Gregg Nussbaum bids farewell (almost) after 33 years

Whether you’ve known Gregg Nussbaum well for decades or you’ve only met him once, there’s one trait that’s strikingly clear: The man is laid back.

There’s a story John Horsley tells that exemplifies his underwhelmed way. It was about six years ago, when John (who succeeds Gregg as VP of Adult Services) interviewed for his first position at Oaklawn. He and Gregg had worked together as community partners, so it wasn’t the first time they’d met, but they didn’t know each other well, either.

“We walked into his office and he described the job and he said, ‘Well, your credentials look good. You got any questions for me?’ ” John said. “The interview was maybe 20 minutes, and probably 17 was me asking questions. I thought, ‘Wow, he’s not going to hire me; he’s just entertaining me so I’ll go away.’ But that is classic Gregg Nussbaum.”

Yet Gregg’s no-nonsense approach and calm demeanor can’t mask his brilliance or his passion, say his long-time colleagues. His service on behalf of the marginalized is a legacy 45 years in the making.

The path to Oaklawn

Gregg grew up in Berne, IN, and earned a Bachelor of Social Work from IU-Bloomington in 1975. His senior year, he moved to Indianapolis for a field placement and began attending First Mennonite Church. There, he met Judy Snyder, a young medical student from Goshen whom he later married.

Gregg worked at Crossroads Rehabilitation Center in Indy helping to train people with disabilities for the workforce. One of his projects was a collaboration between Crossroads, IBM and Indy’s business community. The program trained quadriplegics to program and code and secured internships and jobs at Indy businesses. He also helped develop a transitional employment program. Gregg worked at Crossroads for 10 years and during that time also earned a Master’s in Rehabilitation Administration from Southern Illinois University.

“So I was actually working with a lot of psychiatrically disabled people at Crossroads in addition to physically disabled people and really liked the population,” Gregg said.

It was around that time Hal Loewen, Oaklawn’s then-CEO, called to recruit Dr. Snyder to join Oaklawn’s team. He ended up recruiting them both.

Early days at Oaklawn

Gregg started at Oaklawn on August 1, 1985. There was only the Elkhart campus, about 100 employees and Dr. Snyder was Oaklawn’s first woman psychiatrist. Services for the seriously mentally ill were located at Lexington House, a three-story building in downtown Elkhart and former home of the YMCA. Oaklawn operated a residential program on the top floor, services were provided on the second floor, and the first floor had a few offices and a cafeteria that was open to the public.

“The idea was that my job at Oaklawn would be to develop kind of a work program for the seriously mentally ill, and at that time, there were grant monies available to help develop those programs,” Gregg said. “We started looking at psychiatric rehabilitation models and we visited Thresholds in Chicago. They were doing basically everything we wanted to do, so we had them come and do a consultation with us. Out of that consultation, we developed a kind of Clubhouse program within Lexington House.”

Eventually, Oaklawn closed Lexington House. The building required costly improvements and the cafeteria was losing money. At the same time, there was an opportunity to move Oaklawn clients into HUD housing adjacent to the Elkhart campus.

Growing at Oaklawn

Gregg’s role continued to grow with the organization. He assumed responsibility for the day treatment program in Elkhart and all services to the seriously mentally ill. In 1991, after Sandy Kauffman became Executive Director of the community mental health center, Gregg was named Assistant Director, then Director of Outpatient Services, which at that time encompassed both child and adolescent and adult services. In 1996, the structure changed, with Gregg becoming VP of Adult Services and Laurie Nafziger VP of Child & Adolescent Services.

“I have the unique experience of having been a long-time colleague of Gregg’s, first in the corporate management team under Hal’s leadership,” Nafziger said. “When it was announced that I would become CEO, he was really gracious. We had a lunch early on and he said, ‘I will be supportive of you. I’m glad you got it.’ I knew he was on my team.”

Gregg continued to oversee adult services, with a special passion for housing.

“He fought valiantly for housing,” said Brenda Chupp, manager of Adult Clinical Services in South Bend. “You get a lot of the NIMBYs – not in my back yard – where people don’t want group homes and apartments. He’s worked with city councils and mayors, done grant writing and gone after funding for sustainable housing. So we have a really large, well-run housing program in large part because of his work.”

Gregg increased the number of group homes, initiated the supportive housing partnership with LaCasa, was instrumental in opening Oliver Apartments and worked with property owners and managers in both counties to expand scattered site options for clients. He’s even started projects that have yet to be publicly announced. He prioritized housing because he knows the impact it has on recovery, he says. People are unlikely to stick to a recovery plan if they don’t know where they’re going to live or eat the next day. And although Gregg did not start Oaklawn’s Amish program, he helped it flourish, and all three Amish homes were built during his tenure as VP.

“He had the trust and credibility to carry it forward,” Nafziger said.

Throughout his work, colleagues say, he truly cared about others, clients and staff alike.

“I always perceived Gregg as somebody who lives in spirit,” said Francis Disori, director of community support programs, who worked for Gregg for 17 years. “He carries with him a spirit of helping and caring for people.”

Looking to the future

Gregg stepped down as Vice President in February, but has stayed as a consultant working with housing and the Amish program as new leaders are acclimated.

“I haven’t had any trouble walking away from the day-to-day work,” he said. “It’s been great getting up in the morning thinking, ‘What am I gonna do all day?’ ”

That’s been the biggest change, he says. He went from being ultimately responsible for 185 employees to being responsible for only himself. He went from making a $15 million budget work to just balancing his own checkbook.

He hasn’t made big plans for retirement – he’s not a fan of international travel, though he might like to see more of the U.S. in the coming years. For now, he’s happy with the occasional trip to St. Paul to see his son and daughter-in-law. Otherwise, he enjoys helping take care of his grandson who lives locally and still loves spending time with his wife. He’s made a personal commitment to bike instead of drive as much as possible this summer.

As he looks back on his time at Oaklawn, he appreciates the people he’s worked with. It’s been a good experience – he wouldn’t have stayed if it hadn’t been, he says.

“I don’t think we’ve ever lost our focus on what our mission is,” he said. “I would say that’s one of the reasons we’ve been successful. And we’ve always been able to hire good people who have bought into the mission.”

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