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She ran the slowest express lane in Virginia. And that's why she was so loved.

Posted at 1:41 PM, Dec 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-03 12:45:10-05

LOUISA COUNTY, Va. -- When you hit the express lane at the grocery store, it usually means you'll be rung up quickly and out the door fast.

But that was never the case when Rosa Wittenburg was working.

The express lane she ran for 25 years at the Food Lion in Louisa was never really that speedy.

"Her line would be backed up because people wanted to talk with her," Rosa's manager Sarah Johnson said. "She loved everybody."

She also hardly ever missed work. So when she failed to arrive for her November 10 shift, Johnson knew something was not right.

And it wasn't.

Rosa Wittenburg, 65, had died outside her home in what her son called a freak accident.

While no one was around to know what actually happened, her son said there was a ladder and leaf blower nearby. The family suspects she died after a fall.

"She was a saint. A very selfless person. She would give you the shirt off her back," John Wittenburg said about his mom. "The whole town of Louisa knew her. There were always long lines at her register because people wanted to speak with her. She would remember everything about them."

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It was that connection she made with people that made her death such an emotional loss for not only her three children and four grandchildren but the entire community.

"Mom treated everyone like friends and family. She made them feel warm. She made everyone feel noticed," daughter Sara Marks said. "She had smiles for everyone. Mom was the epitome of a small-town girl."

Rosa Wittenburg did not grow up in small-town Louisa. She was born and raised in Nicaragua.

After moving to Virginia in the 1990s, she donated her time to Spanish-speaking neighbors to make sure they understood what was happening at meetings where English was often the only language spoken.

"She was willing to travel to appointments with people to translate. She understood what it was like to be an immigrant. She never took a penny," Marks said. "She also took in other family members who needed help. She didn't hesitate."

"She would go as far as going to someone who is new to the area and go to their door and introduce herself," John Wittenburg added. "She knew how hard it was to be someone from another country that speaks little to no English in a small town."

The sudden loss left a hole in the community, a hole co-worker Sarah Johnson was not ready to quickly fill.

"I couldn't sleep [after Rosa died]. I called my manager and said, 'Do not open register #1. I want to do something,'" Johnson recalled.

The next morning, Johnson bought some decorations, printed pictures of Rosa, and set up a memorial of sorts on the register where Rosa spent a quarter of a century.

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Memorial to Rosa Wittenburg at Food Lion in Louisa, Va.

The response was overwhelming.

"We had so many people come in and fill out cards and drop off flowers. People are still coming in to say how they're sorry," Johnson said. "I knew people loved Rosa, but I didn't know the extent."

A feeling echoed by her children.

"I saw the pictures and that was enough to overwhelm me in a good way," Marks said. "I broke down. You don't see corporations taking an interest in their employees and their families like that. You just don't see that kind of effort. She literally was working with friends, not just coworkers."

Rosa's express lane stayed closed for five days as the memorial grew.

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Memorial to Rosa Wittenburg at Food Lion in Louisa, Va.

"I wanted it closed forever," Johnson said. "I think that register gave people a chance to express their feelings. They might not have known Rosa's family, but Rosa was their Food Lion family."

"She touched a lot of people," John Wittenburg said of his mom. "She was a woman of faith and lived her Christian values."

Food Lion plans to install a plaque at the Louisa store to honor their longtime employee whose impact will linger like her slower than usual express lane.

"Having more people in the world like her would make the world a much better place," her daughter Sara Marks said.

Rosa Wittenburg was laid to rest Monday, November 22. She is survived by children, grandchildren, father, brothers, sisters, nieces, and nephews.