Paula Obermark, Washington, hadn’t been retired from her position as executive director of the Franklin County Area United Way for very long when she received a call from Sandy Crider, of Loving Hearts Outreach and the local chapter of Salvation Army. The two had worked closely over the years helping to meet the needs of people around the community, and now Crider had a request:
Would she be willing to serve on the local Salvation Army advisory board?
Obermark didn’t hesitate: Yes!
“I was really glad to get that phone call from her,” she said. “It made me feel good, like I would be doing something worthwhile.”
After retiring, Obermark, whose husband, Evert, passed away in 2008, had been feeling a little like her purpose in life was over. It was kind of like an empty nest feeling that parents experience when their children move out, she said.
Serving on the Salvation Army board provided just the right amount of work and activity, and the nonprofit organization is one she strongly supports.
“I’ve seen the Salvation Army in action. I know they do a really good and excellent job, and it’s a whole program that not only helps them recover or to receive what they need, but it helps them,” Obermark remarked. “It’s a total program that helps them totally recover.
“If you don’t have a trade or occupation, they will teach you. If you are homeless and have no skills, they will take you in. They have a shelter in O’Fallon. They will teach you a skill. You have to want to do it, kind of like, ‘God helps those who help themselves.’ That’s the whole key,” said Obermark. “It is the only organization that will treat the entire person and entire family. If you are sincere in your efforts, they are there for you.”
This Christmas season, Obermark will be one of the volunteers ringing a bell for the Salvation Army’s annual fundraising campaign. More volunteers are still needed to fill the 12 two-hour shifts for each day through Friday, Dec. 23. To see what shifts are still open and to sign up, people should go to www.washmobells.com.
Money collected in Franklin County is used to help the people who live and work here, said Obermark. That’s a big reason why she stands out in the cold each Christmas season ringing the bell.
It’s also a lot of fun, especially on a day deep into the holiday season, like Dec. 23.
“It’s like old home week,” Obermark said with a laugh. “You see people you haven’t seen all year or even years. It’s really fun in a situation like that.”
A Head for Business
Obermark grew up in Neosho in southwest Missouri, one of three children. She had one older brother and also a fraternal twin brother.
As a teenager, Obermark worked at the local swimming pool giving lessons, and during her last year of high school she was director of the Red Cross swimming program.
She was always a good student — graduated No. 13 in her high school class — and she was involved —served as secretary for the student body.
When it came time to select a college, Obermark was influenced by her older brother’s fiancée, who had grown up on the East Coast and attended an all-girls college in South Carolina. Obermark enrolled and headed east, but it didn’t turn out to be a good fit. She was often lonely, since many of the other students lived close enough that they went home on the weekends, and it felt kind of like a convent, Obermark said with a laugh.
Still, being away from home like that was good for her, she said. The experience gave her a lot of independence and made her realize what she really wanted in life.
After two years (1965-’67), she knew that included attending a school much closer to home, like the University of Arkansas.
Obermark had been considering a career in social work, something her father, who worked as an attorney and circuit judge, was strongly opposed to. He didn’t like her interest in elementary education any better.
“He always told me that I was a born businesswoman, and he wanted me to major in business,” she said, remembering how he would always tell her how much she reminded him of his mother, who worked as a nurse, but had a head for business.
“She would loan out money and make interest on it, and get it back. This was around the early 1900s,” said Obermark. “They had horse-and-buggy races back then, and she even had her own horse and her own buggy. We have a picture of her with her whip in her hand.”
Obermark said her father saw many of the same traits in her, and she admits he was right about it.
“Honestly, I was good with money. I could always save it,” she said.
‘Can’t Go Wrong With Business Degree’
Obermark followed her father’s advice and studied business. She earned a degree in business/personnel management in 1969, an era when there weren’t many women working or even studying in the field.
She remembers feeling a little awkward at being often the only woman in her business classes, but she solved that by sitting right up front where she wasn’t constantly reminded of it.
“I always sat in the front row, right in the middle. For some reason that seemed to help take the fear away,” said Obermark. “I wasn’t as intimidated then.”
She never was harassed for being a woman in a male-dominated field. The men in class were always nice and cordial, and there was never any discrimination on campus.
Looking back, Obermark is happy that her father encouraged her to study business, because ultimately she was able to combine her talent for business with her interest in social work to better serve people in need. In fact, she believes learning about business principles is something that can benefit everyone, no matter what career path they follow.
“I don’t care what you do in life, if you have a business background or degree, you can’t go wrong with it because it serves you well no matter what you do,” said Obermark. “Even if it’s only the business of running your own home and managing your own paycheck and finances.
“Budgeting, finances, investments, human relations, statistics . . . all of it comes into play,” she said. “We had to take business writing, business reports, and all of that has served me well and better enhanced whatever work I was doing.”
From Business World to Nonprofits
Obermark’s first job out of college was with Bendix Corporation (now Honeywell) in Kansas City, a government contractor that was looking to hire female business majors. On her lunch break one day she met a young production control planner who also worked for the company, Evert Obermark, a Washington native. They started dating and the two were married in 1973.
She later worked with the University of Missouri-Kansas City as an academic adviser in the school of education and Drury College where she coordinated special programs and advised students in the evening college.
The couple moved to Washington in the mid-’70s. Evert went to work at Hazel, and Paula, who had earned a master’s of business administration degree through night school, accepted a job with East Central College teaching evening classes. Her class schedule included intro to business, principles of management and small business management.
After 3 1/2 years at ECC, Obermark was ready for a change. Downtown Washington Inc. was looking for someone to work 10 hours, three days a week helping to run the office and help with special events and promotions. She got the job, and found it was a great fit.
“I made just enough money to send the kids, Tom and Tim, to preschool,” said Obermark. “And I really liked the work.”
While Obermark was working at Downtown Washington Inc., she was approached by Charlie Dieckhaus, then-president of the Washington United Fund, about also working for their organization just three hours a week during the campaign season. It was ideal because she could still keep the job working at Downtown Washington Inc.
She accepted the job and started May 1, 1980. In the beginning, she worked out of her house.
“When I started, I had a handful of folders, a ledger, checks and deposit slips and a bank stamp,” said Obermark, with a laugh.
By the early ’90s, Obermark was at a crossroads working two jobs when her parents back in Neosho became ill. She opted to quit her job with Downtown Washington Inc. and stayed with the United Fund because it allowed more flexibility to be able to care for her parents.
In 1980 when Obermark started with the then-Washington United Fund, the campaign goal was just $55,000 and supported just a dozen or so agencies.
By the time she retired in 2013, the nonprofit had an annual goal of more than $1 million and was supporting more than three dozen agencies across the entire Franklin County area.
Her tenure included reaching a partnership agreement between the Washington United Fund with the St. Louis United Way in 1995 that helped grow the campaign with tools like payroll deduction and the loaned executive program to help companies hold fundraising rallies.
In the 33 years Obermark was with the United Fund/Way, there were many ups and downs in the campaigns, including some very hard years of reaching the goal. But it was always an extremely rewarding career, she said.
Heart of a Social Worker
Although Obermark had a knack for business and was trained in it, she still had a heart for social work and helping people in need. In 1993 when the area was hit hard by the Missouri River flood, Obermark took on additional responsibility as co-chair of the Franklin County Unmet Needs Committee to help flood victims recover. She did it again in 1995 when another major flood hit the area.
“That was very rewarding work,” said Obermark.
“My specific duty was to find resources for them or bring resources together. We did casework and the different organizations in the area would come together,” she said. “Families would be assigned to a caseworker, and we would present their case to all of the nonprofit organizations. We would go around the table, and each one would pledge something.”
Having lived through a flood herself in 1986, Obermark had tremendous empathy for the people she was helping.
“First you feel so vulnerable because you have no control over (the flooding),” she said, recalling how she and her husband had to take a canoe to get to their house in South Bend Meadows subdivision.
“My husband and our neighbors would stay up 24 hours pumping water out of the basement. We were like islands. There was nobody to help. The only people who did help were with the fire department,” said Obermark. “It was like the rest of the world was oblivious to what we were going through.
“I told myself if that ever happens to somebody else, I’m going to be there,” she said. “You just feel so alone, overwhelmed and vulnerable.”
So in ’93, Obermark did more than just help flood victims get back on their feet in terms of what they lost; she also listened to their stories, which for many of them, was cathartic, she recalled.
Gardening, Reading, Art
Retirement has meant a lot more time for Obermark to spend with her hobbies, like gardening and reading. (She loves fiction, in particular, and has read everything by author Richard Russo.)
She also has been able to feed her interest in art by attending programs at the St. Louis Art Museum and even taking some painting classes (noncredit) at East Central College. Obermark, who in high school won an award for art from Hallmark Cards, said she finds painting and visiting art shows or exhibits to be therapeutic.
“I’m pretty passionate about it. It really speaks to me,” she said.
An active member at her church, Presbyterian Church of Washington, Obermark volunteers there as needed. Shortly after retiring, she served on the church’s Session or the ruling body, the mission committee and the pastor search committee.
“It was a necessity,” said Obermark, explaining that the church needed volunteers to help with these things, but the work also helped her fill a void she was feeling as a widow in retirement.
“It’s like you have a hole in your heart,” said Obermark. “If my husband hadn’t died, it would have been fine, but when you’re alone, you’re alone.”
She has taken a couple of really great vacations since retiring — one to Paris with her twin brother and his wife, and another to Munich, Germany, with her son to pick up a car he had ordered from BMW.
Her daughter-in-law was supposed to go on the trip, but when she ended up not being able to make it, Obermark took her place.
The trip to the BMW plant was an extraordinary experience, said Obermark, who said the company treated them like kings.
“It’s almost like you’re a winner on a game show or the lottery,” she said, laughing. “We just couldn’t believe everything that was happening. It was just like a fairy tale.”
For now, Obermark doesn’t have any more big trips planned, although she does hope to do more traveling, especially to visit her sons and their families.
Obermark’s older son, Tom, lives in Minnesota with his wife and three children. He works as a patent attorney.
And her younger son, Tim, lives in Eureka, with his wife and two children. He works in the IT department for a commodities trading firm in Clayton.