Rochelle Johnson grew up in Faywood, New Mexico before coming to Abilene to attend McMurry College in 1982. Her childhood was spent on an apple orchard with over 1,000 trees and she was raised on agriculture – showing hogs and sheep and helping raise a small herd of cattle. While studying for a degree in social work, she worked part-time at the Taylor County Expo Center in the livestock areas.
After she graduated, she took a job working at Big Brothers Big Sisters for a few years, but her true calling was to continue agriculture work at the Expo Center. She took a position at the Expo Center as the receptionist and secretary. Eventually she moved into an accounting role which she served in for 20 years. In 2009, the previous general manager of the Expo Center became ill, so Rochelle moved to interim manager and then was hired full time. Today she serves as the executive vice president and general manager.
When she’s not working or when her adult sons are not in town, she participates in many volunteer activities. She is the treasurer for the St. Vincent DePaul Society, a volunteer at Holy Family Catholic Church, a board member for the Taylor Count EMS, and secretary/treasurer for the Texas Association of Fairs and Events. She also enjoys reading, scrapbooking, and gardening.
WHAT KEEPS YOU IN ABILENE?
I always thought I would move to one of the big cities in Texas. Abilene has a larger population than the community I came from. Faywood had a total of 35 people. Abilene still had a small town feel to it. Very friendly people, very helpful people. So I got married, had kids, and enjoyed working at the Expo Center. I had made a lot of friends and just enjoyed being here. I’m happy.
WHAT ARE YOU PASSIONATE ABOUT?
I had gone through a cursillo (a Catholic spiritual retreat) and during that I felt a desire to help the needy. A lady at our church said she was on the board of St. Vincent DePaul and they needed a treasurer. I thought, I’ve been praying about helping the poor so this was the perfect opportunity. St. Vincent DePaul is an organization you don’t often hear about. We raise our money through the thrift store. We help people with rent, utilities, prescriptions, furniture after a fire, clothing after getting out of prison. It’s a good way to help a lot of the underserved in Abilene. It’s a quiet way of helping people.
WHAT IS A CHALLENGE ABILENE IS FACING?
Growth is happening and that can be challenging but it’s a positive thing. The Expo Center has gone through changes with the facilities. Having the good infrastructure in our community and outlying areas is critical. For the Taylor County EMS, that’s very critical to have ambulance services outside the city limits. Infrastructure and making sure we’re able to keep up with new companies and the people that will bring is a challenge for all of us. We have to have entertainment and things for people to do.
WHAT OTHER EVENTS HAPPEN AT THE EXPO CENTER BESIDES THE FAIR AND RODEOS?
Between the Christmas break and New Years, a lot of people come out to the free cutting horse show. One of my challenges is getting acts and entertainment in the new coliseum. I’m looking forward to bringing new types of concerts and other entertainment. People in Abilene often wait until the last minute to buy tickets and that can cause vendors to get wary.
WHAT GOT YOU INVOLVED IN THE TAYLOR COUNTY EMS? WHAT DOES SUCCESS LOOK LIKE?
They provided emergency services to the fair. So I joined the board of directors for that and watching how the number of calls for outside the city limits of Abilene has increased. As the community expands, we have to continue to expand that service. When you think about a response time to Ovalo or Tuscola, it means we have to increase ambulances.
WHAT DOES YOUR DAY LOOK LIKE?
I get up at 4 or 5 in the morning. Somedays I go to the Adoration Chapel at Sacred Heart Church from 6-7 for quiet time. I come into work at 7:30. My day varies depending on what event we have going on. I have a staff of 5 office people and then the maintenance/outdoor people. I’m often walking the facility, seeing what needs to be done. We also have buildings we rent for events and weddings. I spend quite a bit of time working with staff. I do a lot of contract work with the Abilene Convention and Visitors Bureau on soliciting events and business. Once I finish up at work, several days a week I go to Hotworx. It’s a quick sauna exercise that’s just 30 minutes. In the winter time I hibernate but in the spring I’m in my yard, planting flowers, moving rocks, constantly doing stuff in my yard. My front yard is completely zero-scaped with cactus and rocks.
HOW DOES YOUR PERSONALITY FIT GOING FROM SOCIAL WORK TO NOW MANAGING AN EVENTS CENTER?
Social work is a lot of helping and working with people. But my background in agriculture and a farm family really attracted me to the Expo Center. Without agriculture, we would not survive. The promotion of agriculture is very important to me. The lifestyle is very important. I’m more of a back-room type of person. I enjoyed being the accountant because I got to be by myself in an office. But I also had the opportunity to be out doing a lot of things so I grew into a management role.
WHAT DOES THE EXPO CENTER DO FOR ABILENE?
The Expo Center’s main mission is the promotion of agriculture. It’s a huge economic impact for Abilene. People stay at hotels, they go to restaurants, they go to grocery stores. We found the Expo Center drove $20 million to Abilene 10 years ago. I couldn’t give you a certified number now but it’s certainly increased. That benefits everyone in Abilene through sales tax and keeping hotels and businesses open.
WHAT MAKES ABILENE UNIQUE?
We do have the western lifestyle – but we also have great entertainment and opportunity downtown. So for young people, the increase in the things going on in other parts of the community are very important. It’s keeping young people attracted and coming back to our community. My own children have said that to me. We all have to work together and it takes all of us to make the community vibrant.
BOOKS: The Bible & “The Last Juror” by John Grisham
PODCAST: The Dan Bongino Show
By Haley Laurence