— Irish Blessing
Imagine closing the door on 36 years of your life and saying goodbye to those whose dreams, passions and vision intertwined with your own almost daily.
It can’t be easy.
For those with a deep-rooted compassion for others, it’s probably downright hard.
And so it was Tuesday night for a special lady whom I’ve had the honor of calling “friend” for more than three decades. For seven of those years, she was even my boss.
One of the most respected civic leaders in Cleveland and Bradley County, she is Brenda Abel, newly retired president and CEO of United Way of Bradley County Inc. She held that critical position for 16 of the 36 years in which she served the families of the Cleveland area.
Social service was her passion.
People were her priority.
Personal accountability and full disclosure to United Way donors were her mindset.
She did it all. And she did it well.
But life brings change. And change inevitably will signal an end, even to that which we love, have loved and forever will love. Yet no matter our cause, career and commitment, the time will always come when we must let go. And that will become the greatest test of all. It will serve as a time of reckoning, one that we must all face whether today, next month, a year down the road or beyond.
Brenda confronted hers some time ago, but in her typically proactive fashion she began mentoring the person who most likely would fill her shoes — Matt Ryerson who brought to the table a fresh face and new ideas, and who at the time served as United Way’s vice president of Community Investment Strategies.
Thanks to Brenda’s detailed training, Matt was prepared when he took the reins effective Jan. 1, the day after her retirement became official.
To his credit, Matt was among the first — and there were many — to give full credit where it was due during Tuesday night’s Annual Meeting and Awards Banquet before a packed house of 350 in the Professional Development Center at Life Care Centers of America.
Many spoke from the heart about their relationship with Brenda, their belief in her leadership and their adoration for her career-long advocacy for the families of Cleveland and Bradley County, especially those down on their luck and who faced adversity at seemingly every turn.
Several worded their sentiments perfectly. One was Terry Henry, outgoing 2011 United Way board chairman, who offered, “... I can always say that she has a dedication to service and helping others.” He also pointed to Brenda’s business side and how it meshed with her passionate lean toward clients.
“While showing an extremely caring heart, Brenda also worked at ensuring the public that donations were being spent wisely,” Henry told the throng of avid United Way supporters. “And she did this with what many call a touch of class.”
Beecher Hunter, president of Life Care Centers of America, also nailed it when he pointed to what drives this unsung humanitarian. “Her true passion was seeing that people were served, that people were taken care of,” the longtime United Way volunteer explained.
James Anderson, executive director of the Family Resource Agency who has long enjoyed Brenda’s sense of camaraderie and her untiring support, described her with four words, “... strong, solid, consistent and dependable.”
Another staunch United Way worker and “Mrs. Volunteer” throughout this community — Nancy Casson — aptly phrased it when she called Brenda “... the face of United Way,” and added in her own “Nancyish” fashion, “Gal, I have enjoyed every minute of serving with you.”
The world’s most articulate and influential orator would be hard-pressed to better assess the endearing measure of this lady than those who spoke from the audience floor. Their words told the story best. Their testimonies anchored the very foundation of a heartfelt legacy left behind by this much-beloved community leader.
In our newspaper’s final interview with Brenda only a few days prior to her retirement, she spoke openly, honestly and from the heart about United Way’s future and why her successors will rise to meet the growing challenge faced within the nonprofit world.
That’s what I always liked about Brenda. She spoke with conviction and her words, though calm and soothing like a summer breeze, were gold to the ear and always filled with what I would call a quiet passion that roared.
Unpretentious. Unflappable. Unwilling to yield to the worries of any great unknown.
That’s the Brenda Abel I shall remember.
Like her legion of friends and fans, I wish her well in retirement.
It is hard-earned. It is well-deserved.
Yet she will be greatly missed — by those whose lives she has touched and those whose fate her touch has assured.
Happy trails, Brenda. Until we meet again.