Lolly Ratajczak’s love affair with Door County began like those of many others — with camping trips to Peninsula and Potawatomi State Parks in the 1950s. It was a modest start to a connection that would create tremendous impact for the community several decades later.
In the 1980s, Lolly and her husband, Dave, bought property in Jacksonport. When it came time for retirement, they tried living in Florida but found they couldn’t live without Door County.
“We love it for the nature, the beauty and all the culture and opportunities that are endless,” she said. “It stole our hearts and spirits.”
Stole might not be accurate, for the Ratajczaks have been giving their hearts to the people and causes of Door County ever since. In 2018 their commitment was honored when Lolly was named the Philanthropist of the Year by the Door County Community Foundation.
A music teacher, Ratajczak was drawn to Birch Creek Music Performance Center almost from the moment it opened. She started by volunteering at the center.
“These are people who would paint the bedrooms in the dorms, sell popcorn, bake cookies and meals,” said Mona Christensen, Birch Creek executive director. “They went way above and beyond to make the experience here the best that it could be.”
It didn’t take long for Ratajczak to take a seat on the board, then move into the president’s chair.
“Her passion for education and youth is so deep for her,” Christensen said. “Birch Creek was just a perfect fit.”
Fellow board member Cynthia Stiehl said Ratajczak’s dedication was evident right away.
“She was so determined to have Birch Creek be the best possible experience for the students,” Stiehl said. “That impressed me.”
Stiehl said Ratajczak has an inclusive way of thinking that trickles down throughout an organization.
“She could see how one aspect of an organization can affect another aspect of an organization and articulate that in such an intelligent and understandable way,” Stiehl said. “She was one of the best chairs of any board I’ve worked under.”
Ratajczak’s involvement with Birch Creek was tied directly to her own love of music and youth education, but the idea for the Women’s Fund of Door County lit a fire in her later in life.
“I get excited a lot about good ideas and people,” she said. “One of the things that drew me to the Women’s Fund was the fact that it would be a research-based organization. Women and girls need equal opportunities to grow and become. When women grow, everybody grows.”
The fund has raised thousands of dollars for nonprofits that have creative and innovative ideas for serving women and girls in Door County.
Ratajczak’s commitment to giving was implanted in her at a young age.
“I was raised in a very service-oriented family,” she said. “My dad said to me at an early age, ‘We’re here to serve.’ My parents were interested in community-action kinds of things.”
That impression led to a life of working with children and families individually and through nonprofits such as the YMCA, Scandia Village, the Door County Medical Center Auxiliary, Feed My People and the Circle Singers, a group of women who sing songs of love, hope and support for people who are grieving, hurting or dying.
“Their missions are really mine in a way in terms of serving others and providing opportunities for people who can’t on their own,” Ratajczak said. “It’s much easier to give than to receive.”
Her outlook is framed by more than altruism. She survived a battle with breast cancer eight years ago, and Dave is grappling with serious ailments of his own. She feels fortunate to have had the services and support that Door County offers and aimed to do her part to provide that for others.
In 2018 they made the difficult decision to continue their love affair with Door County from afar, moving to Apple Valley, Minnesota, to be closer to family. Ratajczak loves being close to her children and grandchildren, but she remains wistful for Door County.
“It was extraordinarily difficult to move,” she said. “We thought about it a long time. We miss the nature; we miss our birds; oh my gosh, we even miss the squirrels. We miss the woods; we miss the people, the people, the people. I miss a lot of the great friendships I made there.”
They miss her, too, but treasure the impact they see all around the peninsula.
“She’s one of a kind, a Renaissance woman who can do so much, so well,” Stiehl said.
At 83, Ratajczak struggles with lung and muscle disease. It has restricted her activities, but not her determination.
“In a little bit of a way, I’m still growing.”