History and Values Prompt $500,000 Gift to Germans From Russia Heritage Society

Tobin, Paulette. "History and Values Prompt $500,000 Gift to Germans From Russia Heritage Society." Grand Forks Herald, 26 November 2000.

After years of shrewd investment and hard work, Roger Haas of Portland, Ore., is a wealthy man. But it was an impoverished childhood in the Dakotas, the values he learned from his parents and lots of prayer that led him to give $500,000 to the Germans from Russia Heritage Society.

Haas, born near Zeeland, N.D., into a family of Germans from Russia, and his wife, Roberta, gave the money so the society could build a new headquarters in Bismarck.

With a master's degree in education, Haas was a teacher and school administrator in the Portland area for about 20 years before quitting to devote himself full-time to buying run-down properties, rehabilitating them and renting them. What began as a hobby made Haas and his wife, also a teacher, rich.

Today, Haas and his wife, who also grew up poor, continue to live frugally in the basement of a beautiful home. They have a dishwasher they don't use. After washing dishes in a pan in the sink, Roberta Haas pours the water into pail to save for flushing the toilet. They drive a Lexus but will stop to pick up aluminum cans along the highway, said Ted Becker of Williston, N.D., chair of the Germans from Russia Heritage Society building committee.

"They are so content to be with each other that creature comforts really mean very little to them," Becker said. "And work -- you wouldn't believe the work ethic this man has."

Haas said he never forgot a favorite saying of his German father: "Arbeit macht das leben suss" -- "Work makes life sweet." Nor did he forget the wish of his mother, who died at age 39 in 1945, that he and his brothers become educated so they could have a better life than their parents had.

"This all came about because of the most tender things in life: A mother passing, who had lost her own mother, and who wanted the best for her children; and my father and mother, who had lost their firstborn," Haas said of the $500,000 gift. "The tragedies make us want to preserve all that which is our rich heritage."

Haas was born in 1934 to August and Kathryn Schauer Haas. His father was born near Zeeland and his mother, who came to America in 1911, was born in Neudorf, Russia. Neither had much education, although his mother did take high school by correspondence. August and Kathryn were married in 1928, and lived near Venturia, N.D., where their first child died when she was 3 days old. Later, they had four sons: Elmer, Roger, Larry and Christian.

The family lived north of Zeeland before Roger was born, and then lived in the Sutley area southwest of Eureka, S.D., from 1941 to 1946.

Kathryn Haas died when Roger was about 11 and his youngest brother was about 31/2. Part of the family tragedy, Haas said, was that Kathryn Haas' mother also had died young, in childbirth, when Kathryn was about 12. And Roger's father, August Haas, was an infant when he lost his mother, who died three days after giving him birth.

After Kathryn Haas died, said Roger Haas, he and his older brothers cooked meals of rice and potatoes and washed their little brother's diapers in a creek.

His mother encouraged his education, but after she died, his grades fell and there were some Ds and Fs. Then his father remarried, and the family moved to Forbes, N.D., where Haas entered seventh grade and failed his first year of physiology. That woke him up, Haas said, and he started working harder.

The Haas family spoke German. English -- which Roger spoke only at school -- was difficult for him. After graduating from high school in 1952, he enrolled at the State Normal and Industrial College in Ellendale, N.D., and took extra English classes to improve himself.

By then, his work ethic was well established. He worked as a farmhand for the Severance brothers of Frederick, S.D., while he was in high school. After teaching school near Linton, N.D., for a year, Haas returned to work for the Severance brothers. By then, he had $1,000 in the bank and a car. He and a cousin and another young man went west to enroll at Cascade College in Portland. There, while selling Fuller Brushes, he met Roberta. They were married in 1955, and both taught.

Instead of playing during their spare time, Haas said, he and his wife began buying rental properties and fixing them up.

"We bought total junkers, places that had been vacant or were in bad condition. We always got the bottom of the barrel because that is all we could afford; but knowing how to improve things, we would go in and fix them up and clean them up and rent them out."

Today, Haas and his wife still manage their properties, but they are starting to sell them. They have begun to give their money away to the church and other causes, including the Germans from Russia.

Haas has co-authored a family history book, and is president of the Oregon Chapter of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, which has headquarters in Lincoln, Neb. Still, he did his research on the Germans from Russia Historical Society before deciding to give them money. He and Roberta also spent a lot of time in prayer.

Walter H. Rehling of Hebron, N.D., president of the Germans from Russia Heritage Society, said a strong sense of history, of family, and of the hardships endured by the Germans from Russia helped Haas decide to give the $500,000 gift.

"It was a sense of what his mother and father did for him and his brother, not monetarily, but from the standpoint of personal motivation and encouragement," Rehling said. "I think when this opportunity came along, he saw where he could pay something back."

Reprinted with permission of the Grand Forks Herald.

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