Working in human services never crossed Robert Lassiter’s mind until he met his wife Peggy.
Lassiter, director of the Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services, planned on being a teacher when he was attending college in the early 1960s. At the time, he and other college students were encouraged to enter into the engineering or mathematics fields after Sputnik was sent into space. Lassiter decided to study engineering for three years, then switched to mathematics and education after he realized he did not like some of the required courses.
Lassiter, who plans to retire Dec. 31, never did teach.
"My life has been a series of fortunate serendipitous events that led me to where I’m today. It’s been wonderful," said Lassiter, who is 63.
Lassiter had planned on graduating from the University of Florida in 1962, but he had two courses to finish when he was offered a job at a water works supply company in Georgia. He transferred to the company’s Nashville Tenn. location then to Orlando, Fla., working there until 1965, the year he and Peggy married. "When you’re young and see an opportunity, you take it. That’s what I did," he said.
WHILE IN TENNESSEE, Lassiter had met Peggy, who taught child psychiatric nursing at Vanderbilt University. "That was my introduction to just a different world," he said. "Prior to that, I knew about business and I knew about education, but I didn’t know about human services."
Lassiter decided to return to school to take his last two courses, then attend graduate school at the University of Michigan to earn his master’s degree in social work in 1968. At that point, he took a position at an adolescent psychiatry unit at the University of Michigan, serving as the chief social worker and as an instructor until 1976.
The same year, Lassiter was named the director of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services for the Region Ten Community Services Board in Charlottesville, where he stayed until 1988 when he and Peggy moved to Reston. There, he served as director of the Fairfax/ Falls Church Community Services Board’s Northwest Mental Health Center until 1990, the year he took the Loudoun position.
"I’m really blessed to have developed a career that for me is a mission in life. Not everybody has an opportunity to combine those two things," Lassiter said. "In the broadest sense, it’s helping other people. … [You] assist people to live more successfully, and the other is easing pain as well as you can. Anytime you can help someone who is hurting, you’ve done something important."
While working in Michigan, Lassiter realized that the staff could help the adolescents while they stayed in the inpatient unit, but once the adolescents left, "things fell apart for them. While we helped the adolescents, we hadn’t changed the environments they lived in," he said.
LASSITER DECIDED to work in community mental health and went to work at the Northwest Mental Health Center in Reston before coming to Loudoun.
"It’s my belief we should be a transparent support of the infrastructure in the county," Lassiter said about working with Loudoun’s law enforcement agencies, school system, hospital and other agencies to provide them with services and help support their missions. "People with mental disabilities end up in all of these facets. … We want to support their mission and lend them what we can."
The department provides a variety of emergency, prevention, residential, outpatient, case management, and court and jail services, along with operating 10 group homes in the county. The services are geared toward stabilizing acute situations, promoting self-sufficiency and providing community living for those with longer-term disabilities, according to a Loudoun County Community Services Board brochure.
"Bob Lassiter has been very good for Loudoun County and for the entire department," said Mark Crowley, director of the Juvenile Court Service Unit and an employee of the department for the past 30 years. "His vision of comprehensive services to all families has been instrumental in developing a continuum of services for Loudoun."
Robert Chirles, director of the Department of Social Services, agreed. "He’s knowledgeable about mental health services, and he was very committed to the people who were served by that department. He never wavered in that commitment," he said. "He was a great advocate for people who suffered from mental illness or substance abuse or developmental disabilities, and he’ll be missed in the county and the state as well."
AS THE DEPARTMENT director, Lassiter also serves as executive director of the Community Services Board, appointed by the Board of Supervisors to provide policy, direction, oversight and citizen input for the department. He implements these policies, manages the department and provides leadership, guidance and support for the 300-member staff, along with working with other department heads in the county and with four other service boards in Northern Virginia in Fairfax and Prince William counties, Arlington and Alexandria.
"There’s a theme of problem-solving, trying to be creative, seeing where we can improve what we do," Lassiter said.
Candy DeButts, deputy county administrator, said that Lassiter "built a very strong community services program here." "A quality you need as executive director is to be able to run and develop programs for different populations of people. … It really takes a breadth and depth of knowledge to be able to lead in all three of these arenas. It’s a very complex job," she said.
DeButts remarked on Lassiter’s integrity and his being one of "the best upholders of the public trust I know," she said. "He was very analytical and thoughtful," she said. "He had a nice, gentle, kind way about him. … He was very smart, very strong and gentle at the same time."
Lassiter served as a member of the board of directors of Leadership Loudoun, is a member of the 1989 class of Leadership Fairfax and serves on the Leesburg Daybreak Rotary Club and the Virginia Regional Transit Association. He served as chair of the Executive Director’s Forum of the Virginia Association of Community Services Boards and chair of the Northern Virginia Association of Community Services Boards.
In his retirement, Lassiter plans to continue playing golf, a hobby he picked up five years ago, and to spend time with his family. He and Peggy have three daughters and three granddaughters.
"It’s time for me to retire. It’s a real luxury. I’m not leaving to get away from something. I’m not leaving to go to something," Lassiter said. "I purposely made no plans. I don’t know where my energies will go."
However, "It’s the people I will miss. On a day-to-day basis, I made good friends at work. That’s fortunate for me," he said, adding, "I’ll see what happens next. Who knows."