Not too many years ago, I found myself squarely on the “hot seat.” I was a board member attending a meeting where the question before us was whether to keep or fire the chief executive. The board had listened to all the pros and cons and had considered a variety of options. We were in executive session and the tension was high. Finally, a motion to fire was on the table. One by one, we proceeded around the board table, with each trustee declaring her or his vote.
As the decision juggernaut moved toward me, I became increasingly certain that I was going to cast the decisive vote. I regretted that I habitually chose a seat at the corner of the table so I that I could spread out all my papers. My normally roomy spot felt suddenly confining. Indeed, my vote was going to be the last one and my fellow board members were equally divided. I voted and we called the chief executive back into the room to announce our corporate decision. Then we moved into a new future. For a moment, I really felt the weight of being a trustee, and I knew firsthand just how large a difference one trustee can make in an institution’s life.
Although situations like this one occasionally remind us of a board’s power, for most of us, for most of the time, boards of directors and trustees are invisible entities that we hear little about. More inscrutable still are the individuals who make up a particular board. Since boards act collectively, we rarely hear of the difference an individual board member makes.
Recently, however, the Alban Institute had a moment to do just that. At our most recent board meeting, the trustees adopted a resolution to honor Dorothy (Dottie) T. Yingling, who had served as an Alban Trustee from 1987 to 1994, and as Alban’s treasurer for five of those years. Her death on April 12, 2005, gave us an occasion to gather up our “Dottie stories” and reflect on what she had done for us.
Dottie’s board years preceded my coming to Alban as president, but her interest in the organization was a constant, so I met with her frequently and learned about her from the stories she told and through the lore that had attached itself to her name in our institutional memory. Her colorful personality had made board meetings vigorous and board dinners a delight, I learned, and she had a great life story, too, one that included airplane crashes, World War II adventures, life as a pastor’s wife, and success at breaking the glass ceiling at one of the largest corporations in the U.S.
Dottie loved to tell her story, and never missed a chance to do so. She claimed that she had saved Alban from fiscal disaster, and many agree. Dottie had significant corporate and business experience and she pressed the institution to improve its fiscal and management practices. Her tenacity challenged the Alban ethos, but it also made real growth and change possible.
Perhaps most memorable is how much Dottie loved the church and its ministers. She felt that the church and its clergy were in crisis and she doggedly believed that Alban could and should make a difference. She invested her time and her resources to create programs that could help pastors make the transition from seminary to congregation, and she did one of the things that institutions most need from their trustees: she believed in the organization she served.
Dottie’s story gives flesh and blood to one of my favorite definitions of trusteeship: to hold an institution in trust for a public good and service to many. During my first visit to her home, Dottie wrote out a check for $10,000, saying, “Here, this is to prove to you that people will give money to the Alban Institute.” When she died, she left one more legacy, the largest personal gift to Alban in our 30-year history, a gift equaled only by her many years of service, support, and faith.
It’s no wonder, then, that our board responded on April 22, 2005, with a resolution to recognize Dottie for the ways she strengthened and furthered the work of the Alban Institute, and to remember the ways in which Alban, congregations, clergy, and lay leaders will benefit from her generosity and vision for years to come.
There are countless Dotties out there, serving on congregational, community, civic, and not-for-profit boards. It is so important that we recognize the difference they make, that we thank them, and that we hold them up as examples for the rest of us to emulate.
Rest in peace, Dottie—and thanks.
Rev. Dr. James P. Wind is the president of the Alban Institute. Prior to joining the Institute in 1995, he served as program director at the Lilly Endowment’s religion division. Dr. Wind is the author of three books and numerous articles, including “The Alban Institute Special Report on Leadership.”