WALLA WALLA - A career spanning nearly half a century is pretty good for a guy who came close to not resurfacing in more than one canoeing accident.
That he had a couple of near drownings is a little-known fact about Richard Pankl, who retired from his job as regional director of Children's Home Society of Washington on Friday, shutting the office door on the formal part of a vocation that was seeded in his Whitman College days.
The water mishap information comes courtesy of Chris Howard, who worked with Pankl at the nonprofit agency for 23 years.
Like many others, Howard said he's sorry to see Pankl leave behind the work that has impacted so many kids and their families. "He has a rock-solid commitment to children and families."
The spark for the fire that still burns today began for Pankl in 1963, when he and his friend, Malinda - who later became Malinda Pankl - were set up as volunteer tutors through a religion professor. Whitman students went to the Blue Mountain Boys Ranch, Children's Home Society and the Farm Labor Housing to help kids with homework and education basics.
That blossoming interest was nurtured by a stint in the Peace Corps after graduation, Pankl said, and in 1979, he came to work for the Walla Walla agency as a child and family counselor. He became regional director in 1999.
Children's Home Society of Washington is renowned for its work on behalf of children and families, in advocacy and service provider roles. It was founded in 1896, primarily as an adoption agency.
Children's Home Society of Washington established a Walla Walla office in 1947.
About 35 years ago, the agency evolved into children's service provider of residential and group care for troubled children. Today it is considered a multi-service organization providing a range of family support and therapeutic services, including early childhood education, child and family counseling and advocacy.
In Walla Walla, Pankl has been the enthusiastic face of the mission for decades, noted Dick Cook. With an energy that has "stayed at peak level for years and years."
Having known and worked with the director for 30 years, Cook believes Pankl to be irreplaceable. Not just in the office on Penny Lane, but everywhere Pankl has been, Cook said. That includes sitting on numerous committees and laboring with several task forces.
"The Children's Forum, for example. Richard was right there in the beginning, a member of a group of six or seven that really made it happen," Cook recalled.
"He may not always be in the forefront, but he's the guy with the resources and the vision to make it happen."
Three years ago, Cook - a retired college educator and administrator - made a list of his personal heroes, he said. "He was in my top five," he said of his colleague.
Pankl approached every project with the enthusiasm of a kid excited about his own birthday, and with solid data and research to hand out like party favors. His position allowed him to not only help bring ideas to life, but to make them sustainable, Cook said.
There are a multitude of agencies in Walla Walla that help children, said Melissa Clearfield. "I think Richard has a hand in all of them. He sort of embodies all this community does to help children."
Pankl has been a tireless advocate for early childhood services, she said. "He just knew that's when you really need to give families and children the most support. That is hope they become good citizens."
Clearfield has not been working with Pankl as long as many in the area, she pointed out. An associate professor of psychology at Whitman, she came on board at Children's Home Society in 2002 and joined the agency's Home Team effort in 2006, offering parent mentoring to at-risk families.
It's nigh impossible to deny any of Pankl's requests for help, Clearfield said with a laugh. "He is so warm and genuine, even when he is asking us for time and money. I don't ever seem to mind when it comes to Richard ... he is really hard to say ‘no' to."
While loathe to talk about himself, Pankl conceded his vision has brought the nonprofit program to a higher standard of reaching and serving families, while diversifying its funding base.
Using evidence-based practices and giving staff the freedom to learn and grow has meant a stronger approach to solving community ills.
Not enough has changed however, Pankl bemoaned. While declining overall, the rate of sexual abuse against local children continues to climb for kids ages 5 to 7, and boys in general, he said, shaking his head. "That is alarming."
Loss of a parent, substance abuse and mental illness in a parent are problems that have plagued every generation of children for some time, Pankl explained. "What we see here, so much, is the impact of drugs and alcohol ... directly on the children, but also on their parents. Who grew up addicted themselves. That's where our energy has to be."
The state spends hundreds of millions of dollars on its penitentiary system, Pankl added. "That's because of the kids we failed 20 years ago."
He remembers clearly when he saw the writing on the wall. "It was in the '70s, I think, the early '70s. And there was an ad for some sort of women's product, he said. "The tag line was, ‘Because you're worth it.'"
In his opinion, it was the pivotal point in time announcing an era of self-centered entitlement, Pankl, 66, recalled.
"I thought, ‘Oh my goodness. If we get to that point, we become glutted with all that stuff.'"
He can't help but have some lingering regrets, despite the accolades of others. "The thing that is the hardest is the children I let down. When the service we provided wasn't good enough," Pankl said. "You do what you can, but we didn't keep them all safe."
There is personal remorse, as well. He grew up in an era where people did their duty, putting their home lives in the background. "I remember there would be times I would be working late at night and think ‘Who's with my children?'"
Yet he can't imagine having a better experience, Pankl said, leaning forward. "It sounds hokey. But the people who are involved here really make Walla Walla's reputation as being unique. At one time we had 25 different organizations involved in making children's lives better, not including sports groups."
He is proud to have been a part of that, and he'll keep his hand in, he said. First on the retirement calendar, is "10,000 honeydo's" to catch up in the house he and Malinda have lived in for 30 of their 42 years of marriage.
Travel is on the list, too. The Pankls have three children and 10 grandchildren, and the itinerary will revolve around their locations, he said.
Pankl plans to do some special projects for Children's Home Society and perhaps go live in other places for awhile, once Malinda retires, "where we might have something to offer."
Howard has no fear that his friend will be bored. Pankl's fierce devotion to social service will keep him busy, even when his name is no longer on an office door, he said.
"Richard always felt that rather than pulling people out of the river when they are drowning, you want to catch them upstream before they get thrown into the river."
An open house in Pankl's honor is planned for Oct. 15, 5-7 p.m., at the Marcus Whitman Hotel and Conference Center. For more information, call Children's Home Society at 529-2130.