Brent Hoffman keeps moving forward

Brent Hoffman walks with his children.

Photo by Christina Severinghaus

Story by Dave Madsen, NewsNetNebraska

It might be an understatement to say 48-year-old Brent Hoffman has led an interesting life. He is a former video game addict, Air Force nuclear weapons expert, Pentagon 9/11 survivor and a retired 20-year veteran of the Air Force who was offered a job in the George W. Bush White House. He is the holder of two Associate’s degrees, a BA, an MBA, and two other degrees he “almost finished,” including one from a seminary.

He was a devoted husband to his wife of twelve years who died of cancer in July 2009, making him a single father of two young children. He is a newspaper columnist and author, a man with a very strong religious faith…and he’s a confirmed Nebraska Cornhusker football fan, yet he’s never lived in the state. So, who is Brent Hoffman?

Bill Anderson, now an Iowa State Senator, and Hoffman’s campaign manager during a successful run for City Council of Sioux City in 2005, says about Hoffman, “what you see is what you get. Once you get to know the man Brent Hoffman, you respect him because he’s principled.” Even Jim Rixner, a Democrat who had several headline-making disagreements with Hoffman during their time on the City Council, calls Hoffman “a man of integrity, and a very, very loving father…more attached to raising his kids than many people you’d see.”

His unusual career path started while still in high school in the small northwest Iowa town of Anthon. He says he was “lacking direction, discipline and motivation,” so he enlisted in the Iowa Air National Guard. He had not been a particularly good student, but he was accepted at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, but quit after just one semester because he was “addicted to video games and watching soap operas.”

After leaving ISU, he returned to northwest Iowa, where he owned and operated a rec center/arcade in Correctionville, Iowa. For a short time, he even held the world’s record high score on the video game Asteroids. That’s when he realized that video games were “a colossal waste of time” and he decided to go into active duty with the Air Force. He gelled in that environment, spending time learning conventional weapons, advancing to the study of nuclear weaponry.

During Hoffman’s time in the military, he was stationed in several locations in the U.S., and he became a little more serious about college. He earned an Associate’s Degree in Business from the University of Maryland, a second in Liberal Arts from City College of Chicago, followed by a Bachelor of Arts degree from Newman University, a Catholic college in Wichita. Then he earned an MBA from the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, South Dakota.

Later, he attended George Washington University on a military fellowship, where he started working toward a Master’s Degree in Administrative Sciences which he changed to Legislative Affairs, but didn’t finish because “he got bored.” He says he also “almost finished a seminary degree, but quit that when I got bored.”

Brent Hoffman, provided photo.

But he certainly wasn’t bored with his military education. While stationed at Edwards Air Force Base in southern California, he put his nuclear weapons training to good use when he helped develop the weapons system for the B-2 stealth bomber. His work got him noticed, and he was sent, along with fifty of the Air Force’s best and brightest captains, to work at the Pentagon.

While he was stationed in Washington, he met his wife-to-be, Mary Jo, who was then working for U.S. Senator Charles Grassley. Mary Jo and Hoffman attended the same church, dated for two years, and married in 1998.

September 11, 2001

According to a 2006 article in the Sioux City Journal, the Hoffmans never considered Washington, D.C., a dangerous place to live, but then came September 11, 2001. Hoffman, stationed at the Pentagon, was in his office that day, watching the TV coverage of the crash of the planes into the World Trade Towers, unaware of what would happen next. His office was just 300 yards from the point of impact of hijacked American Airlines flight 77. In September of this year, reflecting on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Hoffman wrote:

When it hit the building, I recall the feeling of shock and chaos, yet I did nothing heroic or memorable, and remember only the frantic and confused walk outside. Set against a beautiful blue sky, the Pentagon burned as we watched, entranced and horrified, overwhelming grief and an unfocused anger growing within us. The next day, I was surprised to get a call from the White House, offering me a new position as director of the President’s Emergency Operations Center. A week later, I recall returning to my office at the Pentagon, a light film of soot covering papers and folders that had once seemed so urgent or essential. I ignored most of it, instead visiting with my co-workers, still trying to make sense of it, grateful to be alive and in the presence of friends.

The events of that day, coupled with the D.C. sniper attacks of 2002, convinced the Hoffmans they should return to Iowa to raise their children. It took a while to wrap up their life in Washington, including dealing with an offer of the job in the White House, and in October 2004, they moved to Sioux City where he started a real estate firm and became a licensed contractor.

Local politics

They had been in Sioux City for a couple of months when, after watching television coverage of some local governmental issues, his wife suggested that he should run for City Council. “Mary Jo turned to me and said ‘You’d be good at it…and the city needs your help,’ so I decided to run.” He credits both his wife and his mother, Kathleen, a long-time Republican stalwart, with getting him elected.

His father, Ray, was chairman of the Iowa Republican Party at the time, but Brent Hoffman says it wasn’t party politics that got him elected to the nonpartisan seat on the City Council with the highest vote tally of all candidates. Instead, he was quoted in the local newspaper after the election as saying “clearly my message resonated with the people.”

He is fond of saying he’s been a lifelong registered Independent, although he admits he has periodically registered as a Republican so he could vote in primary elections. Former campaign manager Anderson said although Hoffman claims the Independent moniker, “he’s definitely a conservative…but he cares more about the policy and the principle, than he does the party.” Friend and former City Council colleague Aaron Rochester agrees, saying “I see Brent as someone who votes for the man, not the party,” adding with a smile in his voice “but I don’t know when the last time he voted for a Democrat might have been.”

Hoffman says he never had other political aspirations, such as running for higher office. In 2009, he wrote “once elected to office and labeled a ‘politician,’ people often make assumptions about political aspirations. I’ve never considered City Council a ‘lower office,’ nor do I have any political ambitions. As to politics, I’m proud to have served my hometown, but I have no special interest in politics other than as an avenue for making a difference.”

Not everyone is as willing to dismiss possible political implications. Rixner, the former city councilman says Hoffman “is the consummate politician, as am I. There’s nothing wrong with that, but don’t let him fool you into thinking for a minute that he’s an amateur when it comes to politics. He’s an organizer, embedded in the Republican Party. He has inherited a political apparatus from this father.”

But that is not to say that Rixner didn’t appreciate Hoffman’s work on the council. “Sitting next to him on the council, I saw many good things about him,” Rixner said. “He has a dry sense of humor that few people appreciate, and he was the single most well-prepared council member at the table. He was hard working, detail oriented and did his homework.”

In 2007, Hoffman did decide to run for mayor of Sioux City, again at the suggestion of his wife. It was during that campaign that his wife received the heartbreaking diagnosis that her cancer was terminal. Hoffman wanted to withdraw from the campaign, but his wife encouraged him to continue. His heart wasn’t in it this time. He lost that election.

Faith and family

Hoffman’s highest priorities have always been his faith in God and his dedication to his family. Hoffman grew up in a family which said a prayer before meals and regularly went to church, but he says it was his wife who instilled in him a daily sense of giving thanks.

“She taught me that when I’m trying to make a decision in my life, I should pray, then listen,” he says. “Mary Jo always made me want to be a better man.”

In fact, it was Mary Jo who suggested that the family needed to adopt a motto, a way to face the future after her cancer diagnosis. They had also been struggling with daughter Lydia’s Type 1 diabetes for five years since she was diagnosed at age one. The family had heard something in a movie they were watching, and it became the new catch phrase for them: Keep Moving Forward. It’s a motto that Bill Anderson and Aaron Rochester say has been perfect for Hoffman. “Brent has a naturally pessimistic side to him, but he showed real optimism in dealing with his wife’s illness,” Rochester said.

“Right now, my kids are my life”

After talking to this soft-spoken man for a short while, you wouldn’t be surprised when Hoffman tells you that “right now, my kids are my life.” Mary Jo’s death in July 2009 was obviously devastating to Hoffman and his family. As he talks about her, he looks out a nearby window. Tears start to well up in his blue eyes. This is the Brent Hoffman many people don’t see. Rochester recounted a time recently when he was visiting with Hoffman. Ten-year-old Silas Hoffman jumped up on his dad’s lap, and as Hoffman talked about how wonderful his son was, the elder Hoffman began to cry. “He now is taking on both parental roles: the leadership of a dedicated father and the comforting touch of a mother figure,” Rochester said. In a blog post about Fathers’ Day, written for the Iowa Republican website in June 2009, just a month before his wife died, Hoffman wrote:

The impact of a nurturing father can be felt across generations…we should champion that which matters most…the love and nurturing of our own children. We should encourage our fathers who put family first and challenge our leaders to champion fatherhood. This message is for the father who feels the pressure of competing priorities, who wants to do better, to be better.

These days, thanks to his military retirement and a successful real estate business, Hoffman has the financial means to be able to spend time working on a biography about his wife. He calls it a tribute to her, dedicated to his kids. “I’m writing it so one of her friends, or any of the people who knew her might be inspired by reading it,” he says. As he has done for several years, he plans to take his children to California this winter, where he will home school them…another example of his devotion to the kids.

A Cornhusker fan?

Finally, what’s this about being a Cornhusker football fan? Having never attended the University of Nebraska, and growing up in Iowa, why not cheer for one of the teams in the Hawkeye state? Hoffman smiles, adjusts his red and white Nebraska cap ever so slightly and says he never really thought about the University of Iowa, “it’s hard to get excited about Iowa State…but I like Nebraska’s professionalism…and besides, they win!”