OTTUMWA — One of Ottumwa's secrets, held by one man for 10 years, is now coming to light.
Gerald Brees, who just celebrated his 71st birthday this week, has a storyteller's voice, low and soothing. He reflected on his life Friday afternoon and revealed a secret he's kept for the last decade: He put the lighthouse in the middle of Ottumwa Park's pond.
"Well, I went over to South Hy-Vee to pick up some bread and milk and as I was coming back through the lot they had their garden center ... set up and I seen this tall lighthouse," he said. "It struck me, so I stopped and I talked to the gals, and I bought it."
The "two young gals" delivered the lighthouse, weighing 200 to 300 pounds, to Brees' home.
"I'm sure when I brought home a quart of milk, two loaves of bread and a Hy-Vee truck, unloading a $200 statue, that she did kind of question my sanity," he said of his wife, Kay.
He sanded down the lighthouse in the garage and took a solid month to paint it; his grandchildren gathered around to watch every stroke. Everyone asked him, "What are you going to do with it?" He didn't answer. People said, "There's no place in your yard for it."
"Well, I didn't buy it for the yard," he said. "I bought it for the loaf of bread and gallon of milk she sent me after. I said, 'That's going on the island over in the park, and nobody's going to know where it came from.'"
But the next problem was how to lug the huge structure to the pond. That's where their three sons-in-law came into play: Brad (Kim) Timberlake, Kurt (Shellie) Stevens and Matt (Tara) Bresch. Breese's grandchildren, Wyatt and Sydney Timberlake and Jaden and Sage Stevens, went along for the ride.
"We took advantage of their physical strength and their dedication to us," Kay said.
They built a frame around the lighthouse, loaded it into the pick-up truck and the family took off late one May evening in 2003 because Brees didn't want anyone around to see them in action. The original plan was to float the lighthouse out to the island in a boat — but it sunk the boat.
There was only a foot of water in the pond at the time, but when the men stepped in, they were up to their knees in mud. Then the head of the parks department showed up.
"You are not allowed to swim in there," he shouted.
"Believe me, we are doing anything but swimming," Brees responded.
Skip Stevens, street commissioner at the time and father-in-law of Brees' daughter, Shellie, rode along with his wife to watch the installation and explained to the parks director what they were doing.
"It took the men about an hour to struggle with it up the embankment," Brees said. "It slipped and fell and slid and everything else."
Finally, the lighthouse was on top of the island, but they had to dig around in order for it to sit properly in the direction they wanted.
"We finally got it set and got back, and then they remembered they hadn't put the light in," Brees laughed.
A couple of the sons-in-law waded back in and installed a solar light, though it stopped working sometime in the next year. The city eventually installed an electric wire to light it, but that has since vanished as well.
"Later on when I got on the council — but nobody knew I had done it — I raised cain 'cause there was no light in it," he said. "They finally ran a wire over there."
Brees served on the Ottumwa City Council from 2004-08, running in the election just months after they installed the lighthouse.
"We never told anybody that we put it there, and I never wanted anybody to know," he said. "I heard a lot of talk around town over the years: 'Where in the world did that thing come from?'"
"It's always fun to create a mystery," Kay added.
Actually, he wanted to put a replica of the Statue of Liberty on the island. But that would have cost around $1,500 and he would have had to hire a crane company to set it.
Asher Stevens, now 8, wasn't born yet when the family installed the lighthouse. He began asking his mother, Shellie, where it came from, so Brees began telling the story.
"They call it 'Lighthouse Island,'" Kay said.
Only the family members and friends at the park that night have ever known where the lighthouse came from. Brees never even told his brothers, sisters or extended family.
"Most people just assumed the city put it there," Kay said.
He never wanted to be recognized, he said. Knowing that people enjoyed it was enough.
"I drive by there, and it gives you kind of a good feeling inside," he said, rubbing his chest.
Though Brees has lung cancer, his spunk hasn't faded. His eyes light up during his stories, most ending with, "Can you believe it?"
"We've been a couple of oddballs, haven't we?" he said to Kay. "Our life has been different."
Gerald and Kay, who celebrated 49 years of marriage in March, looked back on the experiences they've had, experiences they say make them who they are today. They've housed two Russian families who didn't speak English. They've volunteered at Sunnyslope Care Center (a tuberculosis center which has since been torn down) and Amethyst House (a rehabilitation center for addicted mothers and their children). They've helped a mother and her children who had set up camp in Ottumwa Park one fall when it was bitterly cold out.
"Life has been good to us," he said. "How many times does that happen that you can make somebody else feel good, you know?"
— To follow reporter Chelsea Davis on Twitter, head to twitter.com/chelsealeedavis.