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Tribune chooses Citizen of the Year

Ironton newcomer Rick Jansen does not like to talk about himself much but anyone that knows the city's new "friend" just can't say enough.

A Wisconsin native, the 42-year-old Jansen has called Ironton home for barely more than a year, but he and the volunteer civic group he created, the Friends of Ironton, have been able to effect change with a positive attitude, a little hard work and lots of love for his adopted hometown.

"He has become one of Ironton's greatest assets and we are very fortunate to have him in our community," said new Friends volunteer Dianne Clement. Sometimes it takes someone coming in from another area to make you realize how fortunate you are. It brings a new attitude and enthusiasm that may have been missing."

You've got a friend

With that attitude and enthusiasm, Jansen and the Friends have accomplished a plethora of goodness for Ironton and surrounding communities.

From providing the Ironton Police Department with new bullet-resistant vests to erecting new traffic signs in the community or even providing the legal fees to help the city's economic development entity, the port authority, get off its feet, the group has worked to make a difference. That is not to mention organizing last fall's Rally on the River event that brought thousands of people, and their pocketbooks, into town.

But if you do get him talking about himself, Jansen is quick to point out that it is not about him; everything they do is about Ironton.

"I have always been really involved in community activities no matter where I have lived. It is something I think is very important to improve the environment everyone lives in without assuming the government will do everything," Jansen said. "People are going to make the difference. It is the people that are going to decide what kind of town they are going to live in and what that town is going to be."

Some would say Jansen has a unique vision, a vision that allowed him to see Ironton more for what it could be than what it was.

Finding a home

Ironton residents have motorcycles to thank for Jansen's arrival. Jansen moved to the Tri-State a couple of years ago from his home in Wausau, Wis., to work as general manager of Benjy's Harley-Davidson in Huntington, W.Va.

Living in Barboursville, W.Va., Jansen began looking for a real home, not just a house. Perusing hundreds of houses, Jansen was drawn to Ironton by the architecture and geography. Suffice to say, it was not necessarily love at first sight.

"At first I though Ironton was just another river town that was down on its luck and had probably seen better days," he said. "Nothing against the people, but it seemed like a lot of the steam was out of the town."

But after a few visits, Jansen knew that he had found a community to call home. He found the house he had been looking for on McPherson Street and the rest is history.

"I just think there is a lot of potential here," he said. "The natural environment, the river, the hills, the ability to be in the country in 15 minutes is really a unique feature this area has."

It didn't take long before Jansen decided that it was time to make his new home a better place to live.

Just a spark

As a newcomer, navigating through town was not always easy, made more confusing by lack of street and stops signs. A seed began to grow in Jansen's mind.

Seeing the condition of the Ironton Police's bulletproof vests was a harsh wake-up call. That seed had become a sapling. After talking with a group of citizens he had become friends with including Rick McKnight, the Bartrams and others, they formed a common bond - the desire to move the city forward. Thus the Friends of Ironton was born.

It didn't take long before the name started popping up all over the place. Street signs went up, bulletproof vests were purchased, improvements were made at Lake Vesuvius; the Friends were off and roaring.

And roar they did when more than 4,000 people visited Ironton for the Rally on the River motorcycle and car event. Businesses boomed and people returned to Ironton or visited for the first time.

"You could say he put Ironton back on the map again," said resident and Ironton Volunteer Day organizer Randy Lilly who knows a thing or two about volunteering. "The Friends are trying to have things for people to do and get people to take pride in those activities."

Most agreed that it was mission accomplished.

Words of praise

Mayor John Elam had heard about Jansen but had no idea what his intentions were. It didn't take long before Elam was convinced that Jansen was the real deal - a good Samaritan.

"You can just look around and easily see the accomplishments Rick Jansen and the Friends of Ironton have been able to do for the city," Elam said. "Rick and his group of volunteers have been a blessing for Ironton and now other volunteer groups are starting to step up to the forefront. Through all their dedication to the city, we are pointed in the right direction."

Jodi Rowe-Collins, who serves as treasurer for the Friends group, said she walks away impressed every time she works with Jansen.

"He is someone who really makes personal sacrifice to make things happen. He had the foresight to realize that Ironton is a good place to live, work and raise your kids," Collins said. "… He definitely showed he has a lot of faith in the community and that better days are ahead. He has helped take a step forward to make that happen a little sooner."

Clement agreed that Jansen's influence has been a tremendous benefit. When she heard about the group she was not entirely convinced it was something she was interested in. After meeting Jansen, she was amped.

"I was tired before that meeting but I left energized," she said. "His can-do attitude is infectious. He is always thinking, 'What can we do to make Ironton better for the people who live here and make people who don't live her want to come here.'"

Not content with the successes of 2004, Jansen and the Friends have several plans in the works that will help make people want to come to town this year.

On the horizon

Already hard at work, the group plans for another Rally on the River on August 18 through 21 and the first Gus Macker 3-on-3 basketball tournament on May 21 and 22.

Gus Macker tournaments have been around for approximately 30 years. A Michigan man who played the tournament on his parents' driveway started the tradition in 1974. Today, the tournaments are played in dozens of cities all over the country with more than 200,000 players each year.

But Jansen and the group cannot do it alone. Volunteers can call Jodi Rowe-Collins at 534-1152 or Rick McKnight at 533-2631.

"I can't think of anything more important than people getting involved," Jansen said. "The core of us are starting to get exhausted. We need more members because we are trying to do more and more."

And all of Ironton should be thankful for that.