Tag: history

During two anniversaries, a different type of looking back

Three for the price of one. That is, three beginnings to this single blog post.

Here’s the first:
The fire scanner squawked across the newsroom. I was on city desk that night and, knowing the lack of fondness my reporter-comrade had for covering fires, I decided to head out. Pretty significant house fire so I never got back to write the story until about 2 a.m.

The next morning I had to make a more-than-one-hour drive to Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, for a 9 a.m. interview for a public relations position with Tressler-Lutheran Service Associates. I was barely awake throughout the interview.

Somehow, I was offered the position and, after having spent nearly two weeks driving family and friends crazy with my indecision, I accepted it.

Forty years ago.

Here’s the second:
“Bill,” said the ED at one of Diakon’s senior living communities, “forty years—you should write about that, especially this year, as we celebrate our 150th anniversary.”

“Nah,” I said in return.

But here I go.

And the third and final start:
“You are going to have to be like Yoda,” the Rev. Mark Wimmer, Diakon’s vice president for church relations and ministry partnerships, said to me.

What, I wondered? Small and green?

“Whenever anyone wonders about our history,” he continued, “you will just have to pop out of thin air and tell us about it.”

Okay. I’m game for that. Do I get force?

* * *

Remembering Dr. Haas … rather, Harold

In a long-ago article in T-LSA Now, I wrote, upon the retirement of the Rev. Dr. Harold Haas, that I could never bring myself to call him Harold.

That may have been because of my age (I was half the age I am today when I wrote that article), but it also stemmed from my respect for Dr. Haas (see, even now, I write Dr. Haas). He was simply a man, I told him and wrote about him, who engendered respect.

At the conclusion of that article, in light of his wishes, however, I wished “Harold” a happy retirement.

Unfortunately, another transition has occurred and I learned this week that Dr. Haas passed away in August at the age of 98. He had moved to New England some years ago to be near children and grandchildren; his wife, Evelyn, passed away two decades ago.

If Dr. Haas’ name is unfamiliar to you, that’s understandable, given the passage of time. Yet I believe it’s important you know who he was.

Harold Haas served as president of Tressler-Lutheran Service Associates (the T-LSA reference in the publication I mentioned) from 1977 through 1985, the year he retired and was succeeded by the Rev. Dr.Thomas Hurlocker. As president of Tressler Lutheran Services (as T-LSA eventually became), Tom Hurlocker would work alongside the Rev. Dr. Daun McKee, president of Lutheran Services Northeast, to fashion Diakon in 2000.

Dr. Haas came to Tressler in a period of uncertainty, the social ministry organization having rapidly expanded in the early 1970s without the necessary financial and administrative infrastructure. He spent the next near-decade not only successfully putting all the organizational ducks in a row, but also overseeing expansion and programmatic growth in a number of areas including refugee services, senior living communities and youth programs.

Formerly a parish pastor, professor and dean at Wagner College, Staten Island (where he had once been held hostage by students during racial unrest) and executive within the national Lutheran church, Dr. Haas, at Tressler, jokingly called himself a “consummate bureaucrat” because he knew his mission there was to make certain all of the processes, procedures and funding necessary to undergird a successful organization were in place and functioning efficiently.

(I purposely used the word undergird because, having joined Tressler a year after Dr. Haas following a brief period in journalism, I found the academic word “undergird” unfamiliar and grating. He and I good-naturedly sparred about its use on occasion and he would chuckle that when I edited his columns I took out all his “weasel words”—his tongue-in-cheek reference to phrases selected for bureaucratic use.)

When he began his work at Tressler, Dr. Haas had four earned degrees including an M.A. and a Ph.D. in sociology. He had been instrumental in the development of the national church’s social services and social statements, having demonstrated his personal commitment to justice as he marched in civil rights demonstrations in the South and testified on behalf of a Black South African in a court in that country.

A former bishop of the national church characterized Dr. Haas as having “great integrity, organizational skills and clarity of vision.” Following his retirement from Tressler, he continued his involvement in the national church, serving as well as interim pastor and then pastor-emeritus of Trinity Lutheran Church in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania.

For his work in guiding Tressler in achieving both efficiency and expansion, Dr. Haas occupies a prominent place among the dozen to two dozen dedicated leaders within Diakon’s near-150-year history who are ultimately responsible for the organization’s position and role today.

In a piece on his retirement, I wrote that Dr. Haas was “an accessible president, a man easily spoken to, a man of genuine charm and humility, one who has filled many occasions with warmth and wit [and one whose] leadership in giving the [organization] stability and ability to grow” positioned it well for the future.

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Quite simply, I found him a brilliant but humble leader, a man I counted as a friend despite the difference in our ages.

Perhaps more cogently, a prominent Lutheran theologian described Dr. Haas as having a unique combination of “vision, horse sense, clarity, charity and refreshing candor.”

I last saw Dr. Haas around a decade ago when Diakon dedicated portraits of several past Tressler presidents. It was a pleasure to see him again.

I made sure to greet him as Harold.

By William Swanger
Senior Vice President
Corporate Communications & Public Relations

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Remembering the guardian of Topton’s history

I had heard the name Virginia “Ginny” Ebersole numerous times after the 2000 creation of Diakon that brought The Lutheran Home at Topton into my work-life, typically as the guardian of The Lutheran Home’s history as an orphanage.

Because I had a similar role in safeguarding the records of the children’s home operated by Tressler Lutheran Services—my former organization before the Diakon merger—I felt a sort of kinship with Ginny, even though the similarities ended there.

Ginny, after all, had actually grown up in the children’s home and then returned in retirement to the place of her childhood, living in one of independent-living cottages at The Lutheran Home, now a senior living community.

Although I had the privilege to work with Ginny the past two years, I wish I had learned to know her personally sooner because her commitment to protecting and preserving the history of the home was both outstanding and amazing. When someone wanted to know the history of a child who had been served by the home, everyone immediately turned to Ginny for that information.

But no longer. Virginia B. (Baer) Ebersole passed away last Sunday, July 24, at the age of 88.

Ginny lovingly told stories of her time at the home, to which she moved in 1933 when her mother passed away; her father’s work schedule made it difficult for him to take care of his family.

“We spent most days learning and studying, taking part in various activities including plays, and doing chores,” Ginny said during an interview for a 2014 Dialog article about her. “But the most important things we learned were respect, responsibility and how to work.”

When she turned 18, she left the home, typical for children coming of age. She married, raised a family and worked well into her 60s. When she and her late husband retired, the decision to return to Topton was an easy one.

Before long, Ginny became the unofficial archivist for Topton’s records.

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“Ginny worked diligently to preserve the artifacts and rich history of the services provided by the orphanage at The Lutheran Home at Topton,” says Mark Pile, Diakon president/CEO. “She did this excellent volunteer work out of her love for and her personal roots at the orphanage and for the many friendships she maintained with those who lived at Topton, as well as the family and friends who have been part of that history. She will be deeply missed.”

My direct work with Ginny came the last two years as both of us served as members of the committee developing the planned restoration of Old Main, to house a permanency center related to Diakon Adoption & Foster Care—in many ways the direct descendant of the children’s home—and offices for Diakon Ministry Support.

She was very excited about this planned rebirth of the iconic building that in many ways defines The Lutheran Home at Topton campus.

Another communications staff member and I met with Ginny early on in this process to determine the extent of the archives she managed. One issue at the time was that, a year or two before, the original book that contains the names of the children served at Topton had gone missing. While there were copies of those records, Ginny was upset over the loss of this artifact.

During our tour of one section of the archives that day, I asked Ginny to describe the book. As she finished her description, I happened to look over to one shelf and something quite similar to her description caught my eye. I asked, “What is that?”

Her eyes widened and began to gleam. It was the book.

Obviously, whoever had taken the book had returned it to that spot unannounced. While we really had no significant role in finding the book, I have to say it was very gratifying to know that our trip had resulted in returning it to Ginny’s safekeeping.

Our hearts were gladdened just by the look on Ginny’s face.

I wish Ginny had lived to see the Old Main project completed, to see the building refurbished and renovated and serving its original purpose anew. But perhaps it is enough that she knew the project was under way.

And as we work to preserve the history of The Lutheran Home at Topton in this project, I know many of us will think frequently of Ginny.

I know as well that her spirit will be right there with us.

By William Swanger
Senior Vice President
Corporate Communications & Public Relations

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Climbing a phone-tree … to view the past

When you work in communications, your daily tasks can be pretty varied, from developing an entire strategic plan to … well … redoing a phone tree.

What’s a phone tree?

It’s the sequence of options people hear when they call a main number for an organization … you know, “to speak to this program, press 1,” and so on. I don’t do any of the technical phone stuff; rather, I review the sequence of the tree, edit the accompanying text and arrange for the professional recording you hear.

Diakon had not revised its tree for a while and when I began the update process, I found I had quite a few changes to make, sometimes because programs had been transitioned to other providers, sometimes because they had moved geographically or administratively or, in an instance or two, because they had closed.

In some ways, tackling a phone-tree update is a history review.

The process reminds me of the challenges sometimes involved in such transitions. In fact, a friend whose group membership dwindled by the month refused to consider making changes that would have potentially broadened membership. Rather than dilute the group’s primary purpose, he said, he’d rather—like a good captain—go down with the ship. I guess that’s okay, but that approach certainly does not sustain the group’s original purpose. Sort of a lose-lose proposition.

These statements do not make light of the difficulties of some changes. A program closure can certainly mean loss of employment for a number of people.

Yet I’m proud of the fact most of the history reflected in the recent Diakon phone-tree update—because of a refocusing and sharpening of Diakon’s core ministries—represented the transitioning of programs to other organizations providing similar services. In these cases, a win-win proposition.

We may not always have had phone-trees, but our near-150-year history is filled with developments that would have resulted in changes to those trees. Perhaps the most-significant were the closures of our two children’s homes, processes that represented moves to community-based services for children and youths.

Now, a half-century after those closures, we’re set to begin the rebirth of one of those homes’ key buildings, Old Main on the campus of The Lutheran Home at Topton, through a major construction project set to begin late this year. (LINK TO NEWS ARTICLE).

When the work is completed, and a Center for Permanency created on Old Main’s second floor, the building will have come full circle, once again housing services for at-risk children and youths. In addition, Diakon will have emphasized wise stewardship of resources by relocating some Ministry Support offices from leased space to Old Main.

And it will be time for one more phone-tree update.

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