Philanthropists and longtime grocers Dave and Barb Skogen aren’t finished with their decades of giving back to the area and its people.
For example, Dave, 76, and Barb, 72, with local business owners Misty Lown and Marvin Wanders, considered opening a leadership academy, an idea that evolved into the Character Lives initiative and curriculum that was launched during the fall 2017 semester in 21 area high schools.
Also in 2017, construction began on the Dash-Park that the Skogens are creating in downtown Onalaska, next to the restaurant they’re building where local restaurateur Matt Boshcka will operate David Reay’s Modern Diner & Tavern. The restaurant is expected to open in mid-February. The park is about two-thirds completed and is expected to be finished by June 1.
Meanwhile, the Skogens continue to be major donors to area nonprofit organizations and projects.
Because of their leadership and philanthropy, they are the La Crosse Tribune’s Persons of the Year.
In his letter nominating the Skogens, local attorney Brent Smith wrote that “2017 was not different in many respects for continuous efforts of the Skogens to better our community. Once again, when I looked at capital building projects for nonprofits in our area, Dave and Barb were significant contributors. More recently, they have tried to lift our area young people through the leadership academy. Finally, they were major game changers as to a large block in Onalaska with economic development.”
The Skogens’ leadership efforts span many decades, Smith told the Tribune after the newspaper selected them as Persons of the Year. “They lead by example, by their generosity and their passion,” he said. The Skogens have made a difference in many ways, including employing thousands of people at their family’s Festival Foods grocery stores, Smith added. Dave Skogen is chairman of the family’s grocery business.
The Skogens’ leadership training efforts are another example of making a difference in the community by applying life skills to young people to help them find jobs and be servant leaders, Smith said.
“When I think of Dave and Barb Skogen, I admire the passion they have had for this community and the impact they have made,” Smith said.
No one more deserving, Weber says
“I think no one deserves this recognition (as Persons of the Year) more than Dave and Barb,” Logistics Health Inc. founder and Chairman Don Weber told the Tribune in an interview.
“I’ve worked with both Dave and Barb on different projects that they took the lead role with,” Weber said. “It’s been an honor working with them. I kind of look at Dave as a mentor in a lot of ways. We both are about giving back, touching the lives of people every day in a positive way. This region is very, very fortunate to have the Skogen family here.”
Weber also noted that Barb Skogen has a history of serving on a number of nonprofit organization boards in the community. She currently is on the boards of Viterbo University and the Family & Children’s Center. Among her many roles and honors, she chaired the La Crosse Area Chamber of Commerce board in 2003 and was honored with the Chamber Chair’s Community Service Award in 2006.
“It’s quite an honor,” Barb Skogen said of the couple being named Persons of the Year. “Very nice. I’m proud of it.”
Dave also said he feels honored to be chosen at the Tribune’s Person of the Year, joining a list that he says includes many other people who are doing great things in the community, some of them behind the scenes.
The Skogens said they have found people in the greater La Crosse area to be very generous.
Why they’re philanthropists
Barb said she and her husband have been philanthropists because “the community’s been awfully kind to us, supporting our grocery business. It’s just time to give back to the community and show our appreciation.”
“For Barb and I, money has never motivated us,” Dave said. “One measurement of success is how much wealth you acquire in a lifetime. But I think a more meaningful measurement is how much you give back.”
“And the difference you make in other people’s lives,” Barb added.
“A higher purpose (than making money) is to serve or enrich people’s lives,” Dave said.
Organizations or projects that the Skogens have given financial support to include the YMCA, United Way, Boys & Girls Club, Onalaska First Lutheran Church, Bethany Lutheran Homes, UW-L Veterans Memorial Field Sports Complex, UW-L Centennial Hall, Viterbo University, La Crosse Promise and both La Crosse hospitals.
A lifetime in the grocery business
Dave is an Onalaska native whose parents were grocers, and Barb has lived in Onalaska since her family moved to the community when she was in the eighth grade. Dave and Barb married in 1965. Their son, Mark, is president and CEO of the family’s Festival Foods business and lives in DePere. Their daughter, Sue, was active in the family business but now is a stay-at-home mom who also lives in DePere.
Barb has a bachelor’s degree in medical technology from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. She worked as a medical technologist at Lutheran Hospital before joining Dave in the supermarket business.
Christmas tree idea leads to park, restaurant
The Skogens bought several properties for the Dash-Park that they are creating along Second Avenue South, between Main and Irvin streets in downtown Onalaska; and for the David Reay’s Modern Diner + Tavern restaurant that they’re constructing for Boshcka to lease and operate. The Skogens plan to transfer the park to the city of Onalaska sometime in the next five years.
The Skogens decided to undertake the downtown project because, Barb said, “That was a blighted area at the entrance to Onalaska. We were out one night and talking and I said, ‘I think a big Christmas tree would look nice on that corner.’ Her initial idea of buying a piece of land at the corner of Hwy. 35 and Main Street for a Christmas tree evolved into the park and restaurant project.
And the tree is quite a sight: 34 feet tall with a metal frame and about 600 ornaments.
They chose the name Dash-Park at the suggestion of a friend to whom the Skogens had introduced the poem “The Dash” by Linda Ellis. The poem says that what matters most is how we live and love and how we spend our dash – the time between the dates of our birth and death.
“The park will be here long after we’re gone,” Dave said. “And it will be up to the city to care for it and keep it viable. It’s just going to enrich a lot of lives. We’ve already witnessed this,” he said, citing people taking holiday photos next to the Christmas tree and children playing with their parents in the park. Once summer arrives, there could be a few hundred people in the park for events such as a concert or an art fair, he said.
A vital role in character initiative
The Skogens, Misty’s Dance Unlimited owner Misty Lown and Three Sixty Real Estate Solutions owner Marvin Wanders considered creating a leadership academy, to teach the importance of character to area high school students. “We went to the Onalaska and La Crosse school superintendents” about the idea, Dave said. “They said this is pretty good, but we don’t think we need to take our students off-premise to do this. Let’s do this in schools.”
So instead of a leadership academy, the four and Clements Management Consulting President Patrick Clements launched the Character Lives initiative and curriculum during the fall semester in 21 area high schools. Based on the Character Strong model created by educator John Norlin, it equips educators to teach students social skills and empathy. The organizers are working to raise $600,000 in pledges during three years to pay for the program.
“Our children need more than good test scores, they need to develop good character traits,” Dave said.
The Skogens’ wisdom, experience, leadership and ability to focus are very important in the Character Lives initiative, Lown said last week. “They have the network and the relationships and the credibility and the experience,” she said. “When Dave invites someone to a lunch to say ‘This is important,’ they listen.”
Lown added, “One of my favorite things about the Skogens is they’re exactly the same, whether it’s a planning meeting, a public setting, doing a TV interview or sharing a meal with them. They’re exactly the same. That’s refreshing. It’s why people trust them.
“They’re people of integrity,” Lown said. “And they put in the time, energy, intellect and resources to making things happen. They’re my role model for business.”
The Skogens are well-known in the La Crosse area as proponents of the servant leadership model, which Dave learned of about 20 years ago when he read the book “The Servant” by James Hunter, who founded the servant leadership training and development firm J.D. Hunter Associates, LLC, in 1985. Dave read the book on his way to a grocery conference where Hunter spoke.
“Servant leadership is about identifying and meeting the needs of the people who have been entrusted to your care,” Hunter told the Tribune after speaking to about 1,000 people at Viterbo University in 2009. “It’s not about being a slave, it’s not about doing what people want,” Hunter said. “It’s about doing what people need. It’s about respect, appreciation, listening, holding people accountable, setting the rules of the house – what I call the hugging and the spanking. Providing them with excellent leadership so they can succeed in what they have to do.”
Hunter’s presentation was sponsored by the Skogens and their Festival Foods stores. Hunter speaks each year at the three-day Festival College for management employees.
“A lot of people who change jobs do so because they’re not happy with their management, their leader,” Dave said. As a young man managing the meat department at his parents’ store, he was told that was why some employees in his department had left for other jobs.
“That was a wake-up call, a growing-up experience,” Skogen said. “Fortunately, I woke up,” he said, adding that what he learned then has been reinforced by what he’s learned about servant leadership from Hunter.
“To lead is to serve,” Dave said of servant leadership, which is the core of the culture at Festival Foods.