by GLEN ALLISON
The leadership of Drake Bassett, new president of Palmer Home, was forged in the corporate canyons of New York—and nurtured by God’s grace.
I am frowning.
My tires spin in the Connecticut snow as I make my way up the hill to the house with the red door. Behind that door awaits the man and his family who will be moving to Mississippi to lead Palmer Home for Children.
Snowflakes float, the wheels gain traction. Up I go to meet the future.
Each doily of ice might as well be one of the myriad questions in my mind. Will this man be right for Palmer Home? Does he know what he’s getting into? Will he love these kids as much as they deserve? I answer them quickly, the unspoken queries inside my head, with assurances of God’s sovereignty that He has guided the process to His satisfaction.
Still, the honest questions swirl. Here we go.
“Funny thing, it was a snow like this one, except worse, back in October (2011). The Palmer magazine had just come in the mail,” says Drake Bassett.
We are standing inside the relatively modest home. I’ve stomped the snow off my boots and now we are warming by the fireplace. “The power was out,” Drake continues, “and we were reading by the fire right here to stay warm. The search company had sent a packet of information on Palmer, so the magazine was passed around to my family and they read it by firelight. They looked at me and said, ‘This is you,’ and that was the start of it all.”
Of course, that wasn’t really the start of it all, in God’s providence. But it seems like a nice confirmation. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We have a few moments before eating a home-cooked meal so I get a chance to just hang out with Drake for a while. We snap a few photos of him for the magazine. We make small talk about the weather. I keep observing him, not just visually but emotionally. Who is this man and what makes him tick? What has made him decide to give up being CEO of a big company with headquarters in New York City to become president of a relatively small ministry for children in Mississippi?
Drake, of course, keeps turning the tables on me, wanting to know about me, about my background, about my involvement with Palmer Home.
Outside the snow still flutters. Inside the warmth of the home, I’m beginning to thaw out now.
Other family members stroll through the den to meet me. Kelley is Drake’s wife of 24 years, a woman of quiet strength with a quick, gentle wit that appears long enough to make you want to see more of her humor; Hope, a 12-year-old with the well-curbed intelligence of someone twice her age at least; and Claire, a high-school senior with a calm spirit and the look of a volleyball star. The other two Bassett offspring—Evan, 21, and Grace, 20—are off at college in Kentucky and Florida.
More small talk ensues as I walk with Drake throughout the first floor of the house. The house isn’t overly decorated, a positive thing in my opinion. In fact, I realize that it has the feel of a comfortable lodge—an exceedingly pleasant impression. The more I ponder it, the more I see that the house reflects this family: accessible but not effusive, warm but not intrusive, attractive without ostentation. After a while, I stop analyzing how they come across. I just enjoy their presence.
Besides, lunch is calling.
The kitchen and dining room share an open space surrounded by windows overlooking a small deck and the bare branches of hardwood trees glazed with snow. Tiny dark birds flit about a feeder outside the window above the sink, their playfulness backlit by the brightness.
Homemade chicken hot pockets, broccoli casserole, and fresh fruit appear on the tabletop. Somehow I’ve failed to mention my low-carb eating regimen. By the time the chocolate pie arrives, I’ve become resolute in my determination to set aside this day in my conscience.
The conversation roams undirected. They raised chickens for a while living in upper New York at a property that actually included a working stable. “Yes, we loved having fresh eggs and the chickens were like pets,” says Kelley. (Kelley’s uncle raises a few chickens at his suburban Tampa home. One of the hens will actually come and sit in his lap) “Yes, we learned about horses and horse owners, a special breed unto themselves,” says Drake. And back to food talk. “One of the challenges of moving back to the South is the wonderful food. Everything begins and ends with a biscuit,” says Kelley.
Young Hope sits at the table quietly knitting a small square of fabric. It’s part of a project that her home-school association has designed. The squares knitted by children in the group will be sewn together into a quilt to be donated to a woman’s shelter in nearby Danbury, Connecticut. I’m impressed both by this girl’s willingness to join in the project and her casual knitting, surrounded by so-called adults, while interjecting a point or two into the conversation.
The pie has been served with coffee. It’s the first dessert I’ve had in months. I only eat one piece. I promise. Ask them.
The table talk circles back to Palmer Home without my urging. Drake has visited both campuses and the horse farm, spending time with board members and houseparents and staff. Kelley and Hope came down last December and came away with friendships already taking root. Hope plays Words with Friends on Facebook almost daily with Deborah, wife of Columbus director Steven Scott.
“When we touched down back here after that visit and were driving back home on the interstate, it struck me: We would have time to rest and plan our next week in relative calm but those houseparents at Palmer Home were right there in the middle of it all the time. That sort of commitment is uncommon. And it is valuable,” says Kelley.
Drake agrees. “When I read the centennial issue of The Southern Charity Ledger, I saw what a fantastic background the Lord has laid for His work through Palmer Home. It is humbling to me, to see what Dr. Waldron has done; those are big shoes to fill but I’m excited to get started. I’m appreciative of the foundation that has been built, down to the daily work of the houseparents, and I’m ready to go at it full speed.”
Again, I’m getting ahead of myself. We are just talking around the table. Finally, I get all writerly and ask the question: “How did you get to this point where you are leaving your job in the corporate world to lead a ministry?”
And he tells me.
“I grew up as a preacher’s kid, I lived in a lot of different places and saw a lot of things from many angles, many opportunities for service. I saw how people approached that service in various ways. I saw it as a privilege, that chance to serve. And you don’t always know how it’s going to play out for you.” Though his father led a church, Drake was never pushed to consider that being a “professional” minister was the only avenue of Christian service.
Drake worked his way through college at The University of South Florida and ended up with a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and Russian Language. He relates that his career began with a big “No!” from God. “I was fully engaged in a student co-op program with IBM while at college. But I had set my mind to become a military officer with an emphasis on Military Intelligence. So I took Russian Language and joined the U.S. Army’s Officer Corps. I loved the leadership training, boot camp, and for two years prepared to be an Intelligence Officer. In the final stretch, I was exited on a medical release due to a loss of high frequency hearing. It was a small item to generate a discharge, but it was a big deal to me at the time. Over the years, I’ve come to see that the Lord had other things in mind, and as our family began to grow, so did my career.”
He entered the work world at IBM, a place that taught him a lot about managing people and team work. With his career firmly locked into the business world, he put his relationship with God first, a commitment shared by his wife Kelley. Various ministry commitments beckoned the young couple from the early days of marriage. “We’ve had the privilege of working with children through the years—little kids, grade school, high school—so I’ve also gained a comfort level with them and have had the opportunity to see them in different circumstances.”
He also actually taught Sunday school classes at churches they attended and even served as a minister part time in churches that were transitioning between pastors. All the while, Drake and his growing family were being relocated to different parts of the United States as his career grew.
His position with IBM as a Junior Account Executive in Tampa, Fla. was a blessing from the Lord in many ways. “It was my first fulltime position in a business environment. I was proud to work for such a great company but the greatest satisfaction came from learning that the essence of business providing a service or product that solved a problem for clients. I also learned that I was good at building relationships and I took pleasure in delighting customers.”
After five years in that job, he was selected as a Senior Account Executive for Strategic Mapping, Inc., in San Jose, California. SMI was a software development company specializing in geo-demographic applications. Drake was chosen to open an Atlanta office for the company and, when SMI was acquired by another company, Claritas, in 1996, Drake became Director of Sales & Client Service. While at that position, he was recruited by the former CEO of Strategic Mapping to become Regional Manager for another new software company, Prism Solutions, also in Atlanta. At Prism, Drake helped launch a new product initiative, but the fit was better for him back at Claritas, where he returned as Vice President of Business Development.
It was at Claritas he received recognition in a series of positions with increasingly expansive responsibilities. He and his family moved to Ithaca, New York to become General Manager and Senior Vice President. While at that position, he was requested by the president of the company to assume all human resource functions as the chief HR Resources Officer. From there he was promoted to Chief Operating Officer and, then, the top job—Chief Executive Officer, overseeing 250 employees and more than $90 million in annual revenue. Claritas, a division of Nielson, is the leading provider of consumer segmentation and local market insights for a wide range of industries. It serves more than 1,800 clients, from Fortune 100 leaders to small businesses.
Around the dinner table, the coffee is savored as whiteness piles up on the deck outside the French doors. It’s something I might not see again for a while, maybe never again in this New England setting. I drink it in, the soft sprinkling of white that blurs all hard lines outside.
Inside, the conversation flows easily. Drake talks with enthusiasm about his business experience. He obviously has enjoyed it, all the challenges, all the clients served, all the people he has helped motivate and manage to become better at what they do.
So, when did he decide to abandon all that and go in another direction?
“In the past two or three years, we were in a church that became increasingly involved in the community, and in mission work with the poor in Jamaica, among other places,” Drake shares. “We found ourselves becoming students of hands-on ministry. I thought to myself, ‘Some day, why can’t I take these business skills and use them in a different context, where my 12- or-14-hour days aren’t spent in dealing with products and services, but actually doing something we are passionate about, something with eternal value.”
That question circulated through his consciousness for months until finally, in the spring of 2011, he did a preliminary search on the Internet to find out “what was out there” in the way of ministry leadership opportunities. “At that time, I was thinking the next three-tofive years I might make a change. I didn’t know what the direction would be.” In the same logical step-by-step fashion that typified his success in the business world, Drake was formulating a schedule of possibilities.
As He is wont to do, however, God had arranged his own timetable in this situation.
“I had talked to a guy in my church, Phil Smith. He had left the corporate world and went to work with World Relief in Rwanda as director of the ministry for that region. He told me that this was a journey, that I wouldn’t just be able to ‘make things happen,’ but that I’d pray about it and keep my eyes open and when the Lord brought the right opportunity, I’d know it.”
Drake and Kelley began talking about the possibilities, about the things their family needed to work through to make a transition. He still, however, had the mind-set that it was a process of years in the future. He continued his Internet searches to research the types of positions available.
In the fall of 2011, Drake had progressed to the point of discovering organizations that actually specialized in helping people transition from the corporate world to ministry. One of them was called SIMA International. On their website they listed leadership positions that were open. One of them was for the presidency of Palmer Home.
“I thought it might be an exercise in futility, but I took a step, of sorts,” remembers Drake. This was last October.
In addition to his attraction to Palmer’s mission, there was another contributing factor that made the position intriguing: Drake’s parents had moved to the Memphis, Tennessee, area. Still he proceeded with his preconceived notion of a comfortable timetable. He called SIMA.
“You may have already found someone,” said Drake.
No, they haven’t found the right person yet, SIMA responded.
“Well, we are probably in two different galaxies,” said Drake.
Doesn’t it sound like he was giving the Lord every opportunity to close that door?
The discussions continued on and off, without pressure. Drake kept noticing other possible directions for him. But he kept drifting back to Palmer Home’s opening, looking at it, noticing it. Even while wondering if the time was right, he agreed to come visit the campuses.
Kelley piped up. “Oh I know what’s going to happen, you’re going to go down there and you are going to come back and this is what you’re going to want to do.” “She knows most of the time what is going to happen before it does,” says Drake. “As soon as he called, I said, ‘Okay, let’s start packing. I told a friend that our life was about to turn upside down,” remembers Kelley.
Drake chuckles. “It was one thing to read about a place up here in snowy Connecticut and another to actually meet them, to see it face to face.”
Within an hour of his first meetings with the Palmer search committee, Drake had connected with the heart of the organization.
“You can tell pretty quickly how people are wired, how they are grounded, what their faith is, what their passion is. I felt privileged to be in their presence. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know where this is going, but I do know I have connected with some great people in a great organization and, in some way, I was going to be involved with them.”
And the Palmer search committee shared Drake’s feeling. “When we met Drake, we immediately had a good feeling about him, about his experience and his abilities, but most of all about how he had sought the Lord in his quest to find His will,” says Charles Guest, interim president of Palmer Home. “We were thankful for how God had brought someone like Drake Bassett to help lead Palmer Home for Children.”
We say our goodbyes and swap embraces as I gather my camera goodies and pack them in the backpack. Outside the snow has stopped. The sun glitters on gilded branches.
The house is warm and, I’ve learned, that warmth lives inside this brave, blessed family. They are our family now, all of us who call ourselves lovers of the children of Palmer Home for Children, who have received the immeasurable treasure of seeing a smile where none had crossed before. It is a time like this I thank God for my job even more than usual.
I trudge through the snow with the careful steps of a Southern boy in a realm infrequently experienced. The car starts up just fine and the wheels make their tentative way back down the hill. And I am smiling.
Glen Allison (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of the Forte suspense novels (http://torturedhero.com).