When he was hired for a two-month temporary assignment in the summer of 1975 to help resettle refugees, current Catholic Charities of Tennessee executive director Bill Sinclair had no idea he would end up staying with the agency for more than 41 years.
It was a Friday when he joined the then three-person agency staff...he made four. Sr. Andrea Vaughn, D.C. was the executive director. "Our intent was to resettle thirty refugees in two months," he recalled recently.
As his assignment was nearing its end, Bill loved his Catholic Charities work so much that he declined another job that had been waiting for him to complete his Master of Social Work studies to stay with the agency.
Eventually, Catholic Charities resettled hundreds in the first few months and more than 500 in the first couple of years. The agency's dedication to serving and resettling refugees has remained steadfast over his tenure. He estimated that more than 25,000 refugees have been resettled since mid-1975.
During his first two years, Sinclair served as Catholic Charities' Refugee Resettlement coordinator. He also assisted with the agency's budgets and program plans, while Sr. Andrea directed the agency's vision and public/community relations.
"We were a complementary team," he remembered fondly. "Her nickname for me was ‘Sweet William'."
Before long, Sinclair earned more and more responsibility within the agency. In July 1977, he became executive director of St. Mary Orphanage (now St. Mary Villa Child Development Center), splitting his time between Saint Mary Villa on White Bridge Road and Catholic Charities' office at the former Catholic Center (Hillsboro Road).
Residential care for children and children's needs were changing greatly at this time. After a comprehensive study and comparative analysis of other agencies across the state, Sinclair proposed a new direction for the facility with programs to better serve childcare needs of the time.
"We learned that children weren't going to residential programs anymore, so we created child care for low-income families and families in education. That's where the need was," he explained. "I am proud that we came up with a model that is still used today-the sliding fee scale-which welcomes all age and income ranges for our childcare program."
Over the next decade, Catholic Charities expanded its reach and scope of services, including providing counselors in Catholic schools and increasing wrap-around services for refugee families beyond resettlement, such as support for children and employment assistance for adults.
In October 1986, Sr. Andrea returned to the Daughters of Charity community in Evansville, IN. Bill Sinclair succeeded her as the executive director of Catholic Charities of Tennessee.
Before leaving, she shared some advice which Sinclair said he has always taken to heart: maintain positive relationships; aim for a win-win situation for all; be loyal to the Diocese; and don't surprise anyone.
In recalling her advice, Bill affirmed that he has always tried to encourage positive relationships and has learned that he can do good business and not always "win" the deal.
More important, her instruction to be loyal struck a chord with what he had learned from his family, especially his father, a retired Air Force colonel and general. "He instructed me, ‘Whatever you do, do it well. And don't complain.' My dad was into loyalty and doing it well. That is what I always tried to do."
This loyalty was clearly expressed to the three Diocese of Nashville bishops under whom Sinclair has served: the late Bishop James Niedergeses, retired Bishop Edward Kmiec, and current Bishop David Choby.
"It's remarkable how many commonalities there were among these three leaders," he shared. "No one was uniquely different in terms of their support of Catholic Charities or their guidance; their priorities were always similar."
"From one administration to the next, there were different personalities, but each of them was completely in agreement with the position of CCUSA: to serve people in need (not just Catholics). Service does not put a boundary based on your faith. Each bishop gave a substantial amount of freedom to the Board and to me, but I also never surprised any of them. I am very careful to do a good job, following my dad's advice."
As one might do when preparing to retire from a multi-decade career, Sinclair has been reflecting on both his successes and challenges as executive director.
"We've always had a great reputation in the community of being good at what we do and dependable. In the last 20 years, we've had amazing boards; our trustees are really a highlight of the organization."
He said that a change made about 20 years ago "made the Board more of an asset for the Agency."
"I spent more time with Board members and was more intentional about how we formed committees and assigned responsibilities. They trust me and I trust them."
This growth in trust and responsibility increased the support Sinclair and the agency received from the community, while also lightening the load he and the staff were carrying. "[This change] made all the difference."
When reflecting on challenges he faced during his tenure, Nashville's May 2010 flood quickly came to mind since it affected people across all socio-economic lines. "People who had never struggled with needing help before were devastated."
The community response was incredible, and the partnership and collaboration that resulted across agencies, especially through United Way of Metropolitan Nashville, was one of the most impressive parts of the disaster response, he said.
Sinclair has begun a short list of retirement goals he will dive into after his retirement on January 31, 2017. Healthy cooking classes, spending more time on physical exercise (especially tennis), taking some adult education classes at Vanderbilt, and, perhaps, teaching again (as he did for 20 years at the University of Tennessee College of Social Work) are all on the list.
When he thinks about the future of Catholic Charities of Tennessee, his hope is for stability. "Bigger is not necessarily better," he explained.
"We have reached a point where we need to maintain the quality and efficiency of our agency. If I were to remain on staff for 10 more years, my focus would not be on growing the budget and programming, but on stabilizing the agency."
After nearly 42 years with Catholic Charities of Tennessee and an earlier four years with Catholic Charities in Dayton, OH (now called Catholic Social Services of the Miami Valley), Sinclair definitely has thoughts: "In looking back at my 46 years, I do feel that I've made a difference. I'm thrilled at what I've done with my life. This was the right career for me. I was fortunate to do what I wanted to do."
"When people engage in their work with a sense of fidelity, it's not just a job that you ‘go and get done'-but you are there because you really care."
Thank you, Bill Sinclair, for caring all of these years and for growing Catholic Charities of Tennessee for the benefit of our neighbors in need. The clients who have been served, the staff you have managed, and the community-at-large are all grateful to you for your service!