By Ellen Thompson/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Nothing was noticeably different on the streets of Havre on Monday, but a great light had gone out. Frank DeRosa, 81, died that morning at Northern Montana Hospital.
The Havre that DeRosa knew changed many times over since he was born in 1923. Many of those changes were ones he helped make. DeRosa's projects, particularly Havre Beneath the Streets and the accompanying railroad museum, are considered responsible for a significant amount of tourism in the community.
Havre Beneath the Streets was listed this month in "Montana Magazine" as one of the 35 places every Montanan should visit, said Debbie Vandeberg, director of the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce.
He also helped organize the building of another Havre landmark, the statue of railroad magnate James J. Hill, which greets travelers in front of the train station. The statue and the museum were sister projects.
Vandeberg said that in the first few months after Havre Beneath the Streets opened in 1994, it had 2,000 visitors. Last year, 8,375 people toured the museum.
"It has had a huge impact, especially on our downtown business area," Vandeberg said. "As soon as Havre Beneath the Streets opened, a lot of the shops that surround the area were starting to see tourists.
"Not only has it been given statewide recognition because of the attraction that it is, but it's also a real feather in the cap for the local people because lots of local people dedicated their time and gave to the display. (It's) truly a local project, spearheaded by a guy who had the vision and tenacity not to let it go," Vandeberg said.
DeRosa opened the downtown family business Northern Electronics, now Northern Home Essentials, while still working as a freight agent for the railroad in 1964.
He ran the business out of his garage for its first few years. When he retired 20 years later, the store had expanded and moved to its current First Street location, offering appliances, furniture and tableware, as well as electronics. DeRosa's son Larry took over the business when Frank retired and he continues to run it.
Though retired, DeRosa never rested. In 1989, he applied his zeal to starting tourist attraction that has become a Havre hallmark.
DeRosa's father worked on the railroad in the 19th century, and DeRosa followed in his father's footsteps. He knew that Havre was written into history by the marks of railroad tracks, and he did what he could to preserve that history.
"He liked to keep the old memories going," longtime friend Elmer Casady said. Casady attended high school with DeRosa and went to work with him on the railroad.
Casady paints a picture of the Havre that he and DeRosa knew in their youth.
"Dirt roads led into town," he said.
DeRosa wanted to create a part of the old town in the chambers beneath Havre's downtown. With a group of others, he worked to dig out passageways that connected them and put up displays that gave a sense of early 20th century Havre.
He got all the help he could with his projects, including asking Casady to contribute to the blacksmith's display. Casady's father was an early Havre blacksmith, and many of the tools on display came from his father's shop, he said.
Havre Beneath the Streets and the Havre Railroad Museum opened to the public in 1994. DeRosa was working to expand exhibits in both of them when he died.
"Havre Beneath the Streets will continue, it will just not be the same without Frank," said museum board member David Leeds. "He will be sorely missed."
Recently, DeRosa finished a two-year project for the museum, a display of World War II patches collected by his sister, the late Edith VanBuskirk, who worked at the Great Northern Railway ticket office from 1942 to 1949. DeRosa himself fought in the war from 1942 to 1945 in the Pacific theater.
"I think it makes a nice memorial to the servicemen," he told a reporter recently. "I think it's something unique. How many places can you go, that isn't a military institution, that has something like this?"
Christie Owens, who works at the railroad museum, said DeRosa had also finished another railroad display for the museum and was working on cataloging the museum's library.
Finally, he had a plan for an underground walkway that would lead tourists to the subterranean exhibits by way of some old steam tunnels. The locations of some of those tunnels were known, but DeRosa and others suspected there might be other tunnels as well. The hope, Leeds said, was that the walkway would bisect those so that tourists could get a preview of the underground network before exploring the restored area, room by room.
"There's a lot of myth and fact," Leeds said. "Havre Beneath the Streets kind of blends the two together."
Leeds recalls the childlike enthusiasm DeRosa had. He said he sat with DeRosa 10 days ago to plan applying for some grants. "We were like two kids kicking our feet," he said. He and DeRosa sat for nearly an hour visiting and planning.
Museum board member Robert Floren said he was always impressed that DeRosa did not let his illness stand in his way. He had been battling cancer for several years.
"That didn't keep him down," he said. "He had an agenda ... He had a regular routine even though he was sick and traveling down for chemo back and forth to Great Falls."
Others remember the personal side of Frank, his generosity.
Eagles Club manager Tom Farnham said Havre would have been different without Frank. DeRosa was an officer at the Eagles Club for 20 years and encouraged younger members to become more involved.
"Frank DeRosa was like a mentor to me," Farnham said. "At about 1984 I was a member of the Eagles Club and he was looking for some new members to get the ball rolling for activities to the youth. ... At that time I was a very shy individual and he kind of turned me into a monster. I got so I could speak in front of people and get out and get involved and he was very persistent."
Farnham helped DeRosa organize the celebration of Montana's centennial in 1989, as well as Havre's centennial four years later.
If it hadn't been for DeRosa, Farnham said, he would be a regular guy, working an 8 to 5 job, and enjoying his fishing.
Now Farnham is a member of the Havre City Council and of many community committees and efforts.
"I am to the point where I have a hard time saying no to people just like he did," Farnham said.
Friends of DeRosa remember that he was generous with them too.
Jeanie Cole recalls that DeRosa would always come to the Eagles to visit and "spread joy to everyone."
Cole's daughter had worked at the club for several years. When she married, DeRosa volunteered to film the whole thing.
"That's how he was," she said.
DeRosa had a signature address, she said.
"Are you behaving yourself?" she said he'd ask. "If I told him 'Yes' he'd say, 'No, you're not.' If I said 'No,' he said, 'Then you're not having any fun."'