A Decade of Service

June 04, 2014

News Type:  Director's Corner
Author:  Jerry Reed, PhD, MSW, SPRC Project Director, Education Development Center, Inc

On June 3, 2014, Senator Gordon H. Smith stepped down as the private sector co-chair of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, a position he has held since the Action Alliance’s launch on World Suicide Prevention Day 2010. I would like to use this opportunity to acknowledge his four years of leadership at the helm of the Action Alliance and his ten years of service to the cause of suicide prevention.

Senator Smith and his wife Sharon lost their son Garrett to suicide in 2003. In the guest column he wrote for the Director’s Corner last September, he described how he and his wife took Garrett’s death as a “call to action” and became involved in suicide prevention and mental health promotion. I was a witness to how Senator and Mrs. Smith responded to this call. When I was executive director of the Suicide Prevention Action Network (SPAN USA) we sometimes invited Senator Smith to attend our events in Washington. When he said he would come to an event, he did not just show up for 15 minutes. He would join us and participate in the entire event. When SPAN USA sponsored a “Hike to the Hill,” Senator and Mrs. Smith graciously accepted our invitation to participate. They arrived, donned our “Hike to the Hill t-shirts, and walked with us from our Freedom Plaza meeting place to Capitol Hill in a demonstration of their unwavering support for suicide prevention. Senator Smith is a man who leads by example. He worked with his colleagues in Congress to create and pass the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act, which brings youth suicide prevention and early intervention to states, tribal communities, and campuses. This legislation opened the door for the first federal appropriation dedicated to youth suicide prevention. Among the most memorable moments in my career was joining Senator and Mrs. Smith at the White House to witness President George W. Bush sign this historic piece of legislation into law.  

When Senator Smith left the Senate for the private sector, he continued his work as a leader in the field of suicide prevention by accepting an invitation to serve as the private sector co-chair of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. He was always open to having a conversation with new members. He and public sector co-chair John M. McHugh, Secretary of the Army, ably led many meetings of the Executive Committee and helped inspire people in both the public and private sectors to become involved in our cause. He also brought his concern for suicide prevention and the promotion of mental health for young people to his position as president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters.

We in the field of suicide prevention are fortunate to have been left a legacy of accomplishment by a good, honorable, and decent man who responded to a personal loss by educating a nation about suicide prevention, depression, and the value of early intervention. Senator Smith championed a policy that has helped countless young people who are struggling with suicidal behaviors — and the families who love them — to receive the support and services they deserve. At the launch of the Action Alliance, Senator Smith said that “I have said on many occasions that those who do this work are on the side of angels.” Senator Smith certainly worked relentlessly on the side of the angels, the angels who do this work and the angels for whom this work is done. I believe I speak for our field of suicide prevention when I offer him our heartfelt and everlasting gratitude for his decade of service.

While all of us in the Action Alliance will surely miss Senator Smith’s leadership, I am delighted to announce that the torch has been passed to Mr. Robert W. Turner, Senior Vice President of the Union Pacific Railroad. Bob has graciously accepted the invitation to assume the role and responsibility of private sector co-chair of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. At Union Pacific, Bob is responsible for internal and external communications, public affairs, community and government affairs, and corporate philanthropy. Bob is uniquely positioned to take the Action Alliance to new heights. In his time as a member of the Executive Committee, Bob has proved himself a capable and dedicated champion of suicide prevention, leading innovative efforts including a January 2014 event in Washington at which suicide prevention experts and railroad executives met to explore the role of the railroad industry in suicide prevention.

We have much to celebrate. We have four years of successful effort by the Action Alliance members and our many partners. We have a new champion who is stepping up to the plate with innovative ideas about how the private sector can become more involved in suicide prevention. And, although we will miss his active involvement, we certainly will celebrate our deep gratitude to Gordon Smith for his vision, leadership, and commitment.