Rick Rovak

Rick Rovak in 2013. Photo: Yana Hotter

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Rick Rovak was doing well in life. His kids went to college. His family was comfortable and his job as a high-powered sales executive in the shoe industry paid very well.

Then he found himself having dinner one night with friends at a fashionable Beverly Hills restaurant.

“I said ‘Does it trouble any of you that we don’t do anything with our lives?’” recalled Rovak. “‘Sure, we write some checks to charity and that’s nice. Organizations need the money but what are we doing?’”

Though not judgmental of others’ choices, Rovak didn’t feel like he found any satisfactory answers for himself that evening – and that bothered him. He liked the fashion industry but felt it was lacking something.

“As I tell friends, I know the day when I said, ‘I don’t care if red is the new black or heels are going up or going down,’” he said.

Today, heels are far from Rovak’s mind. After retiring early, the 67-year-old is a veritable repository of volunteerism. He’s president of the board of Gateway to Hope, which arranges care and helps with finances for under- or uninsured individuals coping with breast cancer. The Creve Coeur resident is also a vice-president at Jewish Family & Children’s Service, chairing the agency services committee. He even finds time to stay active with the Gateway Chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society. 

And making time for Rovak is easy. His volunteerism isn’t an imposition. It’s a priority.

“I view all these things as opportunities so I know I’m contributing my time. I live by the Winston Churchill quote, ‘We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give,’” he said. “These organizations offer me the opportunity to give.”

Lou Albert, executive director of JF&CS, feels his organization is the one getting the opportunity in being able to work with someone as thoughtful and passionate about its mission as Rovak.

“This is a guy who is very active and engaged in the not-for-profit community. He’s been a significant resource within the agency in terms of helping us to deliver the best and highest quality services,” said Albert.

He said that Rovak’s work in helping the agency to design a system for integrating assessment of programs with budgetary and strategic planning needs has been invaluable. “He’s been really just a treasure on the board in every way,” Albert said.

For Rovak, it’s all about the Jewish ideal that says he who heals one person heals the world.

“That’s our attitude at JF&CS,” said Rovak. “I work with a group of really passionate people.”

He also appreciates the organization’s comprehensive approach with its multilayered services.

“Through that intake, the person walks through the door expecting to go through one door and maybe there are two or three doors that open for them to help them through life,” he said. “I find that to be a spectacular approach.”

Gateway to Hope provides a similar feeling of helping. By assisting people battling cancer through the use of donated care, the organization can really make a difference in the lives of those going through difficult times. It even helps with bills like mortgage, rent or food.

“Basically, we tell our clients we just want you to get better,” he said. “We’ll take care of everything else. It’s a wonderful organization and there is nothing like it that we know about here.”

His involvement with the MS group came about in a more unusual way. He was biking with a friend in Franklin County when his companion suggested being a part of an organized charity ride. Rovak chuckled at the idea and asked why.

“He said, ‘It looks like a lot of fun,’” the native St. Louisan recalled, “I said ‘I’m having all the fun I need right now.’”

But the following week Rovak found himself perusing pamphlets for an MS ride in a bike shop and soon he was hooked. Since then his participation in charity rides has helped to raise more than $80,000 for research.

Interestingly, he has no personal connection to the disease. Actually, it is the very fact that everyone in his family is healthy that made him think it was the right cause. That’s what he wants for everyone.

“My feelings were ‘Gee, if I could do something so that someone else could enjoy that kind of a life…’” he said. “Sure we want to get a cure to MS but what if we could make it just a chronically treatable disease so somebody can go through their day not experiencing all those terrible symptoms that MS can bring? That would be great.”

But his work with the MS group doesn’t end when he gets off the bike. He’s on its grant review and government relations committees, sometimes advocating in Jefferson City and Washington, D.C.

He even does photography, a long time hobby of his, for the organization’s events, something the Shaare Emeth congregant also does for Camp Rainbow, which helps children with cancer and blood disease.

In the end, Rovak feels helping others is a responsibility that he has to take seriously.

“I’ve always felt that we were lucky…But there are a lot of people who need a little help,” he said. “They didn’t do anything wrong. They didn’t drop the ball. I just feel fortunate. I feel if I can do something to help people in whatever way I can, that made a lot more sense.”

His active retirement may seem unusual but it was really a part of the plan – at least a part of the plan Rovak formed when he decided to leave the business at age 62. 

“I didn’t want to look back in 10 or 15 years and say, ‘Oh, man, I never went after any of my passions.’”

Six years after leaving the business world, it seems like he made the right call.

“They’ve been the best years,” he said. “It steamrolled. The more I did, the better I felt about it.” 

Rick Rovak

AGE:  67

FAMILY:  Wife, Louise; two daughters, Erin and Anne; six grandchildren

HOME:  Creve Coeur

OCCUPATION:  Formerly sales executive in the shoe industry

FAVORITE PASTIMES:  Rovak is taking harmonica lessons after his wife bought him one for his birthday.