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Encyclopedia Dubuque


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Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


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SCHARNAU, Ralph (Woodstock, IL, October 22, 1935-). The son of a factory worker father (Walter) and a small grocery storekeeper mother (Ruth), Ralph Scharnau moved to Dubuque with his wife (Ruth) and their three children (Andrea, Keith, and Gregg) in 1970. He holds degrees from Beloit College (B.A.), the University of Illinois (M.A.), and Northern Illinois University (Ph.D.).

Scharnau taught United States History and specialized in labor history. His college teaching experience included twenty-nine years at the UNIVERSITY OF DUBUQUE, one year at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and at Northeast Iowa Community College from 2000 to 2016. He presented papers at regional conferences, especially the Missouri Valley History Conference and the Northern Great Plains History Conference, and served as a panelist at the Organization of American Historians’ 2004 annual meeting in Boston.

Scharnau's publications comprise journal articles about wage earners in Dubuque and Iowa, a book chapter about black Iowa workers, and a co-authored report about unionized construction projects. Probably his best known work, “Workers, Unions, and Workplaces: Historical Perspectives on Labor in Dubuque Iowa,” started as a DUBUQUE COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY museum exhibit, evolved into a widely presented slide show, and became an award winning article entitled "Workers, Unions, and Workplaces in Dubuque, 1830-1990," in the Annals of Iowa pp. 50-78 (Winter 1993). Beginning in January of 2002, he authored monthly op-ed pieces for the Dubuque Telegraph Herald. He also wrote two book chapters: "African-American Wage Earners Wage Earners in Iowa, 1850-1950; Chapter 9 in Outside In: African-American History in Iowa, 1838-2000; ed. Bill Silag 216-241, Des Moines, IA: State Historical Society of Iowa, 2001 and "Beyond Yeshiva: The Struggle for Faculty Power at the University of Dubuque" Part I, Chapter 2 in Civic Labors: Scholar Activism and Working-Class Studies, eds. Dennis Deslippe, Eric Fure-Slocum, and John W. McKerley. 41-53, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016.

Professor Scharnau participated in the Wye Faculty Seminar at the Aspen Institute in Maryland, August 2-9, 1987, and the NEH Institute for College and University Faculty held at Iowa State University, June 19-July 23, 1994. He served two terms on the Scholarship and Grant Committee of the Hoover Presidential Library Association from 1999 to 2006. His tenure on the board of directors of the Dubuque County Historical Society covered the years 1992-2006. Scharnau was also on the advisory board of the CENTER FOR DUBUQUE HISTORY at LORAS COLLEGE, 1978-1991. He appeared as a presenter, commentator, and panelists at a variety of local and state venues including several as a Great Decisions speaker.

Scharnau had a long association with the trade union movement. He negotiated the initial contract for unionized teachers at the University of Dubuque, organized by the Iowa State Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, and led the strike for nearly two weeks before classes began in August of 1981. He also served as president of his local union, vice president of the ISEA’s Iowa Higher Education Association, and national board member of the NEA’s Higher Education Council. Since the late 1980s, he was a member of the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO. He was on the advisory committee of the Iowa Labor History Oral Project, funded by the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. He served on the executive board of the Dubuque Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO and as a community advisor for the Dubuque Area Labor Management Council. On May 10, 2004, Scharnau received the AFL-CIO Community Services Award. On February 7, 2009, he was inducted into the Dubuque Area Labor Hall of Fame.

Politics was another area of Ralph Scharnau’s long standing involvement. He logged about forty years as a Democratic Party activist, contributing money, attending meetings and campaigning for party candidates as well as participating in caucuses and going as a delegate to county, district and state conventions. He served on several county party committees and for a time held the post of secretary. In 1982 Scharnau worked as a county coordinator for the Iowa gubernatorial campaign of Roxanne Conlin, and in 1988 he did county organizational work for the presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson. On January 20, 2009, he and his wife, Ruth Ellen Cotter SCHARNAU, after a long bus ride to Washington witnessed an historic event, the inauguration of our first African American President, Barack Obama.

Scharnau’s activism found expression in peace and justice issues, too. He helped organize the Clarence Griep Peace and Justice Lectureship at the University of Dubuque. He stood with others in a local vigil to witness for peace, especially during the Vietnam War, the Gulf War and the Iraq/Afghanistan Wars. He served as a board member of the Dubuque Council for Diversity and the Dubuque branch of the NAACP. He held membership in the local chapter of PFLAG. Over the years, marching, picketing, demonstrating, and lobbying constituted other forms of his direct action advocacy for civil rights and civil liberties, women’s rights and human rights. He and his wife started the Dubuque Friends Worship Group, affiliated with the Quakers and committed to witnessing for peace, justice, equality, simplicity, and environmental stewardship.



Information provided by Ralph Scharnau