(Posted Aug. 23, 2022)
By Kristy Zurbrick, Madison Editor
Dr. Ralph Rohner Jr. knows a thing or two about putting on an Ox Roast, just one of many reasons he has been named grand marshal of this year’s Ox Roast parade.
Ralph’s history with the Labor Day weekend festival dates back to 1980, the year he and his wife, the late Karen Rohner, moved to West Jefferson.
“We joined Sts. Simon & Jude Church where we met Rudy and Joan Denes who got us into the Community Association,” Rohner said.
The West Jefferson Community Association hosts the Ox Roast, now in its 71st year. Ralph was elected to the group’s board of trustees in the fall of 1980 and remained on the board until 2013. He served three years as president.
During Ralph’s time on the board, the festival evolved as organizers added stage shows to the entertainment schedule, opened up space at Garrette Park for craft booths, and expanded vendor opportunities to commercial entities to complement the local groups who set up shop at the festival.
While the cooking process for the famous Ox Roast sandwiches has remained the same–beef seasoned and wrapped in foil and set over coals in a long, in-ground trench to cook overnight–Ralph said a change was made back in the day to make the meat preparation a little more efficient.
“We used to buy the meat on the bone, so we spent Sunday cutting it off the bone, trimming the fat, rolling it in spices and wrapping it in foil,” he recalled. “Then we moved to Falters (Fine Meats) who cut the meat off the bone for us.”
The preparation process is still a herculean chore, but association members and other folks volunteer to get it–and the many other tasks it takes to put on the four-day festival–done.
For many years, Ralph helped to man “The Big 6,” a gambling wheel, at the festival where the maximum bet was 25 cents. He and Karen also worked the bingo tent.
“Oh, we had big prizes at the bingo tent. We gave out watermelons!” he said with a chuckle.
Ralph cherishes the many friendships he made during his time with the community association and the many memories made at the Ox Roast.
“Every year, when we closed up the festival on Monday night, it was a feeling of relief and accomplishment,” he said.
The Ox Roast isn’t the only thing Ralph knows a thing or two about. He spent decades as an orthopedic surgery specialist, operating a private practice in Columbus from 1971 until his retirement on Dec. 31, 2020.
Ralph was born in Columbus and raised in German Village in the house his great-grandparents built. He graduated from high school in 1956 and from Capital University with a degree in biology in 1960.
“I started as a physics major, but I was disenchanted with mechanical drawing, so I went into biology because I’ve always been interested in plants and animals,” he said.
That interest remains strong to this day, as Ralph shares his home and property with three peacocks, two peahens, a rooster, eight chickens, three dogs, two cockatoos, two lovebirds, one canary, and a fox.
Ralph considered going to veterinary school after college, but his father, who was in orthopedics, convinced him to go to medical school. Ralph did not plan to go into orthopedics, but he was assigned to a stint in that specialty his sophomore year at the Ohio State University (OSU) School of Medicine.
“I don’t know if my dad had anything to do with that (assignment) or not, but I just stayed with it,” he said with another chuckle.
While in medical school, Ralph worked as an extern at Riverside Methodist Hospital where he met Karen who was a student at Riverside’s White Cross School of Nursing. They exchanged vows in 1964, the same year Ralph graduated from OSU. Ralph served two years in the U.S. Air Force, and the couple raised four children, Ralph III, Laura, Marc, and Christopher. Ralph is now grandpa to five grandchildren, five step-grandchildren, 10 great-grandchildren, and another great-grandchild on the way.
Visitors to this year’s Ox Roast can watch and cheer for Ralph as he heads up the parade at noon on Sept. 3. The festival runs Sept. 3-5. For a full schedule of events and other information about the festival, visit www.westjeffoxroast.org.