RUGBY As director of the Greater Rugby Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, Don Sobolik might be snapping photos for posed tourists one minute and explaining the area's agricultural practices over a bucket of canola seed the next.
Because he might be asked about anything, he has to know a little about everything, from local genealogy sources to the region's birds.
Sobolik also directs the Rugby Chamber of Commerce. Both jobs let him do what he enjoys most promote Rugby.
Jill Schramm/MDN •
Don Sobolik, Rugby Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau director, stands with Rugby’s Geographical Center of North America monument behind him Aug. 4.
"Rugby is my home. I enjoy being here and I enjoy trying to do things that will benefit the community and make it a better place to live," he said. "I love the community, and I like what I am doing."
Sobolik has developed Rugby's visitors center into one of the most comprehensive information sources for travelers that exists anywhere. Tourists can find not only information on regional attractions but information and maps from across North Dakota, the United States and Canada.
"It's one of those best-kept secrets," Sobolik said.
He said it was the CVB board's desire to move away from selling souvenirs, which some of the local businesses already offered, to focus on being a true "center of North America" visitors center in keeping with Rugby's geographical status.
Sobolik contacts every state and province to obtain updated materials each year. Some states are so used to his requests that they automatically send him the latest information. Getting information from Mexico has proven difficult, but Sobolik has ways of getting information from even reluctant states. Sobolik prompted one state to provide its information by sending the state's tourism bureau a photo of the glaring gap in the Rugby center's state display that would be noticeable to tourists.
A native of Minto, Sobolik had worked in the food industry while studying toward a computer science degree at the North Dakota College of Science in Wahpeton. His boss bought the Cornerstone Cafe in Rugby and asked Sobolik to manage it with an option to buy. Sobolik took up the offer.
Sobolik remembers having an issue with the chamber over its use of nonlicensed food service operations at some of its events. Chamber members saw a young man willing to stand up and speak out. They elected him to their board.
The chamber director resigned at about the same time that Sobolik and his wife, Khloe, felt a desire to free themselves from the demanding schedule of operating a restaurant so they could start a family. They sold the Cornerstone and since have adopted two daughters, ages 6 years and 9 months.
Seeking a new director, the chamber approached Sobolik after his restaurant sold.
"They looked at me and said, 'You have nothing to do. Would you mind filling in on an interim basis?" Sobolik recalled.
That was 10 years ago.
Sobolik said he had asked the chamber board about six months into his interim position about a possible replacement. Board members admitted they hadn't done any interviewing. They were hoping he would just stay on.
"We would be lost without Don Sobolik," said Steve Miller, a chamber board member for several years. "He is a very, very valuable employee as a chamber director."
The chamber asks a lot of Sobolik at times, but he never loses stride, Miller said. He comes up with good ideas and can run with any idea that the chamber comes up with. With Sobolik, he said, "Everything seems to come off without a hitch."
Tanner Johnson, past chamber president, said Sobolik always is looking out for the community.
There wasn't much to the CVB or chamber before Sobolik, he said.
"He took it by the reins and kind of built it to what it is now. We have more members than we have had for a long time," Johnson said.
As director for the chamber, Sobolik assists with a farmers market, an annual softball tournament and various chamber promotions. The chamber, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, is working to update the city welcome signs.
Rugby had opened its Northern Lights towers and was working on its interpretative center when Sobolik came to head the CVB. Although the center is completed, there continue to be improvements made each year.
Dallas Knudson of Towner, who has worked with Sobolik on community projects, said his public relations skills are an asset, whether he's thinking up new promotions or delivering his weekly radio address to keep Rugby informed.
Knudson said she's also impressed by his dedication. When his father died just before a big conference in Rugby, he came back on the eve of the funeral to honor his commitment out of respect for others who were involved in the conference.
"Don always goes beyond the call of duty," she said. "I would say he goes that extra mile every day in his job."
Although he has a few seasonal summer helpers, he takes personal responsibility for the tourism and chamber headquarters, Knudson said.
"I have seen him mow the lawn at night. He makes sure there are nice flowers out in front," she said.
It's probably his people skills that get people's attention the most, though. Sobolik is described as personable with the public and exacting about following up to get people the information they request.
Sobolik said his fear in leaving the restaurant business to go to the chamber and CVB was that he'd miss the contact with the variety of people. In reality, he said, "It allowed me to keep that connection to people. I meet so many people from all across the world."
One of the most interesting was a visitor who invited Sobolik to his car to see his alligator. Sobolik walked out of the center to see the man's two Great Dane dogs running loose and a kitten leashed to the car bumper. That told him something about the man's sense of humor, but when the man produced a couple of alligators, an exotic snake and a rooster from his vehicle, he knew this visitor was a memorable encounter.
The visitor, experiencing his own memorable encounter, drove away with prizes for a map-collecting friend from the best-kept secret in Rugby.