Kelleher given emotional, affectionate sendoff into retirement
The story has been told, and told again, but it never seems to grow old, and none of the storytellers ever prefaced their retelling of the tale with “stop me if you’ve heard this one … .”
Like that cherished song you played over and over, the one you could never listen to too many times, this story will always be number one on the personal charts of so many people in Greater Nashua and beyond that estimating just how many would be an impossible task.
This is the story of how a Massachusetts native by the name of Peter Kelleher came within a whisker of missing out on an opportunity to become the first employee, and the first and only paid chief executive, of a fledgling, Nashua-based social services agency that barely had a name, never mind a set of bylaws or suite of offices to call home.
Fortunately for Kelleher, fate was on his side that hot, humid mid-July day back in 1982. In the end, the selection committee, made up of three of the 8 or 10 volunteers who spent many hours sitting around a dining room table at a former apartment building on Nashua’s Winter Street, chose Kelleher from some 100 applicants to become the director of Harbor Homes, which now goes by Harbor Care.
But as was emphasized, underscored and repeated so often one recent evening by agency leaders, volunteers, board members, clients, family members and Kelleher’s Harbor Care co-workers, it’s the tens of thousands of people who have benefitted, and tens of thousands more who will benefit, from Kelleher’s visionary leadership who are the real lucky ones in this equasion.
Folks who know Kelleher for a wide variety of reasons gathered that evening in the main meeting room at Harbor Care’s 45 High St. headquarters to shower praise and best retirement wishes upon Kelleher, who, at 68, is trading his suits and ties and dress shoes for a backpack full of hiking gear and soon heading to Springer Mountain, Georgia, to hop onto the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail and hike his way north to Maine’s Mt. Katahdin.
Lee Page, who along with the late Sister Lorraine Arsenault, a social worker and spiritual counselor with New Hampshire Catholic Charities, and Dorothy Colson, a social services leader from Hollis, made up the three-member selection committee, shared Kelleher’s story with the gathering.
“The day we hired Peter was a very auspicious day,” Page began, drawing laughs from those who have heard the story.
“We sent out ads for the job all over the place, we ended up getting more than 100 responses. We narrowed it to 40 (applicants), then to 10, and brought those 10 in for interviews,” Page said.
They settled on a date and notified the applicants. Interview day arrived hot and sultry, Page remembered. “Thank goodness the room we were in was air conditioned,” she said.
Nine of the applicants arrived more or less on time; the interviews went quite well, Page recalled. With one interview to go, the committee waited, and waited, and waited some more.
“We were getting pretty fed up, he was so late,” Page said, grinning occasionally as she spoke. Finally, the 28-year-old kid from Massachusetts arrived — his blue jacket and white shirt “just dripping” with perspiration.
The young man with the full head of dark hair and bold mustache excused himself, cleaned up as best he could, then took his seat at the table. He began with an apology.
“He told us he was on his way when he got a flat tire on the highway, and had to change it,” Page said. From his seat in the front row with his family, Kelleher grinned broadly while nodding his head.
Page, Arsenault and Colson each asked their candidate a couple of questions. “When he began to talk, we had the very good sense to shut up and just listen,” Page told the gathering. “He had a lot to say.”
But it wasn’t the quantity as much as the quality.
“As we were sitting there listening, we realized that everything Peter was saying was stuff we wanted to do” to grow the then-Harbor Homes into a formidable social services agency for Nashua area residents in need of services.
“He put it into words in a way that we could actually see it happen,” Page said.
At interview’s end, Kelleher was barely out the door when the trio looked at each other and nodded their heads in agreement.
“There was nothing to talk about. He’s the one,” Page said in recalling the series of events.
So as August arrived, so too did Kelleher, taking his seat at the head of that large dining room table where the group of men and women representing various social services causes, the area’s slowly developing resources for folks dealing with mental illness and homelessness, and a handful of their family members.
As was noted at Kelleher’s sendoff, the volunteers who brought then-Harbor Homes to fruition had taken nine people with mental illness under their collective wing, a nucleus on which the first board members and their newly hired leader began to build what would become an innovative, multi-agency nonprofit serving upwards of 5,000 people in need of services each year.
Joel Jaffe, a longtime Harbor Care board member who handled master of ceremonies duties at Kelleher’s retirement party, recalled meeting Kelleher through his late wife, June, who worked in the mental health field at the state level.
“She told me how impressed she was with Peter and the work the agency was doing,” Jaffe said of his late wife. As he became more familiar with Harbor Care and eventually joined the board, “I could see why she was so impressed,” he said.
“This, indeed, is the house that Peter built.”
Miles Pendry had not yet reached legal drinking age when he began his career at Harbor Care some 38 years ago. “The staff would go out for a drink and dinner and I had to drink Shirley Temples,” said Pendry, a jovial man with a quick wit who shared memories, many of them humorous, of Kelleher and the agency.
“It’s been a priviledge — and a challenge — to work with you for 38 years,” Pendry said. He called Kelleher a “visionary … who kept us moving,” and who was “like a father for me … he put up with a lot of things over the years,” he added to laughs.
Another longtime agency employee, Chris Gartland, was among members of the audience who asked to say a few words.
“Peter, I just want to thank you, because for me, personally, you afforded me so many opportunities over 23 years here, where I came to know and love our clients and staff.”
Gartland recalled Kelleher “being there for me when I had tragedies in my life,” and he noted that “before it was popular, you created a safe space for gay and lesbian people to work here,” drawing applause from the audience.
Wendy LeBlanc, a director of Southern New Hampshire HIV/AIDS Task Force and member of the Greater Nashua Continuum of Care, said Kelleher was the “first person in the state to recognize the need for specialized housing for people living with HIV and AIDS.”
Even before the task force became one of the several affiliates under the Harbor Care umbrella, LeBlanc said Kelleher saw the agency through the opening of its first permanent housing residence.
Bob and Hilary Keating, longtime Harbor Care volunteers and benefactors who in 2014 spearheaded the creation of the Ending Homelessness Fund, spoke briefly.
Hilary Keating cited the “generosity of spirit, generosity of time” that Kelleher exhibited over his 40 years leading Harbor Care.
Added Bob, “we have all slept better because of the work you’ve been doing these past 40 years.”
Also announced was the formation of a new initiative, the “Peter Kelleher Compassion & Innovation Fund,” which Jaffe, the master of ceremonies, said is tied to the naming of the agency’s largest room at its 45 High St. headquarters “The Kelleher Training and Innovation Space.”
A man of few words when it comes to speaking about himself, the guest of honor was clearly taken aback by the two-hour show of gratitude, praise, kind words and best wishes.
“Wow,” Kelleher began, smiling broadly as he stepped to the speaking platform.
“Just … wow. I’m completely stunned. I’m so blown over by all the accolades, all the love … it’s something I’ll never forget,” he continued.
As is Kelleher’s style, he reiterated his long-held belief that Harbor Care’s growth and success came about not so much because of what he did, but because of the many dedicated staff members, volunteers and board members surrounding him.
“You need to know this, that I’ve been so very lucky to be in this position,” he said. “You known, I haven’t really done all that much to be honest with you.
“I just stayed in the same place … and if you stay in the same place long enough, the good things will start to happen.”
Meanwhile, Page, one of the three early leaders who hired Kelleher, told him that while “all the finalists were pretty strong … none of them could hold a candle to you.
“You lit that candle, you lit up Harbor Care. You’ve done a fantastic job. We’re so fortunate you came to that interview — broken down car and all.”
Dean Shalhoup’s column appears weekly in The Sunday Telegraph. He may be reached at 594-1256 or firstname.lastname@example.org.