This summer Gary Danielsen retired after serving for 18 years as President and CEO of Lutheran Services of Georgia. He will be honored Thursday evening at LSG’s annual Heroes of Hope event for his accomplishments and contributions to the agency. Some members of LSG’s staff were around to witness many of these accomplishments and contributions, having worked with Gary for all or most of the 18 years that he served as President and CEO. How do they remember him as a leader, coworker, and friend?
According to staff, Gary was an enthusiastic leader who was willing to take risks to expand LSG’s services. Gary Johnstone, now in his twelfth year at the agency, recalls a moment when LSG was attempting to broaden its FACES program. Gary D. persuaded investors to contribute $150,000 to finance the extension of FACES. “Those guys,” Gary J. explains, referring to the investors, “heard enough enthusiasm and belief coming out of him that they were willing to fly down to Atlanta and meet with us and discuss our program and then invest money, expecting nothing back—they just gave us the money—so it was a huge outcome for us, a huge benefit, and that was one of his major accomplishments for us.” Steve Oliver, also in his twelfth year, recounts another challenge that Gary confronted as LSG’s leader. In the fall of 2000, at a time when refugee services and adoption were LSG’s two main programs, Gary had to decide whether or not to expand the foster care and adult placement programs. He decided to finance the expansion of foster care and adult placement, a move which Steve thinks “required that he get out of his comfort zone.” Steve praises Gary’s willingness to take calculated risks and lauds his broad vision for the agency. “He actually saw the possibility of what could happen,” Steve adds, “and fortunately it paid off in growth without detracting from anything else.”
As an ordained minister in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Gary was also influenced by his faith. He was compassionate toward his employees and the clients of LSG’s services. Mary Kay Kates, who has worked at LSG for 22 years, describes Gary as a “very caring and compassionate person about everyone he met, but in particular about the clients we served and about the vulnerable populations in general.” Obaid Rasoul, who has been a refugee services case manager for 30 years, remarks that Gary would always ask about Obaid’s family when passing by in the hallway. Obaid also thinks that Gary deepened his concern for refugees and their families after returning from his time in the Middle East as an Army chaplain.
Not many people are CEOs, pastors, and Army Reserve members at the same time. As Steve remarks about Gary, “He had different hats.” “Sometimes you’d see him in the clerical collar,” Steve says, “and then there’s the uniform, and then there’s the suit, and then there’s the short-sleeve shirt.” “He could relax at a potluck lunch for someone leaving the office,” Steve continues, “but at the same time he could deliver a sermon to a Lutheran congregation and speak to the Board of Directors, and enjoy seeing a little baby get adopted.” A man of many hats indeed.
Did Gary have a sense of humor as well? You bet. Mary Kay points to the 1999 Hunger Walk as an example of Gary’s “fun-loving side.” To encourage the staff of LSG to raise funds for the Hunger Walk, the coordinator of the event convinced Gary to let the person who raised the most money hit him in the face with a pie. Who raised the most money? Mary Kay. A picture is worth more than a thousand words: