As soldier, mayor and judge, Al Habhab has lived a life of service
Al Habhab doesn’t believe in sitting on the sidelines.
The son of Lebanese immigrants, the Fort Dodge native has devoted a lifetime of service to his fellow man — as an Army private in World War II, as the city’s mayor for 14 years, and as a district court judge and state appellate court justice.
Few have played a larger role in the history of this city than the man born 91 years ago to Dea and Moses Habhab, who both entered the United States through Ellis Island as newly married teenagers and found their way to Fort Dodge to settle and raise a family.
Few are bigger cheerleaders than Habhab, who said, “I think Fort Dodge and Webster County are forging ahead. I think Fort Dodge has grown by people giving of their time and talents. Frankly, it has exceeded my expectations.”
Habhab admits to slowing down a bit in the past year, but he and his wife, Janet, whom he met while attending the University of Iowa, lead an active lifestyle with close friends and are proud of their two children (Robert and Mary Beth), two grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. The Habhabs have lived in the same house overlooking Snell Park for 54 of their 63 years of marriage.
Much of the infrastructure that Fort Dodge and area residents value today had its formative roots during the span of Habhab’s career as the city’s mayor from 1960 to 1974 — the longest tenure of any mayor before or since.
He counts as his greatest accomplishment the urban renewal improvements made in the 1960s to address constant flooding from the Des Moines River, working with then-U.S. Sen. Harold Hughes to secure the necessary federal funding. He supported during his term as mayor the building of both Williams Drive and Veterans Bridge (on First Avenue South and over the railroad tracks), creating more efficient traffic flows through Fort Dodge.
Harlan and Hazel Rogers Sports Complex had its roots during his tenure — thanks to land donated by the Rogers — and continues to bring recreational and financial (state girls softball championship) benefits to the city. As mayor, Habhab dug the first spade of dirt for the present site of Iowa Central Community College, which had been located in a wing of Fort Dodge Senior High, and which he considers one of northwest Iowa’s greatest assets. To expand the Fort Dodge Regional Airport, he worked through condemnation proceedings to double the size of the land on which the airport is located. Also during his mayoral tenure, the fire station was moved from the Fort Dodge Municipal Building to its present location, land was acquired for the present city landfill, the Airport Commission was created and the city limits were expanded to control and encourage home building.
All of these were a team effort with the city council and key Fort Dodge leaders, and couldn’t have been accomplished without them, Habhab is quick to point out — adding that one upon whom he relied heavily for many city projects was former City Clerk Dennis Milefchik.
Fate played a big role in how this all came about, beginning when his parents — who spoke very little English — found their way to Fort Dodge because his dad, while working the mines in Pennsylvania, knew a Ferris Daniel of Fort Dodge and when the train dropped him off at the wrong city in Iowa, he was able to communicate to the trainmaster where he wanted to go. The late Ferris Daniel’s grandson, John, owns Daniel Pharmacy and grandson, Steve, owns Daniel Tire Co.
The Habhabs had nine children — two of whom died at an early age. Al is the last to survive.
Two of Habhab’s brothers — Hassan and Oscar — joined the Navy after the United States entered World War II. And Al was 18 when he was drafted into the Army on Jan. 25, 1944, just after graduating early from Fort Dodge Senior High.
Nine months later, his unit of the 87th Infantry Division fought in the Battle of the Bulge and the date of Dec. 16, 1944, was indelibly seared forever in Habhab’s mind.
Facing intense German fire on that day, Habhab’s squad was ordered to take out a machine gun nest. One of the men, Arthur Kingsberry, was hit by bullets and, Habhab recalled, was lying in a field “yelling and screaming, ‘I don’t want to die’ and ‘help me, help me.'”
“I told the guys if they would cover me, I would go back and get Kingsberry. So I got rid of my pack but kept my rifle and ammunition belt and crawled on my belly to where Kingsberry was. He was shot up bad and was bleeding profusely. I had my first-aid packs, and I patched him up the best I could. The Germans kept shooting. We could hear the zing of bullets. Finally, the Germans stopped firing. Perhaps they thought we were both dead. There was indeed divine intervention. I threw Kingsberry’s arm over me. He was a big fellow and I was a little guy, I weighed 100-125 pounds. I then dragged him to where the other guys were.”
Some 40 years later, Habhab was able to track down Kingsberry, who was a jeweler who lived in Baltimore, and for years after they exchanged cards or phone calls each Dec. 16 until Kingsberry died. They never got the chance to meet. For his Army service, Habhab was awarded the Bronze Star, three battle stars and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
Habhab developed trench foot a week after rescuing Kingsberry in the frozen conditions of France and was evacuated to a hospital in Paris, and then to England, where doctors were able to save his feet from amputation.
“All I can tell you is that I went into the Army on Jan. 25, 1944. I was in Europe in November 1944. I was in the hospital just a few months later. I lived a lifetime in about 10 months. I was just a common ordinary guy. I never thought much about it until my later years.”
The war did not leave the Habhab family untouched. Navy Ensign Oscar Habhab was flying a Corsair off an aircraft carrier near Guam, on patrol looking for Japanese planes, when his aircraft went down on April 1, 1945. The plane exploded when it hit the water and his body was never recovered. “That was the most devastating thing that fell on our family,” Habhab said. “My parents never recovered from his loss. Our love for him has never closed.”
Al was in the barracks in England the day he received a letter from his sister Mary that Oscar had died. “I was in shock, I didn’t know which way to turn. I guess it’s another incident in my life that perhaps shaped my future.” Oscar is memorialized in the Philippines at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial.
Habhab was discharged from the Army in early 1946 and began classes at Fort Dodge Junior College that fall. After two years, he entered the University of Iowa and graduated with a law degree in 1952. It was at Iowa that he met and fell in love with Janet, the daughter of Robert and Grace Morse of Elkader. They were married in July 1953.
They returned to Fort Dodge where Habhab started his own practice — he said he grossed $800 in his first year — before attorney Alan Loth invited him to join his practice 10 years later.
Habhab was 34 years old when he was elected in 1960 to his first two-year term as mayor, deciding to run for the nonpartisan position because he thought there were “things that needed to be done” in Fort Dodge. Many thought he was too young; previous office-holders were much older. But he won election and then re-election six more terms.
Later, his long ambition to become a judge was fulfilled when he was appointed a judge in the Second Judicial District by then-Gov. Robert Ray in 1975 and served for 13 years. Habhab was appointed to the Iowa Court of Appeals by then-Gov. Terry Branstad in 1988 and later was selected by his fellow judges as chief judge. He left the court in 1997 and served as a senior judge for eight more years. Habhab afterward did some limited law practice in Fort Dodge and today, while his attorney’s license is current, he no longer practices law.
Habhab, who serves on the board of Friendship Haven and is former commander of the Fort Dodge American Legion, believes in involvement. The list of other organizations he has served is long. And so, too, is his list of honors.
“If you don’t think things are going the way you should, get involved” he said. “If you really, truly believe in what you’re doing, that’s the major part. You’re going to be subject to criticism along the way, that’s true. But you need to be calm about the criticism. You need to believe in what you’re doing.”
When Habhab celebrated his 90th birthday in 2015 with a party at the Community Orchard, he told co-owner Bev Baedke to make a reservation for Sept. 6, 2025, for his 100th birthday party. He was joking, he said. Well, maybe.
“I enjoyed my 90th,” he said. “I think I’ve led a pretty good life.”