“The Making of Bill Knapp,” a new book by Simpson College history professor William Friedricks, includes sketches of 23 people who were key to the 95-year-old real estate developer’s success.

The book begins with quick summaries of “Bill Knapp’s Top Ten Business Tenets.” Most are standard business aphorisms with a Knapp spin. For example: “Close Deals Quickly, and Aim for a Win-Win,” and “Court the Media,” an activity at which Knapp excelled. 

Another core belief is “You Can’t Do it All by Yourself,” which sets up Friedricks sketches of Knapp’s essential people. His two wives are among the seven relatives on the list.  

Irene Hill was Knapp’s high school sweetheart in Allerton, Iowa. They were married from 1946 to 1986. Her support as bookkeeper and adviser was invaluable during the 1950s when Knapp was launching his career.

“Later, he had an extended romantic affair with Business Publications owner Connie Wimer. At that time, neither Knapp nor Wimer wanted to remarry. He and Connie Wimer remain good friends today.”

In 1998, following a complicated courtship, the 72-year-old Knapp married Susan Terry, a 47-year-old businesswoman. “We both got lucky,” Susan told Friedricks. “We appreciate and encourage each other.”

Other relatives mentioned: Knapp’s late brother Paul, who managed the complicated real estate deals Knapp was constantly creating, and Paul’s sons Mike and Bill II, who also played roles that advanced Knapp real estate interests. Bill and Irene’s children, Ginny and Roger, who died in 2008, received mentions for their emotional support, although neither was involved in the family business. 

Friedricks has written several Des Moines-focused works, including books about John Ruan, F.M. Hubbell and a 2013 biography of Knapp.  

The new book explains that Ruan and former Gov. Harold Hughes were instrumental in Knapp’s downtown revitalization efforts. 

Hughes was governor  from 1963 to 1969 and introduced Knapp to Democratic politics, where he became the party’s largest financial backer.

Hughes also exposed Knapp to the plight of inner-city Des Moines residents, a move that eventually led him to become a major downtown player at a key time.

During the late 1960s, Hughes urged Knapp to get involved in a proposed urban renewal housing project called Homes of Oakridge, northwest of downtown. 

At roughly the same time, Knapp was becoming a close friend of Ruan, who, like Knapp, was a self-made success. Also like Knapp, Ruan was a friend of legendary Des Moines lawyer, businessman and investor Joseph Rosenfield. 

Rosenfield, like Knapp and Hughes, was a Democrat, while Ruan was a Republican. In fact, Ruan was his party’s main money man, just like Knapp was for Democrats. But political philosophy took a back seat to commercial interests for both, and in 1973 Ruan made Knapp a director of Ruan-owned Bankers Trust. 

Ruan is credited with helping launch a first wave of downtown redevelopment during the 1970s with three major projects: the Ruan Center (1975), the Marriott Hotel (1981) and the Ruan II office building (1982).

Knapp, who had started out as a residential real estate broker and had already turned Iowa Realty into a statewide powerhouse, also became a major downtown developer by the 1980s.

During the first half of that decade, Knapp developed more significant downtown projects than all of the city’s other developers combined. 

It began with the Hotel Savery, which he bought in 1977 and spent $7 million to make over during the next three years. 

In 1981, Knapp built high-rise apartments downtown for the elderly (Elsie Mason Manor) and a suburban-style apartment complex for downtown workers (Civic Center Court). 

Next came a major office complex (Capital Square) and high-rise luxury condos (the Plaza). In both cases, Knapp brokered deals with out-of-state developers. Both were completed in 1985. 

Knapp’s downtown presence waned after that, but by then Principal Financial Group, the Hubbell family and others were stepping forward to launch the next wave of downtown development.