On her way to Boston, Watrous leaves behind a balanced legacy

  • Debbie Watrous poses for a photo outside of her office in Concord last week. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Saturday, October 14, 2017

I tried to catch Debbie Watrous off guard.

Suspecting she leaned left politically, I asked the former director of New Hampshire Humanities if she might have sought someone like Ann Coulter – the acerbic right-winger whose words could make a liberal’s hair fall out – for a speaking engagement.

After all, the nonprofit, for which Watrous led for 13 years before leaving this week, has an online mission that reads, in part, “We bring the thrill of discovery and the power of ideas to people of all walks of life, from all corners of our state ... We invite citizens to reason together, to learn from and listen to one another.”

Why not Coulter, I wondered?

“No,” said Watrous, who starts her new job with FoodCorps in Boston later this month, “She is too specifically political.”

At that moment, I figured Watrous had fallen into my trap, exposing herself as a partisan player for what was supposed to be a nonpartisan institution. Then Watrous, described this week as a steady and efficient leader by those who know her best, said exactly the right thing, putting me in my place.

“I wouldn’t have Bernie Sanders as a speaker, either,” Watrous said, sitting in the dark atmosphere of True Brew Barista in Bicentennial Square. “He’s too specifically political, and he’s advocating for a particular set of political and social points. The programs we do are not debates, and they are not meant to push people’s buttons.”

There’s a confident, calm leadership in Watrous’s words and demeanor, and those qualities will be hard to replace now that she and her husband, well-known area writer and college professor Rick Watrous, are moving to Boston.

This summer, Debbie Watrous was named the Massachusetts director of philanthropic investments for FoodCorps, a national nonprofit that connects children to healthy food in school.

She starts on Oct. 23, following a trip to North Carolina to visit her son, a college senior, then another trip to Oregon, where she’ll mix with staff members from her new job.

It’s a bold, courageous move for someone 60 years old, and a testament to Watrous’s abilities in a job market obsessed with youth over experience.

So, following the completion of a $2.1 million fundraising campaign, Watrous chose to move from her comfort zone, take on a new challenge and move from a city like this to a city like that.

“It was coming to a point where I had used my energy for running the organization,” she told me. “I was feeling a little dry in terms of my own ideas and passion, and I was thinking I can stay until retirement, but I thought this is a good time for me to reenergize and refocus and have that last work chapter.”

These are big shoes to fill, the shoes of a woman who grew up in upstate New York wanting to sing for a living. Now former colleagues are singing her praises.

John Herney served on the Humanities Council board for two years and as chairman for two more. Through an email, he said that during a national humanities conference in Albuquerque, N.M., officials’ eyes widened when he revealed his home state.

“People would invariably say, ‘Oh, you are so lucky to have Debbie Watrous as your director,’ ” Herney said.

Eleanor Dunfey, now a professor emerita at Southern New Hampshire University, met Watrous 20 years ago. She mentioned Watrous’s methodical, balanced approach, saying, “Her steadiness is the characteristic I think of. The humanities is not high on people’s lists. The richness of music and art and literature seem to be the first things that drop, but she was just persistent and she just stayed under the radar. No flair, no fanfare.”

And former board member Al Cantor, now a consultant for the Humanities’ capital campaign, added, “It’s not easy to make people care about a mission that, at first glance, seems of secondary importance. Debbie has helped people see that humanities are in many ways what defines a strong community. And she’s right.”

She earned a reputation as a PR cheerleader who, in her own professional way, could coax water from a desert. She received high marks for drawing big names to Concord for the group’s annual dinner, always a big fundraising tool.

Strolling down memory lane, Watrous said meeting Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the South African anti-apartheid giant, in 1999 was at the top of her list for thrilling moments. She picked up Tutu at the Manchester airport and gave him flowers and chocolate from Granite State Candy Shoppe.

“What a genuine, caring, funny, holy guy,” said Watrous, who worked at N.H. Humanities for 24 years overall. “I’m not terribly religious, but you could just feel the holiness with him, without the ostentatious side.”

She also recruited author Salman Rushdie, who required FBI protection because of death threats he received from the Muslim community for writing a book deemed blasphemous against Islam.

“What a nice, generous, friendly guy,” Watrous said.

Back in the 1980s, with assistance from project partner Janet Ward, Watrous promoted a controversial program that explored the separation of church and state in this country. Ward said Watrous approached the idea with “preternatural patience.”

“She knew that this project would be a challenging one which would require delicate diplomacy on many fronts,” Ward said in an email.

With Watrous leading the way, public reaction, documented in the Monitor, was predictable.

She heard from both sides of the aisle, those who might have supported someone like Ann Coulter.

Or Bernie Sanders.

And that’s the way Watrous always wanted it.

“I got some critical letters to the editor saying I was supporting conservative religious traditions,” Watrous said. “Or they were saying, ‘You’re an atheist.’

“It balanced out.”