By Seth Taylor
Mayor Gordon Canfield’s office resides in the newly renovated Spaulding Building. His window looks out to downtown Grinnell, and the flags of Iowa and the United States sit next to each other against the back wall. His desk and walls are lined with gifts from grateful citizens, plaques of appreciation and rewards — paraphernalia collected over 18 years in office. Now, after nine consecutive terms as mayor of Grinnell, Canfield has decided to step down.
“This time, I decided I’m 78 years old so it’s time to do something else,” Canfield said with a laugh. After some thought, he continued, “I got into this thing, being mayor, and I thought, ‘It’s a lot of fun. It’s really an enjoyable job.’”
Canfield has lived in Grinnell ever since he was eleven years old, stocking shelves at the local grocery stores and learning the ropes of the community.
“I always liked Grinnell because I had these contacts that were comfortable for me. … By the time I had graduated from high school I really knew all the families,” Canfield said. He attended the University of Minnesota after graduating from Grinnell High School, returning to take a job with Grinnell Mutual Insurance Company. He worked at the company for 37 years, eventually rising to the position of executive vice president. Retiring young, Canfield began to volunteer with the city, getting involved in local politics with the Grinnell Hotel-Motel Tax Committee and the Grinnell Sister City Association. In September of 1999, then-mayor Robert Anderson passed away while in office and Canfield was appointed in his place. He has held the office since, acting as a dedicated and engaged public servant for 18 years.
Being the mayor of a small, Midwestern town certainly has its challenges.
“Everybody knows who you are, what you are, what you do — what you shouldn’t be doing,” Canfield said. And the citizens of Grinnell aren’t hesitant to get involved; Canfield remembers well the controversy stirred by a city ordinance on shoveling sidewalks. Chuckling, Canfield added, “We had people standing out in the hall just screaming at us,” (the ordinance was eventually passed). Nevertheless, Canfield is proud of Grinnellians’ dedication to their city. He cites redesigning the streets of downtown Grinnell, raising funds for the community pool and the recent update of Central Park as some of his proudest accomplishments.
He’s also pleased with the progress made in bridging the gap between the College and the town, although he refuses to take much credit.
“There was kind of like an invisible wall around the campus, and that was partly due to the way the college was run and it was partly due to the way the city reacted,” he said. “One of the reasons that it’s only going to improve is the College is expanding the zone of confluence. … And the whole idea is to get more mix between students and town people — just be with each other a little bit more. I think that’s going to be very important. I wish I could be mayor for the next 20 years so I can see how that all plays out.”
Canfield’s dedication to Grinnell isn’t partisan either.
“One of the things that made this very enjoyable for me is that we are in municipal elections … totally nonpartisan,” Canfield said. “Fixing a sewer and fixing a sidewalk has no political bearings whatsoever. It’s the work that has to be done. We are the government that is closest to the people and we try to make sure that Grinnell is a great place to live, work and play.”
Looking to the future, Canfield acknowledged the changing nature of small towns in America and the need to adapt.
“There’s got to be creative ways of dealing with a new kind of economy,” he said. But he also had confidence in Grinnell’s adaptability and endurance. “I think that this town is going to go on forever. It’s not going to be a giant lurch forward, but I think we’ll just inch our way through history.”
Canfield doesn’t have much planned for what he’s going to do after his term ends. Relaxing and traveling are two things he’s considering. Dan Agnew is the lone candidate running for mayor this year, and while Canfield is confident in Agnew’s abilities, and in the enduring quality of what Canfield calls the “citizen operated town” of Grinnell, it is clear that Agnew has big shoes to fill. The town will go on, but it certainly won’t be the same.