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Tom Fitzpatrick is a businessman at heart. A lifelong resident of Storm Lake, he has become a fixture of the community through his various business ventures over the years, most notably his fifty-year-long commitment to working at—and later owning and operating—the local General Motors dealership in town.
Fitzpatrick’s story of hard work and success began long before he started working for his father at the family-owned dealership in 1968. Born in 1952, his first enterprise began at the ripe age of nine years old in the form of a local lawn-mowing service. “Here’s a lawn mower,” Fitzpatrick remembered his father telling him. “Your mother’s going to make business cards for you, and you’re going to go take those out to all the neighbors, and you’re going to mow yards for a living.” He continued, “And I said okay. So that’s what I did.” Though his father allowed him to keep the lawn mower once he was able to make enough to cover the expense, according to Fitzpatrick, he never got to reap the fruits of his labor. “By the time I got the mower paid off,” he said with a chuckle, “there wasn’t anything left of the mower, because of the years it took me to do that.”
This little undertaking began what would become a life of dedicated service to the Storm Lake community in the form of business. From delivering newspapers for the Des Moines Tribune to running a popcorn stand on a downtown Storm Lake street corner, Fitzpatrick’s adolescence bred the work ethic that drove him to enter the car business with his father at sixteen years old. His siblings all similarly worked their way through life. When they wanted anything beyond what their parents provided them, they were expected to make the money to buy it themselves. Fitzpatrick recalled, “If I saw a specific winter coat that I wanted that was different than what my folks were going to give me, then I’d go earn the money to make that happen. And it was that way with all six of us kids…We were a working family, we were expected to work, and so that’s what we all did.”
After graduating from a two-year business college at the American Institute of Business, he came back to the GM dealership as a salesman before eventually moving into management. According to Fitzpatrick, this was somewhat of a fulfillment of familial expectations, as his role in the shared business was predetermined early in life. “As I grew up,” he began, “my mother said, ‘You are going to be in the car business.’ I don’t know if I had a choice or not.” He and his brother began buying out the dealership around 1984. The rest is history. Fitzpatrick sold the dealership and retired from car sales in 2015. Throughout his fifty-plus-year tenure at the dealership, Fitzpatrick watched the staff grow from a mere eighteen employees to the fifty-five that worked there upon retirement. Under his ownership, the business went from around five million dollars in sales to around thirty million. The key to his success, he explained, was good customer service. This is especially vital in such a small town with a limited customer pool. “If you didn’t treat each customer coming to that door like family for repeat business, I mean, that’s the only way that we survived, was repeat business,” he said. “There’s customers that we’ve had for fifty years. Same customers.”
When reflecting upon his years operating the GM dealership, Fitzpatrick said, “I think we must have run a good business. or we wouldn’t have been there. I think we must have done well, or they wouldn’t keep coming back. I guess when you look at that aspect of it, it was all good. But it took a lot of hours to make that happen.”
The growth of his business wasn’t the only change that Fitzpatrick witnessed throughout his lifetime. Storm Lake in 2022 looks considerably different from the town of his youth. “When I grew up, when we went to Des Moines and I would see a black person, that was unusual for me to see,” Fitzpatrick explained. “In our high school system [now], I think [students] speak somewhere between 20 and 25 different languages. So I think our diversity leads our kids to leave here with a better understanding of the world.”
Fitzpatrick views Storm Lake’s diversity as one of its most important features. Not only does the town’s cultural heterogeneity produce a diverse array of languages, foods, and customs, but it also helps keep the town afloat. It’s what sets Storm Lake apart from other Midwestern small towns struggling with decreasing populations. Diversity makes Storm Lake both a unique and thriving community. “With any community, I’m sure, you can have a bunch of nay-sayers out there—‘We don’t want the diversity, we didn’t need the diversity,’” Fitzpatrick noted. “Well, you know what? If we didn’t have the diversity, we wouldn’t have the packing plants. The town would shrink up and go away.”
While the national trend reflects an exodus from smaller communities for bigger towns, Storm Lake breaks the mold. It is indeed growing rather than shrinking. According to Fitzpatrick, there are two main developments that make this growth possible. First, immigration and employment opportunities like the Tyson packing plant. He noted how a family with two parents working at the plant can make close to $100,000 a year. “In Storm Lake, Iowa, that’s pretty damn good money for a family,” he said.
Second, there has been a noticeable shift in younger residents who were born in Storm Lake and, after a period of moving away, are now returning to the town to start families and raise their children. “The thing that excites me is to see all these younger people coming back, that are lawyers, and doctors, and pharmacy people, things like that,” he observed. “When that’s happening, you know that we must be doing something right.”
Tom Fitzpatrick loves his town. The lake (which he considers to be “a diamond in the rough type of thing”), the university, local shops and businesses, the school system, and the hospital system are all sources of pride for him and for the community as a whole. But when asked to identify what exactly makes Storm Lake so special—such an anomaly in small-town America—Fitzpatrick circled back to the town’s diverse population and rich cultural environment. “Well, as far as I’m concerned,” he began, “it just comes back to the diversity and teaching our kids, as they grow up, what it’s like in the real world versus a community that has no diversity. That’s not the real world today.” This, he says, is what draws people in and keeps them coming back: “It is, I think, the best place in the world to raise a family.”