When Paul Nigra came to Lexington in 1968, he had been a special education teacher in Poughkeepsie and was looking for something outside the classroom "with more action."
Nigra said a friend from Marist College told him he knew of a "school looking for a director" at the former Lexington Avenue School in Gloversville. When he got there to interview, he found drill presses and machinery set up for a sheltered workshop and job placement service.
"The budget for Lexington was $40,000 then," Nigra said. "Today it's $70 million, but 99.7 percent of that comes from outside the county in the form of state, federal and private company contracts. That's money we bring into the county."
Nigra looks on as Angel Brown works a drill press in the workshop at Lexington Center in Johnstown Wednesday.
Elizabeth Bacarnick and Andrew Platt work on Valentines for Veterans in the Day Habilitation Program at Lexington Center in Johnstown Wednesday as Paul Nigra watches.
Paul Nigra watches as Matthew Croft and Allan Mattice work on pads for cages at the James Brennan Humane Society at Lexington Center in Johnstown Wednesday.
Nigra shares a laugh with receptionist Joan Oare who has been with Lexington 17 years.
Over the four decades Nigra has been directing the agency, he has seen huge changes.
According to it's Web site, Lexington Center is Fulton County's largest employer with a staff of more than 1,100. Lexington's staff payroll is $24 million annually.
An additional 205 persons who are disabled are employed in Lexington's Sheltered Workshop called Lexington Industries.
Lexington began in 1953 when a small group of parents organized in an effort to improve the lives of their children who were retarded. Shortly thereafter, this parent group established a school program that eventually became part of the Gloversville Enlarged School District.
As the Fulton County member of the New York State Association for Retarded Children, Nigra said the old designation was no longer appropriate since most of the people Lexington supports are adults and many are not mentally handicapped.
An August 1970 United Press International newspaper story described how Johnstown High School students volunteered to help paint the workshop where 60 clients were served by a staff of 11.
Nigra said in 1971 Lexington opened its first community residence.
Nigra said when he asked then board president George Madnick about opening up their services to other disabled people, the answer was an immediate positive response. From the beginning of his tenure, Nigra said he gives credit to his board, staff and those served for having the right focus in the community.
"My immediate predecessor was Charles McVean," Nigra said "He told me, 'We're here for the people we support. When they are ready to go on, we place them. People come first here.'"
He agreed with Frank Capone's comment, his counterpart in Montgomery County, that he was at the right place at the right time.
"That 1970 newspaper article showed the eagerness for the community to get involved," Nigra said. "Back then, I gave tours and speeches in the community and the community responded."
Nigra said the agency has always reached out to help and support those in need.
"The board hasn't been afraid of risk or expansion," he said. "That filters down to the people we work with."
After forty years, Nigra says he feels grateful to still have a job he enjoys.
"I'm lucky to have something I love," he said. "I still look forward to coming to work."
Nigra said the staff and those they support are courageous, honest, hard working and appreciative.
"Our employees are the finest," he said. "We have tried to create a nurturing environment for both our staff and those we support."
Board President Judy Schelle's daughter receives services from the agency and said it is a relief for any parent to know their child will have supports beyond school and throughout life.
"Over the years, [Nigra] has cared for Lexington with great wisdom and exceptional leadership," she said. "He infuses trust so others can set life goals and achieve those goals."
Schelle said Nigra inspires those around him by visiting community residences regularly and calling residents by name.
"The [sense of caring] comes from the top," she said. "Every home is his home. The staff and residents are family."
Nigra said the agency reaches out to the community through programs like their Family Services Center who provide after school drop-in respite care as well as the Slumber Sleepover Camp on weekends.
"We're always looking for new ways to support our community and families," Nigra said.
Schelle agreed, saying how great it was for parents to know their disabled adult child could move out of the home and have their own lives.
"They can be happy and safe and nurtured," she said. "We always look to the future to see how we can better serve those with disabilities."
Nigra said the December trip to Athens, Greece by Flame, a cover band made up of those receiving services from Lexington, was an international example of ambassadorship. The trip was paid for by the Greek government and "reflected our country as a leader in programs for the needy," Nigra said.
"We still are the land of opportunity," he said.
Jeff Bray of the Fulton County Economic Development Corporation said Nigra has served on the EDC board the past ten years, including the past year as president.
"[Nigra] has been very valuable for his business acumen and counsel," Bray said. "As the [chief executive officer] of a major organization, he has never missed a meeting. I can only say strong, superlative things about him. He's a terrific guy to deal with."
Nigra said much of his success can be attributed to his wife Barbara of 43 years who stayed home to raise their two daughters. Susan now lives in East Greenbush with her husband, Joe Gambino, and their daughter, Elizabeth, 7. Jennifer lives in Johnstown with her husband Jason Radlin and their children Jacob, 9 and Cece, 6.
"I enjoy running, reading, music and movies," he said.
Nigra said outside of work, he considers himself uninteresting. His life has been built around his work and his family. He also said he is uncomfortable having the spotlight shone on him.
"I'd rather focus on our people, our staff and those we serve," he said.
Richard Nilsen is a general assignment reporter and can be reached at email@example.com.