PVA from the Top: My Visit to Bed Number One
Remembering the legacy of Homer S. Townsend Jr
In 1992, I was newly injured and fortunate to be mentored by a fellow Navy SEAL, Don Hyslop. Don had introduced me to Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) and set me on the long road to mental adjustment that follows a catastrophic injury by showing me how I could be a part of PVA’s mission.
I identified government relations as an area where I could really make a difference, and dedicated my efforts toward local, state and federal legislative initiatives in the PVA Cal-Diego Chapter. While proud of my contributions, I’d already decided that I wanted to grow with PVA and be an integral part of its leadership. While in the chapter’s office at the Department of Veterans Affairs San Diego Medical Center, I shared my ambition with Don and he had one thing to say: “You need to visit Room 103, Bed Number One.”
In Bed #1, I found Homer S. Townsend Jr. That was the first of many conversations I had with PVA’s past president and executive director, many of which significantly influenced my leadership journey to the office of PVA national president and greatly impacted the future of this organization.
His passing on Feb. 20 has deeply saddened everyone at PVA. In tribute to him, I could fill pages describing the man himself, his insight, his management style and leadership philosophy and, above all, his passionate commitment to PVA. But it’s his legacy that I and all of our nation’s veterans will benefit from for years to come that meant the most to Homer, and is what I want PVA members to remember him for.
Homer was often quoted saying, “What wouldn’t you do for an organization that gave you back your dignity?” And after 41 years with PVA, our leaders can’t say enough about his contributions.
“Homer served at every level and capacity within PVA, from chapter to national, and at several levels as an employee,” former PVA Executive Director Keith Wingfield points out. “Never once did he waiver from his focus and commitment to PVA and its membership.”
It was this commitment that spurred Homer to volunteer as acting executive director in 2006. As past president, he could see that the leadership vacancy was affecting the organization on many levels, so he offered to commute to Washington, D.C., from Arizona for nine months to pull PVA through the crisis.
He had one caveat — he wouldn’t accept a salary for doing it. Recognizing the precarious future of PVA after losing its Eastern Chapter in 2000, and wary of the national economic downturn that marked the beginning of the new millennium, Homer was determined to be a part of the solution, not a contribution to the struggle.
PVA Treasurer Tom Wheaton credits Homer’s leadership with establishing PVA as a true national organization as a result. That was one of many reasons Homer was appointed to remain executive director for more than 10 years.
And it was Homer’s famous focus that was laser-sharp in 2010 as the U.S. remained in a devastating economic recession. At a time when many nonprofits were cutting 401k plans, Homer put a strong command team together, restructured each department for efficiency, judiciously cut spending and ensured PVA employees had the strength of leadership and the resources behind them to maintain productivity and morale.
“Our core is the people who work for us,” PVA Past President Joe Fox remembers Homer saying at the time.
The people of PVA are perhaps Homer’s greatest legacy. While celebrating every “win” PVA has gained for this nation’s veterans and the disability community under his leadership, Homer maintained a forward-thinking strategy.
This includes his own succession plan, which he began preparing years ago, as he ushered in a new era of PVA leaders. With the selection of PVA Acting Executive Director Sherman Gillums Jr., Homer’s unique brand of progressive leadership set PVA on a viable path for the future. Because as Gillums notes when remembering Homer, “The mark of a true leader is someone who embraces an organization’s history, while guiding its natural evolution to a healthier, sustainable future.”
I believe Homer was that kind of leader. Former PVA President Richard Johnson once told me there are those who take more than they give. Yet Homer was always one of the guys who gave more than he takes, and no one gave more to PVA than the man I found in Room 103, Bed #1 in 1992.
His passing is a tremendous loss for PVA, and he will be missed by all.
PVA from the Top: My Visit to Bed Number One
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