Here’s a heads-up for Sheila Garrity’s children: Your mom’s bucket list includes visiting you often, and the time is nigh as she retires as executive director of the La Crosse Community Foundation.
“I haven’t told the kids that yet,” Garrity confessed as she flashed her trademark smile during an interview in advance of her retirement announcement at the foundation's annual meeting Wednesday night.
Not that board members didn’t know her plans in advance — and some acknowledge the temptation to drag her back, kicking and screaming, except that they appreciate her two-decades-plus of hard work and figure she deserves a break.
“I’ve been trying to talk her out of it ever since I found out,” board vice Chairwoman Sandy Brekke said, half-jokingly. “She has such talent and passion for the community. She’s given a lot to the community, and it’s time she gets to give that to her family.”
Similarly, board Chairwoman Sue Christopher said, “Sheila has worked hard, and I love to see when somebody has had a great work life get to retire. She deserves it.”
Board credits her; she flips kudos back
Even as board members heap praise on the 62-year-old Garrity, she quickly deflects attention — and credit — to the board and donors to the more than $59 million in assets the foundation safeguards and distributes.
“This is, like, the greatest job in the county, but 24 years is a long time,” said Garrity, who grew up in an Irish Catholic family of 10 in Prairie du Chien and moved to La Crosse in 1979 with her late husband, Jim Gokey, when he became a partner at what is now the Johns, Flaherty and Collins law firm.
Garrity’s career always has been in public relations and fundraising — “they’re really both the same,” she said — and worked for Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Bethany Homes and Chileda before taking the foundation reins in 1992.
Technology is one of the main changes in the fundraising landscape since Garrity began, she said.
“I used to run around to all the board members to take grant applications to them on the Friday before a board meeting,” while that all is delivered electronically, she said.
Asked what she will miss most, Garrity said, “I think working with great donors. Fundraising is organic — somebody from here, who has done well here, donates to improve the community, expecting nothing in return except thanks.”
Memorable grants she lists for the foundation include Chad Erickson Memorial Park; the Family and Children’s Center’s Healthy Families and Host Homes programs; the Bridge Building Fund supporting LGBTQ projects; Ophelia’s House, Drug Court and Crisis Intervention Training; the June Kjome Justice and Peace grants supporting human rights and peace efforts, and baseball grants from the Corinne Zielke Fund.
Personal story behind every fund
“Really, every single fund — and there are about 200 of them — has a personal story connected to it, reflecting donors’ interests and supporting great community projects,” she said.
“It’s remarkable, the generosity of the community,” she said. “When parents, spouses and friends come to establish a memorial for a loved one, you hear their special story. … There is nothing more grace-filled.”
Money-strapped government agencies are as likely to need grants as nonprofits, and the foundation also helps them, she said.
One of Garrity’s more acclaimed aptitudes is connecting donors’ goals with agency needs, said Brent Smith, who was one of Gokey’s law partners and recalls being a friend before working with her on community projects.
“She is a tremendous leader in this community on so many issues,” Smith said. “Whatever she gets involved in — whether it’s homelessness, food, people who need shelter — she brings a passion, and you know she is going to roll up her sleeves and work.
“She brings stature to a program,” said Smith, who now is on the foundation board. “She is so well-respected that, if people say, ‘Sheila’s with our group,’ people know it’s a good project. She has a consistency of concern for people who are less fortunate in life.”
The board may name a replacement by November, but Garrity expects to remain through the first quarter of 2017 to help smooth the transition.
Game show: Can’t Stump Sheila
Board members know that will be a daunting task, with Christopherson observing, “She has taught all of us the difference between philanthropy and charity. We are in awe of her local knowledge. It’s like a game show at meetings — ‘You Can’t Stump Sheila.’
“She’s been a mentor, an adviser and a counselor to me,” Christopherson said.
“On the personal level, she knows all of the interests of donors and can match them with community needs,” she said.
Christopherson, the president of general contractor Fowler and Hammer Inc. in La Crosse and one of several foundation board members who also are donors, can attest to that from her own experience when she and her brother Jim Fowler established a donor-advised fund.
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“She brings us ideas, knowing we’re interested in environmental and social issues, and she’s in the community, so she can connect the grants to collaborations, and she does it so smoothly,” Christopherson said.
Board member Brekke, director of the St. Clare Health Mission, recalls a similar scenario when she and her late husband, Dr. Eric Brekke, established a fund after she had become a foundation board member.
“We knew we wanted to do some philanthropy, but we didn’t know how,” Brekke said. “I realized then that the community foundation does, and she helped us. We learned we could contribute anonymously, which was important to us.
“And she connected us with the charities we wanted to support,” Brekke said. “Otherwise, you’re just guessing.”
Ever the humble servant leader (she has a master’s degree in that from Viterbo University), Garrity pooh-poohs any suggestion that her exit as director leaves a vacuum in institutional knowledge.
‘They’ll be fine,’ Garrity says
For one thing, the board has helped her ensure that extensive records are there, Garrity acknowledges.
“They’ll be fine,” she said confidently.
That’s largely because of her, Smith said, noting, “She’s built a strong foundation that will be a tremendous force going forward.”
The foundation isn’t alone in being on sound footing, Garrity said, adding, “The whole nonprofit sector in La Crosse is really strong and really professional, accountable and led by good boards.”
The foundation also isn’t the only role Garrity has assumed, with her credits including representing the 9th District on the county board for eight years, being a member of the La Crosse Police and Fire Commission, a Rotary member, a founding member of the YWCA Matthew 25 Committee that works with homeless women who have and may have some criminal history and having been president of the Community Foundation Division for the Donors Forum of Wisconsin — and other accomplishments too numerous to mention but perhaps a list long enough to stretch from Grandad Bluff to Riverside Park.
Named the YWCA’s Outstanding Woman Activist in 1999 and a recipient of Viterbo’s Pope John XXIII Award in 2000, Garrity is a shrinking violet when it comes to talking about such honors.
“I hate too much hype,” she said.
But she deserves it, Christopherson counters, “She doesn’t like accolades, but she loves every one of the donors.”
For all of her shyness about praise, Garrity is no shrinking violet at board meetings, Christopherson said.
“She has a fiery Irish temper, and we have some debates,” she said. “But she respects people’s opinions because we have a duty to be good stewards to improve the quality of life in the community.
“We have a lot of debates, and her face really gets red — I love it. We’re not a ‘yes, Sheila’ board,” Christopherson said.
Debates ensure good decisions
The ultimate benefit is that, after the smoke has cleared, Garrity and the board are confident that they have made a sound decision, Christopherson said.
Garrity doesn’t intend to sit idly in retirement, insisting that she still has fundraising to do, as well as volunteering more freely (especially more time for the Jail Ministry Storybook Project at the La Crosse County Jail), taking yoga for a troublesome back and hone her spiritual life as an affiliate of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.
Then there are the kids to visit:
Son Nolan, 35, who lives with his artist wife, Soozy, and their 4-year-old daughter, Rosie, in Durham, N.C., where he is doing post-doctoral work in molecular biology with the National Institutes of Health.
Daughter Caitlin, 33, who lives in Minneapolis and is a senior program associate on immigration and justice with the Vera Institute of Justice in New York City.
Son Sean, 31, who works at a nature center north of the Twin Cities and whose wife, Sara, is an autism classroom teacher.
One of Garrity’s favorite foundation funds is Jim’s Grocery Bag, a memorial fund in tribute to her husband that is an outgrowth of a project he started as president of the La Crosse Area Bar Association, collecting food for Hamilton School. Spinoff funds include Tom’s Grocery Bag in Onalaska and Jim’s Grocery Bag Schroeder to ensure that children are fed to help them to learn better.
“Jim’s Grocery Bag started 28 years ago, and those kids now have graduated,” Garrity said. “It told those kids that this community cares about them. Since many people who grow up here stay here, they know the importance of taking care of their community.”