Harlowe’s passion to serve benefits countless rural Virginians

November-December 2018

2018 Electric Cooperative Leadership Award recipient Roberta Harlowe with her husband Bill (left) and Gary Wood, CEO of Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, following the July 23 award luncheon at which she received the award.

2018 Electric Cooperative Leadership Award recipient Roberta Harlowe with her husband Bill (left) and Gary Wood, CEO of Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, following the July 23 award luncheon at which she received the award.

Central Virginia Electric Cooperative (CVEC) President & CEO Gary Wood describes Roberta Harlowe, one of the co-op’s longest-serving board members, as having “a career of firsts.”

She may have been born during the dark days of World War II, but throughout her life, her unfailingly positive outlook and leadership abilities have shone as a beacon of goodwill to those around her.

Roberta was just 3 when her father returned home in 1945 from serving as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division on D-Day and taken prisoner of war. After graduating from high school, she began dating Bill Harlowe, whom she’d met in first grade. They were married in 1962, shortly after Roberta earned a two-year business degree from James Madison College, and settled on Bill’s family farm in Fluvanna County.

Roberta began working for the local office of Stromburg-Carlson, a Chicago manufacturer of telephones specifically designed for rural areas. “Because of their quality and reliability, our phones were known as ‘the farmer’s friend,’ ” she recalls.

Bill’s and Roberta’s tradition of community service started early. A yellowed newspaper clipping from 1964 shows the young couple accepting awards from the Virginia Association of Rescue Squads for earning first place in accident-free manned miles and a practice rescue mission.

Roberta then swapped her career for motherhood, as son Chuck joined the family in 1968 and daughter Christi in 1970. After Bill apprenticed with another auctioneer, the Harlowes launched Harlowe Auction, Ltd., in 1975, with Roberta’s business skills helping the family business become well-known across Central Virginia.

In 1983, at the urging of a close family friend, Roberta was persuaded to run for election to the CVEC board of directors. She became the first woman elected in the co-op’s history, and later the first woman to serve in board-leadership roles, including six terms as vice chair and two terms as board chair.

“Roberta has always found a way to lead, and loves helping others find ways to become leaders,” Wood adds.

Throughout her 35 years on the CVEC board, she helped with numerous community fundraisers, including one featuring comedian Red Skelton, and served Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Troy as choir director, finance and stewardship committee chair and regional representative for the Christian Woman’s Club.

“I really enjoyed planning a year-long celebration for our church’s 175th anniversary,” she says. Finding historical interpreters to represent the church’s founders as the congregation watched and learned, Roberta packed an extensive collection of photos and information into a commemorative book and time capsule.

Gov. Ralph Northam congratulates Roberta Harlowe during a May 22, 2018, dedication ceremony for her role in bringing 10 megawatts of solar energy, including the state’s largest community solar farm, to her native Fluvanna County.

Gov. Ralph Northam congratulates Roberta Harlowe during a May 22, 2018, dedication ceremony for her role in bringing 10 megawatts of solar energy, including the state’s largest community solar farm, to her native Fluvanna County.

But perhaps her most widespread legacy dates to 2005, when she took over as chair of the Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives’ (VMDAEC) Education Committee. Over the next 12 years, she worked tirelessly to grow VMDAEC’s education-scholarship program, developing policies to ensure fair and consistent handling of student applications.

“With steely determination and passion that included offering her family’s vacation home as a live auction item, Roberta led rapid expansion of our program so that we were able to provide multiple scholarships to each of our 15 member cooperatives,” recalls Debra Swiderski, VMDAEC’s vice president of educational services during that time.

“Roberta not only has a vision, she also makes it happen,” adds VMDAEC President & CEO Richard Johnstone. “Under her leadership, our Education Scholarship Foundation awarded a total $526,500 to 627 deserving high school seniors. She stepped down as chairman last year, but only after carefully helping us prepare for the next chapter.”

A leading voice on the CVEC board in adding renewable energy to the co-op’s power-supply resources, she championed the construction of two five-megawatt solar farms in Fluvanna County over the past year. In May, Gov. Ralph Northam commissioned the Palmer and Martin solar centers and the launch of CVEC’s “Solar Share,” one of three electric-cooperative community solar programs in the nation making four or more megawatts of solar power available to members.

Roberta’s many achievements were recognized July 23 at the VMDAEC annual meeting, where she was presented with the 2018 Electric Cooperative Leadership Award in recognition of her decades of service to co-op members. Association staff worked behind-the-scenes with her husband and daughter Christi Garrett to keep the award a surprise.

“I was completely blown away,” Roberta exclaims. The lunchtime ceremony, attended by family and dozens of co-op friends, was captured in a video tribute posted on CVEC’s Facebook page.

“My mom has been a quiet pioneer for more than 50 years,” says Christi. “She has been and still is a caregiver, butt kicker, cheerleader, role model and entire support system all wrapped into one, as well as a female role model for so many, serving with grace and dignity. I can’t begin to imagine all the lives she has influenced, just by being who she is!” 