman), and found himself in the middle of a deadly shootout that ended with a dead police officer and two AWOL soldiers.

Fleming didn’t do any shooting. He only carried a baton. When he got a gun to help search for the perps, he forgot one vital thing.

“They (the police) said I did a pretty good job, except for one thing. They said I needed to have bullets in my gun,” Fleming said with a laugh.

One of the AWOL soldiers threatened Fleming with gang violence, and Fleming said the threat did bother him for a while. But then he came back home to Burlington and married his high school sweetheart; the possible gang violence was forgotten.

Life moved on. And life was good.

“We were very happily married. Then we ended up having three boys and two girls. So we’ve been very blessed,” Fleming said. “My two younger sons live in town.”

Fleming said his oldest son is 70-years-old.

“I can’t believe I have a son that old,” he said, grinning.

Fleming’s first wife died of cancer around the time he retired, and he was able to retire earlier than he planned to take care of her and be with her during her final days of life.

Fleming married his current wife Anita several years after that — another happy marriage that makes Fleming count his blessings. 

He had no intention of running for city council, but discovered a deeper love for Burlington once he was talked into running.

 After retirement and serving three terms on the council, Fleming continued to swim in local volunteer waters. He was involved with the Burlington Chamber of Commerce. He served as a trustee for St. Paul’s Catholic Church and found himself on the Great River Health board.

“I was on the board when we decided to build the new hospital, which was quite an event,” Fleming said.

Fleming stays active, mentally and physically. He works out on a regular basis at the Southeast Iowa Regional Medical Center. Until a few weeks ago, he served on the Burlington Planning Commission. 

Fleming said he’s been blessed with good health, and his decision to protect that health through exercise has kept him nimble.

He loves Burlington as much as he did in his youth, back when he delivered newspapers by hand. Slipping into the unseen crevices of city government only strengthened his infatuation.

“I’ve been lucky. I’ve had a good life,” Fleming said. “I thought Burlington is a good town, and I still think it’s a good town.”