Priestley Construction: More than Building Homes
By ASHLEY SCHABLE
Bill Priestley built his first home at the young age of 19, and just months ago, he built his last. Both homes — two of more than a hundred he developed under Priestley Construction — were for his wife, Marcia.
“He told (our son) Andy he built his first house for me and his last house for me,” Marcia said as her husband of 45 years nodded and gave her knee a little squeeze while they sat inside their beautiful new custom home on the south edge of Guthrie Center.
Between the homes where he raised his family, including son Andy and daughter Ali, Bill Priestley built a successful business, and a life on the foundation of faith. “We have been blessed,” said Marcia, who helps Bill communicate now as he battles symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a relentless and fatal disease.
BUILT TO LAST
It all began rather innocuously for Bill Priestley. With a foundation built on integrity, leadership and loyalty, his company, Priestley Construction, has more than 40 years of experience in building 150 homes.
Bill and Marcia (Sorensen) Priestley both were raised in Guthrie Center. Bill, 63, said he always thought he was going to be a farmer, working many mornings on the family farm growing up. He’d clean out feed bunks and hog houses before heading to school. He farmed his grandfather’s land near Audubon as a senior in high school.
After graduating, he attended Des Moines Area Community College and studied building trades. He married Marcia on Nov. 11, 1972.
Marcia, 65, pursued a career in education at Simpson College in Indianola. She retired in May 2014 after 40 years of teaching, including 20 as a fourth-grade teacher at Guthrie Center Elementary School.
And Bill, with a knack and skill for developing homes, built. Priestley Construction has built more than 130 homes at Lake Panorama in Panora, and Bill says he’s proud of every one of them. He doesn’t have a favorite, although he admits some homes and clients were easier to work with than others.
Styles have changed a lot, he said. Today’s homes have more open floor plans, more usable space. “He told me when he first started, they didn’t have that many things to choose from, but now there is everything,” Marcia said, noting an array of cabinets and hardware, flooring and color options. “They have so many choices, and they go to websites and find these ideas and say, ‘Can you do this and do that?’ The choices are unlimited.”
The cost of homes and building materials also has changed. “Forty years ago, lake homes were a lot smaller,” Bill said. “Lots now cost as much as houses did when we started.”
Priestley says his success is due to a great crew, lead by Junior Wolfe and Billy Donovan, both longtime employees. Sometimes they would have two or three houses going at the same time.
Bill took pride in the attention to detail and design for which Priestley Construction became known. Before he could build, he had to be proud of it.
Bill drew most of his house plans. He never learned computer-aided drafting (CAD), a computer system many carpenters use to aid in the creation and modification of a design. “He would sit at the drawing table,” Marcia said. “He drew by hand.”
Bill and Marcia both say it’s not the homes he built they remember most but all the wonderful people they’ve met. He’s built homes in Guthrie Center, Casey, Audubon, Adel, and Dallas Center, where he built a home for son Andy and his wife, Julie, in 2004.
“He always felt the most important part was that his client was happy with their house,” Marcia said. “He would bend over backwards to make sure they were happy.”
“HE’S A PEACH OF A GUY”
Billy Donovan started working with Bill Priestley right out of high school and spent nearly 19 years on his crew. A 1995 Guthrie Center high school graduate, Donovan went into business for himself, now owner of Donovan Construction LLC in Panora, about five years ago. He says he owes a lot to Priestley for his success.
“He is just a class act guy who I really looked up to and had a lot of respect for,” Donovan said. “I owe a lot of my success to him — from watching him and learning how he operated and how he worked with customers and homeowners.”
Donovan said Priestley always cared about his employees and his subcontractors — a genuine and humble guy who everybody could connect with. “He was always on the job, there every morning,” Donovan said. “He’s a humble guy who is always more worried about others.”
Tim McDermott and Bill Priestley didn’t get off on the right foot in their first meeting years ago. “He wanted some things sent out to a job site and I went off the quote and sent it out and it turns out I sent some stuff that wasn’t supposed to go,” said McDermott, who works at Lake Lumber, a hardware store in Panora.
An unhappy Priestley visited the lumber business and had a few words with McDermott. “He gave me hell and I don’t take that real good, so I got right in his face and he walked out of here madder than a hornet,” McDermott said. The next day Priestley returned to apologize. McDermott did the same. They’ve been best friends ever since.
McDermott said Priestley’s integrity is unmatched. “If something was wrong on the job site, whether it got broke or bent or whatever, if he came in and wanted credit for it, you can bet it happened when we unloaded it,” McDermott said. “That’s a rare quality anymore.”
Some of their favorite times together have been spent on fishing trips in Canada. “I have a picture of Bill and when I took it he turned around and said, ‘I’m going to regret doing that aren’t I?,” McDermott said. “I still hold the picture.”
McDermott said Priestley has always been a professional and a caring person. “He’s very humble and generous beyond belief,” McDermott said. “If he knows people are in trouble, he’s the first one to step up — He’s a peach of a guy.”
FATHER KNOWS BEST
Bill Priestley — be it as contractor, friend, husband or father — builds great relationships with everyone and always makes those around him feel very comfortable, his family says. Growing up, Andy Priestley worked for his dad at Priestley Construction during the summer months.
“Dad didn’t want me to go into construction, stating it’s a difficult, labor-intensive business, so he gave me the least-desirable tasks,” Andy said. Some of the worst included insulating attics in the heat of the summer and carrying countless buckets of cement down steep Lake Panorama lots.
“I couldn’t wait to find a different summer job, any other job,” Andy said. When he turned 16, he got a job at Lake Panorama National Golf Course.
Sharing the same entrepreneurial spirit as his father, Andy has founded multiple businesses. Today he is CEO and co-founder of My Online Camp, the 25-employee sports technology company used by the National Football League and thousands of college athletic programs across the country.
In the early ’90s, when Priestley Construction was hitting its stride, Bill bought a computer to manage the accounting aspects of his business. Andy helped him get things set up and then continued to handle general accounting tasks in Quicken and QuickBooks for the company throughout high school and college, also setting up a computerized invoicing system.
“These accounting tasks gave me firsthand experience and understanding of business cashflows and forecasting — things I still use today,” Andy said.
Andy said he knows that times weren’t always easy for his dad. “In the ’80s, there were times when it was a struggle for (Priestley Construction) to find work,” he said. What he remembers most is how hard his dad worked. “How dedicated he was to serving the customer, never cutting corners, always doing the job right,” Andy said. “His career is proof that hard work and integrity equate to sustainable success.”
Unlike her brother, the Priestleys’ daughter Ali never gave construction a try, but she did enjoy walking through the homes with her dad. “I always loved doing this,” she said. “I remember certain things that made each house unique.”
The huge beams in the ceilings of one, a movie theater in another, the house with the indoor pool, the one with the outdoor fireplace. “I always loved seeing the almost-complete homes and felt such a sense of pride that my dad did all of that,” she said.
She remembers, too, her dad leaving early in the mornings for the shop before visiting job sites. He’d stop at Casey’s for a doughnut and pay in advance for the coffee Marcia would pick up before school.
He’d spend some afternoons at home doing book work, Ali recalled. “I can still hear the screech of his drawing table as he would hand-draw all of the blueprints,” she said. “He took so much time and pride on each one. If someone wanted a change, he had to start the whole thing over.”
Ali witnessed her dad’s work ethic, too. “He always knew the value of work, and that was just a part of life,” she said.
His friendly and positive personality made him easy for customers to work with. “Even after he’d completed homes, sometimes the customers would ask him to come back and fix a light fixture or build them a porch swing,” she said.
Ali and her husband, Cary Coppola, live in West Des Moines, where Ali is a guidance counselor at St. Augustin Catholic School. They have a boat at Lake Panorama. “It always makes me proud to point out the houses that Dad built,” she said.
Bill said the area has been good to him. “We need good, young carpenters,” he said. He’d been going strong for years, but then something changed.
‘YOU’RE JUST GOING TO GET WORSE’
It started with slurred speech. His close friends thought he was drinking too much, Marcia said. He had excessive saliva, maybe a salivary gland, they thought. They entered the world of ALS on Oct. 31, 2016. Marcia remembers it was Trick-or-Treat night.
The diagnosis is bulbar ALS, with symptoms associated with swallowing, speech and respiration. “It’s all upper,” Marcia said. “He can still walk, and he still goes to the shop. He rides his bike and is doing the things he could do.”
Only now he chokes some and has to be more careful. A couple of months ago, he lost his ability to speak. “Most of what I did was talk,” Bill writes as he shares his thoughts on a tablet.
Marcia says they have good support. “Iowa has a really good (ALS Association) chapter,” she said. Bill has doctors in Iowa City. Unlike with some other illnesses, ALS patients visit their doctors only every four months.
“You don’t go to appointments when you have ALS,” Marcia said. “You don’t go see your doctor because they know you’re just going to get worse.” So, every four months, Bill has an appointment. All afternoon, he meets with physical and occupational therapists, speech and swallowing specialists and a neurologist. “That’s just the way it works,” Marcia said.
Bill is trying a new drug, approved by the Food and Drug Administration in May. He wears a port on the right side of his chest. “We’re so thankful, because you can get infusions in Guthrie Center,” Marcia said of the Guthrie County Hospital. “His is 14 days in a row and 14 days off, so he goes up there whenever. In Iowa City, we waited for two hours, so we’re blessed Guthrie Center has that.”
When Bill was diagnosed, they told him he might lose his voice within six months, but he didn’t lose it for close to a year. Daughter-in-law Julie Priestley researched and helped Bill bank his voice.
“He said all these phrases into the computer, and now they are making an app out of it that he will be able to use that will be his own voice,” Marcia said. “It will be neat for the grandkids. Our youngest is 3 and wants to remember Grandpa, and his voice. When the family learned of Bill’s diagnosis, Marcia Priestly said, everyone was in tears.
“We were all crying, and Bill goes, ‘I’ve lived a blessed 62 years. I’ve loved my job, my family, I wouldn’t change a thing,’” Marcia said. He’s glad it isn’t his kids or his five grandchildren — Katelyn and Claire Priestley, and Carter, Brynn and Lia Coppola.
The tears fall. He has a strong attitude. Strong faith. Bill’s parents, Charles and Phyllis Priestley, have both passed. He has his father’s Bible.
“His goal last year was to read through it, and so we did, and he finished, and now he’s starting over again,” Marcia said. “He just feels like God’s blessed him.”
Since Bill’s diagnosis, the family has been overwhelmed by the support. They have received a tall pile of cards, most of them from people at the lake whose homes Bill built. “They write about how much they loved Bill,” Marcia said through tears. “It’s very heartwarming. We get cards every day, and they told us how much they loved working with him, that they loved their home, that they were thankful he was able to build for them.”
People sent gifts and boxes of cookies during the holiday. They called to wish the Priestleys Merry Christmas. “We were going to Christmas Eve service and the phone rang and a client wanted to tell us to have a nice Christmas with our family,” Marcia said. “To have people take time on Christmas to call you … some of them we see and they just come up and give me a hug around town.”
Ali has run into her dad’s clients in Des Moines. “They immediately ask about Dad,” she said. “They all say he’s such a great guy and was so good to work with. They all tell me they think about him daily and pray for him often.”
It’s been hard on Marcia. She’ll tell Bill that they’re supposed to grow old together. “He said, ‘We already are,’” she smiled. “I meant in our 70s and 80s. I’m losing my right arm, right leg — we’ve done everything together.”
And they still are. Last year, they traveled widely throughout the country. In Washington, D.C., they got to see the presidential motorcade with both President Obama and President Trump. They visited Florida, Seattle and Arizona. This year, they have toured Nashville and Phoenix and plan to return to Anna Maria Island in Florida.
“We’ve been pretty good to let him do just about anything he’s wanted,” Marcia said of their adventures. “He just wanted to travel, see places he hasn’t seen.” He took a helicopter ride down into the Grand Canyon on a trip last week. “He had done a helicopter ride over Denali in Alaska and he thought that was really cool, so I wanted him to get to do that,” Marcia said.
He also keeps busy when he’s around home. He visits his shop in Guthrie Center every day. His sisters Julie Christensen and Pam Kunkle, both of Guthrie Center, organize coffee at his shop on Friday mornings. “It started with five, and now averages a dozen or more,” Marcia said.
He continues to build treasures in his shop. Last winter, he built his daughter a beautiful built-in white cabinet that stretches the entire width of her basement. Ali drew it out for him, and in a few weeks, he had it finished. “It totally made our family room seem finished, and I love knowing that Dad built the whole thing,” Ali said.
He’s also made some benches and coffee tables, some made from wood from the Guthrie County grandstand at the fairgrounds. Several of Ali’s friends saw a bench she had and asked him to make one for them. “There are some Bill Priestley coffee tables and benches all around Iowa,” she said.
Both Andy and Ali have porch swings Bill built for them one Christmas. They are extra long, so the entire family can fit.
Bill has been making wooden crosses, too. “He’s giving them to people, and he’s not taking any money,” Marcia said. What might be one of his favorite projects of all time is the three crosses that sit on a hilltop just east of Guthrie Center. Bill dreamed them up and built them in 2000. He still climbs the hill and changes the floodlights that shine on them at night.
“He likes scenery really well, and he always thought it would be cool to go across the United States and find the perfect spots for three crosses,” Marcia said. “He talked about Crosses Across America, something when he retired. He wanted to do a lot of volunteer work. He wanted to work on churches.”
And he wanted to build more lighthouses. The lighthouse at Lake Panorama that sits on the point just west of Panorama Marine, Bill built in his shop about 15 years ago. He would like to see a few more out there.
“Always thought Boulder Beach had a nice spot there,” he said.
There’s still a lot he wants to do.