I feel safe in noting that few of us, who have or are serving on nonprofit boards, have had the tenure of 50-plus years that Gerrit Kouwenhoven had in service to nonprofit agencies. This stalwart of the nonprofit environment passed away on Aug. 27.
Gerrit’s imprint on how a nonprofit organization should conduct themselves was without question, exemplary. He brought a level of grace and class to the board meetings of the organizations he had served.
Gerrit, starting back in the mid 1960s and soon after he married Ellie, his college sweetheart, made a commitment to the nonprofit profession, to be his life’s work -- when nonprofits were nowhere near as numerous as they are today.
In the mid 1970s, Gerrit and Ellie returned from the West Coast and settled in Rupert high on a hill, opposite the entrance to the Merck Forest and Farmland Center. It was then that he became active with the newly created Ethan Allen College in Manchester.
When the college closed in the early 80s Gerrit moved to another fledging nonprofit, not far from the college, Hildene. This ancestral home of Robert Todd Lincoln, in August 1978, commenced operations with a few dollars in the bank and even fewer volunteers and staff.
For 17 years, Gerrit was the Friends of Hildene’s executive director. It was during his tenure at Hildene that this historic home grew to be one of Vermont’s premiere tourist attractions. He shepherded the creation of a volunteer corps that would ultimately grow to over 350. His eloquence at persuasion and his Midas touch motivated volunteers and board members, to give of their time, talent and treasure.
It was during Gerrit’s time as executive director, that in 1991, Hildene had over 55,000 visitors pass through its doors added to which were the countless thousands who attended annual events -- the car show, candlelight tours, craft fairs, garden party and a plethora of other special events.
While Gerrit was guiding Hildene through its formative years he took on the chairmanship of the board of trustees of Long Trail School, in nearby Dorset. Founded in 1975, this internationally recognized center of learning owes so much to Gerrit’s leadership.
Gerrit’s commitment to Long Trail School was much in evidence right up to his remaining days. With his health compromised he assumed the role of chair of the board for a second time, when his predecessor was selected as head of school.
Gerrit’s influence with nonprofits was not purely local. Throughout Vermont, there are historic properties that in some form or another owe their new life to the role that Gerrit directed, as chairman of the board, of the Preservation Trust of Vermont. Most notably are the Grand Isle Lake House and the Latchis Hotel and Theater in Brattleboro. He had a passion to help and preserve many of the state’s ailing historic buildings.
His journeying around Vermont’s locales was not only for the PTV but also for the Vermont Conference of the United Church of Christ.
His tenure as its chair had him visiting many of the 140 churches that dot Vermont’s landscape.
However, as much as this champion of the nonprofit world wanted to preserve historic sites he also had a long and deep commitment to helping those who suffered from mental illness. For over 20 years he was a voice for them and he used his role as chair of the board of trustees of Bennington’s United Counseling Service as his bully pulpit.
Gerrit’s service to the nonprofit cause came to an end working at a site he treasured -- Merck Forest and Farmland Center. It was during his last weeks with us that, as board chair, he would meet with Merck’s executive director and receive updates on how the farm was faring.
Gerrit brought to his role as a leader of the nonprofit profession character traits that all of us should attempt to embrace -- respect for others, listening, commitment, dedication and integrity. His creed was simple -- principle trumps expediency.
Ellie, you and your family have allowed us to share your husband, father and grandfather -- Vermont is a much better place today for doing so.
Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington.