Louise Williams ’67 shakes her head and laughs now when she thinks about it. She wasn’t even 30 years old but had been given the reins of a nonprofit organization after spending only about six months prior as part of the staff.
And that organization happened to be the Lutheran Deaconess Association on the campus of Valparaiso University. It was an organization that was near and dear to Williams’ heart, considering the LDA helped shape her life during her time as a student at Valpo and resident student in the LDA’s education and formation program.
Yet, suddenly, Williams was responsible for LDA staff members and resident students and the direction of the organization as whole.
“I was very young and inexperienced, and I kept saying that I needed to be 10 years older to be doing this job,” Williams said. “I had people’s lives in my hands. It was intimidating.”
That was nearly 40 years ago. Williams went on to spend 33 years as the executive director of the Lutheran Deaconess Association before retiring in 2008.
“I retired, and in lots of positions, you retire and go away and never see those people again,” Williams said. “But because of the kind of community we have among deaconesses, that contact is going to be there the rest of my life.”
The organization this year celebrates the 70th anniversary of its relationship with Valparaiso University. In 1943, Valparaiso University President O.P. Kretzmann helped to move the LDA’s headquarters adjacent to campus.
Williams spent about seven years away from Valpo after graduation on two different deaconess assignments before returning to become an LDA staff member, serving as director of deaconess services. After about six months, she became the first deaconess to lead the organization as executive director.
She immediately began work to mend any divisions that existed between deaconesses and the LDA Board of Directors, which was the policy maker for the organization.
“I think very early on I realized that the organization really needed to lean more on input from deaconesses themselves to shape what our policies were, what our education formation was like,” Williams said. “We developed with the Board some discussion points and asked the area conferences to discuss them. Those kinds of things really began to shape the organization in a somewhat different way.”
Deaconess Lisa Polito ’90 succeeded Williams as the LDA executive director in 2008. She previously served the LDA with Williams as director of development and public relations.
“Louise’s leadership enlarged the scope and vision of the LDA, allowing more women to answer God’s call to diakonia,” Polito said. “Her leadership allowed the LDA to be flexible, able to transform to answer the changing needs in the world. She has been invaluable in building relationships with diaconates around the world.”
Now, nearly four decades after Williams returned to the LDA and Valpo, the organization continues to develop women leaders but also now welcomes men in the education formation program. And because of a relationship with Valparaiso University and the Chapel of the Resurrection, there remains a strong tie to the University’s Lutheran heritage and character.
The LDA partners with Valparaiso University to educate and prepare women and men for servant leadership as Lutheran deaconesses and deacons who serve others in a variety of roles both within their churches and within their communities.
“Personally, I think the identity with Valparaiso University is a great gift,” Williams said. “It’s been a wonderful symbiotic relationship.”
Williams came to Valparaiso University from her hometown of Rolla, Mo., specifically to enter into the LDA education formation program and become a deaconess. At Valpo, she majored in theology and minored in psychology and sociology.
“I’ve spent most of my life at Valpo,” Williams said. “I often say I’ve been shaped by the deaconess community. But I’ve also been shaped by Valparaiso University.”
The LDA will be hosting events throughout the year to celebrate the 70th anniversary of its relationship with Valpo, including a banquet on Nov. 8 in the Community Room at the Christopher Center for Library and Information Resources.