Dick Rawlings’ mission is to help people. He does that by keeping his little sliver of the world clean.
Rawlings, 84, patrols the roadways and byways around Presbyterian Homes’ Flagstone complex, pushing a walker and picking up trash. Every day.
It’s likely that hundreds, if not thousands, of Eden Prairie residents have seen Rawlings. He wears a yellow safety vest with gray stripes, matching work gloves, and an Air Force ball cap while slowly pushing his walker up Columbine Road just west of Flagstone, always carrying his trash picker and a bag.
He started his daily walks about five years ago when he moved into the former Castle Ridge Care Center. During COVID-19, Rawlings would make regular trips to monitor construction of his new home, Flagstone.
When Flagstone was done, he moved into his room and began decorating it with photos of his family and holiday decorations. Christmas is Rawlings’ favorite holiday – and it shows. It’s year-round Christmas for this son of a four-star U.S. Air Force general.
Rawlings’ brothers followed their father into the Air Force. So, not surprisingly, joining the Air Force was the young Rawlings’ goal growing up. “I wanted to make (the Air Force) my career,” he said.
After earning a two-year degree at the University of Minnesota’s General College, he thought the time was right.
He enlisted and traveled to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, for basic training.
Rawlings told his Air Force doctors that he had some eye problems but didn’t think it would be a problem. The doctors felt differently.
“After about 17 days, one of the doctors gave me the option to stay or take a medical discharge,” he said. “I decided to take the medical discharge. I probably had the shortest career in the Air Force,” he said with a chuckle.
After leaving San Antonio, Rawlings worked at an office equipment company selling copy machines. “The idea was to try to sell them to schools and businesses,” he said. “But I wasn’t a very good salesman.”
He worked briefly at the Radisson Hotel company, then for 14 years at Eden Prairie-based ADC Telecommunications, and finally for 18 years in the marketing department at General Mills in Golden Valley. Rawlings’ father had joined General Mills after he retired from the Air Force in 1959 and rose to become president and board chairman of the company.
Rawlings became part of the department involved in developing new products, as well as coupon and premium programs.
It was there that he met Barb, and they married in 1968. While the couple had no children, their six West Highland White Terriers kept them busy. “Boy, how they loved those pups!” said Kari Johnson, Flagstone’s events director.
After retiring from General Mills, he and Barb needed jobs to keep them busy, Rawlings said, so they both worked part-time at a Burger King. “She was very good at it. But she didn’t want to keep doing what they had her doing. They wanted her to be a manager and she had no interest in that.”
He recalled how Barb would take special care of bus drivers and other regulars. “They liked her and so they always knew which days she worked,” he said. “They’d come in and they had a particular place they’d go sit and she would take care of them.”
Rawlings cooked fries for a while. “I wasn’t fast enough, so I ended up washing dishes,” he said with a smile. “I’m serious. But I was good at it.”
Barb died in 2018 at the age of 71. She and Dick had been married for 49 years.
“When that happened there was absolutely no way I was going to live by myself,” Rawlings said. “I was pretty angry with God at that point.”
His new life began at Castle Ridge Care Center, which sat on the same ground as Flagstone does now.
That’s where he ran into Rita Bettin, a nursing assistant who has worked at Castle Ridge and Flagstone for 22 years. “She explained to me that I had a purpose that was different from Barb’s,” he said. “And my purpose was to help other people. And, so, what I’ve learned is that when I am out collecting trash or just walking, why, it seems like I’m helping others.”
It was at Castle Ridge that he began his daily rounds, at first with the assistance of a cane. One late winter morning, Rawlings was walking along Prairie Center Drive. “There was a teeny little patch of ice, and I slipped on it,” he recalled. “God was watching out for me because (the drivers of) two cars saw me fall. They came back to help me and one of them walked me back to Castle Ridge.”
Fortunately, his injuries weren’t serious, and after some therapy, his doctor turned Rawlings loose — this time with a walker.
“I still have the cane but I seldom use it,” he said. “I’m very much able to get around the apartment without the cane. Not real fast, but I can get around without falling on my butt.”
Rawlings admits he occasionally stretches the agreed-upon boundaries of his walks. “No, no, I do it, I’m not supposed to do it, but I do it anyway,” he said, laughing. “When I walk Columbine, I’d walk up to Michael’s and go across.” More recently, the city marked a closer crosswalk that has made crossing safer.
Once, when attempting to cross, he met up with Flagstone kitchen manager Nichole Gill, who walks to work along Rawlings’ route. “She just stepped right into the road and stopped traffic so I could cross,” Rawlings said. “And then we walked up Columbine together. I just kept picking up trash. And we got to know each other.”
Rawlings’ father, Gen. Edwin Rawlings, was born in 1904 in the tiny town of Milroy, Minnesota. He worked for the Dayton’s company before earning an economics degree at Hamline University and joining the Air Force in 1929.
Edwin was a combat pilot who earned the Distinguished Service Medal and Distinguished Flying Cross, which he received in 1930 for his part in the rescue of an aircrew downed in the Pacific Ocean. He also received the Soldier’s Medal in 1954 for rescuing his pilot who was trapped under a burning B-17 Flying Fortress after landing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
Edwin Rawlings’ formal Air Force portrait hangs on one wall of Rawlings’ room, as do framed watercolor paintings created by Rawlings’ mother, Muriel. Rawlings proudly shows a visitor his father’s hardcover autobiography. Bookmarks are placed where photos of his father’s life appear.
One photo shows Rawlings and his three brothers with his father while duck hunting. Another shows Gen. Rawlings sharing a laugh with President Ronald Reagan.
For a man who could have ended up living in the shadow of his father, the opposite is true for Dick Rawlings.
When asked who influenced him most in his life, he names two people: his brother, John, who died of cancer at the age of 71, and an Air Force sergeant everyone called Summers.
Rawlings calls Sgt. Luther Summers “my best friend in the whole wild world.”
Air Force senior officers are provided on-base housing and a staff. Sgt. Summers worked as an orderly for Rawlings’ father, when he was stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
“Everyone would always just call him Summers,” Rawlings said. “I never did, because I loved the guy so much. I just learned so much from Luther about giving and I could see that again and again.”
Summers would drive Rawlings’ mom into town to buy art materials for her watercolor paintings. Later, he would help her frame those very paintings, which now hang on the walls of Rawlings’ room.
“Luther’s actions spoke louder than his words,” Rawlings said. “He was just that kind of person.”
After his father retired from the Air Force, Rawlings learned that Luther had died of a heart attack at the age of 48. He and his father were both pallbearers at his funeral.
These days, when Rawlings makes the trip up Columbine to Prairie Center Drive, it seems to be a bit cleaner. “It appears as though maybe in some way, somehow, I’ve gotten the message out without even saying anything,” he said.
Rawlings said he plans to continue his rounds for as long as he can. He’s proud of what he has done so far and hopes the community will join him.
“My message to the community is you got to care about it,” he said. “You have to care about the environment. It really bothers me to see people throwing papers or cigarette butts or beer cans or beer bottles, or whatever it is. Because I’ve been doing this pretty much every day and I’ve gotten things pretty clean. So that’s basically it.”
Rawlings has never been bothered doing what some people consider dirty work.
“I never put anybody down who did things like that,” he said. “And I got to be good at it. And so that’s what I do now. I figure, well, I’m 84, I’ll head off to do (his walks) until the day I die, because I’m sure I’m gonna be right here at Flagstone and whenever God calls my name, it’s cool with me.”
We offer several ways for our readers to provide feedback. Your comments are welcome on our social media posts (Facebook, X, Instagram, Threads, and LinkedIn). We also encourage Letters to the Editor; submission guidelines can be found on our Contact Us page. If you believe this story has an error or you would like to get in touch with the author, please connect with us.