A program founded more than 20 years ago to cultivate future leaders in Thurston County is alive and well and about to top the 500 mark in graduates.
It’s called Leadership Thurston County, a 10-month program that each year educates 35 folks employed in business, government and nonprofit organizations in a range of topics that, when knitted together, speak to the fabric of life in South Sound.
It serves as a training ground for people who want to get more involved in their community, which benefits from a constantly renewed pool of engaged civic leaders.
At the core of the program sponsored by the Thurston County Chamber Foundation are monthly challenge days, which provide the participants with an insider’s view of slices of the community. They include education, business and economic development, government, law and justice, health and human services, arts and culture, and the environment.
The past two years, I’ve moderated a panel discussion about water quality problems facing our region, including stormwater runoff, urban on-site septic systems, legacy industrial pollution leaching into Budd Inlet, and others. The conversations were candid and well-received by the class.
Maybe it’s no coincidence that Jim Cooper, a member of the Leadership Thurston County class of 2009, was appointed to the Olympia City Council in 2011, elected to a full term in 2013, and recently named executive director of the United Ways of Washington.
“Leadership Thurston County was a catalyst in my personal and professional growth,” he says in a testimonial on the Leadership Thurston County website. “Through the program, I learned how things tick in Thurston County while expanding my network and making lifelong friends. I met many government and business leaders, including my Realtor — connections important to my work.”
The success of Leadership Thurston County was on full display Wednesday night at the Red Lion Inn in Olympia when 400 community leaders — some of them graduates of the program — gathered to honor three individuals singled out for contributions to business, education and public service in the community. The honorees were: Brian Vance, chief executive officer of Heritage Financial Corp. and Heritage Bank; Raj Manhas, North Thurston Public Schools superintendent; and state Sen. Karen Fraser, D-Thurston County.
All three sat through videos that sang their praises and additional glowing remarks from master of ceremonies Ralph Munro, someone else who exemplifies leadership in Thurston County. Here are a few tidbits from the profiles:
According to Munro, Vance is a lot like Bill Gates: “He handles a lot of money ($3.3 billion in assets) and is a college dropout.”
He also hosts an annual breakfast for some 400 corporate employees, flipping pancakes made from his family’s 35-year-old sourdough starter.
Bank client Jim Morris of J.A. Morris Construction LLC called him one of those rare business executives who answers his own phone. “He’s willing to work and talk with anyone,” Morris said. “He’s an old farmer boy from Idaho.”
Vance, uneasy in the spotlight, talked of how important it is for Heritage Bank to stay engaged in the community. As for the video, he said, “You need to show that to my mother.”
The Manhas biography traced his humble beginnings in a rural village in India through his years as a University of Washington-trained engineer, banking executive, Seattle Public Schools superintendent and, beginning in 2009, head of North Thurston Public Schools.
There was no mention of how tumultuous his tenure was at the helm of the Seattle school system, trying to work with a divided School Board that didn’t support his efforts to bring financial solvency to the school system, including closing some schools.
Manhas seems to have found a more welcoming school district and School Board in Lacey. “His focus on the whole child is such a wonderful vision,” North Thurston School Board member Leah Wells said.
Manhas spoke of life’s complexities and the role of education as the great equalizer. He seemed truly grateful for the award.
The crowd rose for a standing ovation when Fraser was introduced. Munro and others described her as one of the hardest working state senators, a champion of the environment and women’s rights, and a topnotch sailor in her younger years.
Fraser’s nearly 40 years of public service include more than seven as Lacey’s first female City Council member and mayor, eight years as a Thurston County Commissioner, four years in the state House, and 20 years in the state Senate.
The Seattle native recalled arriving in Olympia for a state government internship after graduating from the University of Washington with a master’s in public administration in 1969. She spent her first night in the capital city sleeping on a sofa at the Olympia YWCA, paying 50 cents for the privilege.
While searching for a home to rent, she just missed out on one located on Karen Frazier Road.
“I thought, you know, here’s a road with my name — I might like it here,” she joked 45 years later.
Never mind that the road’s name was misspelled.