By Sam Waltz
If you can tell something about a person by the people she admires, then, in the case of Rita M. Landgraf, Delaware’s cabinet secretary for Health and Human Services and the Girl Scouts’ 2015 Woman of Distinction, one needs only start with three of Delaware’s best known servant leaders of the last generation or two.
- Dr. Katherine “Kitty” Esterly, a legendary Delaware neonatologist and pediatrician who passed away only weeks ago at 89.
- Muriel Gilman, another legendary civic leader for a variety of Delaware’s most urgent social causes who passed away in February 2011 at 87.
- Jane Maroney, widow of a Delaware pediatrician who became the driver in her 20 years in the House of Representatives for Delaware’s most important social and public health issues.
The Girl Scouts of the Chesapeake Bay will honor Secretary Landgraf on March 10 at their 16th annual Women of Distinction dinner at the Hotel DuPont. Chairs of the event are Carol A. Ammon, retired CEO of Endo Pharmaceuticals Inc. and Janice E. Nevin, MD, the first female president and CEO of Christiana Care Health System.
“This award is not about me,” Landgraf said in a recent interview “for the Girl Scouts, I think it’s about where we’re going in health and education, particularly for women. Together we’re leaders in advancing health for women, and, relative to STEM (Science, Technology and Math) education, where does healthcare fit in, and what about the roles for women?”
Herself the daughter of an assistant Girl Scout leader, Landgraf was a Brownie and Girl Scout Cadet growing up in suburban Brookdale Farms in the Delcastle area of West Wilmington, near Thomas McKean High School, where she graduated in 1976, before attending and graduating the University of Delaware in 1980.
Her father was a DuPonter who came from Pennsylvania to work at DuPont’s Chestnut Run site, her mother was a nurse. She’s been married for years to Kurt Landgraf, once one of DuPont’s highest executives who left to become head of ETS, the Educational Testing Service that creates and administers the SAT exams. They have a daughter Lauren, 20, and three stepsons, one of them, Christopher, with disabilities.
Her resume in public service and community service is as long as any around…
Four years at United Cerebal Palsy out of the UD, then two years at United Way of Delaware in fund-raising then 1986-89 as assistant director of The ARC of Delaware, then a brief stint at NAMI as its executive director, before returning to The ARC for another two years as its Executive Director.
She handled other leadership roles, some transitional, including as head of the Delaware Care Plan, before she moved to head the AARP for Delaware from 2006-09, the assignment she left when she was recruited by Governor-elect Jack Markell to head his largest cabinet agency.
At DHSS, Secretary Landgraf manages a budget of more than $1 billion (State’s operating budget is about $4 billion) and she oversees 11 operating divisions. All that was launched when she was a child by the plight of a 12-year-old neighborhood boy teased and belittled because he was different.
It was “Michael on the red bike,” who neighborhood kids excluded and to whom they “did mean-spirited things” that so affected Secretary Landgraf’s life and focus. She remembers that she didn’t participate, but she still feels guilt that she didn’t stop it, and “it really impacted me.”
“I remember how it wounded him,” she recalls. “I made a commitment then.”
Cementing her direction and focus on people with disabilities was another experience, when she took a summer job as a college student looking after an 8-year-old girl with cerebral palsy. The girl’s mother, a UD staff member, interviewed several candidates, but “she told me that everyone else saw Chrissy for her profound disabilities, that no one saw her for the little girl she is, except me!”
From a career of such direct contact with the disabled, with their families, with strategic problem solving, she admits that she has faced the customary challenges that many face when they enter the public sector, among them, “levels of bureaucracy that present barriers to advancing within an appropriate time. It’s the nature of the beast, I guess, but I always feel like it takes so much longer to advance.”
But, having acknowledged that, she finds a benefit. “It’s good that all of these programs fall together in one department. People come together, not in silos, so how do we leverage what have to do to deal with and help the person?”
Even with that extraordinary track record, humility, even modesty, pervades any discussion with the secretary. “I pride myself in never wasting a good failure. They’re teaching moments for us,” she says.
Not yet even close to 60 yet, Secretary Landgraf seems too young to focus on legacy, and, of course, she’s from a generation and group who never expect to retire. “My goal is to cultivate the leaders for tomorrow!” she says.
Like the valedictory remarks of an MVP on a championship team, Landgraf intends to approach her March 10 honor by citing the opportunities for the young women in front of her to achieve and make a difference, just as did Jane Maroney and the late Dr. Esterly and Muriel Gilman.
“Life gives us the opportunity for that level of engagement, if we want to take it,” she said. “I want to reach the girls with the stories of those three women, and I want to engage them in a way that they follow their passions.
“I’ve have had the most wonderful opportunity to help provide a quality of life to individuals who I’ve been advocating for all my life,” she said. “In this job, I’ve had the opportunity to move from advocate to quarterback. But the important message is that each of us has the opportunity to ‘make a difference’ while we’re each here!”