Employee Awards and Accolades

McCarthy reflects on career

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The walls of Bill McCarthy’s first-floor office are conspicuously devoid of adornments typical of a chief executive save for a pair of small placards strategically placed near Stairways Behavioral Heath’s president and CEO’s desk.

Their absence is not in anticipation of McCarthy’s impending retirement and the vacancy he will leave at the organization upon the end of the year. To be precise, awards and accolades have rarely ever enjoyed a prominent appointment in McCarthy’s office.

Instead, two signs that convey the simple philosophy McCarthy has tried to abide by are situated in their place.

“I am still learning,” reads a sign that sits on McCarthy’s desk, while the other depicts the oft-cited Winston Churchill quote “Never, never, never give up.” The words serve not just as motivation, but offer a built-in defense for the man whose office they reside.

“When people tell me I’ve screwed up or didn’t do something right, I tell them ‘This is the first time I’ve ever had this job, I’m still learning,” McCarthy says with a laugh.

If McCarthy’s ever wanted to learn, he’s just had to draw from his own wealth of experience—more than four decades worth. 

It was during a recent trip to Warren State Hospital— a place McCarthy currently serves as vice chair of the board and will assume the chair position next year—that McCarthy became awash in memories and reflections.

“When I started, Warren State Hospital was really a small village,” he says. “I remember seeing tractors out on the fields harvesting crops because they grew their own food and the doctors lived with their families on the grounds.”

The mental healthcare being offered has a significantly different look as well.

Mental Illness was, in many respects, the last health treatment to utilize an asylum model, McCarthy notes. A long-term hospital not only offered patients a place to remove themselves in an effort to recover, but was also a way to remove them from the rest of society.

“This is the first time I've ever had this job, I'm still learning."

In a way, McCarthy’s career has marked the time of the evolution of the mental health approach.

McCarthy began his career while in college as a houseparent at Sarah Reed Children’s Center, a position he credits for opening his eyes to “the humanity field.”

“I became smitten with the field of helping people,” he recalled, noting in his typical understated wit that he was unsure of his career path before holding this job. “I was originally interested in law, then archeology and anthropology, but it then became a question of ‘do I want to work with dea­­­­d skeletons of people or with people?’”

His uncertainty proved to be temporary, however, as he joined Stairways shortly after college in 1973. As part of a 16-person staff charged with helping a few hundred clients reintegrate into the community, McCarthy found himself addressing the common human issues with the people he served.

“As medicine got better, it opened up doors for people to leave the state hospitals, but where do they go (from there)?” McCarthy, who then worked at Community Care, a 40-bed residential site located at East 7th and French streets, said. “The house we ran really responded to the question ‘What do people want?’ Do they want a job? Do they want to fall in love? Do they want a place to live?

“The programs developed at that time were really to help people with those needs in their lives.”

It was also at this time that McCarthy realized the need for acceptance that is common among all people.

"I learned kindness is free and ought to be dispensed all the time," McCarthy said. "There is no substitute - you can be smart and tough but kindness is what is craved and needed by everyone you meet."

What initially began as an intended two-year stint at Stairways soon took on its own life for McCarthy.

He served as supervisor of Residential Services for five years, held the assistant executive director post for 15 years and eventually assumed CEO and president duties in 1998 at age 50.

During his tenure, McCarthy has seen Stairways grow from a modest operation into a 400-employee, 10,000-client outfit that is in the final stages of an affiliation to make it the most comprehensive behavioral health service provider in the Northwestern Pennsylvania.

For McCarthy, the growth is a testament to the organization’s unique marriage of compassion and resiliency.

“We are a soft company in that we provide great safety and compassion, yet we are tough,” McCarthy said. “We have gone through some major battles over the years and survived.

“It’s one thing to be magnanimous when everything is going right, but when things aren’t going well, how do you respond? That’s one of the things we want to demonstrate to our clients and live by ourselves. I think the fact that we’re over 50 years-old and still so relevant that we were the first organization to be bold enough to pursue such an affiliation shows how tough we are and that we can be relevant for another 50 years.”

McCarthy’s influence at Stairways can be easily observed in a number of different ways, and even extends to his family, as his daughter, Dr. Meghan McCarthy, has followed in his footsteps as well. Meghan serves as a physician at Stairways' Erie Outpatient Clinic.

Though he will soon abandon his position, McCarthy has no plans of doing the same to the organization that has provided him with not just a vocational role, but an identifying one as well.

“It’s like a childhood home that you drive by and have to look into the windows.”

For McCarthy, the view has always been of Stairways.

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