Algona, Iowa A Time to Kill, And a Time to Heal

Three years after a brutal murder-suicide wiped out a prominent family, a grieving community dedicates a hospital wing to memory

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"Tragedy has been our teacher," the speaker tells the subdued audience squeezed into the gleaming new hospital lobby. "Even though an entire family suddenly ceased to exist on this earth, something good has come from that terrible moment."

The speaker is a retired furniture dealer, not a preacher or philosopher. As chairman of the Kossuth County Hospital in Algona, Iowa, he is welcoming some 700 townspeople to a cookie-and-punch open house at the just-completed John and Agnes Dreesman Memorial Addition.

Plans were drawn in 1982 for the badly needed hospital expansion. But county voters rejected it. Only after the tragedy, as Algonans refer to the murder- suicide rampage in which the seven Dreesman family members died, did construction finally begin. "They were the catalyst," explains Pastor Gerald Hartz of St. Cecelia's Catholic Church. "There was nobody to prosecute, nobody to put in jail. However, we had to do something for those beloved friends."

As small towns go, Algona embodies the American Dream. Nestled along the East Fork of the Des Moines River, it is a quietly prospering place for 6,015 men, women and children. And unlike so many other Iowa communities, its economy isn't entirely tied to corn. Algona is the county seat, the home of a Snap-on Tools plant as well as some other light manufacturing, so it is more resistant to the farm recessions that periodically smite neighboring towns.

Ordinarily, except for a twister or two, nothing very exciting happens ; there. Back in World War II, the town did house 3,000 German and Italian prisoners of war. The POWs are still remembered for the fancy European-style banquets they gave, and for the 50-ft.-wide Nativity scene carved out of concrete, which today is Algona's sole tourist attraction.

Occasional disputes divide the town. The argument about widening Highway 169 from two to four lanes where it passes through the business district sputtered on for 25 years. The staunchest supporter of the status quo was John Dreesman, millionaire farmer, a director of the Interstate Bank and a former city councilman who wore his bib overalls everywhere except to church. He and his wife Agnes had two extremely bright children whose horizons soon extended far beyond Iowa.

Their daughter Marilyn, born in 1939, studied in Switzerland and married the son of a wealthy Chinese textile manufacturer. Called a jet setter by Algonans, she, along with her three children, spent time in Geneva, Hong Kong and Honolulu. It was gossiped that she shared Sophia Loren's gynecologist.

The Dreesmans' son Robert, born in 1947, was a husky but grimly introspective boy who became a perennial student. He took courses in pre-med, horticulture and psychology at various American colleges, and studied veterinary medicine in the Philippines, where he was briefly married. His esoteric hobbies ranged from beekeeping to acupuncture. "I'd rather have a loving son than a genius," his mother once confided. Though his father showed a strong attachment to Robert, it was thought that he financed his moody son's quest for college diplomas to keep him away from home. When Robert graduated first in his class from the Palmer College of Chiropractic in Davenport, Iowa, in 1986, the family was relieved that he finally seemed set to embark on a career.

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