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Henry Vargas, 92, was a Quad-City champion of social justice, worker rights
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Henry Vargas, 92, was a Quad-City champion of social justice, worker rights

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He was among the poorest of Davenport's poor, yet enrichment is his legacy.

Henry Vargas spent the first two decades of his life in a railroad boxcar — first behind the Crescent Macaroni factory at 5th and Iowa.

When Henry was 9, the Vargas family moved to the so-called Mexican shantytown of Cook's Point in Davenport's west end.

There, his family lived among dozens of other Spanish-speaking families and others who barely survived on their migrant-farmer wages.

His father, who had left Mexico during the country's revolution and before Henry's birth in 1929, was killed in a hit-and-run crash in 1941, when Henry was still a boy.

At 16, with his three older brothers serving in World War II, Henry got a job at the Rock Island Arsenal. A few years later, he got a job at John Deere Plow and quickly joined the union.

Though Cook's Point had no paved roads, no electricity and only a hand pump for carrying water to the residents' boxcars and thrown-together houses, the barrio was home.

So it was a shock and a crisis when Davenport evicted the occupants of Cook's Point to make way for industrial development in the area of what is now West River Drive, near South Concord Street.

The Vargas family was among the last to leave Cook's by the city-imposed deadline of May 31, 1952.

Sixty-nine years later — to the day — Henry Vargas died in Davenport at the age of 92.

There was work to do

Henry Vargas could see from a young age that life was not fair, especially for Mexican-Americans.

When his mother returned home from her job one day, her hands bloodied from the work, he knew he had to get a job to help his family. In those days, that's what many minority children did. Some were woefully young, not even teenagers. And the wages were criminally low.

Rita Vargas, one of Henry and Lucy Vargas' nine children and the longtime Scott County Recorder, said many at Cook's Point would not have survived without the charity of a Jewish merchant from Rock Island. Picking through cast-out produce at the nearby city dump was not enough to sustain the families that lived in the 50-or-so homes at Cook's.

All around him, Henry could see that hard work did not necessarily result in reward. So, he found another way.

A founder among founders

The eviction from Cook's Point revealed to Henry and other Davenport Latinos that, even if housing wasn't too expensive, discrimination against Mexicans was blocking their path.

They found support in Black activists Charles and Ann Toney, in the Catholic Church and in the students and faculty at St. Ambrose University. Through them, Henry and others in the Latino community became activists for housing and workers' rights.

In 1959, seven years after the forced closure of Cook's Point, LULAC Council 10 in Davenport became one of the first in Iowa to earn its charter. And Henry, one of the founders, became its first president. They focused on civil rights and pushed for migrant-worker legislation.

"LULAC was his baby," Rita Vargas said of her dad's devotion to the organization. "He conceived LULAC when I was being conceived.

"They worked really hard. They made a difference. My dad was devoted to it, and they did important things.

"At Cook's Point, the people had become family. That's one reason LULAC was so important; it helped keep those families together."

A few years after LULAC started, Henry joined the executive board of Catholic International Council, or CIC, where his work on fair housing and employment continued. The Davenport-based CIC connected with civil-rights groups and had nearly 1,000 members by 1964.

Henry's role as an activist is well-documented, and his passion for and success with community organizing impacted minorities throughout the Quad-Cities and Iowa.

Life at home

His commitment to activism meant Henry Vargas had little time to spare at home.

But every year, for the two weeks that his plow-making plant was on shutdown, he took his family on a summer vacation. Rita Vargas' photos show smiling children and parents on trips to Montana, New York and Mexico City.

Life was changing, but Henry didn't forget his past. It drove him.

"We were like the Beverly Hillbillies when we left our little house on 6th and Pershing for the big time," Rita Vargas said Thursday. "We moved up to a house on Central Park that had four bedrooms.

"At one time, there were seven kids in one bedroom, so this was a castle."

About two years ago, at the age of 90, Henry moved in with Rita Vargas and her husband, Ken Krayenhagen. Even in warm weather, Henry was taken by the remote-control-operated fireplace, which he kept running while he kept himself up on the news.

In his 92 years, he never required medication and relied only on an occasional over-the-counter pain medication. Later in life, he added women's struggles to his civil-rights repertoire, largely because he could see that his daughters encountered far more workplace and educational struggles than his sons.

And, if he ever regretted living the first third of his life in abject poverty, he never let on.

"As a kid, I was so disappointed I didn't get to live at Cook's Point," Rita Vargas said. "He made it sound like Disneyland.

"Dad was so humble and never had a prejudicial bone in his body. He went peacefully, knowing LULAC was in good hands. My dad, he was a leader."

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