In Memory: George Rossbach, Maplewood mayor, builder, history volunteer

If you've visited the Bruentrup Heritage Farm -- or shopped at the stores on its former White Bear Avenue site, now a busy commercial center -- you've encountered George Rossbach's influence. If you've walked in any of Maplewood's open spaces and marveled that such natural serenity could exist in the metro, you're enjoying an amenity Rossbach helped preserve.

If you worshipped or attended a wedding at Holy Redeemer Catholic Church, enjoyed a musical at the Maplewood Community Center's theater or even gazed at the glowing copper leaves behind the city council dais, George had a hand in those designs.

Rossbach, who died Aug. 25 after a short illness, was 90 and until this summer was still lending a hand -- sometimes to hammering and shoveling -- to aid his hometown.

Rossbach's family moved from St. Paul to what would become Maplewood in 1926, when he was 4 years old. His father was a skilled carpenter and designer who passed on his talent and work ethic to his sons.

Rossbach attended Arbolado elementary school and then North High. He began a career in construction, which was interrupted by service in the Navy during World War II. From his crew position in a B-26 bomber, he saw action in the Pacific theater.

After serving in World War II, Rossbach resettled in Maplewood and resumed work at the Joseph E. Johnson firm.

One of his first projects was designing and building a home in Maplewood for himself and wife Bonnie.

Son Bob says though George wasn't an architect, he'd taken design classes and had an impressive talent. "He'd design the plans and have them certified by someone else," Bob explains.

Soon, Rossbach was designing custom homes at the Johnson firm. "My sister Karen went out some years ago to take pictures of some of these homes, in North Oaks and Forest Lake, and people were still so happy with them and proud of them, they'd invite her in to see the interior," Bob recalls.

George also designed the plans for Holy Redeemer Catholic Church when it relocated from downtown St. Paul to Hazelwood Street and County Road C to make way for freeway expansion. That was an even more rigorous process than building fine homes, Bob explains: the plans not only had to be evaluated on a technical basis, they had to be approved by the archdiocese.

Bonnie and George attended Holy Redeemer until it closed.

Rossbach retired in 1986 as vice president of the Johnson firm.

Civic involvement

Into retirement, Rossbach was just warming up. He served on the Maplewood Community Design Review Board from 1983 to 1986, on the Maplewood Planning Commission from 1986 to 1987, then on the city council from 1988 to 1997. He was appointed mayor when popular mayor Gary Bastian was appointed to a judgeship, serving from 1998 to 1999. Later, from 2003 to 2006, he was on the Maplewood Historical Preservation Commission, the commission that is now presenting him this current award. Plus, he played a key role in noting the city's 50th anniversary.

And now there's a second generation of Mayors Rossbach. George's nephew, Will, has followed a similar course as his uncle from the planning commission to the mayor post.

It's not a coincidence.

Asked what his uncle's civic involvement had to do with his own, Mayor Will Rossbach says, "It had everything to do with it."

After the younger Rossbach had bought a house and settled in the city, his uncle paid him a call and -- on the strength of conversations they were already having about city activities -- suggested "Now you're a homeowner, perhaps you'd like to have some involvement in the city." The idea was obvious: you're part of the community now, so you get involved in whatever needs to be done.

"That was the way he thought about things, and what I admired most about him," Will Rossbach says. "He was not someone who just said 'That's is a good ides; you should do that' to someone else; he said 'That's a good idea' and started working in the trenches himself, in the hopes everybody else would come along. And they usually would."

Just a few of the accomplishments Will says his uncle contributed to as a council member and mayor: the development of the city's southern leg, establishment of preserved open spaces in the city, construction of the community center and insistence that the center should also include theater space as well as recreation and meeting facilities.

"I did a sort of eulogy at our last council meeting, and I took a little notepad and figured I'd write down some of the things he was involved with," Will says. "I quickly realized my little notepad was not large enough."

And through all the council debates, public reaction and advances and setbacks, Will says, his uncle was a true diplomat. "George was very much a statesman, well-mannered and able to listen and not necessarily try to rebut, even though he held his beliefs and his opinions and held them strongly."

George Rossbach was named "Mr. Maplewood" by the city, an honor that his nephew notes "had never been given out before, and not since."

George Rossbach found two of his passions -- his understanding of construction and his pride in Maplewood -- came together perfectly when he joined the Maplewood Historical Society.

As Maplewood developed, it pushed into and past what had been peaceful farmland along both sides of White Bear Avenue. By the 1990s, the Bruentrup homestead, with its stately foursquare house, huge barn and outbuildings, was no longer the sole figure in the landscape. Instead, it was a curiosity surrounded by the satellite businesses that had sprung up around Maplewood Mall.

The historical society set for itself what sounds like an impossible task: find a place to move the buildings, move them and establish a new "homestead," this time for the society itself.

Char Wasiluk says first George suggested moving the farm to 2 1/2 acres of the open space Maplewood had purchased, then helped the society lobby the State Legislature for funding to move the landmark. He helped secure permissions to move the barn and the contacts to do it. And after the move, he was still helping get grants to upgrade the buildings and add new features -- if not also constructing them himself.

Rossbach designed the garage and the welcome center at the site to complement the existing buildings, and could still be found swinging a hammer, placing foundation blocks or up on a roof into his late 80s. The society finally literally grounded Rossbach; he was too much of a treasure to have tumbling off a barn roof.

"He had worked in construction but was also quite an artist," Wasiluk says. "The buildings he's designed look like they belong there. "

"He's probably one of the most talented guys I've ever met, and humble, too," Bill Bruentrup said in a previous interview about one of Rossbach's many honors. "I've never heard him say anything derogatory about anyone. It was always positive. . . .And I don't know anyone that age that has that much enthusiasm."

Early diplomacy

Bob Rossbach remembers well when his father first ran for city council. "It was 1987 and the Twins were in the World Series. We had to be very careful out doorknocking, because if we tried while the Series was on, people would come to the door already mad."

One of the Rossbach family's fondest memories was George's selection as statewide senior citizen of the year -- over 86 other outstanding seniors, one from each of the 87 counties.

Bob quips that George's resume, considering he'd had some 25 active -- very active -- years of volunteerism in by the time he was considered, "was way ahead even when it just came to numbers."

"But then you look at all the kinds of things he did," Bob adds. "I think some of it was just his personality, but I think a larger part was the Greatest Generation thing. Going through the Depression and then the war, those guys knew what it was like to not have anything. They didn't think twice about doing what was right for everybody.

"He always appreciated what he had and wanted to give back."

Looking back on his father's accomplishments, Bob shakes his head. "For me, any one of those things would be a lifetime achievement."

But as a father of six children, George was a wise, compassionate advisor -- one they'll miss even now that they're grandparents themselves.

"It's gonna be tough on us kids," Bob predicts. "He was always a father and mentor, and we would call him even now for advice."

One family joke is Bonnie's experience as a newlywed, just about to present her husband with a perfectly-cooked steak dinner, still steaming and ready to go on the table.

"She called him that his steak was ready, and he said 'Oh, I'll eat it later.' She looked out the door and there he was on the street, fixing a stranger's flat tire.

"She said 'I knew right then how it was gonna go.'"

"Somehow he did it all," Bob says. "It's all there in his good works. He left a trail. But he'll be a hard act to follow for any of us.

A visitation was scheduled for 4-7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 4 at St. John's Church of Little Canada, 380 E. Little Canada Road. Services will be held at the church at 11 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 5 with visitation at 10 a.m.

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