Many would agree that for someone once described as “a young upstart” from the North Side, Bill Laden has done a pretty good job in Northeast Minneapolis.
Laden started work at East Side Neighborhood Services (ESNS) in 1981 and became the executive director (now president) in 1989. He has overseen construction of a new building at 1700 2nd St. NE, partnered with a local health clinic to serve women and children, and added an alternative high school and a mobile food shelf to the agency’s services. He has provided leadership for Friendship Center, an adult day care, and Camp Bovey, a youth summer camp in Wisconsin, and has added classes and programs, such as job training for seniors.
Laden will retire at the end of May. ESNS is hosting a farewell celebration for him on May 17, 4:00-6:30 p.m.
A lifetime of service
Long-time Northeast business owner Walt Sentyrz, whose grocery store lies across the street from ESNS said, “Bill came on board when Joe Holewa was there. They were in the old Nut House building at 1929 2nd St. NE.” (The Nut House was Northeast Neighborhood House’s nickname; Holewa was the former executive director.) “At first, Joe didn’t know what to make of Bill. Joe was an ex-basketball player at the University of Minnesota, who’d been hanging around with guys like John Kundla and Bud Grant.
“He hired this young upstart Jewish guy from the North Side. Joe took a liking to him, not knowing if he’d stay or not. It turned out that Bill had good work credentials, obvious people skills, and could speak well.
“It’s hard for me to fathom how much Bill has accomplished,” Sentyrz added. “He is not a typical type A personality, but the number of people he knows and the amount of work he has done is phenomenal. He took the leadership and ran with it. This community needed childcare, adult day care, transportation, a food shelf. While Joe had insight into people who needed housing and food, it was a small operation. If he had 10 programs going, that was a lot. Now Bill has 10 programs going in five different locations. Bill understands the needs of the people. He never worries about failing.”
Susan McCauley, ESNS chief performance officer, said, “Bill has been a mainstay with the organization. East Side Neighborhood Services is in a good position because we’ve had such stable leadership. His background is in social work. He knows what community-based social work looks like.
“East Side is based on the settlement house model,” she added. “Our programs change because the community is always changing. We have become a nimble organization. The diversity of programs is really very exciting. We’re feeling pretty lucky here. We have enjoyed staff stability and a continued presence in the community. People like it here and stay. It is a vocation, not a job.
“Bill is pretty gracious,” McCauley said. “I’ve been working with him forever. He doesn’t like to be in the spotlight. It’s been all about the organization and what’s good for the community. Although this kind of transition is hard, it will be a new chapter for him.”
“I grew up on the Northside,” Laden said. “In the 1950s and 1960s, my dad owned the Ben Franklin at Penn and Broadway. I went to Willard and Lincoln [elementary and junior high schools] and North High School.” He earned a double major in child psychology and social work at the University of Minnesota.
In the summers, he worked at a youth camp in northern Minnesota. After earning a master’s degree in social work from the University of Wisconsin, he worked at the St. Paul Jewish Community Center and in the summers, worked at the Emma Kaufmann Camp in West Virginia. “I love the outdoors and camping. I’ve spent every year of my life since I was 17 working at a camp. Camp Bovey [owned by ESNS] was a draw to go to East Side.”
Coming to Northeast from North Minneapolis, he said, was quite an experience for him. “In the old days, the Jewish community center in North was the Emanuel Cohen Center. In Northeast, the community center was the Nuthouse. Kids didn’t cross the river.”
Laden said that Holewa groomed him for the job of executive director. “Joe was such a great mentor and friend to me. I worked for him for eight years; he retired the same weekend that my wife Laurie and I got married, in September, 1989.”
Laden said that when he came to East Side, it had $1 million in funding; most of it came from United Way. “Now it’s $7.2 million in funding. United Way provides about two percent.” He said that many of ESNS’ programs, such as Menlo Park Alternative High School, are doing well. “Menlo Park has 70 kids attending a day. It has been a contract alternative school for more than 30 years. About 27 years ago, it was at Sheridan Elementary School. I brought it to the agency, and we operated it out of the basement at the old neighborhood house.”
Employment training for senior adults is another ESNS program that has been evolving and expanding. “We find jobs for low-income seniors. They are subsidized minimum wage jobs, usually 20 hours a week, in non-profits and sections of government. We felt that we needed to expand our senior services and were able to get a few grants,” Laden said.
ESNS added the mobile food shelf after Hy Rosen, who for years ran the Greater Lake Country Food Bank, died. “His board came to me,” Laden said. “They were doing wonderful things.” ESNS took over Greater Lake Country’s warehouse at 544 8th Ave. N. The agency’s East Side Mobile Food Shelf delivers food to 40 senior high rises in Hennepin County.
Laden said that one of his proudest moments was when, at the grand opening for the new ESNS building in 2001, he was able to announce that the $8.2 building was totally paid for.
“This agency is in strong financial shape,” he added. “We have $1.5 million in operating reserve funds.” The 100th anniversary campaign two years ago brought in $230,000, which they used to repair and replace vehicles for the senior and youth programs. “The Northeast Kiwanis, Northeast Lions and East Side Exchange Club all helped,” Laden said. “I’m really proud of this community. It is willing to help its neighbors in everything from infant care to senior care.”
Organizations and committees
Through the years, Laden has become well-known in the greater metropolitan community. Many staff members, politicians, business owners, and civic leaders say that he has earned their friendship and respect.
Anne Long, executive director of PCYC, Plymouth Christian Youth Center in North Minneapolis, has served with Laden on the Minneapolis Federation of Alternative Schools board for years. Laden has been its president twice; currently he is vice president. (ESNS and PCYC’s contract alternative schools report to the Minneapolis Public School district.) She and Laden also have worked together on the Metropolitan Alliance of Connected Communities.
“Bill Laden is absolutely one of my favorite people,” Long said. “We have shared the ups and downs of our schools, the worries, the triumphs, the funding. I admire his ability to problem solve and stay steady. It has been nice to share some of the hardships of our jobs, and nice to be able to call the other about problems and trust each other to be confidential colleagues.”
Dan Johnson, Catholic Eldercare CEO, said, “Bill is always very generous and very interested in the community. He wants to see seniors receive the best possible care and life experiences. For me, he is synonymous with East Side; it is a shining example of a good community partner. I think there’s something to be said about a leader who comes and stays. It provides an uncommon service to multiple generations.”
Tom Beck, CEO and President of Northeast Bank, is one of Laden’s long-time friends. Beck said they met when they served on a local committee together. Later, Beck served on ESNS’s capital campaign committee. Through the years, the bank has been involved as a corporate supporter for ESNS fundraisers, donating time organizing, as well as money.
“I’ve known Bill more than 35 years, and he hasn’t changed a bit. He is one of the most truly decent people I’ve ever met,” Beck said. “He is the nicest guy, so committed to helping people. As far as his retirement, I’m happy for him but sad to see him go. He’s earned it; he’s an icon in the neighborhood. He’s had an incredible impact on the Northeast community. His legacy will be here for a long time.”
Steve Knutson, of Neighborhood HealthSource, said that when he was appointed executive director, “Almost immediately, Bill reached out to me. He was the first person outside of our organization to contact me. He was helpful and very interested in helping me get my feet under me to be successful.” Knutson said that he, Laden, and Johnson worked together on the Healthy Aging Northeast initiative.
ESNS and Neighborhood HealthSource own a building together at 13th and University avenues NE that houses the Sheridan Women and Children’s Clinic and PICA Head Start. In the past, it housed an ESNS early childhood program called NEST, North East Strong Together.
Knutson said that Laden has been a good example for him. “He’s a rare person; he has steered ESNS on a course and made sure that it continues to be a community asset. The agency has evolved; at every point, they come up with new ways to serve the community. If you don’t have strong, talented leadership, you can’t survive, and you don’t find the level of commitment to mission anymore like you see in Bill Laden.”
Settlement house history
East Side Neighborhood Services has continued the mission of the Northeast Neighborhood House, founded in 1915, and also the area’s second settlement house, Margaret Barry House, with which it merged in 1966. The original mission of a settlement house was to help immigrants assimilate into the community, teaching job skills such as carpentry, cooking, and sewing, and offering classes in English and citizenship. There were also athletics programs and dancing classes.
Walter Dziedzic, former First Ward City Council Member and Minneapolis Park commissioner, said, “My mother was helped by Northeast Neighborhood House. When she came to this country, she lived on 20th and 2nd, across from the Nut House. She learned American homemaking skills like knitting and making quilts. They had a sewing school on the fifth floor. In 1941, I was standing next to her when she was sworn in as a citizen. I was nine years old. She was crying, and I didn’t understand why.”
In later years, Dziedzic became well-acquainted with Holewa. “When Bill took over from Joe Holewa, he stepped into some pretty big shoes. He learned fast, and he’s done a great job. He’s the one who built the new building. When Bill takes on a job, he finishes it. He’s a hard worker, and he took on big jobs. When I was in office, a lot of times people would call me and need things. I would call Bill and say, ‘can you help me out?’ He would help them get things like clothes or furniture.
“He’s a miracle worker,” Dziedzic said. “He’ll be missed more than people realize.”
When asked why he is retiring, Laden said “I’m 66 years old and I have been doing this for 37 years. I’ve seen so many people that I was close to, in the community and the non-profit sector, who have come and gone. Now sometimes at meetings, it seems like I don’t know anybody.” Two years ago, he told the ESNS board that he would be retiring in 2017. The executive committee and a search firm began work on finding a replacement.
“I’ve loved working at the agency,” he said. “I’m amazed it’s been 37 years. I’ve seldom had time to look back. It’s always going forward, always something new: a challenge, or an opportunity. I’m so pleased with how my career has gone. East Side Neighborhood Service is a wonderful place to be and work for.”
The farewell party at ESNS on May 17 4:00-6:30 p.m. will include a short program at 5:30. For more information, call 612-781-6011.
Below: Bill Laden (Photo by Gail Olson)