Robert C. Johnson, Ed Rooney and Heather Stefanski have chosen very different paths in life. One is an Emmy award-winning manager of music organizations; the second a main street entrepreneur who has helped keep the Alexandria downtown vital; and the third a pediatric oncologist at the University of Minnesota with a list of credentials 13 pages long.
These three individuals now have a couple of things in common: they each graduated from Alexandria schools, and each will be honored at a luncheon this month for their unique contributions and achievements within their professional fields.
The Alexandria Education Foundation will induct Johnson, Rooney and Stefanski into its "Alumni Hall of Fame" at a luncheon ceremony. The award honors graduates of Alexandria schools, as well as faculty or staff members who have achieved distinction in their careers.
The Alexandria School District has been honoring its most distinguished graduates through the Hall of Fame since 2007. This year's honorees will be joining the 34 past Hall of Fame recipients, a group that includes radio personalities, military personnel, doctors, writers, teachers and professors, a nationally known actor, a former mayor of Alexandria, an FBI agent, and a professional golfer.
Ed Rooney, owner of Cowing Robards Inc, has spent the majority of his life in Alexandria as a local entrepreneur and champion of the downtown business district. Through the company, he has launched, purchased or nurtured a multitude of local business ventures, housing them in downtown properties he acquired and remodeled in order to keep the buildings occupied.
He has served on various boards including the Alexandria Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce, the Alexandria Golf Club, and 35 years on the Alexandria Light and Power Board, with two terms as chairman.
As a senior in high school, Rooney got a job working for Cowing Robards hardware store through a part-time training program offered by the school system. After graduating from high school in 1953, he volunteered for the draft and served two years in the Army. When he returned from military service, the store owner offered him a full-time job running the gun and fishing tackle department. Rooney jumped at the chance.
"Mr. Robards taught me accounting, taxes and the day-to-day details of operating a local retail business," Rooney said.
Over the next 20 years, Robards offered Rooney shares of stock in the business instead of annual cash bonuses. Rooney eventually made a deal to purchase the store, and Cowing Robards became his first business.
"In time the hardware side of Cowing Robards faded," he said.
Rooney capitalized on other opportunities, including sporting equipment, trophies, screen printing, embroidery and more. He also ventured into building and selling houses, which helped earn him the capital to start purchasing downtown buildings as they became available. Over the years, Cowing Robards has owned 11 downtown buildings and two properties on the north side of Alexandria.
Through his various business ventures, Rooney has hired hundreds of Alexandria students. He is a strong supporter of the schools and along with his late wife Beverly they raised their three children, Mike, Dan and Barb, in the Alexandria School District. Sixty-plus years after getting his first job at Cowing Robards, his two sons are now taking over the family business.
"It has been a great privilege to be able to grow up here, go to school here, get a job here, make a living and be involved in the community," Rooney said.
Robert C. Johnson
Robert C. Johnson spent 37 years as the full-time manager of St. Olaf College's Office of Music Organizations, retiring in 2015. During his nearly four-decade tenure at the college, he has distinguished himself with a long list of achievements.
He was a key figure in establishing the College Music Tour Managers Association in 1990 and served on a steering committee that brought the 2002 World Symposium on Choral Music to Minneapolis. Johnson re-established the St. Olaf Records label, enabling the college to enter the recording business. He led the St. Olaf choir through Europe and Asia on many international performance tours, and also ensured that the St. Olaf Christmas Festival was filmed every four years. The Festival aired on public television.
In 2014, he won an Emmy for his work as a production/concert manager on the PBS television special, "Christmas in Norway with the St. Olaf Choir." He also won a 2015 ACE (Advocate for Choral Excellence) award.
Johnson has played many roles throughout his career in music, including producer, promoter and manager of music organizations. But he prefers to be called a "music impresario" - someone who manages concerts and productions.
"In that role I lined up concerts for all the music organizations at the college," Johnson said. "But I also lined up concerts in other places from Alexandria to Carnegie Hall. I booked them and promoted them. My biggest thrill was to see a full house."
However, if you ask him what he considers to be his greatest accomplishment, he will tell you that it was the example of excellence and integrity he tried to set for his family and for his students.
"My mother's mantra that she taught me was, 'Hitch your wagon to a star and let your conscience be your guide,'" Johnson said. "That means you can do anything you want but you better have a clean conscience about what you do."
Johnson also attributes much of his success to the people of Alexandria, who shaped his values and work ethic as he grew up.
"The church gave us a moral compass, where we learned right and wrong," Johnson said. "The
schools offered us endless opportunities in music, sports, and knowledge."
Johnson said the city and people of Alexandria gave him and his buddies opportunities and parameters for living, but it was up to them to "seize the day."
Dr. Heather Stefanski is a pediatric oncologist at the University of Minnesota, where she treats children who have relapsed cancers. This means that they have failed all conventional chemotherapy treatments and need something more profound to cure them: a stem cell transplant.
Stefanski graduated from Jefferson High School in 1989, and four years later with a bachelor's degree from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Over the next 17 years at the University of Minnesota she completed her Ph.D., M.D., residency in pediatrics and a fellowship in pediatric hematology/oncology and blood and marrow transplant. She is currently a faculty member at the university.
Stefanski went on to become the co-investigator or principal investigator in multiple research projects. She has published nearly two dozen peer-reviewed articles and has lectured at a national level. She has been part of many community outreach projects, and presented before the Minnesota Legislature earlier this year.
Stefanski is quick to emphasize that her focus is always on her patients.
"The most important thing is that for me it is a privilege to be on this journey to do the best for my patients, trying to cure these impossible cancers," she said.
Stefanski always knew she wanted to go into science, but credits her years in the Alexandria schools with giving her both the courage and the foundational training to pursue it.
"I am very proud of where I came from and appreciated my education," she said. "If I had not had teachers to encourage me, I don't know that I would have continued down that path."
High school biology teacher Bill Banke encouraged her to study science and math at a time when young women were not often encouraged to do so, she said. She also cited elementary school teacher LeRoy Ras as someone who made learning fun. But he was also a strict authority figure who never allowed students to slack off. He pushed them to try new things, make themselves better and stay focused.
Her high school French teacher, Anne Riggs, opened Stefanski's mind to new ways of viewing the world and helped make her more culturally aware and sensitive. She believes this has been essential in her work with patients and their families.
Stefanski said she is often in a position to treat children from very different cultures and needs to find the most direct and effective path of communication with family members. For example, she said some cultures are "very hierarchical, so you need to go to the head of the house to get things to work. You have to respect that."
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Hall of Fame luncheon
WHERE: Broadway Ballroom Event Center, 115 30th Ave. E., Alexandria
WHEN: At noon Friday, Sept. 21
INFO: Advance tickets are available at Cherry Street Books in downtown Alexandria, or online at alexeducationfoundation.org.
Alumni Hall of Fame honorees
2007: Arthur O. "Art" Hafdal, Maynard "Bud" Peterson and Ruth Salzman Adams.
2008: Ellen Eilers, Dr. John A. Gustafson and Tom Lehman.
2009: Murrae Freng, Robert J. “Bob” Rader and A.A. "Cap" Paciotti.
2010: Bev "B" Lohrman Grossman, John Hammergren and Dr. Gerald Timm.
2011: Jodi Hills, Hans Roderick Nordell and Dr. Patrick Redig.
2012: John Hawkes, Joani Nielson and Richard A. "Bud" Peterson.
2013: Vernon J. Anderson, Robert A. Roubik and Marjorie (Engstrand) Van Gorp.
2014: Mary Kathryn Bursch, Mark Lundstrom and Paul McCabe.
2015: Joan Ballard Larson, H. Dan Ness and James O. Woolliscroft, M.D.
2016: Wayne Elton, William G. Flaig, Thomas Flaig, M.D. and Kathryn LeRoy LeBrasseur.
2017: Captain Thomas G. Halvorson, Michael Tisserand and Patty Wicken.