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Everything’s coming up Rosas
The last time John Rosa lived in Charleston, he was a cadet living in Murray Barracks. Now after 32 years and 24 moves, he and his wife have returned—this time to Quarters One.
Republished from the Winter 2006 issue of Alumni News
Monday, January 30, 2006 | In 1969 roundtrip airfare from Jacksonville, Fla., to Charleston, S.C., was $30. Jacksonville was where John W. Rosa lived with his parents and three sisters. Charleston was home to The Citadel, a military college that Rosa knew little about. He had been recruited to play football and his decision to attend the college would affect the entire course of his life and would define the person he would become.
He came from a middle-class family. His father served in the Navy for 30 years and his mother was a stay-at-home mom. They instilled in him solid values and an unswerving dedication to doing things the right way.
“My dad was a Navy master chief,” said Rosa. “And changing the oil at our house was a four-and-a-half hour job. You could go to Jiffy Lube or some place and get it done in 10 minutes. Not with my dad. You had to go through all the checklists. Everything had to be done right. You had to start over if you didn’t do it right.”
At The Citadel Rosa lived with Paul Plunkett, a catcher on the baseball team from Georgetown. The two became good friends and helped each other through the rigorous life at the military college. Coming in from football practice, Rosa remembers questioning why they were at The Citadel. They decided to quit… after Parents’ Weekend. After all, they had made it through Hell Week and the first of the year.
“Our parents came. They left. Then we said, ‘OK, we can make it until Thanksgiving.’ And I can still remember that day. Thanksgiving we packed up all the little bit they let you bring, and he and I shook hands and he said, ‘See you later, man. It was good knowing you. Good luck to you in your career.’”
Yet they both returned to finish out the semester so that they could transfer their credits to another college. Before Christmas furlough they packed up again like they weren’t coming back, but again, they returned. From then on, they lived semester to semester, helping one another out until graduation.
In his first official address to cadets as president, Rosa said, "There are a lot of good things going on here, but every organization that rests on his laurels soon finds that others pass it by. We need to think about The Citadel of the future and how we stay relevant in the 21st century."
Sophomore year was a pivotal one in Rosa’s life. He began dating Donna Kangeter, a Charleston native. He also started in his first football game.
Charlie Baker, ’71, remembers the opening game of the 1970 season.
“In my senior year, we opened the season with Clemson in Death Valley,” said Baker. “Our starting quarterback had become ill, and John took over. He was a sophomore. Anyone else would have been intimidated, but he did an outstanding job for his first game. And I could tell by the way he handled himself under pressure that he was a natural leader.”
Coming off the football field one day in his junior year, Rosa began talking to one of his Air Force ROTC instructors who encouraged him to pursue a career as an Air Force pilot.
“The amazing thing—he probably doesn’t realize it—is how this major made a difference. It was just a happening, and it really set the path of my life,” said Rosa.
Taking the major’s advice, Rosa accepted an Air Force commission in May 1973 after graduating with a degree is business administration. On July 14 of that same year, he and Donna were married in Summerall Chapel and began a life together that has included 24 moves throughout their 32-year marriage. A life that included an illustrious career as a fighter pilot with more than 3,600 hours of flying time and moves to Alabama, New Mexico, Scotland, Florida, Kansas, Washington D.C., South Korea, Idaho, Hawaii, and Georgia. A life that included two sons, Jonathan and Brad (’03), Jonathan’s wife, Elisha, and their 13-month-old son, Michael Bradley.
In July 2003, Rosa made a foray into higher education when he became superintendent of the U.S. Air Force Academy.
“The Citadel’s academic reputation speaks for itself, and the excellent education I received helped prepare me for life’s toughest challenges,” said Rosa. “Working with young people in an academic setting gave me a wonderful opportunity to share what I learned at The Citadel.”
At the Air Force Academy, Rosa inherited sexual assault and religious respect problems. Yet despite the difficulties, Rosa rose to the challenge with aplomb.
An editorial in The Denver Post read, “Rosa’s buck-stops-here attitude has been refreshing through the unexpected turmoil over religious intolerance, especially given society’s current climate for scapegoating. If the culture at the academy is going to change, it must start at the top.”
Rosa credits The Citadel influence for making him a leader.
“I’ve met a lot of Citadel people throughout my career and they all do different jobs, but the one thing I think is a constant: The Citadel breeds integrity and character. And I think that we brought that throughout our career—telling it like it is, not taking the easy way out, doing what’s right. And when we were at the Air Force Academy, we had to make some very tough calls, some very tough decisions,” he said.
When he talks about his life and his work, Rosa uses the plural—“our career,” meaning his and Donna’s career. Together the two are very much a team, and she has been a mainstay in his tenure at the Air Force Academy.
“I don’t think there’s a cadet out there out of the 4,000 who didn’t know Donna,” said Rosa. “She’s a Southern lady, and there’s something about that Southern charm that makes these kids feel comfortable coming to her and talking to her. And I don’t think we could have ever had any of the successes that we have had as a team because you can’t work by yourself. It’s just like going through The Citadel, and after being together 35 years, we think so much alike that it’s kind of frightening.”
When she describes her husband, Donna gives him a ringing endorsement, and it’s obvious that they are a couple committed to one another and their work with young people.
“He’s cute. He’s very funny. Very funny. He’s very honest and he’s got the highest integrity,” she said. “But I think the thing about John that’s so wonderful is that he’s very honest with you, and through the years things may go wrong at work, and he’ll have a meeting with whomever but we’ll have something at our house that night, and it’s gone. He tells you how he feels and then you’re his best friend right after that. Work is work and play is play.”
On Jan. 3, Rosa took the helm at The Citadel as 19th president, bringing to the table his military expertise and his proven leadership ability in military service and in education.
“With his first-hand knowledge of the college and his vast leadership experience, John Rosa is the ideal person to be our next president,” said Billy Jenkinson, ’68, chairman of the Board of Visitors.
The job is ideal too for the Rosas, who are delighted to be home, and whose move will bring them much closer to family. As president, Rosa wants to build on the college’s reputation for creating principled leaders.
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“As we look ahead in the 21st century, I want people to think of The Citadel as the premier institution for developing principled leaders in this country,” he said. “If you want to learn about ethics, leadership and character, you need to come to The Citadel. Over time, we hope to develop a program that builds on what we have today, so that each young person who comes here will have an opportunity to grow in every facet of life. We do a good job now. We just want to build on that.”
If any graduate is qualified to build on the college’s reputation, it is certainly Rosa, who is a shining example of success, and whose return brings full circle a cycle of learning, teaching and leading by example.