Retiring Bert Nash CEO David Johnson reflects on 16-year run

“This is a really caring and supportive environment here at the Center. I said this forever, and I will say it forever, this is a great place to work.”

“This is a really caring and supportive environment here at the Center. I said this forever, and I will say it forever, this is a great place to work.” by Jeff Burkhead

When asked about the best job he ever had, David Johnson didn’t hesitate.

“This job,” Johnson said. “Absolutely, this job.”

This job may well be the last one he will ever have. After 16 years as CEO of the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, Johnson, 65, will retire around the first of July. His successor, Patrick Schmitz, will start the first of June.

There were many reasons why this was the best job Johnson ever had, he said. For one, the people and the organization. Also, the community and the Bert Nash Center’s community partners.

“This is an organization that is constantly trying to improve and to provide services that people need,” Johnson said. “The partnerships we’ve had in the community have also been very gratifying. And this is a community where there is a real recognition of the importance of mental health. But more than anything, I’ll miss the people.”

Johnson experienced firsthand the kindness and support of the Bert Nash staff during his stepson Jason’s battle with brain cancer. Jason died Jan. 12. He was 36.

“This is a really caring and supportive environment here at the Center,” Johnson said. “I said this forever, and I will say it forever, this is a great place to work, honestly. I know we don’t pay enough. But I see what people do, and this is a great place to work.”

Johnson announced in March 2015 that he would retire Aug. 1, 2016. Then, less than a month after announcing his retirement, came a phone call on Easter morning. Johnson’s stepson, Jason, who lived in Council Bluffs, Iowa, had terminal brain cancer. Everything changed, including Johnson’s retirement plans. That day, Johnson’s wife, Michele, relocated to Iowa and became a healthcare navigator and advocate for her son.

“As soon as she hung up the phone, Michele packed, retired from her pilates business and moved to Iowa to be with Jason,” Johnson said. “I knew our financial obligations were about to grow, so I immediately went to the board and asked if I could put off my retirement. The best thing I could do in that situation was be a provider for my family.”

The board was understanding and approved Johnson’s request.

“They were so gracious,” Johnson said of the members of the Bert Nash Governing Board. “The board was interested in me staying on. It worked for both sides.”

Not that it made the situation any easier. David and Michele were living in different states. He would travel to Iowa on weekends as often as possible, but it wasn’t the same as being together on a daily basis. David’s head was in Kansas, but his heart was in Iowa.

“It was a challenging time,” Johnson said. “It was really watching Jason die and dealing with all of the ramifications; my own pain as well as my family’s. I was trying to think how I could describe what it was like, and the best way was it was unrelenting.”

Through it all, Johnson remained focused on his work. There was no shortage of issues that demanded his attention. State funding cuts, a proposed 24/7 crisis intervention center, the 2016 election, the search for his successor.

At the time, Johnson, when asked how he was holding up, said, “The fairest way to answer that question is I’m present and I’m working. But I’m traumatized and my family is traumatized and it will take a while for that to heal.”

When it came to his job, Johnson had people whom he asked to hold him accountable. People like Patricia Roach Smith, the Bert Nash chief operating officer and his right-hand person. While Johnson was the face of Bert Nash to the community and focused on the big picture, Roach Smith, who announced to the Center’s staff in February that she would retire in October, handled the detail of the day-to-day internal operations. Their skill sets complimented each other well.

“Pat is somebody who tackles the details and is not afraid to do it,” Johnson said. “You need someone who balances your strength and weaknesses. My strength is not detail, and Pat, bless her heart, is a great compliment to me in terms of that. She’s been an ideal chief operating officer. We’ve had a very smooth working relationship.”

The pair were a good fit from the beginning, said Roach Smith, who was the Center’s development director when Johnson was hired.

“Right from the get-go we were a good match. I liked the detail and mentoring and coaching staff. He loved the visioning and big picture, keeping his eyes on the horizon while I was in the present everyday stuff,” Roach Smith said. “When he hired me as COO and we expanded the core of our sharing of responsibilities, it was still based on Ms. Inside and Mr. Outside. Dave has been the most respectful boss I have ever had and he was always open to my feedback and sometimes not-so-subtle suggestions. And he is a fantastic coach. Dave is self-effacing but confident, funny but wildly serious, intelligent but down-to-earth. Honesty was really important to both of us, which wouldn’t have worked unless we had a mutual trust.”

Ty Yoshida, the former Bert Nash medical director, along with other members of the Bert Nash executive team were also part of Johnson’s accountability group.

“Ty belonged to a group of psychiatrists in Kansas City called the Truth Tellers, who would tell each other if they thought someone was slipping,” Johnson said. “I asked him to make sure he played that role with me. If it looked like I was not doing the work I needed to do, I had people who would tell me if they thought I needed to step aside.”

It never came to that point. Johnson soldiered on, even though it was difficult to be apart from Michele, knowing she was hurting. The whole family was hurting. Johnson’s first order of business after he retires and relocates to his home state of Iowa will be to take care of his family.

“At least the first part of my retirement will not be a time of comfort; it will be a time of maybe the most serious work I’ve had to do,” Johnson said. “For one thing, certainly for Michele and I, it will include professional help. Both because we can use it, but also it will do some modeling for other family members to not be afraid to do that. Patience will a big part of it. It won’t be like flipping a switch. It will take time.”

Johnson was only the second CEO at the Bert Nash Center in almost 40 years. In 2001 when he was hired at Bert Nash, he followed in the footsteps of someone — Sandra Shaw — who had been with the organization for 30 years, more than 20 as CEO.

“She was a longtime presence and she was very dynamic,” Johnson said of Shaw, who died in 2010. “I had been in my job for two years before people stopped referring to me as the new CEO.”

Reflecting back on his time at the Bert Nash Center, there were many highlights, as well as some humorous moments.

“During my first all-staff meeting, when I opened it up for questions, someone asked if I wore boxers or briefs,” Johnson said. “We had just moved into our house and we didn’t have curtains up, so I said you can drive by at a certain hour and find out for yourself.”

People sometimes thought Johnson was a clinician, but he’s not. His career has been in mental health administration, but he has a heart for clinicians and the people they serve. He has also had people think his name was Bert Nash. The Center is named for a Lawrence educational psychologist whose vision inspired the community to dedicate a mental health center in his name. Bert Nash was a pioneer in child welfare. He died of a brain hemorrhage in 1947 at the age of 48. The Center will celebrate its 67th birthday on July 5.

“It’s a legacy we take seriously,” Johnson said. “We have made every effort to continue the work Bert Nash started.”

Of course, there have been ups and downs over the past 17 years. Right from the start of his tenure, Johnson discovered the Center was facing a serious financial challenge.

“I came back from a vacation that was planned before I took the job and discovered we had to use our line of credit to make payroll,” Johnson said. “I got to digging into things and realized we didn’t have any way to pay it back through operations. People didn’t know the Center was in money trouble, and it was. So that really became the focus of my first two years, putting everything else aside and trying to figure out how we were going to get out of this hole.”

And the Center did. Not that there haven’t been other financial challenges over the years — such is life in the nonprofit world. But under Johnson’s leadership, the Center weathered them all and came out on the other side stronger and in better financial shape, thanks in part to a sustainable funding program initiated in 2012.

Johnson will stay on for about a month after he retires to work with the new CEO and facilitate a smooth transition. Looking back on nearly 17 years as the CEO at Bert Nash, Johnson is proud of the progress that was made during his tenure.

“I’m proud of Mental Health First Aid (Bert Nash was one of seven pilot sites in the country in 2008 to teach the mental health awareness training course and Johnson and Roach Smith were two of the first certified instructors in the nation), I’m proud of the work that we’ve done with the Building Bert Nash program (an ongoing sustainability funding effort), I’m proud that we never lost WRAP (Working to Recognize Alternative Possibilities) and we kept pushing for more mental health resources in the schools,” Johnson said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do in terms of the recognition that mental health is important, but we’re way higher in Douglas County than most places, and I’m proud of that.”

Johnson is particularly proud of the nearly 200-person Bert Nash staff.

“Because of funding challenges, that burden has been borne by the staff. We were cut $1 million last year and the client satisfaction survey stayed the same or went up. That’s a remarkable job that the staff did,” Johnson said. “I wish we could pay more, but we’ve never lost sight of our commitment to our mission to advance the mental health of the Douglas County community.”

Of course, the work is never done. There are always unfinished projects, unrealized goals. One of those is construction of the proposed 24/7 crisis intervention center, which would be located across the street from the Bert Nash Center. The crisis center was in the planning stages before Johnson originally announced his retirement. He won’t be around if and when the project is completed but he looks forward to the day when the crisis center will become reality.

“I would have liked to have seen that happen during my time here,” Johnson said. “Before I leave, I might have to sneak out some night with a shovel and break ground over there. Just me and a shovel. I think I’ll do that.”

So, how would Johnson like to be remembered? Actually, he would prefer not to be remembered. At least, not for any personal accomplishments. Rather for a career devoted to working in a field that saves lives and improves people’s lives.

“People ask me about my legacy and if the crisis center will be my legacy,” Johnson said. “I sure hope I’ve made a difference there. But, honestly, I’m pretty sure that if I have a legacy it’s with people who don’t even know my name, who have been helped here at the Bert Nash Center, by making sure that we have resources, that I’ve had an impact on lives that might not have been helped otherwise. That’s a good legacy.”

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