What made Nitti a great leader?
A few weeks back, I attended a retirement party for Rick Nitti.
Rick was stepping down after 18 years as executive director of Neighborhood House, based in Multnomah Village. His tenure was wildly successful. Nitti took over a nonprofit with an operating budget of just over $2 million and tripled it. His starting staff of 63 grew to 160.
At the party, several dignitaries praised Nitti. Mayor Ted Wheeler, once on the Neighborhood House board, spoke of how his board experience prepared him serve as state treasurer and as Portland's mayor. Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish expressed his deep gratitude to Nitti as a friend and fellow servant in the cause of improving the lives of the less fortunate.
As I listened, I wondered what it was about Nitti's leadership that had earned such praise and success. Part of the answer came when it was Nitti's turn to speak. He was disarmingly modest, attributing Neighborhood House's success to others — its employees, its contributors, the board members, partner organizations.
Nitti's natural humility gave force to his words. What he had done, he said, was simply encourage and help his talented staff do their best.
The story of Nitti's humility and nurturing goes back to his youth, coming of age and early social service work in his native Chicago. Through the third grade, his family was working class, he said; he played and, yes, was nurtured at one of Chicago's settlement houses. The most famous, of course, was and is Jane Addams' legendary Hull House, a crucible for social reforms such as the eight-hour work day, public sanitation, a juvenile court system and the elimination of child labor.
In high school , NItti was a varsity running back and generally considered a "jock." "I wasn't a particularly good student," he said. "I didn't go on to one of those 'fancy' universities." After graduating, he considered the military but became an outspoken and active opponent to the Vietnam War.
In college at the University of Illinois' Chicago campus, he earned a bachelor's in education and went on to Loyola University's Erikson Institute for a master's in interdisciplinary human development. But that early settlement experience never left him. A third-generation American of Jewish and Italian ancestry, he was part of a famiy that climbed out of poverty and believed that its members had a responsibility to give back, he said.
"It was like I was being called to this ministry of service to others," he said.
Eventually, that calling took him to Hull House for 11 years and to his core understanding of leadership. He recites the words of Pat Sharp, the Hull House assistant director, who hired him: "I'm giving you a stage to perform on," she said. "I'll make sure you have the resources to do the best job you can."
Nitti came to Oregon after marrying Jan Jewett, who was from an old and prominent Portland family. It was a starkly different world from what he had known. The challenge — and being accepted — gave him confidence.
Nitti became involved in social services, but he also opened a small business, Mailboxes Etc. (now the UPS store) in Hillsdale, to "try something different." The store and Rick and Jan's home in Hillsdale led to deep friendships.
When the Neighborhood House executive director job opened up, he felt the call to serve the underprivileged once more. He set about "nurturing the nurturer" by initiating a health insurance plan that had no deductibles or co-pays. He focused on improving employee training to help the staff better serve clients. He also enlisted close Hillsdale friends for the Neighborhood House board: Ted Coonfield, Josh Kadish, John Calhoun, Ellen Singer and others.
He set out to involve surrounding neighborhoods in the agency's work, particularly combating hunger that had grown to crisis proportions during the recession. Working through faith congregations, Neighborhood House Launched "Project Hope," which raised money for its emergency food bank program.
A strong believer in ecumenicalism, he brought Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities together to help the poor.
Seeing the need for health services, 12 years ago Neighborhood House served as an incubator for the Southwest Community Health Center, also in Multnomah Village. The new Early Childhood Development Center across from the Mittleman Jewish Community Center was another Neighborhood House undertaking.
Surprisingly, Nitti says he doesn't consider himself a leader with a strategic plan. He harkens to his time as a running back in high school. "Running backs look for opportunities in the moment," he said. "That's what I do."
Nitti's gridiron skill found dozens of opportunities here, and he has led thousands down the field with him.
An update: I'm sad to report the death of Tom Mummey at the age of 94 in April of this year. Tom was the subject of a June 2016 column that recounted his World War II correspondence/romance with Elaine Durst, who would become his bride after Tom's return from Europe. They had been married 70 years when she died in June of 2014.
A correction: Because rapid changes in the recycling world got away from me while I was on vacation, an error appeared in the November issue. Contrary to what I reported, New Seasons no longer takes recycled plastics.