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Rosie Rogers

Rosie outlook: Longtime HRA director prepares for retirement

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Worthington, 56187
Worthington Minnesota 300 11th Street / P.O. Box 639 56187

WORTHINGTON -- Rosie Rogers didn't really know what she was getting into when she applied for a job with the Worthington Housing and Redevelopment Authority some 28 years ago.

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She had just returned from a trip to Germany with the Worthington High School choir and found a letter in her mailbox from friend Nancy Gruchow.

"She had clipped out the advertisement and included a note that said, 'I could see you in this job. Do your community a favor and apply,'" related Rosie.

At the time, Rosie was working as a secretary at the YMCA and raising her family of six children (Terry, Shari, Randy, Janice, Sandy and Cindy). She was jet-lagged from the overseas trip, and the deadline for application was the next day. But she somehow managed to follow through on Gruchow's suggestion and got her application in on time.

"There were well over 100 applicants, many with a four-year college degree," recalled Rosie, admitting her surprise at even getting an interview.

But at the end of the hiring process, she emerged with a new career.

"I remember being totally overwhelmed, but I always had a passion for people who were less fortunate or elderly, and I wanted to encourage people to use whatever resources they had however they could," she said.

Within a few days of starting her new post, Rosie was attending a conference that gave her a basic understanding of HRA budget items. As the only administrative person in the office at the time, she oversaw the 104 housing units located at The Atrium, where her office was also located, 10 Section 8 certificates (a rental assistance voucher program that subsidizes rent for lower-income families) and 10 family housing units that had just been built -- all local.

"As we began to add programs, I added staff," said Rosie. "There's a big advantage to growing with the programs. It's like if you have a child from birth and you grow with them, compared to adopting a child at age 12 -- it's like shell-shock."

Today, the Section 8 program encompasses 250 vouchers in seven counties, the HRA has 136 units of low-rent public housing and 16 units of market-rate housing have been added with the possibility of adding another 36 market-rate units in the future.

While the learning curve was steep from the get-go, Rosie was immediately engrossed by the work she was doing.

"I felt like I'd found what I was looking for all my life -- the chance to make a difference in the lives of people," she said, adding that most local residents have no idea the agency even exists. "It's probably one of the least understood programs in our community. The average John Q doesn't come here, because he's able to make it on his own. It's the downtrodden, the homeless, who show up in need of the services we have. As often as we can, we do presentations to local service organizations, and their eyes always kind of pop when we explain what we do. It's building awareness. No matter what we do, we're always marketing."

As a people-oriented person, Rosie's greatest enjoyment in her job came in the relationships she developed over the years and the people she helped to find housing.

"It's the satisfaction that you know people feel in finding a place to live," she said. "Some will tell you about it, while others will just give you a little smile and walk quietly away."

Rosie related an incident when a woman saw her picture in the newspaper, and not knowing Rosie and her family were in the vicinity, declared, "That woman saved my life." When one of Rosie's daughters questioned her about the statement, the woman explained that her husband had been sent to prison, and with limited financial resources couldn't find a place for her family to live until she turned to the HRA.

"I found her a place to live, and they even came and spent Christmas Eve with us," Rosie said. "You realize that you do make a difference in people's lives. ... If it was a big concern to (the consumers), I thought they deserved the time to seek some answers so they could move on in life."

As could be expected, the most challenging aspects of being HRA director came in writing reports and dealing with ever-changing government rules and regulations. Rosie's education even extended to interpreting construction blueprints.

"It has to be done, but I'm better at relationships than reading architectural designs," she said with a laugh.

The scope of the HRA position extends from dealing with huge government entities to resolving squabbles among the tenants at the Atrium. At the time when she took the post, the high-rise building transitioned from being a senior-only facility to low-income housing open to all ages.

"It was difficult at first," she admitted. "You had younger people with juvenile ideas. But I tried to match them up, a couple of kids with a couple of elderly, and soon the older person was making cookies for the younger person who was willing to come over and help them vacuum around their furniture. They learned that we can care about each other no matter our age deficiencies. ... You are basically on call 24 hours a day. For many people who come here, you are their next of kin, because they don't have anyone else."

As the Atrium transitioned to encompass all ages, the HRA also began to see much more diversity among its clientele.

"When I came here, maybe there were 10 percent who were younger but disabled. The others were all elderly," Rosie explained. "Diversity became an issue, but I'm amazed at how people can communicate without speaking the language and how protective they are of each other. ... I've worked with some remarkable people, who are some of our best and dedicated volunteers, so willing to reach out. And I have talked with some who have some horrible stories to tell about life in their home countries."

A couple of years ago, Rosie began to lay the groundwork for her retirement, and the possibility finally became a reality with the hiring of Randy Thompson as the new HRA director. She will stay on for a couple of months to ease the transition.

"Now that the clock has said 74, it's time to take your walker and go as far as you can," said Rosie. "I'm going to miss these people (Atrium tenants and HRA staff). They've become an extended family. I'm sure there are a few who will clap when I leave, but there are others who will cry, maybe even me."

While her HRA career is coming to a close, Rosie's dedication to her community will continue. She's "served on just about every board there is" and plans to choose a few specific areas in which to volunteer.

In addition to a 15-year stint on the District 518 Board of Education, one of Rosie's most long-standing involvements has been with Worthington-Crailsheim International, the organization that oversees the sister-city program with the community of Crailsheim, Germany. Her interest began when daughter Shari was chosen to be the exchange student to Crailsheim in the 1970s. The family's legacy continued when two of Rosie's granddaughters, Brittany Berger and Haley Rogers, were chosen as the Crailsheim representatives in 2007-'08 and 2010-'11, respectively.

Matriarch now to 14 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, Rosie has been a widow for 19 years -- husband Edwin died in 1995.

"I probably wouldn't have been so involved if I wasn't left alone with the kids" she reflected. "But I've gained so much more than I was able to contribute."

One of Rosie's most unique contributions to her community has been sharing her talent for yodeling. It's a skill she developed at a young age while milking cows on her family farm.

"I was the youngest of 10 children," she said, relating that for many years her chief duty was holding the cow's tail while her siblings did the milking. "But when I got bigger, I learned, whether it's fact or fiction, if you sing to the cows, they'll let down their milk easier, and it was a lot easier to fill the bucket if the cow was happy."

Before she ever landed the HRA post, Rosie remembers first visiting the Atrium with her church's youth choir and yodeling from the seventh floor. She also exercised her vocal talents in the Swiss Alps, where it was "so foggy that when you yodeled it just kept coming back and back." She's been a regular visitor to local kindergarten classrooms when the students are studying the letter Y, and once raised $1,500 for the local swim team with a marathon vocal performance.

"Even at the housing conferences, I would be the dinner call," Rosie said. "So many people remember me because of my yodeling. With a little effort, I think I could train a couple of mine (children) to yodel, but they don't want to try too hard."

It's still a couple of months down the road, but Rosie is considering making a trip up to the Atrium's seventh floor on her final day at the HRA for a final yodeling performance. After that, she plans to spend her first week cleaning closets and then maybe traveling to see her kids before contemplating her other retirement endeavors.

"Just the feeling of no schedule will be good to me," she said. "I always say, 'Dream the impossible, and it will become possible.'"

Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers can be reached at 376-7327.

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