The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

June 11, 2014

A closer look at the McEleneys' history

Gary Herrity
Historical columnist

---- — Leo and Emmett McEleney started their business in 1914. Now, 100 years of service to the community has been accomplished. They started with Jeffery automobiles, and it was their mechanical prowess (Emmett) and business sense (Leo) which really helped them. In those days, they had to be able to make parts for cars that they sold, as there were no parts catalogs or salvage businesses to lean on. Also, they had to survive much adversity.

The brothers sold their first automobile to William Disbrow and took in-trade a 1911 Marmon. They used it to learn to drive and to work on. Emmett was 28 and Leo 21 in that year. After World War I, they sold Oakland, Reo, and Rickenbacker cars too. McEleney Motors took a big step up in 1927, when they got the Oldsmobile franchise, and in 1958 when they bought out Manning-Norbury on Sixth Avenue South to obtain a Chevrolet dealership. In 1958, they added Cadillac, and Toyota was added in 1972.

Tom McEleney mentions that the biggest thing he and others recall is, “It was a family in which many people gave their lifetime to working at McEleney’s— and they loved it.” We recall so many faithful employees (apologies to many not mentioned), a few were: Jack Tigh, from Manning’s; Del Schmidt, also a councilman; Soren Sorenson; Jack Struve; Otto Stuit; Paul Roth; Dave Hinerichsen; and Mike Clemence. Then there was the special friend of Warren’s and trusted key employee, Tom Pladna. Tom is still employed part time at McEleney’s — his 62nd year with the company. Bob Eads was their finance man for over 40 years.

Here is an example of McEleney employees’ diligence. It illustrates why people stayed and how much they loved their work. Benny Krumplemann changed oil and had a bay in the front — right near a showroom. He would go around collecting everyone’s dirty rags. He’d fold them twice and keep them handy for his very dirty work with oil filters and dip sticks. He was one of the first recyclers.

Many remember Philip “Flip” Soesbe, who may well have been Leo’s first non-family employee. He lived across the alley from the agency and was sort of tricked into joining. Leo had all but sold a car to an individual, but he wanted Flip to come aboard. So, he asked Flip if he’d take the car “up to the buyer and show it to him and talk it up.” Well, that was the beginning of a long association with the dealership. Much later, Flip retired into a job that really gave the agency a positive boost — that of courtesy car driver. First, it was retired parts manager Cecil Manning who filled that job — assisted by Flip, who delivered cars each evening that were already serviced and that Cecil had picked up early in the morning. In more recent years, we all think of much-beloved Al Wood, who is known to all.

After starting the business, Leo went into World War I as a truck driver, which also gave him splendid experience. He was the central business face for the dealership through the years and did such good community things as run for the Iowa State Senate, promote the acquisition of Schick Hospital for the community, and train all the early car business employees. The McEleneys have always been involved with Clinton and Lyons’ best civic interests in a very positive way. Warren took over as the dealership leader in 1947, and Leo retired to California in 1954. John later became president, and now, son Drew is taking over the reins.

During World War II, it was virtually impossible for anyone to get new cars. Leo started the bowling alley to get by and they sold “lugnut locks,” because tires were at a premium and often stolen. They had a regular gas station on the corner for many of those years — anything to make a buck. Leo was the consummate businessman and even took great pains with his empty show window. One of his best window scenes was a 1932 coupe, with a golf bag carrier and a ‘green’ nearby. People noticed.

During the Depression, Leo was alone, because Emmett had died young (at 43), in 1929. But he kept looking ahead and sent son Warren to school at the G.M. Institute in Flint, Michigan. It was study six months, work six months at the Lansing auto plant at for young Warren. While there, he’d watch the board carefully and call his dad about company cars that were for sale during those difficult times, so his father could buy them. Warren would drive them home to be used in the agency (just struggling to survive) to appear that the business was still vibrant. Warren also did a tour of duty in the Pacific during World War II. And he served, as did John, as president of the National Automobile Dealers Association. Warren and John are the only two dealers from Iowa to hold that distinction — and the first father/son combination in NADA’s 90-year history.

The flood shown in the picture was nothing compared to the Great 1965 Flood, in which cars had to be housed out at Jensen’s farm and dealership offices were at the Brewery on Second Street. Again, they survived.

Most of the McEleneys who we know came from Leo. Warren and Jim carried on for decades. (Brother Don was a dermatologist in Cedar Rapids and retired to Clinton before he passed away about the same time as Warren, two years ago.) Then John, Tom and Dan took over. They are from a wonderful family whose matriarch was Ellen (O’Neil) McEleney from Fourth Avenue South — near the Revere and St. John’s Church. She was “the calm” to all the business hub-bub and raised seven children, including Anne, Sue, Ed and Bill.

It’s quite an accomplishment to persevere 100 years in business, especially when you consider how many fail. It took dedication and grit to weather the storms, and the McEleneys can be proud that they’ve done so and have served the community in the process.

Sources: Archives of the Clinton Herald; Material from the Clinton County Historical Society Museum; John McEleney, Tom McEleney and Bob Soesbe.

Gary Herrity is the Clinton Herald’s historical columnist. His column appears on page 5A on Fridays.