When Alvin Loewenberg was a youngster in Mississippi, Miss Willie Townsend taught him to trust his own heart, be brave in adversity, and to see that happiness lay not in riches but in relationships.
His father centered his life around family and friends, some of whom started as complete strangers. Equally comfortable with farm workers and executives, he taught his son that no one is better than anyone else.
Loewenberg, 65, will retire in February, completing a 38-year career caring for the elderly, with the last 26 of those years as president and CEO of Morningside Ministries. Considered by many in San Antonio to be the gold standard for residential care of older adults, Morningside Ministries was created in 1961 by the Southwest Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church and joined five years later by First Presbyterian Church and the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas. Its stated mission was to “take care of those who took care of us.”
At one time the largest nonprofit organization in San Antonio, Morningside Ministries owns and operates three campuses serving more than 900 seniors at four levels of faith-based care. Morningside Manor and the Chandler Center are in San Antonio and Menger Springs is in Boerne.
Under Loewenberg, the organization has added a campus with 400 new living units, including cottages, apartments and assisted living, and increased its staff accordingly. Its revenues have grown from $15 million to $50 million during his tenure as CEO.
“He took it from a mom-and-pop organization to a complex corporation with all the bells and whistles,” said Joan Dixon, the company’s vice president of finance.
But Loewenberg’s real impact on Morningside Ministries seems to stem as much from the lessons learned from Miss Willie, a family friend, and his father’s example as from Loewenberg’s MBA degree.
“Seeing the ministry that goes on inside and outside those buildings gives a real understanding of what he has done,” Morningside Ministries board chair Bob Scott said. “He is very resident-oriented, he doesn’t lead from afar, his office is on our primary campus, he is regularly in the common areas, he know the residents by name, he’s very approachable. You’ll see him in the serving line of the cafeteria.
“He really enjoys being of service in a personal way. The residents love him and respect him, unlike a lot of for-profits that follow a lot of rigid guidelines.”
At Morningside Ministries, the looser guidelines include accepting residents regardless of their ability to pay. More than seven percent of the Ministries’ revenues goes to fund charitable care of residents, an amount that has increased during Loewenberg’s tenure.
“That flexibility is generally applied by Alvin personally,” Scott said. “It allows him to care for people given their individual circumstances. That’s very unusual for most senior residential communities. A lot of the modeling for that tenor of the culture has been set by Alvin.”
While the desire to meet individuals’ needs comes naturally to Loewenberg, it is also by design; with masters’ degrees in divinity and business administration, the former pastor believes an organization’s culture has to start at the top.
A spiritual foundation and deep business knowledge are needed for this position, he said. “The CEO has to set the example of services and quality. If the leader is not expressing that and wanting that to happen, it’s not going to happen. I think the way we treat employees, the way we treat residents, the way treat families who visit – the CEO has to be out among the troops, just being seen, patting people on the back, saying good job, or we’re glad you’re living here.”
He also meets with newly hired employees to make sure they understand the organization’s mission.
“Even if a person is washing dishes in food services, Alvin gives our employees a sense of purpose,” said Windy Morgan, assistant vice president of finance. “It all contributes to a comfortable retirement and a good life for our residents.”
Patrick Heath, former mayor of Boerne who chaired both the Ministries’ operating board and the Morning Ministries Foundation board, said he thinks Loewenberg sees residents and staff as an extended parish.
“He treats and cares for the people who work there and live there as a good pastor would,” Heath said.
But Loewenberg was also an innovator. He spearheaded the development of Menger Springs in Boerne, although he needed several years to overcome his board’s reservations.
“Some of the board members thought it was the dumbest idea in the world,” Loewenberg said. “There was a sense that we were a ministry in the San Antonio area and not to Boerne. We got over that hump eventually. And there was also a concern that our job was to serve the middle-income and not higher-income individuals, and Boerne tends to have higher income levels.
“My thinking was that the organization had to grow to be successful, not just for financial reasons but because we offer good services,” he added. “We need to be out there serving people. And that would involve taking some risks and doing different things.”
Another risk was buying land in Boerne and building on it at a cost of $100 million rather than acquiring existing buildings as had been done previously.
Eventually the more cautious board members embraced the plan, Loewenberg said. And after Menger Springs proved a tremendous success, with grounds that board chair Scott said feel like a country club, other decisions came more quickly. Purchasing additional land only required a 30-minute discussion.
As San Antonio has become one of the most popular retirement destinations in the country, the senior care market has become ever more competitive. Loewenberg and his board have kept ahead of the curve.
“We market our warmth and our sincere dedication to those who live with us,” he said. “We go the second mile in service to those who make their homes with us. We also stress our innovative and creative programs such as mmLearn.org [a resource for family members providing home care to seniors]. We make great use of social media in marketing events and happenings at Morningside.
“We have been around for 55 years, and we will be here another 55 with the same sponsoring church entities.”
While leading Morningside Ministries, Loewenberg also held leadership positions in industry associations, such as chairing the board of the Texas Association of Homes and Services for the Aging. He also has served on the boards of Goodwill Industries, Alamo Work Force Development, the North San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, and Hospice San Antonio, and was a member of the mayor’s health care task force from 2001 to 2003.
Loewenberg began his career at a Methodist retirement home in Mississippi in 1979 because he didn’t want to remain a church pastor indefinitely. Reflecting on choosing a career serving faith-based retirement communities, He believes his father, Miss Willie, and all the visits he and his mother made to the homes of elderly friends played a part in setting him on his career path.
“I got a great love for older adults, and they had a great influence on my life in many ways,” he said. “There’s no other job that would have used my talents, and my abilities and my interests any better than this one.”
Loewenberg will be succeeded by Patrick “Pat” Crump, the vice president of operations of Dallas-based Buckner Retirement Living, which like Morningside Ministries is a faith-based senior residential care organization.
“I’ve known Pat for many, many years,” Loewenberg said. “The search committee interviewed other people, but I’m very pleased Pat was chosen and very comfortable turning the reins of this organization over to Pat. He has a real strong mission and ministry mindset, he is very business oriented, he’s compassionate in understanding residents and employees, and I think he’ll be a great CEO.”