St. Paul has streets with blocks-long stretches named after notable figures ranging from civil rights activists to pastors to a blues legend who also sold insurance for a living.
But it wasn’t until Rose E. (Rosie) Johnsen came along that people thought: OK, let’s hear it for the waitresses.
They had plenty of time to do so.
Johnsen, who for 60 years was a charming, no-nonsense presence at the East Side institution, Obb’s Sports Bar & Grill, and whose name now adorns the boulevard sign near the crosswalk outside, died Feb. 18. She was 97, and retired for only two years.
Her “boss” for the final 15 years as waitress and then hostess was her son, Jim Johnsen.
In 2001, Jim Johnsen returned to family ownership the Burns Avenue bar opened at the end of Prohibition by his grandfather, Albert (Obb) Johnsen. Even then, the son was reluctant to accept the “boss” tag when his mom was around.
With customers, Rosie was more than happy to play along.
“She’d say, ‘I’m the boss, but when the [expletive] hits the fan, my son takes over,’ ” Jim Johnsen recalled last week between phone calls about the day’s specials — and with the bar not yet open. “We had a great relationship, me and my mom.”
Rosie lived close enough to Obb’s that Jim Johnsen could watch her walk up the street and safely into the front door at home.
Decades ago, Obb’s made its reputation as a neighborhood go-to for workers from 3M as well as the railroad yards near Indian Mounds Park. A local Catholic girl, Kathy Lantry, who’d go on to become City Council president and the city’s public works director, is a lifelong fan of its renowned Friday fish fry.
“It is such a nice place,” Lantry said last week. “So unpretentious.”
Rosie, a redhead in her younger days, was a lunchtime fixture, known by everyone, and not just because of the family connection.
“She was just an incredibly hard worker,” Lantry said.
Even when Rosie eased into the hostess role, she had trouble staying behind the counter.
Seven years ago, Jim Johnsen finished a parking lot project, and he told his mother to be sure to be outside for the grand opening. A local newspaper would be sending a photographer, he said.
Pictures were taken, and as Rosie was preparing to go back inside, she said, “That’s all? That’s all?”
Just then, across the street, a cover was removed from the Rosie Boulevard sign.
“That’s probably the happiest day of her life,” Jim Johnsen said. “She had a street named after her that will be there forever.”
Turns out Rosie also could be the last St. Paul restaurant worker to have the distinction. The City Council, citing possible confusion over street names in emergency situations, passed a resolution in 2017 discontinuing “until further notice the practice of street co-naming” to celebrate its prominent citizens.
Rosie Johnsen, one of only about 18 people to be so honored, also is survived by sons Dennis, David, Ronnie and Gary, and daughter Debbie.
Services have been held.
Anthony Lonetree 612-673-4109