By Amy Jones, Photography by Dina Pielaet

One of Rosa Lee Measures’ favorite quotes comes from George Bernard Shaw’s statement, “I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no ‘brief candle’ for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”

One of the most active candle-holders for the community – Rosa Lee Measures, for decades, has been at the epicenter of most of the major developments in Ventura as a volunteer and prominent figure in the public and private sectors. She is a best case American example of a passionate entrepreneur for whom the mission is one of saving the world - not one of just making optimum profits. She has inspired many to believe in the power of business to make a difference, and she knows how to bring social responsibility to mainstream businesses through personal example and a compelling outreach style. “You can’t say no to Rosa Lee,” has been echoed by many business owners who find themselves stepping up for this or that cause or project that Rosa Lee tapped them on the shoulder to help enable. She is so full of energy and life you can’t help but be infected by her enthusiasm.  

We sat down for this dinner interview with Rosa Lee in the home of local business women Ann Deal and Becky Harmon along with Rosa Lee’s husband Albert Harris, former Ventura Mayor, Greg Carson, and Dr. Roz Warner, who was the first woman president of Saticoy Country Club after the all-male club opened to women.  

You might expect such an accomplished woman to be intimidating if not a bit high-brow, but part of Rosa Lee’s success is her grace and charm coupled with an insatiable curiosity and pragmatism that absolutely withers resistance. When we told her that she was considered by many to be a mother-figure for the community, Rosa Lee said, “Well Ventura takes a lot of care. I try to work quietly behind the scenes and cheer in the background. I’m not looking for fame or fortune; my desire is just to be a good citizen and a good Samaritan. That’s why we love Rotary so much.

‘Women were only allowed into Rotary since about 1987. There’s such a huge job to do around the globe. I’ve always said that world peace will only come without government; it will come within the realm of groups like Rotary.  We have the oldest, largest service group in the world with over 1.2 million members…We can go into countries even when governments do not talk to each other, and there’s a common language that we speak which is about service above self not about grandeur or building empires. We drill wells in places where we will never taste the water.

‘I was president in 2003/04 and I went to Australia when Afghanistan was just being accepted into Rotary, and it was a woman in full garb who was the leader of their group. She was awesome.”

What Makes a Good Leader?
Thoughtfully adjusting her spectacles, Rosa Lee said, “There are very solid differences just as a point of practice that women, when they step into leadership roles, have to accept. Women are nurturers; we have no problem doing the job. It’s just a matter of remembering that women often have to be gentle in their toughness…

‘When I look at leadership qualities, I look for someone who is willing to take on the task and has the capacity to do so. Capacity means someone who is diplomatic - one who cares more about others, one who is doing it for the purpose of the cause. This is not about aggrandizing their profession. This is about serving and taking the responsibility to get the job done. Integrity is very important, as well as being cognizant that there are many personalities within the group and overlooking the idiosyncrasies of things that might not be forthright and beneficial to all concerned. We all have inequities…They say, ‘First take the plank out of your eye before you try to remove the splinter from someone else’s.’ The key is to select people who get along well, who are cordial and congenial, who are compassionate and want to serve for the right reasons. It’s the same when I select the person who will be the electorate.”

From Selling Figs, Eggs and Avon to Secret Dates with Kid Valentine  
Rosa Lee reflected on her life, “My grandmother lived with us…I was her baby and she was my mentor. Both of my parents worked and left home early in the morning,  and my grandmother did everything. She was my most favorite person ever in the whole wide world. She taught me how to garden, and she tried to get me to learn piano, but I was such a brat about sitting at the piano. I wanted to be outdoors playing ball…

‘We had a big fig tree, and I harvested the figs and sold them in the neighborhood. I also had an egg route. I was serious, and it was fun; I loved meeting people and having my own little business and delivering products…It was the hardest experience of my life to lose my grandmother when I was twelve. I had to learn about death as she died in our home. My mother administered her morphine shots during her last days of cancer. That was a real hard period for me. I remember walking to school day after day, and all I was thinking about was my grandmother. I had to learn to move beyond that…”  ‘Rosa Lee said, “When I was first married [the first time], we lived in this little dinky apartment. I got married very young and had my first child at the early age of 20. Back then you didn’t live together; you got married, and you were a virgin. I was raised in a Christian family and you watched your P’s and Q’s and that sort of thing...

‘When I had little children, I was always dabbling into some kind of entrepreneurial business. I started selling Avon to supplement our income, because I wanted to provide piano and tap for my kids, and I ended up making it a huge business. The truck would drive up with all these boxes and I would take up the dining room table to organize it all by category. My aunt lived near me, so during the day, the children could stay with her while I sold Avon. Well, my region grew; I was one of the top 6 sales people in the nation, and the New York chief came out and wanted to know how I was doing it?!  And, I said, ‘Well I talk to people.’ With Avon [home delivery] women had something they could look forward to because there are so many women that are alone or shut-ins, especially when they get older, and it was important to come into a woman’s home and listen to them…Anyway, the Senior V.P. of Avon offered me a regional position. Well, I had a husband who was very protective over our family, and he said, ‘I really don’t want you to take that.’ So I honored that and said, ‘You’re probably right.’…Being there for my son and daughter was the top of the list, and my children never stayed with an outside sitter…
‘When we moved into Los Angeles,  I sold Art Linkletter dance lessons door-to-door, and the culture I presented at each door I knocked on was that dancing built self confidence, that all little children should have lessons. Through doing this our own children got to take dance lessons. So, I always found ways for our children to be able to do things, because we were always on a very limited income…

‘When I came to Ventura, Albert was the President of Ventura Savings, and he endorsed hiring me… It’s interesting when you look back at the whole circle of events. Years later, me and Albert found ourselves together. He left the bank in 1975, and we were married in 1983…

‘So I was at the bank when my [first] husband left me, and I was going to be the branch manager. I felt this dilemma, because I felt that I needed to tell Albert that my husband had filed for divorce. I didn’t want him to read about it. I was humiliated about the whole thing and could hardly face it. I didn’t tell my parents or anyone for awhile. So I’m finally telling Albert, the bank president, and I didn’t know his wife had left him a year before. ….How Albert and I actually got together was that months after I told him about my divorce, it was Halloween, and our company was being merged with another company. We knew it was our last hurrah. I dressed as the Pink Panther with big eyelashes and pink ears and the whole costume. Albert was Kid Valentine in shorts with red hearts on them; here’s this upstanding member of the community in red tights, and we went to the Halloween party together. For awhile, we had secret dates in Santa Barbara to avoid running into anyone from Ventura…. Now we will be married 25 years this August.

The Women’s Movement opened the doors for women to do “men’s work” but men are not as excited about “women’s work”…  
Rosa Lee said, “I’m inclined to think that men, by virtue of their mentors, have been groomed to do less rather than more of the menial tasks; they like to be more of the spectator and reap the benefits of a family as opposed to doing the day-to-day. There are males that kind of have their head in the sand; they don’t understand what needs to be done. Rather than fault them for their deficiency,

I would rather say it’s ignorance on their part.  If he’s home first or home all day, for him to think to say, ‘You’ve just arrived home from work; I’ll have dinner ready.’ That’s the unique guy that really gets it. Most men probably didn’t see that growing up, and we are all creatures of our experience and relationships that we grew up with. But to say that across the board men are ineffective or irresponsible or not compassionate enough to understand there’s a need for them to step up to the plate would be in error on our part.  I’m not offended by a man opening a door or seating me at a table, and in fact I love that.  
I feel for men because they don’t know what to do with us!”

What daily habits have contributed to your success?
Rosa Lee shared, “I start the day with prayer and talk to God about the needs of many friends and families who are suffering from various infirmities and maladies. That sets the awakening moment. Then I hop to my feet. Sophie (the new puppy) gets the morning kiss and potty break; I prepare breakfast for Albert, and then I head off at about 6am for the Pierpont Racquet Club to workout.  I eat a lot, so I have to work it off. I’m 70, born June 25, 1937, and I can’t believe it. I don’t feel that old…

‘We have been members of the Missionary Church here in Ventura for 30 years…I hold onto the scripture that God will not give us more than we can bear…For some time, my father was opposed to the church; he would say, ‘If God loves us so much, then why he is letting little children starve?’ He had a good question, but we don’t have those answers on this Earth… For some people that is not an adequate answer. I never get in deep about those conversations unless people ask me. I’m not dogmatic to put my faith on anybody. So I try to walk the walk, and if people want to know more they will come alongside and ask.”

Negotiating the “Man’s World” of Banking and Politics
“I was primed and groomed for [politics] by virtue of the banking career, said Rosa Lee. I don’t and didn’t look at it as aman’s world; I’ve never felt the obstacles of being a woman in the banking industry. I came thinking that I could work minimal hours and still be with my family…Those minimal hours never came…because the market dropped in ‘65 and ‘66, and the bank had to cut staff; I was one of the four remaining, so I learned everything there was. I got my apprenticeship right on the spot. I went down to Los Angeles on Monday evenings to Woodberry College to get my credential in the business. My education is really along the way, since I got married so young. I went to every community college you can imagine to address every responsible position that I took…

‘I was introduced as the first woman vice president of a bank in the county in about 1970; I was made a corporate officer right away, and then I kept acquiring responsibilities. It was just about someone taking the responsibility, and I did the job. As a result, I was selected as the regional manager over all the managers within the coastal region and was responsible for a 5-hundred million dollar operation.”  

Former Mayor Greg Carson was present at the interview with Rosa Lee, and he asked what it took for her to run for Ventura City Council.  She remembers, “I had people who wanted to support me to run for city council, but I kept saying that I didn’t have the time for it.  I even started a decline file to prove to my family that I was declining opportunities to do whatever. It’s always been difficult for me since I was a teenager to be able to say no. In high school, I was president of many clubs, I was a majorette, and I took a job at a jewelry store. My family finally came to me and said I was doing too much, that I had to quit so I could be home for dinner…‘When I was first approached to run for city council, I was Chair of the Board for United Way. I was also nominated for Chamber of Commerce President. I couldn’t do both. Then the bank wanted me to move to Los Angeles or San Diego, which was out of the question for me, so when I did not take the job that opened up my space to take a position on the council. I wasn’t going down there with a need to ‘square’ anything away. I just wanted to lend experience. Many city council members have not run a business, and so that experience did become valuable... Then I became Deputy Mayor, and let me tell you, I made more out of Deputy Mayor than anybody ever did.”

Ventura’s Downtown Renaissance
Rosa Lee served on the Ventura City Council from 1993 to 1998 and reflected that, “The downtown renaissance and the implementation of the Downtown Specific Plan was clearly the major decision our council made. I campaigned on economic revitalization for downtown. We were close to blight then…

‘The Peirano’s Market renovation [now Jonathan’s at Peirano’s] was a major undertaking, to get that restaurant opened while preserving all of the history there. Another part of that plan was the Century 10 Theatre, to create a draw to help businesses. We also established an improvement fund to help businesses improve the facade of their buildings...

‘When the restaurant burned on the pier, they wanted to replace what was there – a little fish shack…We worked to have it extended and retrofitted to support a bigger restaurant… Albert and I went up and down the coast to look at restaurants to see if they would have any interest in coming to Ventura…Albert likes to eat, and I like to eat, and we went on a tasting tour! This was between ‘93 and ’95. Ironically we found the restaurant in our own back yard, and Eric Ericsson’s has been successful. We ride our bikes and go in for a bite. It’s a great stopping point, and you feel like you’re on a little retreat.”

Rosa Lee has been instrumental in the formation and flourishing of Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre. A founding board member, Rosa Lee has been very active in building the board and fund raising to keep the Rubicon Theater Company going since it started ten years ago in the Laurel Theatre space city council candidate, Doug Halter created in an old church building. The Rubicon is the area’s first and only professional theatre company, and it has received numerous awards and acclaim. Rosa Lee announced, “We’ve named our 2008/09 season – Beyond Borders.”

She said, “The most controversial part of the downtown plan was to open California Street and remove the Ficus Trees. The roots were buckling the sidewalks. I pursued preserving the trees, but it was going to be too expensive. A 90-year-old friend of mine, Edna Wort Woods, was a Soroptimist and they had planted the trees years before and didn’t want them removed. She threatened to chain herself to a tree to protect them. So it was an emotional decision…

‘On the city council, we were also dealing with the homeless issue, and I connected with Henry Cisneros, who was a member of President Clinton’s cabinet, part of the Housing Authority granting more funds. Henry was about to identify Ventura for 200 more housing units…There was also a homeless shelter work experience program in San Diego, and so I went there to talk to the Alpha Project’s founder, because he had decided to live with homeless people for awhile to experience their day-to-day life. He found that they can earn $200 a day just by standing with their hand out, and they would drink it. He knew there was a better way. He came to Ventura, and I was able to pull together non-profit directors who service homeless people and he spoke to the group. In San Diego he helped facilitate a coalition of entities who supported the homeless cause, and that’s what I tried to do… I think that the non-profit directors felt threatened that if we implemented the Alpha Project plan that they would lose their jobs and funding.  I also didn’t have the right support from council; they didn’t see it as a viable solution …Then we had a flood; the river rose and people were in jeopardy… I walked the river bottom with a police officer to try to convince some of the people living there to move out of harm’s way. One guy living in a box was indignant. He didn’t understand why he couldn’t get trash and mail service!…We had to make a decision, and all of a sudden my colleagues thought it looked like a good plan…We worked on ‘the avenue’ where Catholic Services is today and set up a resident shelter where the college is now in Camarillo...and we helped over 200 people with their animals (some of which were horses!), health care and/or finding jobs.”Rosa Lee said, “It’s a continuous problem…there are those who choose to be homeless and there are the mentally ill and those who come on hard times. What people need to understand is that you have to offer [homeless people] an alternative solution if you ask them not to loiter or set up camps in the river bottom. You can’t just move them out.”

A Chicken in Every Pot
Rosa Lee reflected, “I’ve been seen as a kind of an enigma in the business world.”  People don’t always understand why she gets involved with so many boards and projects. She is such a ubiquitous figure that there are many who thought she’s the mayor. During one of our conversations, former Mayor Carl Morehouse, a current councilman, called Rosa Lee for her review of the proposed Sand Management Plan for the Pierpont Beach area being discussed at city hall. She’s really an unofficial official, and not too many things get done in Ventura without her knowledge and indeed endorsement.

Explaining her mode of compassionate conservatism, Rosa Lee said, “My father had a business across the border in Mexico, and we did a lot of shopping for needy families; I saw children less fortunate… Ministers would stay at our home if they were traveling, and my grandmother and mother cooked and washed and were the consummate hospitality people, so I learned early that service above self is what you do in life.  People look onto that profile and tap your shoulder frequently…Some wonder what drives my inclination to serve, but it’s really about what can be done and the sense of satisfaction that I can help...
‘My parents were Democrats. They loved the Roosevelts and their idea of ‘a chicken in every pot.’ But, they worked very hard and brought up from nothing, and didn’t want a hand out…My father paid cash for our first home. He instilled those values in his family.”

Rosa Lee’s older sister, Dorie Alvarez is also a well known and loved member of the community. She worked at Ventura City Hall for 25-years as a volunteer coordinator and was honored by Rotary as the Volunteer of the Year. Dorie has been a Pink Lady at Community Memorial Hospital and served as President of the Soroptimists. Rosa Lee said, “We are a close knit family, and we’re so fortunate to live near one another to share the joy of celebrating many special occasions together.”
Rosa Lee and her husband, Albert Harris, are 40 year residents of Ventura. They have 5 children and 8 grandchildren and 1 great granddaughter.  While Rosa Lee continues to sit on many boards of directors, she and Albert are trying to spend more time with family. Rosa Lee’s top priority now? – “I hope that I have been the kind of grandmother that my grandmother was for me. I drop everything for my grandchildren.”  

Case in Point: One of the greatest rights of passage in Ventura comes through the longstanding summer Junior Lifeguards program that each year concludes with the kid’s ceremonial plunge into the chilly Pacific for a swim around
the pier. When it came time for Rosa Lee’s 9-year-old grandson, Michael to go the distance, she asked him, “Do you want Nani to go with you?” Rosa Lee, grandmother, former Deputy Mayor, banking regional Vice President was all ready to suit up to personally supervise the swim…That’s just her way.

Editor’s Note: Rosa Lee was very gracious and detailed throughout our interview to credit many individuals on the projects she has worked on over the years, many of which have not been detailed in this story in consideration of space. The absence of the names of the many fine men and women who participate on these creative and critical additions to the community should  therefore not be misconstrued in terms of Rosa Lee’s intent or the writer’s intent.  Many warm thanks are extended to you who make the difference in things that matter. [END]

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