More than Just Rewards
Roma Bergstrom’s single motherhood journey sets foundation for helping others
by Rhonda Morin
Her day started at 6:30 a.m.; waking her four children, ages 12, 9, 7 and 6, to prepare them for school. With four hours of sleep, having closed the Marion and Pom’s Pub for the second time this week, Roma Bergstrom dragged her tired body out of bed to start another day. She would pack lunches, work her day job at the local paper mill, Crown Zellerbach Corp., race to a kid’s baseball game and throw together a meal for a family dinner before heading out to sling drinks for the locals at one of her two weekly waitressing jobs.
“I would tell my kids I could come to their game—but only for two hours—because I had to get back to work,” Bergstrom said, adding “See those special baseball shoes you’re wearing? Those are because of my tips.”
Bergstrom was continuously reminded of the demeaning nature of the cocktail waitress job when customers shouted, “Hey toots, how about a drink here?” She didn’t like it, and the behavior made her even more aware of other women around her who had less than she did, such as no high school diploma and fewer prospects.
“Those jobs taught me a lot. But more than anything, they humbled me,” she said. “And raising four kids by yourself knocks a whole lot out of you.”
Bergstrom was raised in the railroad town of Ellinwood, Kansas. One mile by one mile, if you drive too fast down the highway that splits the town in half, you would likely miss catching a glimpse of any of its 2,100 residents.
The family moved to Ellinwood when little Roma, the youngest of three sisters, was two. Her father took a truck-driving job, which enabled the blue-collar family to live in a comfortable home at the edge of town. Her dad would eventually learn welding and open a small business to support his family.
A self-described feisty girl, Bergstrom was not in the habit of doing what she was told to do, and her trickster spirit, sometimes led to trouble. Like the time she and her friends lit a pile of manure on fire on a neighbor’s porch.
It was not a complete surprise to her parents when, at the age of 18 and with her high school diploma in hand, Bergstrom defiantly said she was marrying Arnie Link, her high school sweetheart.
Baseball, kids and ironing
Life was fast and exciting for a while for the Links. Arnie joined the Kansas City Athletics, a minor baseball league before it was sold and became the Kansas City Royals. After two years of playing ball, he took a job as a laborer in the local oil fields.
Four children came within six years while the couple lived in Kansas. To make ends meet, Bergstrom took in washing and ironing. Each week, she would cook the starch and wind the clothing through the ringers of her trusty Maytag. At the time, Bergstrom also managed a housing complex where single men lived and gladly paid to have their washing done.
Link’s work in a pump shop did not bring in enough to support the family, so Bergstrom also sold woolen clothing door-to-door and ran a daycare.
Following a few job transfers, the family settled in Vancouver, Wash., in 1971. A year later, Bergstrom divorced Link, securing her role as head of the household and main breadwinner.
She taught her children about the rewards of hard work by demonstrating it every day. She purposely introduced her children to all her bosses, particularly for the moonlighting jobs, so that the children were aware of Bergstrom’s responsibilities. She said these introductions made a difference; the employers always treated her fairly and permitted a flexible schedule. This proved to her that one needs to earn an employer’s respect.
“My kids were raised with nothing. But it made them work harder,” said Bergstrom. “That’s how you get respect—you work hard and you respect yourself. You’ll know when you’re doing a good job, but the true reward comes when someone else recognizes it.”
She worked in customer service within the chemical products division at Crown Zellerbach. It was during this period of her life that she was introduced to Clark College. In the early 1980s, the company paid for a portion of the tuition for courses in computers and software programming.
Bergstrom jumped at the chance to take classes and even added a bit of fun; she enrolled in a belly dancing class. “My girlfriend and I were on campus one day and saw these people having the best time dancing. We thought it looked so fun,” she said.
While working at Crown Zellerbach, Roma began dating George Bergstrom. He had two adolescent boys and when they married, she again took on the role of juggling parenting and her career.
There were changes in the regional paper mill business in the 1980s, and seeing an opportunity, George, a chemical engineer, and Roma decided to branch out on their own. They purchased a sulfur compound called methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), formed a co-partnership with another couple and opened a small business in 1988 selling the chemical to the equine industry. Bergstrom Nutrition turned a profit within two years.
As the business grew, a production plant was built on West 8th Street in Vancouver, where the first ultra-pure form of MSM was created. Bergstrom Nutrition invested in safety and efficacy research and with the passage of dietary supplement legislation in 1994— the Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act—was well-positioned to introduce the ingredient to consumers beyond the barn. Twenty-five years later, its trademarked ingredient, OptiMSM, is sold throughout the world and most often found in joint health supplements.
“George was a brilliant and funny man,” said Bergstrom. “Oh, how he could make me laugh. Together we established certain values for our business and family. One of those values is to ensure our grandchildren and employees would have access to a higher education or the opportunity to improve their skills.”
George died in 2003 leaving Roma as CEO to continue their vision. The company offers employees tuition reimbursement for classes that advance their knowledge and skills; many have taken courses at Clark College.
“I retired last year as CEO, placing my children on the board with the charge to create a legacy business continuing the elements that make us a good place to work,” said Bergstrom.
Her priority to financially support her grandchildren in their higher education pursuits has ground rules. “If they get in trouble, whether it is alcohol or drugs, I’m done. They also have to maintain their grades. I don’t mean barely passing; they have to maintain good grades.”
Bergstrom acknowledges that mistakes will happen and she often practices reconciliation. “Life is not fair and don’t expect it to be. Just work your way through it,” she said.
Helping other people work through tough times in their lives has become the hallmark of her life. She and her current husband, Richard Paz, offer scholarships through Clark College Foundation, because they believe education is the antidote to poverty and despair.
Through their generosity, there will be fewer single moms in Southwest Washington who have to work three jobs to provide for their families. And that is more than OK for Bergstrom.