John Pettit was the man behind the Barnstormers. Now the team must go on without him.
A Cubs fan, the "flower lady," husbands, wives, and more are part of the more than 1,400 Iowans lost COVID-19 as of early October 2020. Des Moines Register
Juli Pettit can’t help but look.
The handful of times she's been back in the Iowa Barnstormers' office during the COVID-19 pandemic, she’ll occasionally lift her gaze and see where her father John used to sit. His desk, which is directly across from hers at Wells Fargo Arena, hasn’t changed much since he died unexpectedly late last year.
On top of grieving her father, Juli recently assumed his role as the team’s chief operating officer, a job that was his passion for more than two decades. And as she finds her way in this new stage of work and life, she can’t help but wonder what dad would have suggested.
“That definitely has, I guess, brought a lot more … pain,” she said.
John, the Iowa Barnstormers’ COO and vice president, died on Christmas Eve from complications of COVID-19. He’d spent his career working on the sidelines of football fields, hockey rinks and baseball stadiums, and was especially well known around Des Moines for his work with the Iowa Barnstormers since the team's return in 2008.
Not just a key player in the front office, John was also a face of the franchise.
"He was very passionate about the team," Juli said.
John first came to Des Moines for a job with the Iowa Stars, a minor league hockey team. But when the team moved, he stayed behind.
As Barnstormers president Jeff Lamberti and his ownership group started the process of bringing a football team back to the city, one of the first big hires they needed to make was general manager. John was brought in for an interview.
"It didn't take a whole lot of time after that before we figured out he was the right guy," Jeff said.
In charge of the team's day-to-day operations as well as corporate sales, John helped spearhead the team's resurgence in the Capital City. He organized the team's equipment, handled media requests, ran Military and First Responder's Night at Wells Fargo Arena and even helped design new team uniforms, which were set to be unveiled in 2020 before the pandemic canceled the season.
When the team transitioned to the Indoor Football League in 2015, John was critical to the company’s evolution. And when the team celebrated its first championship in 2018, John was there, again, soaking up the group’s achievement along with his players and colleagues.
"John was really the heart and soul of our team because he did everything," Jeff said.
Despite the scores, the records and the accolades, John’s biggest joy was the work the team did in the community, bringing players to schools and other events throughout Des Moines, Juli said.
Above all, John was kind, Jeff said. He drove team members to rehab appointments and check-ups. Once, while in the Quad Cities for a rivalry game, John stayed with a player who’d broken his leg as he got stitched up and then drove him back to Des Moines in the wee hours of the night.
"That was the epitome of who John Pettit was," Jeff said. "Everybody liked John and John earned it."
Now, the team and his family are making sure John’s legacy lives on. The Barnstormers will wear the uniforms he designed for the 2020 season when they finally play in 2021, and they also plan to honor him before the team's first home game on May 22nd.
And the Pettit name will live on in the front office, too, as Juli picks up the mantle of her father.
"He would be very proud," John's wife Janice said. "She's worked alongside him for so long. He taught her everything she knows.”
“I know he's on her shoulder supporting her right now."
This story is part of the Iowa Mourns series, a collection of remembrances about Iowans who lost their lives to COVID-19. If you've lost a loved one to COVID-19 in Iowa, let us know by filling out this form or emailing Iowa Columnist Courtney Crowder at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Iowans lost to COVID-19
The following deaths from COVID-19 were added in the past week to our list of more than 700 Iowans who have died from the disease, found at DesMoinesRegister.com/IowaMourns.
Janice Campell, 83, Sioux City. Retired from Farmland Insurance Companies after 25 years.
Victoria Gutierrez, 57, Des Moines. Loved spending time with family and her little dog, Chico.
Chad Kuehl, 45, Garber. Chief of the Garber Fire Department and member of the Garber City Council and Iowa Firefighters Association.
Leon "Stoney" Stone, 83, West Des Moines. Loved going to see the Packers play with his friend Pat.
Richard Sundermeyer, 78, Marion. Sang with the Older Hymns at Lutheran Church of the Resurrection.