Thorson learned lessons as coach’s daughter
At Friendship Haven, Julie Thorson puts those lessons to work
A coach’s daughter, Julie Thorson has applied lessons learned from her father and from her family’s lifelong love of athletics to lead Friendship Haven, a retirement community in its 70th year of service to residents of the Fort Dodge area.
Thorson enters her sixth year as president and chief executive officer in January. She ascended through the ranks to the top position after starting out as a part-time social worker when she found that her first career — as a television journalist — was not for her. She set a goal to become president before she was 40. And it happened.
She was 38 when she was appointed in 2012 by Friendship Haven’s board of directors as president, the first woman in that role.
“I had two challenges at the start — my youth at the time and being female,” she said. “For the residents, I had to prove myself. They were used to older males in the role. I hope after five years that I have done that.”
Thorson leads a staff of 311 who work for the continuing care, not-for-profit retirement community that describes itself as faith-based with a founding history with the United Methodist Church. It was founded in 1946 and the Rev. Dr. Clarence Wesley Tompkins served as its first executive director for 25 years. It occupies 60 acres west of downtown Fort Dodge, next door to Iowa Central Community College, and is home to 315 residents in independent living, assisted living and skilled care residences.
“I am leading an organization that is taking care of people I grew up with — my teachers, my parents’ friends, people I’ve known all my life growing up in Fort Dodge,” she said. “For residents, it is the most intimate time of their lives and it is my responsibility, a personal one, that their time here is well spent.”
Thorson, 43, is the daughter of Sam and Sharon Moser. Her father was head football coach at Fort Dodge Senior High for 15 years and in 2013 was inducted into the Iowa High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame. He retired in 2004 as the Dodgers’ second-winningest coach. She was born in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and lived in Aurelia and Clarion, where her dad coached, before the family moved to Fort Dodge in 1979. Athletic Director Vernon “Dutch” Huseman hired him as assistant football coach under Doug Black, and Moser became head coach in 1990.
“I love working with people and I am also a student of leadership,” Thorson said. “I think that goes back to being a daughter of a coach. I look at things not as a CEO but as a head coach. I think that’s how they see me leading. It is coaching. If you’re the head coach, you better know what the team — our residents and our staff — is doing.”
Thorson meets regularly with her staff and tries to introduce herself and get to know every resident.
“I think in my role it’s important for me to know who we are serving,” she said. “I like to dine with residents, attend parties when I’m able and pop in to visit with them as often as possible.”
The Mosers are a sports family through and through. Her mother, who is in her final year as library associate at Feelhaver Elementary School, competed in track, softball and cheerleading in high school. Julie, the oldest of three children, was a senior on the Dodger swim team at the same time as her sister, Jill, then a freshman. The youngest Moser, Nik, was an all-state football player and played at Iowa State. But there’s more.
Julie married Tjeran Thorson, a Dodger all-state football player and son of the late Sherwyn Thorson, a University of Iowa football star and NCAA wrestling champion who played football professionally in Canada. Her sister Jill’s husband is head wrestling coach at Fort Madison High School. Julie and Tjeran’s daughter Lehr was a swimming star at FDSH. This past season, Lehr’s medley relay team broke the school record set in 1990 by a team that included her mother.
“I don’t think very many mothers get to see their daughters break their records,” Thorson said.
Lehr, 18, is heading to college next fall and plans to compete in swimming wherever she goes. Their son Asle, 15, is a freshman at FDSH and competes in football, basketball and track.
“We are a competitive family, that’s an understatement,” she said. “Sports for me as it relates to my career taught me not apologize for being competitive. I think it is something instilled from early on, striving to be better. When we were younger, we strove to be better athletically. But I think for all three of us, we carry this out professionally as well. It kind of makes it part of your DNA. And it’s fun to see it with our kids.”
Journalism was Thorson’s career choice after graduating from FDSH where she worked on the Little Dodger student newspaper. While in high school, she was hired by Messenger sports editor Bob Brown to work two nights a week taking prep scores and writing stories. But she was determined too young to work after midnight and was let go.
“Bob always told me, ‘I was the first person to hire you and the first person to fire you’,” she said with a laugh.
After two years at Iowa Central, she chose to study to become a broadcast journalist at the University of Kansas. Her first job after graduation was as a reporter at KIMT-TV, a CBS affiliate in Mason City.
“I really liked the on-air experience,” she said. “But I completely changed my mind while in Mason City. I felt like I was working at people, not with people. Something was missing. I wasn’t making a difference at all. I was just reporting what I saw. It is a worthwhile profession but it felt cold to me.”
Thorson left the station after two years and returned to Fort Dodge. Iowa Central had a public radio station and she worked there and taught classes. She and Tjeran were married at the time and had their first child, Lehr, when she took a job as a part-time social worker at Friendship Haven in 1999.
“As a kid, I loved being around older people. When I took the job here, I really felt I was making a difference in peoples’ lives, and I was hooked.”
A year later, she was hired fulltime as a long-term care social worker by Denise Wiederin, who today is director of assisted living.
Thorson ascended through the leadership ranks before leaving in 2007 to work at Trinity Regional Medical Center, and returned to Friendship Haven two years later as director of strategic initiatives. She was head of the Tompkins Health Center when the president’s position opened. She consulted with board members about applying — one of them Albert Habhab, former Fort Dodge mayor and judge.
“He has been a constant fan of Friendship Haven and supporter of me from the very beginning,” she said.
In 2013, she led the $35 million campaign to open the Simpson Health Center and River Ridge Apartments. A campaign is now under way for a $5.5 million facility for those with advanced Alzheimer’s Disease.
“We are doing the right things on the inside. That’s why there’s demand to come to Friendship Haven,” she said. “New buildings are icing on the cake. What makes this place special are the people who work here.”
Thorson’s favorite motivational saying is “Dream Big.” It’s all over her office and even on her coffee cup.
“I look at what we do as a gift,” Thorson said. “There’s a lot of ageism in our country. I don’t think people value others as they reach a certain age. It is not like folks have an expiration date — when they are going to stop contributing to life.
“The days of the old folks’ home are gone. I think there’s a stigma that you come to Friendship Haven to die. There is so much more living that happens here. We want to support that idea of living well. You discover a whole new world because you’re not tied down by keeping up your own home. I know it’s not for everyone, but for people who give it a chance and get rid of their reservations, most everyone says they wish they would have come sooner.”
Last year, Friendship Haven launched the Boomers Fitness Club in which members pay a fee for use of the facility’s indoor pool and wellness center.
“We are preparing for the boomer generation. We have to,” she said.
Thorson writes a blog, “Living Leadership,” enjoys golfing and cycling, and has competed with a team of Fort Dodge friends in three RAGBRAI events.
“I look forward to the future,” she said. “You need to figure out what you really enjoy. What I enjoy, it’s the coaching and the leadership. As long as I can do that, I am happy.”