Life is funny.
We live in a culture that forces us to live with so much intention and routine that when things don’t go as planned or as we had envisioned, we get too easily discouraged.
That doesn’t make us weak, it makes us human. But sometimes — most of the time — people come out of unexpected situations stronger, wiser and with more sense of purpose, and we are all better for it.
Bobbie Bohlen is one of those people.
Bobbie grew up in Eagle Butte and has been in Milbank, South Dakota, since 1982. She met her husband there, raised a family there and spent the majority of her career in sales and marketing. It was a busy but successful and lucrative life.
“I got awards, I did a good job,” she says. “But there wasn’t that sense of contributing or being a part of something.”
Then, Bobbie lost her husband, Rich, unexpectedly. He had a heart attack in 2004.
“My future changed at that moment.”
After her two sons left for college, she left Milbank to seek her “new normal,” spending two years in Sioux Falls.
“I lived in the security building downtown, which was a wonderful experience. But when that lease was up, I couldn’t find any place that just clicked.”
Then she found the lake house she’s in now back in Milbank, and she saw it. “I could honestly see my grandkids playing there,” Bobbie says. “I could feel a rightness of place: ‘This is where I’m supposed to be.’ ”
Bobbie’s time in Sioux Falls was her moment to “take a break and recalibrate.” But she had to get back to where she raised her two sons — their roots. In 2011, she started to hear rumors that the director of the Grant County Development Corporation in Milbank was retiring.
“I thought, ‘I could do that!’ ”
She was right.
A new start at the GCDC
Bobbie has been the executive director for the Grant County Development Corporation for four years now. People come into her office looking for guidance on starting a business, looking for real estate or job opportunities.
“Day to day, you never have any idea what’s going to walk through the door, so you have to be prepared in some way, shape or form,” Bobbie says. “It’s a great job, but I feel like you have to have a vested interest here that you need to do this.”
The Development Corporation is an “all volunteer board, a nonprofit” organization, and Bobbie is the first full-time director on board. “My title should really be civic coordinator, because we’re problem solvers.”
Where larger communities like Sioux Falls have more structured funds and networks in place, communities like Milbank have a limited labor force and “have to rely on the sources within our community. But that makes it fun, because it’s a challenge,” Bobbie says.
“You have to really believe in what you’re doing.”
To the women in Grant County: ‘It’s OK to step forward’
Even though the Development Corporation is all about creating leaders for the future, Bobbie admits their work has overlooked women.
“When I applied for this job, I didn’t even think they would look at my résumé, because it was all men on board,” she says. “I couldn’t even believe it when they called me to interview!
“Here and at the city council, too, it’s a Good Ol’ Boys Club. There’s just that core group of men who just run the city,” Bobbie says. That doesn’t mean the women aren’t there, at the office, too, they’re just “behind the scenes.”
“To me, women really are the skeleton that binds it all together,” Bobbie says. “They are in the background, they just have not been empowered to say, ‘OK, it’s OK to step forward.’ They don’t want to be vocal about it.
“But we will not create leaders unless we show them it’s OK to be leaders.”
To do just that, Bobbie has spent the past couple months working closely with Erin Bosch, director of women’s leadership at EmBe in Sioux Falls, to bring a women’s leadership program to the Milbank area.
It will be the first time EmBe has offered their annual Leadership Program — a course and mentorship for emerging female leaders — outside of Sioux Falls.
To get a feel for interest in the community, Bobbie invited women from the Milbank area last month to a luncheon with Erin. Over 30 women were in attendance.
“We are constantly looking for leadership,” Bobbie says. “So if we can empower a young woman to become better at where she’s at in her life path, then that’s going to enrich the community.”
EmBe’s proposed leadership program for the Milbank area will be a place that brings women to the forefront and gives them a stage to step onto. Unafraid of that Good Ol’ Boys Club.
“By empowering women to become stronger, more educated and better leaders, we are helping to secure a future here.”
Just a dent
The success of Bobbie’s work with Grant County is still a surprise to her.
“This is without a doubt the best thing I have ever done,” Bobbie says. “But had I known what I didn’t know, I never would have undertaken this.
“If you could look over the continuum of four years and see what you’re going to learn, it’s a little mind-boggling. … What am I going to learn today? But if you’re open to thinking that you’re going to be a better person at the end of the day, it’s all good.”
Bobbie recalls a friend who told her once that someone could never go out on their own and change the world. “But I can change how you think, and I can have an impact on you, and then you can go back home and have an impact on your husband, and that ripple effect is huge.”
Also, it’s about family. Her two boys, Jon and Chris, now work and live in Sioux Falls.
“If I could raise two contributing adults, that is the best work I will ever do,” she says. “I don’t need to change the world, but if I could make a dent in Grant County …”
She didn’t need to finish the sentence. She just smiled.
‘I have the best mom in the world’
Shortly after Rich died, Bobbie sat down with Jon and Chris to talk to them about what their dad had taught them.
“Their dad was a very joyful person, and he taught them how to laugh and how to appreciate life. That’s huge, how do you compare to that?”
But when she asked the boys what she had taught them, she got a much different answer, words that essentially motivated her do something bigger with her life.
“They said, ‘Well, Mom, you taught us how to survive.’ I was devastated. I know it’s not a bad thing, but it struck such a chord with me. “I don’t want that to be my end story.”
Her younger son, Chris, 27, remembers that conversation years ago, and even though he didn’t realize she had taken their answer a different way, he still wishes he would’ve elaborated on the word.
“When I say survive, I mean she’s taught me how to live,” Chris says. “Mom quintessentially taught me how to survive as a person and how to be a brother, a husband, a friend.”
As for her older son, Jon, 29, he considers any answer he gave to anyone’s questions within six months of his dad’s death “null and void. I was 18 years old, getting ready to graduate high school, and my world as I knew it had been torn from its roots.
“It took me probably five years to establish a new normal.”
Jon reiterates now that his mom taught him strength. “If and when things get tough, you need to have faith and just put one foot in front of the other, take things day-by-day and make the best out of what your situation might be. Because there will be a dawn to your current darkness.”
Chris agrees that being a teenager when they lost their dad made the grieving that much more sensitive. He was 16 years old. “There was a lot of potential there for me to not be the greatest person, but with Mom at the helm, she helped guide me to where I am today.”
Jon continues that Bobbie taught them honesty, patience, to appreciate the little things and compassion.
“There are a couple people in Mom’s life who sometimes ask a lot of her,” Jon says. “I have asked her why and how she can deal with this all the time. She always just shrugs and says, ‘Because we need to take care of the people in our world.’ ”
Jon says he probably wouldn’t be where he is today without Bobbie’s teachings and guidance. “I have no doubt that I have the best mom in the world.”
Chris agrees, and to be clear, “When I said survival, I meant the essence of life.”
Keeping focus on the purpose
Chris loves seeing his mom thrive in her community today.
“She always told us growing up that we could do whatever we want. ‘Do what makes you happy,’ she would say. And now, she’s finally happy, too,” he says.
Whether Bobbie realizes it or not, Chris sees the enthusiasm his mom has for her work delivered with the same kind of passion she has for her family.
“Mom is a giver. She gives herself to the cause,” Chris says. “She immerses herself totally in what she’s doing just as she does with Jon and I.”
Right now, that means maintaining focus on the women’s leadership program. Bobbie and Erin hope to launch the inaugural course in September, with a sample event in the summer.
“We have to uphold the model that we believe there is a purpose here to empower women.”
Bobbie says this work is “near and dear” to her heart, because she has a 3-year-old granddaughter, Lydia, and her son Jon is expecting another daughter in June.
“I have to believe that I set a good example, because my sons married extremely endearing and kind women who, if I would’ve picked for them, I wouldn’t have picked as well as they did, because they are truly beautiful women.”
Jon’s wife is a doctor of pharmacy at Avera, and Bobbie is humbled to see the guidance Lydia already has in her life.
“I think Lydia is going to be brilliant. Her mom is setting such an expectation, but when you raise a child where there’s unconditional love, unconditional support and let them know they can do anything they want to, the sky is the limit.”
Bobbie wasn’t raised that way and says there was not a lot of positive reinforcement in her life.
“My mom and I didn’t get to have those conversations, but I feel like she would’ve been proud of me.”
Her sons are. And to Bobbie, that’s the pinnacle.
“I think making your kids proud of you is a lot like making your parents proud of you,” she says. “You just want to do the right thing, and right now, for me, it’s about being a part of a community.”
It’s also about confidence
Bobbie is looking forward to and optimistic about championing a women’s leadership program in the Milbank area.
In 30 years, “I see Lydia leading it.”
But for now, it’s about “taking down the ceiling” Bobbie believes is still there.
“Hopefully, the community will open their arms and see that this is a good thing,” she says.
She nods, as if to assure herself:
Yes, a leadership program specifically for women is a good thing.
Bobbie recognizes the paradox she’s put herself in. “It’s kind of ironic that the Development Corporation is empowering women. That’s a great juxtaposition.”
But it’s only motivation.
Maybe it’s because she’s weathered the unexpected paths in life, and now her purpose is clear, but Bobbie believes that “we are defined by how we respond to events in life.” Her work in Grant County is a brave and beautiful response.
“Being a part of a community is so powerful,” Bobbie says. “I will leave a mark here. I don’t know what that will be, but if we could make this work, that’s a great story.”