Gary Vallem was remembered Thursday by friends and colleagues for his skills as a planner and a mentor, for his fun-loving attitude, but most of all for his ability to foster unity and cooperation across political lines.
Vallem, who served as the executive director of Bi-State Regional Commission for 20 years, died Wednesday in Crossville, Tenn., where he and his wife, Jacque, were living. Vallem, 58, died of an apparent heart attack.
Current and former staff members at Bi-State, where Vallem worked a total of 31 years before retiring in 2001, were in shock over the news Thursday. Dozens of area government and community leaders first learned the news Wednesday as they boarded a plane for a lobbying trip to Washington, D.C.
"It's very ironic because this would be the kind of trip he loved to go on. He liked to be with the delegation and have fun with them," Denise Bulat, his successor at Bi-State, said in a telephone interview from Washington. She said the group learned of Vallem's death from his daughter, Lynne Waterman, who was traveling to Tennessee aboard the same flight as the Quad-City delegation.
Bettendorf City Administrator Decker Ploehn, who also is in Washington for the lobbying trip, said Vallem had a gift of being able to build consensus among the dozens of politicians he worked with through the planning commission.
"He just had an uncanny ability to take everybody no matter what strata of life you were in and equalize it. I think any one of us would tell you it's hard enough to work with seven or eight council members, let alone 50 governments."
Gena McCullough, Bi-State's planning director, said her former boss, who had worked up the ranks at Bi-State, instilled a cooperative spirit there that remains the culture today. "He was very good at working with our local governments and bringing people together to the table to talk about issues. He was well respected by the equivalent agencies in Illinois and Iowa."
She added that Vallem was very instrumental in the early stages of getting the Interstate 74 bridge study going so that "we'll eventually see a new I-74 Mississippi crossing."
Vallem began his career with what then was called the Bi-State Metropolitan Planning Commission in 1970 as a planner after receiving his degree from Iowa State University. In 1981, he became only the third director of Bi-State and retired in 2001 as the agency marked its 35th anniversary. He also was involved in a wide variety of Quad-City community organizations, including United Way of the Quad-Cities Area.
Former Scott County Administrator Glen Erickson recalled his close friend's dedication to the job. Erickson, who had been Bi-State's director before Vallem began his long tenure, said "We stayed close the last 20 years because of my job at the county, and worked together 32 years. He probably was the hardest-working person I've been associated with and he'd do anything for you. He was always there."
While with Bi-State, Vallem led a planning staff whose task is to work with member governments coordinating a variety of regional issues such as planning and transportation.
"He was very good about giving people who have the ability a lot of autonomy so they can learn," Bulat said. "He was good about teaching me how to recognize that in others "
Liz Murray Tallman, who worked with him for 16 years at Bi-State, recalled Vallem's ability to unite people with a lot of different personalities and politics. "That's how he was throughout his life.
"As far as a boss, I learned so much from him and he put so much confidence in his staff. Amazingly, we were free to make mistakes. It was an environment where he encouraged us to learn and grow. One time I made a mistake and he said Liz, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, now that's a mistake. Anything beyond that is nothing so bad that you can't fix it.' "
His Bi-State colleagues also remembers a man who loved to joke around, have fun, cheer on the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Chicago Cubs and most of all, golf. An avid golfer, he first retired to St. Augustine, Fla., but now was living in a house on a golf course in Crossville.
"Gary lived life large," Tallman said. "He always said when we work, we work hard and when we play, we play hard."
As those friends toasting his memory out in Washington reminisced about Vallem, Bulat said they were comforted by the fact that he wasn't the type to say, "when I retire, then I'll have all this fun.'"
"He had a blast his whole life. At least we know he lived a full and good life and that makes it a little easier to say goodbye."
Jennifer DeWitt can be contacted at (563) 383-2318 or firstname.lastname@example.org.