When Frank Capone came in 1974 to interview as head of the Montgomery County chapter of the New York State Association of Retarded Children, it was all a matter of timing.
Bill Albertin was president of the board of directors at the time and said Capone was what the fledgling agency known as Liberty today was looking for at the time.
"When he got out of college he didn't know what he wanted to do," Albertin said. "So he hitchhiked across the country."
Frank Capone, chief executive officer of Liberty Enterprises, talks with Yvette Jevitt and Andrew Hall, individuals in the Liberty Enterprises program, in Amsterdam Thursday. Yvette and Andrew are working on box assembly.
Albertin said Capone had the credentials the small ($165,000 budget) agency was looking for and in return, the job offered the challenges Capone was looking for.
"It worked out good," Albertin said. "We were all new to the [disabled] field back then."
The Watertown native got his master's in rehabilitation counseling at Syracuse University in 1972 after completing a bachelor's in political science from LeMoyne College.
Today that $165,000 agency with a staff of 10 serving 30 disabled children and their parents now has a budget of $54 million with 900 staff serving 600 in day treatment, residential and support programs and 1,250 in the New Dimensions in Health Care clinic.
"Liberty was my first real job," Capone said. "When I started the field was beginning to explode."
Many of those served by the agency no longer fall under the "A.R.C." category. Most are now adults and many have no disability other than being in need and having only Medicaid for insurance.
"We serve 1,250 with dental services at New Dimensions," Capone said. "Of those, 300 are disabled, mostly from Lexington (Fulton County A.R.C). About half of those we serve are from Fulton County."
Capone said huge changes came about with the investigative reporting of Geraldo Rivera at Willowbrook State School on Staten Island in 1972. The abuses of overcrowding and physical abuse of disabled children there led to state funding of community based supports for the disabled and growth of agencies like Liberty.
"My parents had a fresh produce and frozen food business," Capone said. "That was my fall-back job between semesters at college."
Capone said he always had an interest in history and politics, but was basically "trying to find myself" back then.
"Rehabilitation counseling appealed to my altruistic side," he said.
Capone said he was "married to my job" to the point he was single until age 46 and now has a 16-year-old daughter named Sarah.
"I got a late start," he said with a laugh. "Better late than never."
As for outside interests, Capone said, "My job is my mistress." He said he has little time for hobbies other than a bit of golf, reading, TV and theater.
"I play some golf but I don't break 100," he said. "My job is my life."
Capone said he is fortunate to be in a state that recognizes the need for services to the disabled.
"It's pretty much recession-proof," he said. "But these are definitely interesting times."
Capone said a few years ago the agency made a conscious decision to stop trying to grow bigger and just get better as far as quality of care issues.
"We keep changing the definition of quality," he said. "We are always setting higher standards, using smaller homes and facilities. We are more person-centered."
Capone said the restructuring of services from institutionalization to community group homes to individualized choices and goals for those served has been a needed transition.
"It's been a healthy change," he said. "It could always be better."
The mission statement on the agency's Web site is: "To enable persons with disabilities, their families, and other individuals in need, to achieve a quality of life driven by choice." A listing of the various services Liberty provides is also found at the www.libertyarc.org site.
Capone said although they weren't trying to grow larger in the area because, "there's no huge unmet need locally," they have reached out to the state of Delaware where they have a satellite service and support branch called Choices for Community Living.
"The agency operates in all three counties there with 10 residential sites supporting 28 individuals," he said.
"About half moved there from state developmental centers."
Capone said such diversification and extension of service provision keeps the agency vibrant. He said they only wanted to go where a state cared enough to pay for top quality care.
"Delaware was well funded for quality of care," he said.
These days, Capone realizes much of the administrative leadership for the agency tend to be "baby boomers" like himself and says he is doing "succession planning" to make sure the quality of care in leadership stays high with a younger generation at the helm.
"We have a very low turnover here," he said "It's only about 11 percent. We want to make sure new people coming in to senior management positions are the best."
Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs for Fulton-Montgomery Community College John Jablonski has served as acting president at the college as well as president of Liberty's board of directors.
"[Capone] has helped grow [Liberty] from infancy to one of the leading organizations in our area," Jablonski said. "I've learned a lot from him. He's a mentor and a friend."
Albertin said he calls Capone "the absent minded professor" because Capone is always thinking so far ahead of any conversation he's having.
"He'll start one project, then go to another," Albertin said. "He says he does it 'because people need it,' and that's enough."
Chief Operating Officer Mike Decker said he's worked with Capone for 20 years and has nothing but admiration for him.
"He's done an excellent job in Montgomery County and is well-regarded nationally," Decker said. "He has leadership rolls in national organizations like the American Network of Community Options and Resources and the National Association for Retarded Children."
Decker said he also finds Capone personally open and honest in all his dealings.
"He has good values," Decker said. "His style of leadership is participatory - he's open to other opinions and very dynamic."
With all the success Capone has had over the years with Liberty, Albertin says he can't help but laugh when he thinks back to where Capone was when he first came to interview for the job.
"I remember he came into town and his car broke down," Albertin said. "He had to put a new battery into it and he still had dirt under his fingernails when he came to the interview. The first person he met at the old Fort Johnson school where we were housed at the time was the janitor. [Capone] thought he was a board member."
Albertin said Capone still is working hard and participating in every aspect of Liberty.
Richard Nilsen is a general assignment reporter and can be reached at email@example.com.