Ruth Ann Schoer, Salvation Army of Dane County

Ruth Ann Schoer's life story plays like a juxtaposition between The Waltons and The Grapes of Wrath. It is an endearing and sometimes painful recollection of being the oldest of 11 children living on a 160-acre farm in rural Minnesota, in a 1,000-sq.-ft. family home with outdoor plumbing. "I went to a country school up to eighth grade, and never felt poor or deprived," she said. "My dad believed that if you worked, you ate. If you didn't, you didn't." And trick-or-treating at Halloween? Forbidden. "Dad called it door-to-door begging."

Life wasn't easy, but they adjusted. In eighth grade, for example, Schoer developed a keen interest in learning piano, but because her family couldn't afford lessons, she'd accompany a girlfriend to hers, watch from afar, then bring what she learned back home. With no family money, Schoer once visited a local bank hoping to get a bank loan so she could pursue her dream of attending college at the University of Minnesota, but was told that what little money was available would go to the boys first. "That was the worst year of my life," she said. After her father died, the family sold clothes and canned goods to survive – and joined the welfare rolls. "It was very hard," she recalled, but she persevered.

She married her first husband in 1964 and together they ran a hog-farrowing business, selling baby pigs as feeder pigs. She also helped a local politician run for Congress, which led to a job selling advertising for a local newspaper. On nights and weekends, she did flower arranging, quickly building a name for herself around town, and became involved with the local chamber of commerce.

Schoer was the first female chamber executive at three chambers, including, after a divorce, Stevens Point. "I didn't want to be in Wisconsin with cheeseheads and beer," she recalled. But when Sentry Insurance flew her in, wined and dined her, and even introduced her kids to Dick Bennett and Terry Porter of UW-Stevens Point basketball fame, she reconsidered. "They engraved my name on matchbooks!" she laughed.

Being the first woman in an executive position had its drawbacks. "You really walked a fine line. Women weren't allowed to join the rotary back then. I got chased around the desk once in a while," she admitted. It got old. "[Younger] women today don't have any idea …."

After a tragic car accident involving one of her four sons nearly wiped her out financially, Schoer went into commercial real estate. She landed a job in Madison with the Fiore Companies, and later started her own company. She remarried in 1993 and became entrenched in human services while serving three terms on the Dane County Board. Her involvement there led her to the Salvation Army of Dane County. "This is a calling," she said of her role as director of major gifts. "I get to be where the miracles are."

Schoer, 66, will fulfill this chapter of her life in April when she retires after 10 years. "If I kicked off tomorrow," she said, "it has been a great ride! At my funeral, I don't want anyone moaning and groaning. I want people to remember the goofy things we did." Asked what she'll do in retirement, and there's no hesitation: First, she's going to lead an effort to bring the first Miracle Field to Madison – an asphalt sports field for the disabled. Then, she smiled, "I'm going to take piano lessons!"

Sign up for the free IB Update – your weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. Click here.