KMHS founder retires after 30 years

This week Kitsap Mental Health Services (KMHS) Executive Director Larry Keller presided over his last agency-wide staff meeting — an event so large it had to do be staged twice to accommodate every shift.

There have been several “lasts” for Keller over the past few weeks. There was a last annual dinner (during which colleagues flanked him and called it “the Last Supper”), the last board meeting and the last presidential dinner (when past chairmen of the board will meet formally).

“This isn’t really final because I will be around for a couple of months,” Keller said. “You won’t get rid of me yet.”

But it was Wednesday’s staff meeting, during which the agency’s 400 staff members gathered in an East Bremerton church’s meeting room, where things got a little emotional.

Keller thanked the staff repeatedly, downplaying his own successes and attributing them to the people who work with him.

Staffers honored him with details about a new treatment center to be dubbed Keller House, along with a gift of an old-fashioned scale to commemorate his obsessive tendency to weigh himself.

“I have sought to empower you as individuals and teams to improve the organization,” Keller told the group. “Over the years, you all have known how to do your jobs, but I haven’t been paying you to follow your job description. I have been paying you to stay true to the vision, to value fairness and respect.”

Then, after talking trash about football with a couple of senior staff members, Keller was presented with a jersey containing the signatures of 400 staff members.

“I will be keeping this in a very safe place,” he said.

Elena Argomaniz, KMHS assistant director of administrative services, called Keller a “visionary.”

“Larry is very compassionate and tenacious,” she said. “He has a disarming, approachable manner. People can trust him, which has allowed him to lead the agency.”

More to the point, Argomaniz said Keller’s leadership has brought a wide range of mental health services to Kitsap County — services of atypical quality for a county so small.

Keller, typically, doesn’t take all the credit.

“I am just really proud of our staff,” he said. “We have created alliances that have closed the gap between the services and the need for service.”

When Keller founded the agency in 1977 — at the tender age of 32 — mental illness was not as well understood by the general public.

Often, people blamed the victim. Over time, we have seen numerous instances of mental illness, both in the news and in our own families.

As a result, people now understand that it as much of a disease as cancer or diabetes.

“People have become more educated over time,” Keller said. “Campaigns and services have developed visibility in the community. Mental illness has become a real disease, it has come out of the closet. People are talking about it, and without shame.”

Keller said mental illness affects more people than cancer and, like cancer, will hopefully be cured some day.

The cancer campaign, however, is better financed and has a higher visibility.

Keller acknowledges it’s not always easy to tell where mental illness ends and substance abuse begins. As a result, he predicts future treatment will be merged into other medical disciplines.

“In the future,” he said, “mental health care will be integrated into primary care, and we will look at things in a more integrated manner. There will be suicide prevention classes in all the schools, and education about mental health will be a part of every curriculum.”

Keller will be succeeded by Joe Roszak, who runs a large (relative to KMHS) social service agency in Upstate New York.

Roszak is scheduled to arrive on the job in early January, at which point Keller will spend a few weeks showing him the ropes.

“We have a lot of similarities in style and values,” Keller said. “I will be around in January and will introduce him to the key stakeholders.”

Prior to his last staff meeting, Keller asked attendees for criticisms of KMHS. Due to the benign nature of most of the responses he determined the agency is in pretty good shape.

“There was no hysteria,” he said. “It was mostly, ‘Can we get a bulletin board here,’ or ‘How will we deal with a flu pandemic?’ We will always have more clients than staff to help them, and we will have a workforce problem as people my age retire. We will need to try harder to find qualified people. We may be able to save some money with an intern program, but interns need supervisors and space.”

Keller, who said he has no specific plans for his retirement, was reluctant to reminisce about his accomplishments. He said he is always more inclined to concentrate on the future rather than the past.

And listening, he added, is always the best way to learn.

“You always need to listen to observations, suggestions and complaints,” he said. “And no matter how unreasonable someone might seem, there is always a grain of truth. Even if this may hurt, I have learned from every interaction. And I cannot fix things if I don’t know all the issues.”

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