Employee profile: Leona BartenPublished by emzabinski on Wed, 2013-04-03 13:45
Leona Barten is the customer service representative for the Grand Rapids State Agency. Other than Clair Wilcox, she is the longest-tenured employee at Grand Rapids State Bank. She began working in August 1970 and will retire in early June this year. Through those 43 years, there have been at least two constants: Leona still loves her work, and she is an avid community volunteer.
“The biggest change at work has been technology,” Leona explained. “The insurance agency used to be a couple of desks in the main bank, and there would be lines of people all over the place. We still serve customers, but we don’t often see them in person. We now deal with paper and forms instead of people.”
Leona has personally worked with four generations of Wilcoxes, dating back to the days when Grand Rapids State Bank was housed on the corner of First Avenue North and Second Street South near what is now the UPM-Blandin’s parking lot and research office. The bank was relocated to its present site in September 1970.
“I will retire in a couple of months, and I must say that I will miss the customers,” continued Leona. “The sad reality is that I don’t see them as much in the office, so even that has changed.”
Leona grew up in Cohasset, attended Cohasset School and then graduated from Grand Rapids High School. She took business courses at Itasca Community College and then came to work at the bank. Her first job was to assist Milt Fider at the insurance desk as well as to provide secretarial work (typing, dictation and phone answering) for Russell Holm and Clair Wilcox. As the insurance activity grew, Leona began doing the bookkeeping and insurance rating. She never left that post.
Leona is equally proud of her community service, much of it centered on her involvement in her church, St. Augustine’s in Cohasset. She has held top leadership roles in the Council of Catholic Women both locally and in the Duluth diocese. She has become a virtual one-person social service agency, volunteering at the Grace House and Community Café throughout this period. Her church involvement connected her to the Kingstown Diocese on the island country of St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the West Indies, and in the process struck up a friendship with Archbishop Rivas. That Catholic diocese and the Duluth diocese, or district, have a “twinning” relationship, and Leona has done missionary work there for several years.
“I started participating in mission/service work in St. Vincent and the Grenadines in 2001. Working with the Good News Project, Inc. out of Wausau, Wisconsin, gave me the opportunity to help provide homes in the West Indies for people in need,” Leona explained.
“With my family and friends’ support, I have helped sponsor at least ten homes in St. Vincent. This year my friend Pat and I sponsored a home in memory of my nephew, Gus, who died in an auto accident in 2011. The recipient of this home was a middle aged single man, James. He had been living in a very small tin shack with only a cot, and he couldn’t even stand up straight in his old home. James was very happy to receive his new small three-room home. The homes we build are 12’ x 16’ and do not have electricity or running water. We would call it a garden shed but to the people receiving these homes they are castles.”
Left to right: Leona and mission team in St. Vincent; Leona and James, a homeless man for whom the mission team built a new home in January; James' former living quarters; the new home.
Leona returned in January 2013, but didn’t do any actual building. Her main job this year was to serve as “banker” for the group. This included shopping for food to feed the 10-12 person work crew. She would take public transportation into Kingstown where the larger shops were to purchase food and anything else our team needed, if she could find the items. This job gave her an opportunity to visit people she had met in past years and to make more new friends.
“It isn’t an easy two weeks,” Leona noted. “You spend two weeks with people with many different personalities. The culture and language are different; there are bugs, heat and humidity; no air conditioning and a maybe fan; and other uncomfortable situations. But when you see the smiles on the face of the recipient of the home, the family, the friends and neighbors, you know that your discomfort for two weeks was a small sacrifice to make.”
Leona has made many friends since her first mission trip in 2001, including the many volunteers she’s worked with. “I have truly been blessed,” she concludes.
So what will she do after retirement?
“I’m going to have time to do things for myself,” she explained. “I have been fortunate to have traveled the world over: China, Switzerland, Germany, Rome, Jerusalem and many states in this country. I won’t stay home, but the pace may slow a bit.
“Many of my friends have retired, and they always seem to have ‘free’ time to come and go as they please,” Leona said. “I enjoy working, but maybe I won’t have such a rigid schedule.”
For as active as Leona has been, the chances are good she’ll still keep a busy schedule.