‘Why not a woman?’

Tama County’s only former female supervisor endorses Heather Knebel in District 3 race

Jean Kruse, left, the first woman to serve on the Tama County Board of Supervisors and Heather Knebel, Republican candidate for Tama County Board of Supervisors District 3, pose for a photograph together at Kruse’s home in Traer while holding a scrapbook from 1977-78 when Kruse was appointed to the board following the unexpected death of Supervisor Robert Cold. On the left page a headline declares ‘Woman is named to Tama board.’ No woman before or after Kruse has served on the board in Tama County, and no woman has ever been elected to the board outright. Moments before this photograph was taken, Kruse endorsed Knebel in the June 4 Republican primary. PHOTO BY RUBY F. MCALLISTER

TRAER – It has been 47 years since Traer resident Jean Kruse was appointed to serve as the first – and subsequently only – woman on the Tama County Board of Supervisors. And as the June 4 Primary Election approaches, Kruse, a Republican, thinks it’s high time she stopped being an anomaly.

“I can remember them asking me, ‘Do you need this job?’ and I said, ‘No, this job needs me,'” Kruse said with a laugh in early May as she sat on a plush couch in her cozy living room in Traer recalling the series of events that resulted in her historic appointment in 1977. As she spoke, Heather Knebel – candidate for Tama County Supervisor District 3 which includes Traer and Gladbrook – listened intently from a chair seated nearby.

“And then I was selected out of the six [applicants]. That’s how I got to be county supervisor.”

Back when Kruse – then a 36-year-old businesswoman, wife, and mother of three young boys – was appointed to the three-member board, Tama County, like many an Iowa county then and even now, was governed mostly by men. And that’s just the way it was, Kruse explained.

But all that changed on October 11, 1977, with the passing of District 1 Supervisor Robert Cold, 56, of Dysart.


As Kruse reminisced last month about her experience serving on the board of supervisors, she flipped occasionally through a large brown scrapbook – fittingly titled “Scrap Book” – filled with newspaper clippings, mostly from the Traer Star-Clipper, about her appointment and short time in office.

On the very first page of the book pasted in the center is a single small article by the Waterloo Courier – the date no longer legible other than ‘1977’ – with the headline, ‘Special board to choose new supervisor in Tama.’

Following Robert Cold’s unexpected passing, a special board – composed of Auditor Alvin Ohrt, County Clerk of Courts Dorothy Jones, and County Recorder Sally Mason – was assembled to interview and appoint a replacement to serve out the remainder of Cold’s term set to expire on Dec. 31, 1978.

Six applicants threw their hats into the ring including Dysart residents Violet Mossman, Mrs. William (Colleen) Kullmer and Robert Schlotterback; Traer residents Mrs. Gary (Jean) Kruse and Thomas Pidcok; and Clutier resident Lowell Peters.

The newspaper describes Kruse at the time as being in retail business [she had just sold Sports in Fashion and owned The Prissy Hen] for the last 14 years while also holding a B.A. in health education which she drew upon in her role as an occasional substitute teacher.

Former Tama County Supervisor Jean Kruse’s (R-Traer) very first 'County Government And You' column published in the Traer Star-Clipper in 1977. PHOTO BY RUBY F. MCALLISTER

On the second page of the scrapbook, several articles announce Kruse’s unanimous appointment to the District 1 seat with the Waterloo Courier simply stating ‘Woman is named to Tama board.’

“I’m not going in with any big beefs or any idea of conquering the world,” Kruse – referred to as Mrs. Kruse – is quoted in one of the articles.

“I’d like to be the kind of supervisor that the people of the district can communicate with, a supervisor to whom they can make their feelings known. I also would like to be the kind of supervisor who is highly thought of by other professionals in the courthouse, and not feared. I want it to be a respected position, where people would feel trust. I think we are getting trust back into government.”

A year in office

Kruse served roughly one year in office as a county supervisor. Six months in, she took the necessary steps to seek election to a full term.

One of Jean Kruse's campaign ads from the spring of 1978 when she ran for a full term in the June primary election. She lost her election to Mr. Noel Lenaburg who went on to win the general as well. Kruse never again ran for public office. PHOTO BY RUBY F. MCALLISTER

On June 6, 1978, she ran against Mr. Noel Lenaburg in the Republican primary. According to current Tama County Elections Administrator Karen Rohrs, Lenaburg garnered 489 votes to Kruse’s 361. Lenaburg went on to win the general election as well.

The contents of Kruse’s scrapbook clearly illustrate her commitment to that single year in office – the book is brimming with not only articles from the time she served but also copies of a weekly column she authored titled ‘County Government And You.’

“I have been asked why don’t we blacktop all roads to cut down on dust maintenance. The big answer of course is money!” Kruse wrote in one of her columns. “Tama County has over 1,400 miles of roads. It costs between $70,000 and $75,000 a mile to hard surface roads.”

In another column pulled from the book, Kruse addresses the new county care facility. In yet another, she writes achingly about the shattering effects of alcoholism.

“I just thought people needed to know what was going on,” Kruse said when asked in May why she decided to write a column when no other Tama County supervisors were doing so.


When asked to recall specifics from her time in office, Kruse, now in her early 80s, said much of it is fuzzy but she does remember quite clearly how she was sometimes – oftentimes – treated.

“Because I was the woman, they would often mistake me for the secretary,” Kruse said of many visitors to the supervisors’ chambers located at the time in the basement of the Tama County Courthouse. “Back then … people would do little smears and jokes – that was the way of life. You could be thin-skinned and insulted by it. [But] I would just throw something back and go on.”

But Kruse did admit if she could do it all over again, she might not have applied for the position in the first place following Cold’s death or run for a subsequent full term.

“If I were to do it again, I don’t think I’d do it. … I had always thought I would like to be a state senator but after being in politics for a little while, I decided [it wasn’t for me].”

Looking back now, Kruse believes she did not campaign enough during her primary election which ended up being her one and only campaign for public office.

“I really didn’t do enough,” Kruse admitted. “I was working and I had a family. I guess I thought people knew me. But you know, even those that know you, a lot of them don’t show up to vote.”

“I cried after [the election],” Kruse continued. “I cried all the way home. I didn’t want to tell my kids, ‘I didn’t get it.’ But in two days I was fine. It’s an ego thing, when you lose an election. It’s hard.”

Despite her past regrets, when asked if she thinks it’s time for the county to elect – not just appoint – the first woman to the board of supervisors, Kruse doesn’t hesitate in her response.

“Why not a woman?”

Knebel for Tama County Supervisor

As Kruse spoke last month, Heather Knebel not only listened intently from her perch across the room, she also took careful, scrupulous notes.

Like Kruse, she also thinks it is time a woman was elected to the position of Tama County Supervisor. And she isn’t the only one. Berleen Wobeter of Toledo and Lonika Utterback of Chelsea are also running for the board in District 4 and District 5, respectively.

But Tama County is hardly an outlier in having zero women on the board of supervisors. In fact, the county is in familiar company in that regard.

According to data shared with the Telegraph by Susan Cloud with Iowa State University’s Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics, only 14% of all current county supervisors in Iowa are women. Of that number, roughly 74.5% are Republican, 25.4% are Democrats, and a little more than 1% are undeclared.

The only county elected office in which women are even more underrepresented in Iowa is sheriffs, according to the Center’s data.

“The reason I got into [attending supervisor meetings], was the [Salt Creek] turbines are going to be [built] by my house,” Knebel, a member of Tama County Against Turbines, said when Kruse asked her how she got into county politics.

“That was the main driver,” Knebel continued. “Once I started going [to supervisor meetings], my mind was just blown. I didn’t know what went on in those meetings. A lot of ‘no comment’ … the good old boys club … There’s a whole lot of power when you are a supervisor.”

Knebel’s bio is very similar to Kruse’s back when she was appointed in 1977: Knebel is 35, Kruse was 36; Knebel has two young children, Kruse had three; Knebel is a small business owner as was Kruse; they’re both Republicans from Traer; and they both seem to harbor a deep-seated desire to help their neighbors.

“I want to help people, I’m a Christian,” Knebel explained to Kruse at one point. “I’m a big one to ask questions.”

“The budget is the big thing,” Kruse told her.

“Yup, I have a finance background,” Knebel replied.

In addition to owning and managing a trucking/freight brokerage, Knebel also works as a supply management specialist at John Deere in Waterloo.

“As a woman, I feel like I brought a different light to [the board],” Kruse told Knebel. “I [gave] presentations, like a teacher.”

Kruse also addressed Knebel’s young children, telling her, “I don’t think having kids will be a deterrent – if anything it should help. You’ll be interested in areas like [health and education], seeing libraries get funded … they were very much fixated on the roads [in 1977-78]. There were a lot of mental health kinds of things that needed attention.”

As the two women later posed for a photograph alongside one another, Kruse told Knebel she not only wanted her to have her endorsement in the upcoming primary election, she also wanted her to keep the scrapbook in hopes that it might light her way when she “eventually, hopefully” becomes one of the first women outright elected to the Tama County Board of Supervisors.

“Do what’s right for the people,” Kruse told her.


On Tuesday, June 4, Iowa voters will head to the polls to vote in the 2024 Primary Election. Voters must register with a party in order to participate and may do so the day of the election.

The Republican and Democratic primary ballots – depending on where a voter lives – will including the following candidates for the Tama County Board of Supervisors:

District 1: Republicans Randie Brodigan, Curt Hilmer (incumbent), and Brian L. Wrage. No Democrats filed paperwork. The district includes Dysart, Clutier, Lincoln, and Buckingham.

-District 2: Republican David W. Turner of Tama. No Democrats filed paperwork. The district includes the community of Tama.

District 3: Republicans Eli Hoskey of Toledo, Heather Knebel of Traer, and Robert V. Voukon of Gladbrook. No Democrats filed paperwork. The district includes the communities of Gladbrook and Traer.

District 4: Democrat Berleen Wobeter of Toledo. Republicans William Faircloth (incumbent) and Mark Doland, both of Toledo. The district includes the communities of Garwin and Toledo.

District 5: Democrat Bruce Lenhart of Tama. Republicans Lonika Utterback, Curt Kupka, and Steve Van De Walle, all of Chelsea. The district includes Meskwaki Settlement, Montour, Chelsea, Vining, and Elberon.

To find your June 4 polling place, the Tama County Auditor’s Office can help. Refer to the department’s website (https://www.tamacounty.iowa.gov/auditor/voting_precincts/) or call 641-484-2740, ext. 3.