Mighty Mississippi inspires author and clean-up crusader

Monday, August 13, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:49 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
Jeff Barrow, left, with Chad Pregracke at a book signing in 2007.

Columbia - As a freelance writer, Jeff Barrow had always considered writing a book. Barrow’s mother, proud of his abilities as a writer, wouldn’t let him forget about it.

“(She) was bugging me, saying, ‘You’re a good writer. You should write a book,’” Barrow said. “I think so she can show me off to my aunts and uncles and stuff.”

His favorite genre being nonfiction, Barrow wanted to write about actual people and their experiences. But his desire to tell someone’s story remained just that — until he met Chad Pregracke.

Pregracke first caught Barrow’s eye in 2000, when Time Magazine highlighted Pegracke’s philanthropic cleanup work on the Mississippi River as part of a feature piece on then-Vice President Al Gore’s tour of the river.

“I remember reading that and seeing the picture of him,” Barrow said of Pregracke. “It was real dark in a swampy area, and he was in his boat, and I just thought, ‘That guy’s crazy. He’s gonna clean the whole Mississippi River? That’s ridiculous ... like Don Quixote tilting at windmills.’”

Pregracke grew up on the banks of the Mississippi. He noticed the outrageous amount of trash on the river’s banks and decided to take action. He wrestled piles of tires, barrels, abandoned appliances and haphazard mounds of miscellaneous trash into his small motorboat. But the endeavor proved a challenge for his solo efforts.

Pregracke wasn’t discouraged. A diligent believer in his cause, his one-man enterprise began to grow, eventually obtaining sponsorship and a barge for hauling trash. He also established Living Lands & Waters, a not-for-profit organization devoted to the health of the Mississippi River and its tributaries.

Barrow and Pregracke crossed paths in 2001, when Pregracke helped with cleaning the Missouri River and Barrow was helping to organize the river’s biggest cleanup yet. Through this event, Pregracke’s group inspired the founding of Missouri River Relief, the Missouri River’s not-for-profit cleanup organization, where Barrow is currently an event coordinator.

The two men, both river rats and “cleanup guys,” had a connection from the start, Barrow said. He appreciated Pregracke’s authenticity, sincerity and genuineness, he said.

Although Pregracke had a lot of press coverage over the years, Barrow said, no one had really told the whole story. It was a story that Barrow decided he needed to tell. His timing couldn’t have been better.

“I was forgetting some of what it really took,” Pregracke said. “I’ve been doing this for 10 years, and I definitely think there are enough good stories and boats sinking to write a book.”

For an entire year, Barrow chronicled Pregracke’s unstoppable cleanup mission. He followed Pregracke around the country, even briefly living in an apartment at Pregracke’s parents’ home in Moline, Ill., Pregracke said. In November 2006, the book, “From the Bottom Up,” was complete.

But the book didn’t come without its share of challenges.

“It was easy to think of a ton of stories,,” Pregracke said, “but it was hard to put them in place with what happened when with dates and places and people.

Barrow said he also had to adapt to Pregracke’s busy schedule, short attention span and meeting Pregracke’s standards as a stickler for accuracy.

“I’d have a whole chapter written with beautiful transitions from one thing to another and then he would say, ‘Oh, I forgot to tell you this’ or ‘I forgot to tell you that,’” Barrow said. “And I’d be like, ‘Oh man, that’s really important. That’s a really compelling story. We gotta put that in there.’”

Barrow and Pregracke also contended with a tight schedule from their publisher. The last month of final editing was especially demanding.

“I felt like I was back in college cramming for a test,” Pregracke said.

But the book’s arduous process and fruitful result speaks to its overall message.

“Nothing’s easy,” Pregracke said. “It’s going to take time. It’s going to take persistence, dedication, focus. But with those key elements anything is possible.”

Barrow agrees that tenacity is the general theme for Pregracke’s story.

“The main message is that, it’s kind of a cliche, but this is an example of one person who has made a difference,” Barrow said. “It’s an example of someone who saw a problem and just wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

Even with all the hard work and challenges that the book brought, Barrow said he’d do it again.

Although Barrow isn’t sure exactly when he’ll write his next book, he said he may write a few book proposals this month. It’s doubtful, though, that his mother will let him put it off for too long.

“Funny thing is, as soon as I got done with the book she said, ‘Well, when’s your next book?’” he said.

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