A storehouse of knowledge

Owen Brown's village manager is leaving -- along with part of her 3-decade-old stash of papers

October 25, 2006|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the sun

Thirty years ago when Ruth Bohse started working as a receptionist for the Owen Brown Community Center, one of her first assignments was to clean out a closet.

"So I neatened it up and I didn't throw anything away, because what did I know?" she said, thinking that some things could be important.

Three decades later, Bohse still is at the community center, preparing to retire tomorrow from a career that has included 27 years as the Owen Brown village manager. She knows a lot more now, but she is still reluctant to throw things away.

Still, last week, as she prepared her office for the incoming village manager, Tom Wulf, she managed to fill two giant recycling bins with unneeded papers.

Bohse started working at the Owen Brown Community Center in 1976. After three years of answering phones and performing other administrative tasks, the position of village manager opened up, and she was asked to fill it.

She reluctantly took the job, she said, with the understanding that if she didn't like it, she could go back to typing and filing. Twenty-seven years passed, and it never happened.

"She was the anchor for the community for all those years," said Pearl Atkinson-Stewart, the Columbia Council representative for Owen Brown. "She's going to be sorely missed by everyone. She was always even-tempered and respectful of members of the community."

In many ways, the job hasn't changed, Bohse said. "I think people in Owen Brown have always cared about what's happening in the village," she said. "There's still concern about traffic and tot lots," she said.

Often, Bohse finds that once she explains why something like a roundabout is being constructed, the protests dissipate. "People call with concerns and I think we help them in some way," she said. "If nothing else, we help them understand why it's happening."

But one of the most emotional topics of late has been the tot lot near Lake Elkhorn. In September 2005, a toddler wandered from the playground and drowned. Seven plans to make the lot safer, generated by the Columbia Association, are under consideration, and Bohse placed them in the community center for display and comment.

"It's been a big issue, but I stay neutral on these issues," she said.

Neil Dorsey, who has been chairman of the Owen Brown Village Board for six years, said Bohse is an excellent listener. "Her people skills are outstanding," he said.

But the means of communication has changed. In the early days, she said, "We didn't have Web sites, we didn't have computers." She still remembers when the office got a self-correcting typewriter. "We had arrived," she said, laughing.

Now, she sometimes feels like she spends more time e-mailing residents than talking to them, she said. "Sometimes it's easier," she said. "But sometimes you think - gee, I don't talk to people anymore."

Bohse grew up in Ohio and met her husband, Jerry, at the University of Dayton. She graduated in 1960 with a psychology degree, and was married the following week. The Saturday after that, she said, the couple moved to Hyattsville. From there, they moved to Greenbelt, another planned community, Bohse points out.

They moved to Owen Brown in 1973, receiving a certificate showing that they were among the first 50 residents, Bohse said. (And no, she hasn't thrown it out.)

For the past 18 years, the Bohses have lived in Hickory Ridge, she said, but in those early years of her village manager career, when she still lived in Owen Brown, people would often knock on her door, looking for the key to the building. Living a little farther away hasn't been a bad thing, said Bohse.

Bohse and her husband have four kids and eight grandchildren. She stayed home with her children for 16 years, then took the job at the community center. "I thought it was so neat to be part of the whole Columbia thing," she said.

She already was involved in her community. Her husband had served on the board, and she was on active volunteer, she said.

Like other Columbia residents, Bohse was attracted by Jim Rouse's vision of economic and racial diversity. "If you said you lived in a particular area, it didn't mark you," she said.

"People were really into the so-called Columbia vision," Bohse said. Because people were so eager to be part of the community, finding volunteers was no problem, Bohse said.

That's not so anymore, she said, perhaps because people are just busier. Bohse said lack of involvement was one reason the annual Lake Elkhorn Festival was discontinued this year after 33 years.

She sent out a survey, and found that residents wanted the festival to continue, but didn't plan to volunteer and weren't even sure if they would attend, she said.

As village manger, one of Bohse's main jobs is managing the Owen Brown Community Center, on Cradlerock Way. Dorsey noted that, "We don't run the building to make money, we run it to serve the community." The space houses a preschool and is open to Scouting groups and other organizations, he said.

"Ruth is the heart and soul of the Owen Brown community," Dorsey said. "She is tremendously dedicated and professional and caring about the community and the residents."

In her retirement, Bohse said, she's planning to travel and perhaps volunteer. She might even find a part-time job, but one with less responsibility, she said.

Bitsy Furr, a bookkeeper who has worked with Bohse for 19 years, described her as "very easy to get along with."

"I don't want to say too much," Ruff continued. "I'll probably cry. She's been a good friend."

Dorsey said Bohse will be missed. "It's tough to replace 30 years of experience and history and knowledge," he said. "We'll make it, but it's not going to be the easiest thing."

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