The Roper Family In Burley, Idaho—Valuing Business and Education

As Jim Roper has often implied, perhaps no town could have provided such fertile soil for a family to grow as Burley, Idaho. Since 1912, we Ropers have been tied to this town with bonds that sustain and give us a place to sink deep roots. In a modern world that constantly dislocates, Burley became a great place for the Roper family to stay put and grow and to learn how to contribute to two vital areas of any community’s life, business and education.

William Roper was born in 1883 near Springfield, Missouri, the oldest of six children, five of whom would eventually live in or near Burley. Will grew up on a small family farm; he later attended Springfield Normal School and became a teacher in a one room school house at the age of 20, but after two years he decided that he couldn’t raise a family on a meager teacher’s salary. He went to work at Schwab Brothers men’s clothing store in Springfield, and after seven years, he was making $12.50 a week and had managed to save $1000. He married Lea Brock, and after Will had heard about business opportunities in Idaho, the couple moved to Boise in 1911 where Will found a job at Alexander’s Men’s Store. One year later, Will heard of a store bankruptcy in Burley, and in 1912 along with a partner, he bought the bankrupt store and opened Roper & Masters Clothing Store. Masters died the next year, and in 1913, Will, along with new partner E.M. Tomlinson, built the building on Burley’s Main Street that today houses The Golden Goose and opened Roper & Tomlinson Department Store. Two years later Will bought Tomlinson out, and the store became Ropers, an anchor clothing retailer in downtown Burley and eventually in seven other Idaho and Utah communities until closing in 2000. Will’s wife Lea died in 1915—they had one child Maureen (later married Hank Grohosky) who lived in Burley all her life.

Tressa McGillin came to Burley in 1913 to accept a teaching position at the Miller School. She was born in 1890 in Stillwater, Minnesota, and attended St. Cloud Normal School, graduating with a teaching certificate at age 16. In Burley she became the principal of Miller School by age 25. She married Robert Watt in 1915, but he died in the flu epidemic of 1917. Tressa (Tess) and Will were married in 1918, and two sons followed–John (called Jack by many) was born in 1919 and Jim (James Henry) was born in 1923.

Will’s store flourished in the years prior to 1923—he later told his sons that he arrived in Burley in 1912 with $1000 and by 1923 his ownership of Ropers was worth $100,000. Opportunity and growth beckoned, and four of Will’s five younger siblings moved to Burley from Missouri. Jack Roper became Will’s store manager at the new Rupert store in 1914 (age 20) and worked for Ropers until his death in 1969. Visa Roper (later married Sam Gochnour) and Nora Roper (later married Carl Davis) both taught in several Burley schools. And Irl Roper, who had a BA degree from Drury University in Springfield, became the principal of Albion High School. Teaching and business became the way the Roper family sustained itself, and the value of education was always emphasized.

But the economic crash of 1923-25 hit the Burley area very hard. Six banks failed; most stores failed including Davis Mercantile, owned by the Davis family who would leave Burley to found the grocery store chain Winn-Dixie in Florida. J.E. Davis and A.D. Davis graduated from Burley High in 1924 and would always refer to Burley and Burley teachers Tess and Nora Roper as the inspiration for their later success. Will’s wealth disappeared, and he was faced with a decision to declare bankruptcy or work for years to regain his equity. He persuaded his creditors to give him a chance, and for over fifteen years he slowly paid back every debt. The 20s and the 30s were difficult for everyone in Burley—many did not have any cash, so Will sold men’s suits in trade for eggs or livestock and would spend some evenings trading eggs for things he and Tess could use. John and Jim grew up in an atmosphere of incredibly hard work, but also in an atmosphere of gratefulness for small blessings and a real respect for the value of education. Though Tess stopped teaching, her love of books and learning continued, and she served on the Burley Public Library board from 1942 to 1959.

The Roper Family

This picture, taken on Oct. 28, 1934, shows Will and Tess’s small family along with Irl’s and Visa’s families. Will’s parents William H. and Anna Roper had also moved to Burley, a testament to the way Burley attracted residents.

First Row: Joy Roper (Irl’s dauther-11), Doris Gochnour (Visa’s daughter—9), Margaret Barlow (next door neighbor)

Second Row: Will Roper, Visa Roper Gochnour, Anna Roper, William H. Roper, Georgia (Mrs. Irl) Roper, Irl Roper

Third Row: Keith Roper (Irl’s son—15), Dan Roper (Irl’s son—13), Billy Roper (Irl’s son—16), Tess Roper, John (Jack) Roper—15, Jim Roper—11, Maureen Roper Grohosky, Shirley Gochnour (Visa’s Daughter—11)

John graduated from Burley High in 1937, attended the University of Idaho and then Northwestern University in Chicago, graduating in 1941, and spent five years in the US Navy in the S. Pacific during WWII. Jim graduated from Burley High in 1941, attended the University of Idaho, and then, through the Navy’s V12 program, attended Idaho State University and Harvard University. After the war, Jim received a MBA degree from Stanford University. Both Jim and John eventually found themselves back in Southern Idaho working for the newly expanding Ropers stores, Jim working in Burley by 1947, and John working as the manager of the new Twin Falls store in 1950. John married Alice Gaskill of Burley in 1942, and they were married 46 years until Alice’s death in 1988. John died in 1995. Jim married Bette Isenberg of Rupert in 1946, and they were married 61 years until her death in 2007. Bette came from a teaching family too—her mother Irma Lee taught grade school for many years in Rupert and Blackfoot, and her aunt Hazel taught school and piano.

After WWII and continuing through the 1970s, Ropers expanded with new stores in Buhl, Jerome, Twin Falls, Boise, Idaho Falls, and Salt Lake City. Under Jim and John’s leadership, Ropers became an anchor retailer and a recognized name throughout Idaho and Utah. Jim and John both became very active in the Menswear Retailer’s Association, a national trade organization supporting independent clothing retailers, and Jim served as MRA’s president. Will passed away in 1971 and Tess passed in 1978—both were 88—but their commitment to business and education carried on.

In 1988, two events occurred that symbolize this commitment. In the spring of 1988, Jim Roper decided to organize a gathering of successful people who had come from or lived in Burley. He and others had always been struck by the number of very successful people who lived their formative years in this area. The “Snake River Symposium on Success” brought together an amazing group of former Burley residents, including Jack Simplot, J.E. Davis (WinnDixie), Charles Terhune (early Burley doctor), Kay McMurray (Director of the Mediation Service of the US), Herman King (Kings), and Amos Jordon (Rhodes Scholar, West Point Professor, and former Undersecretary of State for the US). During this symposium, the constant question was why so many successful people had come from this small town in this small state. Many continue to ask that question. And in late 1988, Jim developed and built the Capitol Terrace retail building in downtown Boise, the first new development in what has become a revitalized and vibrant downtown. Capitol Terrace, housing twenty-two retail stores and restaurants, continues to be owned by the Roper family, and even with the closing of the Ropers stores in 2000, the family commitment to business excellence has not stopped.

Nor has the Roper commitment to education stopped. John and Alice’s two children, John Jr. (b. 1944–d. 1996) and Victoria (b. 1949) both graduated from Harvard University—John Jr. became a Rhodes Scholar and studied at Oxford, England. Victoria has been a teacher all her life, teaching in Rupert, Burley, Declo, Wendell, The Idaho School for the Deaf and Blind in Gooding, and in Hailey. She was named Idaho’s “Teacher of the Year” in 1984. Jim and Bette’s two sons, Jeff (b. 1950) and David (b. 1952) both worked for Ropers for many years, but Jeff, putting to use his 1972 BA degree from Dartmouth College, began a third career teaching English at Declo High School in 2002, and Jeff’s oldest son Sam teaches English at Whatcom Community College in Bellingham, Washington, where Sam’s wife is also a teacher. Several of Jeff’s young grandchildren swear they will become teachers too.

Business, education, and Burley—for the Roper family, these ingredients seem to be in our blood and have been for a very long time.

©Jim and Jeff Roper
July 4, 2011