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Bill Ross: Helping promote his adopted hometown
MONROE - Bill Ross hasn't always lived in Monroe, but after leaving the corporate world behind to find a place that valued his Midwestern roots, he quickly fell in love with the city that he led for almost two decades as mayor.

And although his term in office is over, that isn't stopping his effort to promote it to try to keep people coming back to the place he will forever consider home.

He was born in St. James, Minnesota, but by age 6, Ross relocated to northern Virginia, very close to Washington, D.C., with his family.

He said he was a jock in his day, enjoying football, baseball and basketball. He and his four siblings visited Minnesota often, since St. James was his mother's hometown. He has fond memories of visiting his immigrant grandparents in the rural community and listening to their clocks chime at night.

He graduated from Woodson High School in 1964.

After graduation, the Vietnam War was ramping up and Ross enlisted to take advantage of the free ride to school after his commitment. He joined the Air Force and became a self-proclaimed pencil-pusher for four years, he said. He served in the service squadron, ordering food and supplies.

"I was putting my time in to get out and start life," Ross said. "But my service time was a life-changer for me in a lot of ways."

Ross said his time in the service exposed him to all types of people with different backgrounds, opening up his mind to how alike people are. They were life lessons he still carries with him.

Ross then attended Virginia Tech, earning a degree in economics. He was always interested in math - a subject that simply made sense to him. He graduated in 1971, finishing in three years, saying he was in a hurry because he felt his service time put him behind.

Ross headed to San Francisco to work for the United Parcel Service, a job he held for several years. However, the lifestyle and value system of the West Coast never felt right, and Ross wanted a change.

He then landed a job in Phoenix, Arizona, where he worked for Coca Cola Bottling Company as a plant manager. It gave him more opportunity to use his economic skills and he enjoyed the work. He earned his MBA from the University of Phoenix during that time as well.

Eventually, he transferred within Coca Cola to Houston, which was a very large plant, Ross recalls. Although he enjoyed the experience, the corporate world was taking up a lot of his time and he was traveling often. Eventually he became overwhelmed. He was married then and the long hours were putting stress on his family life.

He said maybe it was a mid-life crisis, but he decided to walk away.

Ross took a year off to decompress, and when he was ready to look for work again, he hoped to return to the Midwest.

Two job opportunities came up, one in Milwaukee and one in Monroe. The day he interviewed for the Monroe job, he came to town early and walked around the Square.

People were smiling and saying hello to him, he said, and he felt welcomed.

"It touched my Midwest values," Ross said. "I knew right then and there if I was offered the job, I'd take it. Even if it was a lot less money."

He was offered the job and in February of 1987, he became the manager of the whey protein plant at Roy's Sanitary Dairy in Monroe. He said he wasn't hired because of his knowledge for the product, but because of his management and people skills.

"The only thing I knew about whey was that it was a four-letter word," Ross laughed.

But he was a quick study, and he soon loved his position and even more, his co-workers.

"Getting to know the people was the best part," Ross said. "I really enjoyed my job. Learning was easy, and we shared the same values and hard work even when that meant staying late until the job was done. As the plant manager, I felt like part of a team."

Ross retired about two years ago and said the decision was difficult. He goes back to visit occasionally at the plant, now called Milk Specialties.

It wasn't hard to stay busy and involved over the years. Ross said Monroe is like a volunteer train and when it pulled up in front of his house, he gladly jumped on. He was a big part of the Chamber of Commerce, was heavily involved with the Monroe School District and taught evening business classes at Blackhawk Technical College.

But his biggest involvement came in 1994 when he ran for mayor after being encouraged by friends. He said he was shocked to win but took the post seriously and did his best for Monroe.

He served as Monroe's mayor for 12 years, but decided then to step back on his involvement and left for four years.

Six years ago, circumstances with Monroe's new mayor arose, and Ross said he was encouraged heavily again to run and did. He served six more years until he was defeated in the mayoral race last spring, which he said was OK with him.

"I have absolutely no regrets," Ross said. "I enjoyed being the PR person for the City of Monroe and helping where I could."

Ross said his economic background gave him an appreciation for the good stewards of taxpayer money. During his 18 years as mayor, he said he tried to keep taxes low while taking pride in Monroe's growing accomplishments.

"I felt like I was even more a part of the community," Ross said.

Although several things happened that made him proud while leading the city, Ross said having a hand in starting the Monroe Community Fund is one of the best. He said he was only a part of many helping hands that made it happen, but he's happy he was a part of it.

Today, Ross is still enjoying Monroe as much as the day he moved here. He loves the sense of trust and freedom Monroe offers and said feeling safe is something that's often undervalued.

"I absolutely fell in love with this city," he said. "If it hadn't been for my moving around, I wouldn't appreciate it as much as I do."

As mayor, Ross had a strong interest in promoting Monroe. He spent a lot of time with the chamber of commerce and economic development committees over the years and never lost touch with them.

When he and his wife Marilyn were visiting Prince Edward Island in Nova Scotia on a vacation, he realized people went there specifically because of the book, "Anne of Green Gables." It lit a fire for Ross, and made him wonder if he could do something similar for Monroe - write a book to uplift readers with the people and culture of the Midwest, to encourage them to come and see for themselves.

He had never been a writer before but said when he started it came naturally. He's now in the process of publishing his fifth book to come out in February or March.

"I went into writing novels the same way I go into everything," Ross said with a laugh. "I knew nothing."

But his fast-learning style and history of reading as a child came back to him. Copies of all of his work are available at the Monroe Chamber of Commerce, and all of the money is donated back to it.

"These people elected me nine times," Ross said. "I have a lot to give back."

Ross said he would never dream of leaving the Midwest.

"The cold doesn't bother me," Ross said. "I love the seasonal changes - in Monroe especially."

Ross considers himself an adopted member of the Swiss heritage and serves as a Monroe tour guide when needed, showing off the culture and his infamous yodeling stuffed cow, since he can't quite yodel himself.

He and Marilyn have been married for 22 years and travel to visit family. He enjoys spending time with his two sons and his grandchild when he can.

"I think the best thing that ever happened in my life was moving to Monroe," Ross said. "Part of my passion for the stories is writing about all these great people, the small town and hometown values. I just love it. This is home."