Nancy Cross closes chapter at Brainerd Community Action

Before Nancy Cross was orchestrating Brainerd's Fourth of July Celebration--which organizers call "Minnesota's Fourth of July Capital"--she was managing a wheelchair parade at a nursing home.

Steve Kohls/ Brainerd Dispatch
 Brainerd Community Action executive director Nancy Cross announced her retirement Thursday after 24 years of service.
Steve Kohls/ Brainerd Dispatch
 Brainerd Community Action executive director Nancy Cross announced her retirement Thursday after 24 years of service.

Before Nancy Cross was orchestrating Brainerd's Fourth of July Celebration-which organizers call "Minnesota's Fourth of July Capital"-she was managing a wheelchair parade at a nursing home.

After 24 years of service and dedication as the executive director of Brainerd Community Action, Cross Thursday announced her retirement. Her last day will be Jan. 4, 2017.

"It's so hard to believe," Cross said of how many years she has been at the nonprofit organization. "It has been an honor serving as the director of Brainerd Community Action and helping to strengthen the nonprofit community in the Brainerd lakes area."

Cross, 66, of Baxter said it was time to retire.

"It's really good to introduce new blood, new ideas," Cross said. "I love my job ... but you get to a point where you start another phase of your life. I am not quitting, I will probably work because that is who I am. I've been working since I was 14 and I just can't hang it up.


"Why now? I have a granddaughter coming and I have many other interests ... I don't want to say I'm tired, because I'm not. There is just a lot out there that I want to do. I plan to do things that interest me and I will still be involved in the community."

A few of her interests are gardening, canning and teaching. She teaches first aid to Ski Patrol students.

Rewind to more than a quarter of a century ago, Cross and her husband Mark, were living in Lincoln, Neb., with their three young children, their youngest just born. Cross was a real estate broker and her husband, an architect, and they were ready to move and they made the Brainerd lakes area their home.

"I stayed home with my kids (retiring from real estate) and we had so many tea parties and I talked to so many preschoolers," Cross said. "Then one day I had three tea parties, I picked Cheerios off the floor, I cleaned up water off the floor three times, and then I just sat on the floor and cried. My son Patrick, who was in third grade, gets off the school bus and sees me crying and tells me, 'Mom, why don't you get a job and get a life.'"

And that is what Cross did. The family saw an ad for community action and Cross applied.

"I had no clue what Brainerd Community Action was about or what it did," Cross said, who was interviewed by Marv Campbell, a board member. "Marv said he had 17 questions for me and I said I hope I have 17 answers for you. I have no idea how I did it."

When Campbell asked her if she ever organized a parade before, Cross said yes. There was no follow-up question, so Cross never told him that the only parade she organized was a wheelchair parade at a nursing home. Cross was hired-with a start date of Jan. 4, 1992-and she had six months to organize the Fourth of July, which then had a crowd of about 20,000.

"I remember that first year my nightmare was that no one would show up and I would be the only one on the football field," Cross said. "When I saw all the people there I literally started crying because I couldn't believe all these people showed up for this event."


Cross praises all the volunteers who have helped with the parade, which has grown from an estimated 20,000 to 100,000 people and the number of parade units doubled in the past two decades. Cross has a core group of 10 volunteers, which includes her children and husband, who have helped her for 20-24 years with the parade and all the events Community Action is involved with.

"(The parade) truly became a family affair," Cross said. "My family has not had a normal Fourth of July."

Cross said she feels blessed her family has been able to be a part of Community Action. She said all her children have helped/worked with her through the years on many events. She said it has helped her teach them many skills, including having a good work ethic, being a good problem solver and giving them the authority and responsibility of a project.

Cross said her greatest accomplishment at Community Action has been sponsoring and coordinating the Fourth of July Celebration for the past 24 years, with no accidents or major incidents.

"Marv told me a few days after I started that Community Action will only be as good as you are and I took that to heart," Cross said. "No is not part of my vocabulary. We'd rather have things happen than not, and even if things don't turn out right we learn something from the experience we had."

Cross said lakes area residents should feel fortunate as in 1976, George Bedard knew Brainerd would grow and would need an organization to help other nonprofits get started, one of Brainerd Community Action's most important roles. Cross said she has helped incorporate 92 nonprofits since she started with the organization 24 years ago.

"Nonprofits are the backbone of any community and they have to be strong in order for the community to be strong," Cross said. "Community Action gives these nonprofits a solid foundation for them to build upon."

Community Action also helps ad hoc groups with events, such as the homecoming and St. Patrick's Day parades, the Zombie Crawl and Mosquito Fest.


Off all the events, Brainerd Community Action is involved with, Cross said her favorite is the Citizen of the Year Award. Each year Cross gets to surprise a citizen, who has no clue they will be getting the award.

"All of the people who were named Citizen of the Year have deserved the honor and they are always so humble," Cross said. "All these people made their mark and without them stepping up to do (their mission/project) half of the things would have never gotten done."

Cross said what she will miss about her job-besides the people-is walking into the office every day and waiting for someone to call or stop in to share what project they want help with.

"It's the surprise element," Cross said.

Cross said when her family moved to Baxter she knew no one and now she can't count how many people have come in and out of her life over the years.

"People come into your life for a reason," Cross said. "People come into your life and stay a long time and some don't.

"One person who was very important to me was Dean Kuhn. He did our fireworks for 22 years and I relied on him and his expertise. He had a fun-loving heart and I sorely miss him. He passed away this past year."

Cross said the person who succeeds her as the executive director will need to have a passion for the community and be a problem solver.

Cross said when she started with Community Action she was on her own, but the organization had a foundation and she helped it grow. She said the next person will be given the foundation she helped build and they will have their chance to watch it grow.

"I really love my job and I love this community and I love to make things happen," Cross said. "I will do that even in retirement, but it sure is scary."

How to Apply

The Community Action Board of Directors began accepting resumes Thursday. Applications will close Sept. 30. Those interested may send their resume to Community Action, 213 S. Fifth St., Brainerd, MN 56401.

Related Topics: NONPROFITS
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