The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Erbe, Norman A.
(October 25, 1919–June 8, 2000)

—lawyer, Iowa attorney general, and governor of Iowa—was the youngest of six children born in Boone, Iowa, to Rev. Otto L. and Louise J. Erbe. Young Erbe learned from his parents that you have to work hard for anything you get in this world and that education was a family tradition.

    During his high school years, Erbe worked in a Boone greenhouse as a bricklayer's helper and spent two summers in the Del Monte pea fields near DeKalb, Illinois. At Boone High School, his six-foot-one, 212 pound frame enabled him to play fullback and tackle on the football team. Following high school graduation in 1938, he worked his way through the State University of Iowa by doing everything from scrubbing floors to selling his blood. He took military training because it gave him an extra $21 every three months. After three years of studying political science as an undergraduate, he started law school.

    In the summer of 1941 Erbe's studies were interrupted when he was commissioned to serve four years as a second lieutenant in the army. He married his high school sweetheart, Jacqueline Doran, on September 27, 1942, and they had three daughters: DeElda, Jennifer, and Kevin Lyn. After serving a year at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, he entered flight school in November 1942. Lieutenant Erbe went to England in 1944 and flew 32 bomber missions over Germany as pilot of a B-17. He also flew with the Eighth Air Corps during the D-Day invasion in June 1944. He returned to the United States with a Distinguished Flying Cross and four air medals.

    After the war, Erbe went back to the State University of Iowa, where he finished his B.A. in 1946 and his J.D. in 1947.

    Erbe joined his father-in-law's law practice, Doran, Doran and Doran, in Boone in 1947. In 1952 he accepted a two-month appointment as the Boone County Attorney. Also that year, Erbe became Boone County Republican chairman and held that position until 1955, when he took a position as assistant attorney general assigned to the Highway Commission at Ames, where he coauthored Iowa Highway, Road and Street Laws (1956) and Iowa Drainage Laws (1957).

    When Iowa Attorney General Dayton Countryman ran for the U.S. Senate in 1956, Erbe was elected attorney general and was reelected in 1958. In 1959 he initiated a statewide crackdown on "filthy literature" by ordering 42 publications off the newsstands.

    In 1960, when Governor Herschel Loveless ran for the U.S. Senate, Erbe ran for governor and won, serving a two-year term. In his inaugural address, Erbe proposed replacing the 99 county attorneys with 21 district attorneys since Iowa was already divided into 21 judicial districts. He also thought that county attorneys should serve four years instead of two, that their salaries should be raised, and that the practice of supplementing their salaries with fines collected from violators should be eliminated.

    During his two-year term as governor, the state maintained a $118 million surplus in the treasury, the Iowa National Guard Military Academy was established, the selection of judges was changed from popular vote to a merit system, and Iowa's first tourism program was established. Erbe also advocated a four-year governorship and a reorganization of state government.

    In 1962 Erbe lost his reelection bid to Harold Hughes, who proposed legalizing liquor by the drink. Erbe refused to endorse liquor by the drink because he had committed himself to vote on behalf of the "dries" who had supported him in his first campaign for governor.

    Following his term as governor, Erbe joined Investors Diversified Services as Des Moines district sales manager. In 1963 he joined Diamond Laboratories, Inc., as director of the legal department. Later he served as executive director of the National Paraplegia Foundation. He also worked in the U.S. Department of Transportation in Seattle. He served as the regional representative of the secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation in Chicago (1970-1977). President Nixon appointed him as chairman of the Federal Regional Council for the Great Lakes States in Chicago, where he served from 1973 to 1977.

    Erbe retired to Boone, Iowa, in 1977. In retirement, he enjoyed genealogy research, traveling, and collecting and refinishing antiques. He died on June 8, 2000, and was buried in Boone.
Sources Records related to Erbe's tenure as governor are in the State Archives, State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines. Erbe wrote a memoir, Ringside at the Fireworks (1977). See also Iowa Official Register, 1959– 1960 and 1961–1962; Michael Kramme, Governors of Iowa (2006); Who's Who in America (1976–1977); Burlington Hawk-Eye Gazette, 9/1/1959; Des Moines Sunday Register, 10/14/1961; and Des Moines Register, 1/13/1961, 5/8/1963, and 9/16/1981.
Contributor: Pam Rees