If you’ve ever had a truly terrible boss, you’ve probably dreamed of his or her retirement party.
But if Ernie Bretzmann is your boss, the scenario is exactly the opposite.
After 16 years of service at the helm of the United Way of Collier County, Bretzmann will be retiring in the next few weeks. And when asked when Bretzmann’s last day would be, United Way finance director Robin Jones said, “Hopefully never, and you can quote me on that.”
At Bretzmann’s retirement dinner this past Saturday night, it was obvious that his staff members are not the only ones sad to see him go. The Hilton ballroom, packed full of community leaders, family and friends, gave testament — through speeches, toasts and multiple standing ovations — to a career and a man extraordinary.
Perhaps what makes Bretzmann’s life and work so unique is his unwavering dedication — both personally and professionally — to doing what is right. When asked what he felt his greatest achievement was while working for the United Way, Bretzmann didn’t talk of ridiculous fundraising goals met, or the growth of new programs funded. Instead, Bretzmann listed his greatest achievement as simply being a responsible steward for the public’s money.
“The public is contributing money, and they’re not getting anything for it,” said Bretzmann, adding, “We are here to make good use of their money. My greatest achievement has been building our credibility in the community.”
It’s exactly this stewardship that has kept the organization steady in a time when charitable giving has tapered and demand for services has risen. Many of the organizations that rely on United Way funding have leaned even harder on the nonprofit, as grants and giving have slowed to a trickle. But because Bretzmann is no stranger to running an organization, having spent many years running the Marco Island YMCA, he’s been able to guide and advise many recipient organizations on how best to navigate these lean times.
“His major success at the United Way, in my opinion, was that he related to the agencies so well,” said Craig Bamberg, a former United Way board member. Bamberg added, “Because he came from the Marco YMCA, he knew what it was like to be in their shoes. That’s what I noticed on day one working with him.”
And Bretzmann certainly knows what it’s like to run a bare-bones agency. Bob Mulhere, a longtime friend of Bretzmann’s and former United Way board president, told a story of meeting Bretzmann for the first time.
“I dragged my five kids down to the YMCA where Bretzmann was sitting in a trailer with a hole in it and a cat. Through his leadership, that trailer became the beautiful facility we have now.”
But, beyond being resourceful and running an organization with scant funds, what Mulhere said he admired most about Bretzmann was that, “I have never seen Ernie say an unkind word about anyone.”
Bretzmann’s daughter Sonia Diaz confirmed this, saying, “He really never says anything unpleasant about anyone.”
And while she’ll always think of him as a father first, Diaz insists that he’s been more than just a great dad. “He’s been a wonderful role model professionally. I’m a lawyer, which people don’t always see as the most honest profession, but he has taught me how to always do what is right, not necessarily what is popular.”
Diaz describes her father as having the ultimate in moral compasses, always pointing north, even if at personal sacrifice. But, according to Diaz, what is most unique about her father is that he expects nothing in return for his moral do-goodery.
“He doesn’t expect any praise or reward for this. He truly believes that helping people is just what you do as a citizen of this planet.”
An attribute Amanda Ebert, the United Way of Collier County’s administrative assistant, has witnessed first hand. “He goes out of his way to help everybody and puts everybody before himself,” she said, insisting that the CEO is always willing to take time to help with anything that needs doing around the office. “He’ll pitch in to help with anything, I’ve seen him sit down to help with mailings.”
And though the search has begun for a replacement, Bretzmann jokes that filling his shoes won’t be that much of a challenge, saying, “They’re only a size 10, so not so big.” But the real challenge any new candidate will face is not in fact filling Bretzmann’s relatively medium sized shoes. The real challenge will be filling the void left by Bretzmann’s incredibly large heart.