William Roozen, Skagit Valley leader

MOUNT VERNON — When German troops finally retreated from Holland after World War II, William "Bill" Roozen married his sweetheart, left his family's 200-year-old bulb business and founded a new dynasty in the Skagit Valley.

He arrived with his bride, a suitcase and a legendary work ethic that helped him build Washington Bulb into the nation's largest producer of tulips, daffodils and irises. Every spring, thousands of tourists admire his 2,000 acres of brilliant blooms, a mainstay of the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival.

"He had a gigantic influence on our community," said Don Wick, executive director of the Economic Development Association of Skagit County.

"What he built here is phenomenal. It's like the apple blossoms in Wenatchee — it identifies our community."

Mr. Roozen died Saturday (July 13) in Mount Vernon at age 81 after a long illness. But his business will live on in the hands of his five sons, who all followed him into the bulb business.

A self-made man, Mr. Roozen developed a reputation as a hard-working, fiercely competitive, straight-talking businessman who had the guts and courage to make his dreams a reality.

"He believed in trying to be the best at what you do," said Leo Roozen, the fourth of Mr. Roozen's 10 children and president of Washington Bulb.

When the Roozen children were growing up, he said, their father didn't push them to be star athletes or straight-A students. Instead he focused on their character: What did their teachers think of them? Did they shake hands? Look people in the eye when spoken to?

Mr. Roozen lived by common sayings he liked to repeat over and over, his son said. Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise. Every day you need to get up and work hard for your family and your business and your industry. In business, never spend more than you make.

"Bill was of the old school where you could close a deal with a handshake," said Mike Minor, who got to know Mr. Roozen during early-morning fishing trips when the pink salmon were running. "A man's word was one of the most important things. Bill was demanding — there was a right way, a wrong way, then there was Bill's way."

Mr. Roozen was born Oct. 20, 1920, in Heemstede, Holland, the eighth of 10 children. He met his wife, Helen Van Lent, at dancing lessons in 1941.

When the war ended, he visited the Skagit Valley on a business trip for his family's bulb operation, and he decided to move there. He married in 1947, and the couple immediately moved to Washington.

Mr. Roozen — which means "roses" in Dutch — at first worked for other farmers before setting up his own business in 1950 in the Mount Vernon area. Six years later, he purchased Washington Bulb from a pair of the region's earliest bulb farmers. Today the company owns 500 areas and leases another 1,500 acres from 50 different landowners. It's one of the county's largest employers.

In 1980, President Reagan appointed him to the board of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. President George H.W. Bush reappointed him, and named him board chairman. He also was a local diking district commissioner for 22 years and served many years on the Washington State Bulb Commission.

In 1985, Mr. Roozen passed his business to his five sons and Bernadette Roozen Miller, the only one of his five daughters who chose to follow in his footsteps.

Miller left a career in bank management to direct the family's 1987 development of Roozengaarde, a 3-acre show garden and Dutch windmill at the company's headquarters outside Mount Vernon. She died in 1996.

Mr. Roozen is survived by his wife, Helen; sons John, Leo, William Jr., Richard and Michael; daughters Lisette Mast, Madeleine Cook, Deborah Scott and Maria Roach; and 36 grandchildren. All but Roach, who lives in Pasco, remain in the Mount Vernon area.

A funeral Mass was to be held at 11 a.m. today at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Mount Vernon.

Memorial remembrances may be made to the St. Joseph Center, c/o Immaculate Conception School, 1321 E. Division St., Mount Vernon, WA 98273; The Bernadette Roozen Miller Memorial Foundation, 18245 Moores Garden Road, Mount Vernon, WA 98273; or Skagitarians to Preserve Farmland, P.O. Box 2405, Mount Vernon, WA 98273.

Diane Brooks can be reached at 206-464-2567 or dbrooks@seattletimes.com.