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Leaders & Legends: Louise Radloff

In the parking lot of a building that bears her name off 316 in Lawrenceville, Louise Radloff gets out of her car. It’s rainy and cold out this morning, but she’s unhindered by these kinds of things. She’s 86 but feels good. She still runs four and a half miles on the treadmill at 5 every morning and makes her rounds throughout Gwinnett until the sun sets.

Inside her car, there’s a stack of brand-new blue jeans and shoes. Once she gets through here, she’s taking the clothes over to Radloff Middle to be handed out by counselors to kids in need.

It’s the kind of thing she does. Finding a need, then bridging the gap to fill it. Connecting dots. 

Like most days, there’s plenty of dots to connect, so Louise gets going. She shuts the car door and walks inside the Gwinnett Board of Health and Louise Radloff Administrative Center.

She greets a handful of people inside, who brighten with her approach. She’s well known here, which goes without saying in a building named after you. But it’s not just this building. Radloff could walk down any given street in Gwinnett County and be instantly recognizable. For one, she held a post on the Gwinnett County Public Schools Board of Education 47 years. 

If you ask most anybody who knows her, they’ll also tell you she touched a lot of lives during that time – and continues to do just that.

As she takes a seat in a conference room and chitchats with colleagues and friends, her mind goes to the laundry list of things to do this week: there’s planning for Saturday, overseeing the a program for academically struggling and special needs children; on Sunday, she’s cooking for an English Language Learners class – a function she’s performed for more than a decade; she also needs to go by the Wellspring thrift store at some point to talk about the prom dresses they are selling for $25 that would normally go for more than $100 – a bargain for financially challenged kids in the school district who want to go to prom.

And more.

There’s plenty to do. Lots of people to see. Kids to help. 

Lots of dots to connect. But first, there’s the business of this magazine interview. The reporter walks into the conference room, taking off his jacket.

How has she been, he asks. The two know each other from past interviews. Last time they met was just before 2013, he suggests. She agrees. Yes, 2013.

Awful year, but with a silver lining: her first grandchild.

“Busy,” Radloff says. “I’ve been staying busy.”

The two talk politics – national and local – family, local leadership, changes to the county since they last met. Now, it’s time for the interview. The reporter switches on the audio recorder.

‘You are disowned’

Best place to start is at the beginning because if you can envision a young Louise Radloff helping her brothers and foster siblings as they prepare for school you can capture a glimpse of the young leader to be. Picture it now:

It’s wintertime 1945 in Pickering, Ontario. It’s snowy and about as cold as one could fathom. Inside this modest little farm home, it’s warm.

A young Louise, her siblings and foster siblings huddle around a large coal stove, absorbing the warmth before the morning walk – a two-mile trek to the bus stop. From there, a 50-mile bus ride to Catholic school. Louise helps the two brothers and four foster siblings put on clothing and prepare for the weather as they step out the door.

With a mother from England and father from Ireland, her big family came together after settling on this Canadian farm plot, growing tomatoes.

“(My parents) were very Catholic, and they worked very hard. Strong work ethic. Growing up, I had the responsibility of doing everything (on the farm) from pulling weeds to using a .22 rifle to shoot skunks that would try to go after the geese eggs,” Radloff says.

Her family later moved to the United States in the 1950s. At the time, Louise was 15 years old, and decided to stay behind, taking up residence in a Toronto facility run by nuns. She went to school, got a job and two years later decided to come to the U.S. as well.

She worked for the Bell system, met her husband-to-be, Dick, at the University of Buffalo, and got married. 

It caused a rift in Louise’s relationship with her family.

“(Dick) was Lutheran and I was Catholic, and that was a big deal at the time,” Louise says. “My dad left me a note: ‘if (your husband) does not turn Catholic, you are disowned.’”

Adds Louise: “It’s tragic, but my father’s whole family … we never really spoke again after that.”

Despite her father’s opinions on the importance of differences in her and her husband’s religious views, when an opportunity to take care of her ailing father later presented itself, Louise and Dick took him in; he was dying.

“My father got very ill … and my husband said, ‘look, he’s your dad. We should take care of him.’” she recalls. “That was the kind of person my husband was. So, we took him in. My dad died at my home.”

At the time, their home was in Tonawanda – north of Buffalo, N.Y.

From there, Louise and Dick Radloff moved around New York a couple times because of job transfers before a transfer to Atlanta. They moved to Norcross and bought a home in Gwinnett County, where they settled with their children.

Louise says she “almost had a stroke,” when, in 1970, she took her children to register at Norcross Elementary.

‘A different world’

“There was no air conditioning, only one row of lights. Kindergarten didn’t even exist,” Radloff says. “It was a different world than it is today. So, when I saw all this I said to myself, ‘this isn’t going to work.’”

She also says there were no custodians, inadequate textbooks, dangerous, deteriorating playground equipment and – above all – just the overwhelming feeling that education was not a priority at the school.

Inspired to bring about positive change, Louise helped arrange a cupcake fundraiser to raise money to build a new playground. The fundraiser was such a success, the school was also able to buy a piano for the children.

Connecting dots.

“When I looked at what schools in Gwinnett looked like then versus what they look like now, it’s just such a huge difference,” she says.

Motivated by the success of the fundraiser as well as being bothered by the poor quality at the time of Norcross Elementary, she announced her bid for the Gwinnett County Board of Education. She ran on the republican ticket and won in 1972 – holding on to the post 47 years.

Her passion for special education began to show in the late 70s when she became involved with the founding of the first Oakland Center School – now called Oakland Meadow. The school serves the needs of students from ages 3 to 21 who have cognitive and motor development deficits.

This was around the time the Education for All Handicapped Children – later, renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act – became law.

She also got involved with the issue of mental health, which was then under the category of public health for the county and state. She helped found the state’s mental health association as well as volunteering with Gwinnett Juvenile Court.

Her efforts in the county then and now have not gone unnoticed. There are numerous scholarships, societies and accolades named for her. In 2012, she was one of five nationwide honored in Washington, D.C. as a National Mother of Achievement for American Mothers – an elite honor that few garner.

And May 25 is “Louise Radloff Day” – a title bestowed by the Georgia General Assembly in 1994.

To this day, she continues working in the areas of mental health, public health and public education, as well as serving on various boards, volunteering with charities, and assisting at food banks.

Dr. Audrey Arona, Gwinnett’s district health director with the Georgia Department of Public Health, is “in awe” of all that Radloff has accomplished.

Arona, who works with Radloff at the Gwinnett Board of Health, likens Radloff’s philanthropic enthusiasm to that of the “Energizer Bunny. She has so much energy and gives so much of her time.”

Adds Arona: “She’s had such tremendous dedication to this community … every problem she encounters, she works to solve it. Every family or child … where there’s a need, she steps up to do something about it every single time. I can’t even begin to fathom how many lives she’s impacted.”

At 86 – though she’ll tell you with a smile she’s actually 39 – Louise is still going strong. How does she do it? Faith. Work ethic. Possibly some of the very same traits engrained in her from a young age on the farm helping her siblings and foster siblings.

Without her faith, strong work ethic and desire to just keep pushing on, some things in this life might have kept her from achieving all that she has. And she’s been through a lot. Being disowned by her father for marrying a Lutheran was a tough blow that she still remembers, but she forgave. Even the year 2013 couldn’t shake her faith or work ethic. And, well, that was a dreadful year.

‘God keeps energizing me’

Her husband, Dick, passed away in June of 2013 after a battle with cancer. They’d loved each other very much. They shared a house in Norcross for nearly five decades. They’d raised sons and helped raise foster children as well.

Later that summer, in September, while Louise was picking up bread at a baked goods company’s warehouse to be delivered to Salvation Army, she missed a step and fell off a loading dock. She suffered a blow to the head. When paramedics came, she refused to be transported.

“I said, ‘let me sit here for a minute,” she recalls.

Paramedics left, but two men working at the loading dock insisted on driving her to the hospital. She remembers sitting in a wheelchair at the hospital and, after being x-rayed, a nurse came running down the hall and said, ‘her neck is broken.’”

“(Doctors) told my kids I either wouldn’t make it, or I’d be paralyzed,” Louise says.

But she came through it all. The year 2013 was harsh but didn’t stop her. She would also celebrate the birth of her first grandchild that year and continue her work on the school board and just about anything else that would keep her busy.

How did she get through these trials?

“Inner strength, I guess,” she says with a smile. “You do what you have to do. You really do. When your time comes, and it’ll come for all of us, death doesn’t worry me. As long as I keep running, and God keeps energizing me, I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing.”

Her faith, she says, is a big part of her life.

“I’ve been blessed … Faith is really important,” she says. “I have a very strong belief system.”

Attending church, however, has been problematic with a schedule like hers. For instance, the English Language Learners class starts mid-morning on Sundays.

“Most churches aren’t done by then,” she says. “So, on Sundays I cook a meal at home, I pack my car, I go to the classes, I set up for the meeting and I usually don’t get home until 6:30 at night. So, I have not officially joined a church since my husband’s death.”

At this, she is reminded of her husband’s kindness. Specifically, the time he insisted that Louise’s father come live with them while he was dying. And then, Louise is thinking of how, despite the religious rift because of her husband being a Lutheran, they still forgave and were there for her father in the end.

“My father was a fanatic about religion,” she says. “Very church oriented. And there’s a place for church and religion, but you’re also charged to take care of the community you live in.”

Connecting the dots

Inside the conference room in the building that bears her name in Lawrenceville, Louise continues fielding questions about her decades of service. It inevitably reminds her there is still much work to be done today. 

She thinks about the stack of brand-new blue jeans and shoes in her car awaiting transfer to Radloff Middle. It reminds her about the kindness of the people over at Wellspring for selling prom dresses at such a solid bargain so financially challenged kids in the school district can afford. She thinks about other needs and wants. 

How can she join one to the other? How can she find the need, then bridge the gap to fill it? How can she connect the dots today and every day for the rest of her life?

The answer is simple: There’s always something she can do. Always a need she can fill.

The interview wraps up and the magazine reporter puts on his jacket. Time to go. She stands up, bidding him farewell as she exits the Gwinnett Board of Health and Louise Radloff Administrative Center. She walks back out to her car, already mentally assessing the tasks to attend to after delivering the stack of blue jeans and shoes to Radloff Middle School.

There’s plenty to do. Lots of people to see. Kids to help – and Louise Radloff wouldn’t have it any other way.