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Mill Race director retiring to enjoy ‘wonderful stage of life’

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The longest-serving leader of Bartholomew County’s largest and fastest-growing population will retire at year’s end.

Bob Pitman, 64, has served since 1985 as executive director of the Bartholomew County Senior Center, renamed the Mill Race Center when the new facility opened in 2011. He has overseen the expansion of the agency, which was the first of its kind in Indiana in 1957.

That expansion includes a 50 percent staff increase and a 65 percent budget increase since 2011, when the organization moved into its new building at 900 Lindsey St. in Columbus. The organization has 2,300 members, geared to people 50 and older.

Pitman initially mentioned a planned retirement two years ago to the center’s board members. A team of four people will share his duties in 2015, pending board approval.

The director has long and strongly touted seniors locally and nationally as dependable workers, among the best mentors and visionary leaders, and also important and relevant cogs in a community.

His promotion of that message began at a time when local seniors themselves said they were rethinking how they would view life’s later or retirement years.

“I’ve been preaching for years what a wonderful stage of life retirement can be,” Pitman said. “Now it’s time to walk the talk.”

Pitman became the third executive director in the center’s 57-year history. Burhl Ellis served as the first, pioneering the idea of senior center trips nationwide and internationally, Pitman said. After 25 years, John Poehler followed her with a three-year stint. Then came Pitman, after a brief time as coordinator of admissions and placement at Indiana Vocational Technical College, now known as Ivy Tech.

The Pitman file

Name: Bob Pitman

Born: Logansport

Age: 64.

Title: Executive director of Mill Race Center, 900 Lindsey St. He has held that title since 1985, including when the agency was known as the Bartholomew County Senior Center, located at 148 Lindsey St.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science, master’s degree in college student personnel administration, both from Indiana University.

Family: Wife, Judy, a teacher’s aide who works with deaf and hard-of-hearing students at Columbus East High School; two adult daughters.

Community involvement: Member of Thrive Alliance advisory board; volunteer with the Bartholomew County Democratic Party.

Leadership history

Mill Race Center opened in 2011, replacing the Bartholomew County Senior Center. Leaders have been:

1957 to 1982: Burhl Ellis, who pioneered activities such as national and international senior trips

1982 to 1985: John Poehler

1985 to today: Bob Pitman, who launched intergenerational programs, educational programs such as Partners in Education, and others

“This is very seductive work,” he said. “If somebody had told me I would be here 29 years, I would have said they were nuts. But you quickly come to appreciate how important the center is.”

What members say

Over the years, seniors have credited the center for its many benefits. They include programs that carried them through depression after the death of a spouse and presenting them with outlets for their ideas and life experience.

Jim Gillespie, 71, became a member about a year ago. He gushed about the place he called “a jewel and gem of Bartholomew County.” He now works out in the fitness center, sings in the Silvertones choir at area events and participated in the center’s recent Great Decisions discussion series, among other offerings.

He laughed when asked why.

“It’s so welcoming and inviting,” Gillespie said, adding that participation keeps him sharp. “And everything is so well organized.”

Ron and Karen Arnold began their involvement with the center at its previous location. Ron Arnold, 77, volunteers with Golden K Kiwanis at the center, and Karen Arnold, 76, takes a tai chi class and a Pilates class there.

“This center is one of the best things that’s happened in this town,” Ron Arnold said, as he waited for his wife’s class to finish. “To come from the building we had before to this is just amazing.”

Debate over facility

One of Pitman’s most visible accomplishments is the $8 million, 24,000-square-foot Mill Race Center itself, where much of the structure overlooks an edge of Mill Race Park.

He began promoting the idea of a new facility to replace the landlocked Bartholomew County Senior Center, also known as the Pump House building at 148 Lindsey St., in 1990. That’s when Indiana University research and population projections for Bartholomew County and most of Indiana showed a booming 50-plus and 65-plus segment in the coming 20 to 30 years.

Pitman regularly spoke out about the importance of a place not for shuffleboard but one where older residents could thrive and be energized to serve the community. He used part of this same message when he served as chairman of the National Institute of Senior Centers a decade ago.

David Doup has participated on and off as a Mill Race Center board member for years, including when plans for a new center both excited and angered seniors enough that they took out some of their frustration at public meetings on Pitman. That happened in 2006 when planners examined the possibility of moving into the not-yet-designed new Commons.

Seniors told Pitman they wouldn’t go there and also didn’t want to move to a spot near the Columbus Municipal Airport. They circulated a petition and wrote dozens of letters to the editor of The Republic, saying they would rather stay put at the former Pump House location.

Pitman’s vision

Doup credits Pitman for being visionary enough to see the need for a new facility espousing wellness and vitality and looking forward rather than reminiscing.

He also credits Pitman and others for working with city officials for the ColumBUS hub to be moved to the center in 2011. The 68-year-old Doup added that Pitman is one person he will thank when Doup finally retires.

“He has been one of those good gardeners, planting seeds years ago that our community is now richly harvesting,” Doup said.

Lynne Sullivan, president of the Mill Race Center board, saluted Pitman for “a wonderful job.” In the past she has praised him for being able “to bring differing ideas together into a workable whole.”

Former longtime board member Carolyn Lickerman has called him a treasure.

Pitman said he aims to focus much of his remaining time at the center’s helm on passing knowledge to the team of people following him in leadership.

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