OTTUMWA — David Runnells spent three decades in the U.S. Army. But Labor Day found him sitting on the steps of a former Navy base, taking a break from the ongoing renovations of the Ottumwa Naval Air Station’s administrative building.

It’s remarkable the building is still there in some ways. Long neglected, the building could easily have been lost to fire or the elements. But now it’s on a long road back, and Runnells is one of the people who is helping the work along.

Not that he’s willing to take much credit.

“It’s amazing what they’ve done,” he said. “I’m the outside guy. I’ve been working on repairing the cement.”

Runnells has also been at work on the columns on the porch. They had to replace some wood because water had gotten inside and collected at the base. He said when they took the old wood off, water just poured out.

The work is far from finished, but the progress is noticeable. Bare studs from a year ago are now covered in foam insulation that was sprayed into place. Some rooms are clad in drywall, and the facility will soon have, well, facilities.

“As you can see, we’re getting close to finishing the bathrooms. We’ve got water to the building now,” Runnells said.

In March 2018, the Friends of NAS Ottumwa received more than $10,000 from 100 Men on a Mission. The Legacy Foundation has also given money. It all helps. Without the donations, the work could not have been done.

The building will eventually house a museum to tell the story of the base built by the Navy to train pilots for World War II. The last plane left in 1947. The administration building had different uses over the years, but it has been almost 40 years since it was in regular use.

There has been some good fortune for restoration work. Volunteers have the original plans for the building, so they’ll be able to put signs on the rooms to tell visitors exactly what they were used for. And it has already drawn some people with a personal connection to the site back. A man recently showed up with his father, who helped build the base.

“He’s 96 years old,” Runnells said. “He’s in a wheelchair, but he’s pretty alert.”

There’s a lot of work still to go. But the difference from where the building was even a year or two ago is impressive. But when you listen to Runnells, you begin to suspect there’s more to the work he, Steve Black and Larry Cofer have spent so much effort on.

It’s more than a building to them. It has to be. The time, the work seeking donations and grants, the holidays and weekends spent slowly bringing things back. You just don’t put that kind of effort into things unless you believe there’s a bigger reason to do it.

There is, Runnells said, a simple explanation: “We don’t mind. This is our baby. We’re saving Ottumwa history.”

Matt Milner can be reached at and followed on Twitter @mwmilner


Managing Editor

Matt Milner currently serves as the Courier's Managing Editor. Milner is a trained weather spotter and is usually outside if there are storms. He joined the Courier in 2002.

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