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Richard Bittner, trustee of the Bechtel Trusts, speaks during the dedication and ribbon cutting for a statue in Bechtel Park at 419 E. 2nd St., Davenport, in January 2016.

It was the summer of 2005, and supporters of the way-over-original budget Figge Art Museum were in a bind.

The museum was scheduled to open in 30 days, but they couldn't open the doors because they couldn't pay the contractors.

They needed $5 million. Quickly.

Among those gathered in R. Richard "Dick" Bittner's Davenport office to discuss the dire situation were, as Dana Waterman recalls, Bittner, Waterman, the late Tom Gildehaus representing the Figge, and a representative of the John Deere Foundation.

"Tom said we had a problem," said Waterman, a partner in the Lane & Waterman law firm and trustee of the Hubbell-Waterman Foundation.

Within 30 days of that meeting, the necessary funds were put together; the museum opened; and a crisis was averted — in large part by Bittner's ability to write a check, Waterman said.

Bittner, who died Feb. 23 in California at the age of 90, was in charge of two trusts established by longtime Davenport banker H.R. Bechtel and his wife, Marie, who died in 1978 and 1987, respectively.

Because the Bechtels' only child had died, they directed money from their estates benefit the community, and Bittner, who had been their longtime attorney, was named the sole trustee, said Luci Oseland, Bittner's assistant and an officer of the trust.

Although Loseland and Bittner's sons, Jeff and Todd, review grant applications, Dick Bittner "made all the final decisions," Oseland said.

He had the power of the purse. He also was a whip-smart attorney.

Over the years, the trusts gave $95,708,557 to 220 different organizations and causes, Oseland said.

The range is astonishing: American Heart Association, Ballet Quad Cities, music boosters, libraries, the Child Abuse Council, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Community Health Care, band parents, firefighters, churches, the Hero Street Monument Committee, Scouts, Iowa Legal Aid, Niabi Zoo, heart research, the now-defunct United Neighbors, Little League, the Quad-City Area Labor Management Council, Student Hunger Drive, the Safer Foundation.

While the list covers a wide range, four areas rise to the top in talks with those who worked closely with Bittner: cultural institutions, redevelopment of downtown Davenport, educational institutions, and just about anything benefiting youths.

Cultural institutions

The emergency help to the Figge in 2005 led to the formation, two years later, of the Quad-City Cultural & Educational Supporting Charitable Trust to provide operating money for five institutions — the Figge, the Putnam Museum, the Quad-City Symphony Orchestra, the Quad-City Botanical Center and the River Music Experience. Quad-City Arts has since been added as a sixth.

More than $8 million has been donated to those institutions since then, Oseland said.

While much of the trusts' money has been awarded as the result of requests, founding of the cultural trust was an instance in which Bittner, seeing a need, took the initiative and set it up himself.

And the reason it is so important is that help with day-to-day operating expenses is usually difficult for those institutions to get, Waterman explained. Donors are willing to fund a specific project or program but usually aren't interested in ordinary bills, Waterman, a longtime Putnam board member, said.

As a result of the cultural trust, Waterman believes those institutions are "now positioned for the long term."

Downtown redevelopment

When Bittner moved to Davenport in the late 1950s, the downtown was a vibrant place. Then came the flight of retail and shuttered storefronts.

In the 1980s and continuing into 2002, he was a member of a nonprofit group called Rejuvenate Davenport. The organization became known mainly for buying up and tearing down derelict properties. While some criticized this tactic, Bittner and others thought that "if you get the buildings out of the way, something will come," said Don Decker, a former stockbroker and leader of Rejuvenate.

Projects that developed under this model were the Mississippi Plaza office building across from the Figge, the Quad-City Times building on the site of a former factory at 4th Street and East River Drive, the Heritage high-rise apartment in the 500 block of West 3rd Street, and two parking ramps.

"Believe me, without Bittner, we couldn't have done anything," Decker said. "He was a do-er. He was downtown-oriented."

One of the buildings Rejuvenate deemed derelict was a former antiques store at the foot of the Government Bridge, and Bittner was personally happy to see that one go, Decker said.

In its place, the trusts funded a small park dubbed Bechtel Park. In 2016, the trusts commissioned for the site a glossy bronze sculpture of Abraham Lincoln talking to a young boy.

In the area of riverfront redevelopment, former Mayor Bill Gluba turned to Bittner for direction — free legal advice, if you will — on how to get the former casino boat off the river and find a new developer who would be better for Davenport.

Most recently, Bittner gave critical support to the building of the Scott Community College Urban Campus at 3rd and Main streets. The trusts gave $800,000 in the early stages of the fundraising campaign, and then an additional $500,000 that helped the college raise $1.5 million more, Don Doucette, chancellor, said.

At the formal opening of the Urban Campus in June, Doucette said that "without that early support and the confidence it gave, this would be a vacant space," gesturing to the campus.

Bittner saw the importance of the project for two reasons — for the development of youth, giving kids who might not otherwise have a chance for furthering their education the opportunity to do so, and to help the continued redevelopment of the downtown, Doucette said.

"He once told me, 'One of my goals, before I die, is to restore to the downtown the vitality I knew as a young man,'" Doucette said.

Children

The colorful carousel next to Modern Woodmen Park is another Bittner legacy.

The whimsical nature of an amusement park ride might seem out of character for a man known as an irascible old curmudgeon, "but Dick had always wanted a carousel in downtown Davenport," said Dave Heller, owner of the Quad Cities River Bandits baseball team.

"He thought it would bring a sense of joy, of whimsy and fun, a family-friendly, affordable attraction."

Mayor Frank Klipsch, knowing of this interest, introduced Bittner to Heller and "we got the deal done right away," Heller said. All profits from the ride go to the trusts.

On the other end of the spectrum was Bittner's never-wavering support for Junior Achievement, a nonprofit group that fosters work readiness, entrepreneurship and financial literacy skills in students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Through the years, the trust gave $3 million to JA.

He saw JA as a way to teach children about personal finance and holding a job so that they could be contributing adults to their communities.

"He wanted to give students hope," said Dougal Nelson, president and CEO of Junior Achievement of the Heartland. "He wanted them to see how they could make a better life for themselves by being a good worker, being a good citizen, being good people."

Bittner also supported the Scott County Family Y, which received $10.3 million from the trust over the years. Again, it was the focus on providing opportunities for youths that brought out the checkbook.

Kent Pilcher, president of Estes Construction, said that "if it came down to disadvantaged youth, he (Bittner) was almost always in.

"But he still expected metrics. He wanted to see how those programs make a difference."

Educational institutions

Because education is a key to success, it is no surprise that the Bechtel trusts made substantial contributions to schools.

Palmer College was a leading beneficiary in this category; not only did Bittner serve as its attorney for 50 years, but the trusts gave the school's foundation $10.2 million. The new athletic center was dedicated as the R. Richard Bittner Athletic & Recreation Center.

Others on the grantee list: St. Ambrose University, $6.3 million; the Davenport Community School District, $2.5 million; Rivermont Collegiate, $1.1 million; the University of Iowa Foundation, $2.5 million; and Augustana College, $810,000.

Overall, "he helped people understand that kids are our future," said Tara Barney, former president and CEO of the Quad-Cities Chamber of Commerce, now working in Evansville, Ind.

"He connected the dots on that one. That was often lost on people."

"Everyone talks about him and the Y, but he brought kids to the Figge, kids to the Putnam. And Junior Achievement. He understood that the downtown will come back only when there are people there.

"He also understood that you only serve Davenport when you serve the region. He understood that Davenport thrived only when the region thrived."

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