Thirty years ago, a woman unable to buy a winter coat for her child stopped at Pilgrim Cleaners and asked if any had been left behind. Pilgrim’s president, Don Rosen, was at the counter that day. He found one in the back room and gave it to her.
That was the beginning of Coats for Kids, the program that since 1985 has collected and distributed more than 384,000 coats to children in the Twin Cities.
Rosen, of St. Louis Park, died Sept. 17 at the English Rose Suites. He was 94.
The coat drive grew out of the Jewish value of tzedakah, which means giving back, said Rosen’s daughter Bonnie Engler, of Orono, who runs the dry-cleaning empire that has 25 stores in the metro area and is celebrating its 75th anniversary year. This year’s coat drive started Sept. 14 and runs through Oct. 9.
“Giving back was so important to him,” Engler said. “It came from his heart. He’d do anything for anybody anytime.”
Rosen started his 60-year career in the dry-cleaning business as salesman for Vic’s Cleaning Machine Co. immediately after graduating from Minneapolis North High School in 1939. He took a break to serve in the U.S. Army during World War II, which included a 1944 landing at Normandy. He was a decorated soldier, and his unit liberated one of Germany’s Nazi concentration camps, family members said.
After the war, Rosen returned briefly to Vic’s, then went to work as the sales manager for Johnny on the Spot and Pilgrim Cleaners. Rosen eventually bought the two companies, consolidated operations and kept the Pilgrim name.
Though he held the company’s top job, Rosen strategically placed his office near the front counter so he could build relationships with his employees and interact with customers, his daughter said. Rosen was a member of the Shriners and often bought extra tickets for the Shrine Circus to give away. He frequently took time to talk with employees, encouraging them to call him by his first name, said Brett Carsen, Pilgrim’s transportation manager who worked under Rosen for 24 years.
“He cared about employees as people, not just employees,” Carsen said. “People enjoyed coming to work. He was genuine. He made you feel part of the team.”
Rosen was a charter member of the Brooklyn Center Rotary Club, which helped start the Coats for Kids project. He was named as a Paul Harris Fellow, an honor named after Rotary’s founder and given to individuals who contributed $1,000 or more annually to the Rotary Foundation.
“Don and Helen [his wife of 73 years] were outstanding people and truly supported our club and community,” said Gerald Anderson, past president and one of the club’s founding members.
He was a lifetime member of Beth El Synagogue, where he was part of the Mr. and Mrs. Club and theater group. Religion was an important part of his life. He often gave discounts or donated services to faith-based organizations, Engler said.
“When any church or synagogue called and asked for help, he would do it,” Engler said.
Rosen stayed in touch with his high school classmates and organized yearly reunions, his daughter said.
Besides his daughter Bonnie, Rosen is survived by two other daughters, Sharon Waller, of Minneapolis, and Eileen Gantman, of Plymouth; a son, Larry Rosen, of Minnetonka; two brothers, Barney Rosen, of Minneapolis, and Phillip Rosen, of Las Vegas; a sister, Phillis Fields, of New Hope, 21 grandchildren, 18 great-grandchildren and one great-great grandchild.
Services have been held.