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Catholic Charities director reflects on career

By JOANNE FOX, Globe editor
(Email Joanne)

Jerry Eaton recalled serving in Vietnam on Christmas Day 1968 and praying.

“I asked God that if I got out of Vietnam safely I would spend my life trying to make the world a better place for all of us,” he said.

As Eaton retires after 15 years as executive director at Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Sioux City this month, he insisted, “Nothing I did after returning home and going to the university fit as well as Catholic Charities for me to accomplish that goal.”

Bishop Walker Nickless expressed his appreciation for Eaton’s long term of service at Catholic Charities.

“I am grateful for the dedication and commitment Jerry has provided over the past 15 years in his role as executive director,” he said. “His years in the field of social work and witness to the Catholic faith were a tremendous asset to the agency.”

Eaton, who was awarded a bachelor and master degree from the University of Northern Iowa, was hired at Catholic Charities as program coordinator at the Villa Maria Adolescent Home for girls with emotional and behaviors problems in 1979. He was in that job for six years, and then served as a therapist at St. Anthony’s Home for boys with emotional, behavioral and delinquency problems for another six years. He continued with Catholic Charities, focusing for seven years on counseling, particularly marital, individual, family and adolescent.

Eaton began his 20th year at Catholic Charities as agency director in 1998.

“My 35 years there was the quality of education I would hope all people could experience in their lifetime,” he said. “You get to see what truly lies at the core of the human being – everyone wants to be happy, healthy and successful. And, you get to see the actual reality of the obstacles many people face, what they have had to endure, and you get to connect with strengths within them to help them live a life they can be proud of as they work through their circumstances.”

As just the seventh director in the agency’s more than 70 years of existence, Eaton felt fortunate to have been impacted and influenced by previous directors and co-workers.

“Who gave me this quality of education I mentioned earlier in the past 35 years besides those we served?” he asked.

“It was a combination of people like Jim Taylor, Audra Cole and Marilyn Murphy who were rock-solid in their belief in people, in our ability to help, and in teaching me that we didn’t give up just because of how difficult the problem was,” he replied. “We dug deeper, in the meaning of our mission and the Catholic faith.”

That “Catholic” in the agency’s name enhanced Eaton’s vocation.

“I can’t say enough about what the Catholic faith meant to me in my work,” he said. “It was the source I breathed in when I struggled, when I failed, when I succeeded. We worked focusing on our beliefs, our mission, and what truly lies in the heart of every human being if we just tap it – the love of God.”

On the surface, much has changed in the past 35 years, but Eaton believed beneath the surface, the quality and depth of people and their struggles remains.

“People will always need those with maturity, humility, with good hearts and faith in them as they are joined in their struggle to find, not just a way out, but a way forward to happy, healthy and successful lives,” he said.

As thankful and grateful as Eaton was for his triple decades at the agency, he was just as thankful and grateful he is now retired.

“While all my years there helped shape me into the person I am, it is a real relief now to be able to turn the ongoing mission of Catholic Charities over to a younger generation,” he acknowledged. “Retirement offers me the opportunity to bring together in my life all that I’ve learned and been part of in my family, in my work, and in my faith and beliefs. I look forward to doing just that!”

The search for a new executive director is now underway, Bishop Nickless stated.

“We know filling that position will not be an easy task, as Jerry and the executive directors who preceded him set the bar for strong leadership,” he said. “We wish God’s blessings to Jerry as he begins his retirement.”

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