Originally 'not sure' of job, Harsharger marks 40 years at Potomac Center
For the News Tribune
PIEDMONT - In June of 1980, a young man from Piedmont in Mineral County graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
With plans to go fishing and play softball that summer, James E. “Rick” Harshbarger was going to start job hunting in the fall. A small advertisement for a business manager then appeared in his local newspaper, The Piedmont Herald. After encouragement from his loved ones, he applied.
When he showed up for his job interview, he found a busy construction site--not a finished project--but one which was only partially completed. He was interviewed by the Potomac Comprehensive Diagnostic and Guidance Center’s first director, Robert H. “Bob” Hansen.
Upon returning home from the interview, he told his family he thought it went well, but he wasn’t sure it was the right fit for him. He did think it would be a learning experience getting the four-building campus completed and getting them equipped and furnished. After that, he told them when it gets to just doing the day-to-day operations, it will probably get boring and then he would look around to change jobs.
On July 7, 2020, forty years had passed. It obviously never got boring. To the contrary, it remained and still remains very challenging and no two days are the same. Harshbarger indicated that you never know what new issue will arise to challenge you from day-to-day.
Over the years, his job titles have changed from business manager to administrative services director, then in 2008, to the center’s fifth chief executive officer.
One of the motivations that Harshbarger has is filling unmet needs for West Virginians with an Intellectual or developmental disability; to offer services no other facility offers and to serve those that other facilities won’t serve. He saw how hard it was for his parents to find services for his younger brother, by six years, who was born with an intellectual/developmental disability. Helping parents find better answers than his own parents were presented with for his brother is also a strong personal motivation.
There have been many ups and downs over the last four decades, but he says with one or two exceptions, he wouldn’t change a thing. Potomac Center has helped thousands of people with disabilities, prevented hundreds of West Virginians from being sent out of state, as well as brought many back “home” from their out-of-state placements.
The first operational budget Potomac Center had for FY 1980-1981 was $180,000 and the facility had about 12 employees by the end of that year. The center has since grown to a budget of $8 million and fluctuates between 175 and 200 employees.
Potomac Center (the shorter name “the Center”), which opened for business late in 1980, is also one of the top five Hampshire County employers each year. The Center has grown from four campus buildings to eight. Also included are eight off-campus buildings and a 22-acre campground.
Harshbarger says his management team is the best and makes his job easier. He also gives enormous credit to Potomac Center direct care supervisors, but especially to their very capable and dedicated group of nearly 100 direct support professionals who are the backbone of the center’s success. The Nursing Department is top notch as are his administrative staff members--many of whom have been with the center 20-30 years.
Harshbarger also wanted to give credit to his very capable and dedicated Maintenance Department. Harshbarger, who will be 63 on his next birthday, says he plans on retiring at 65, but wants to keep his options open.
Most importantly are the many board of directors members who he has worked with and for over the last 40 years. Without these dedicated volunteers and their support, many whom have been on the board for 25+ years, the history of Potomac Center would not be the success story it has been and those thousands of folks would never have been positively affected by the services offered by the Potomac Center.
Representing Hardy County on the Potomac Center Board, Fran Welton said that when she was chair of the search committee looking for a new CEO for the center, they had four local candidates, Rick being one of them, and others from different states, with Florida being the farthest away.
Welton said, "After we read the applicants’ résumés and finished with the interviews, we discussed each of their strengths and weaknesses and Rick came out on top, having the best interview, credentials, and experience.
“To this day there has been no question about our decision in hiring him as the Potomac Center CEO."
Continuing she said, "He has done an outstanding job and brought the center through many changes to continue the excellent services the Potomac Center has always provided to our clients. In 1980, who would have thought he would be celebrating his 40th anniversary with the center and as the center's longest serving CEO.
“Rick, congratulations, keep up the great work you are still doing on behalf of our Potomac Center's clients, staff, employees, board and Eastern Panhandle community. I hope you have many more years to continue sharing your talents with the Potomac Center."
As a current board member representing Hampshire County, a former board president of the Potomac Center and a fellow Rotarian, Patty Anderson said she was delighted to congratulate Rick Harshbarger, Potomac Center CEO, on 40 years of dedicated service to the center, its clients, and employees.
Patty added further comments including, “the Potomac Center, established in 1980, offers training and education to West Virginians with developmental disabilities and behavioral problems. Rick Harshbarger has been with the center since its inception. His innovative strategies, compassion and commitment bring the Center to the forefront of care for this vulnerable and under-served population.”
So that kid, who didn’t really know if he wanted to apply to the little help wanted ad in 1980, is still on the job, still motivated to help those whom no one else will help, and to continue to adapt and change to meet all challenges big and small.
COVID- 19 is presenting possibly the most challenging period in the center’s history, and it is being handled the way the center has handled any major challenge, as a team, using best practices and being able to adapt quickly and effectively.
Rick indicated that he would be remiss if he didn’t mention the support and encouragement from his wife Christa and their two children Candice and Brett over these past many years. He also thanked his parents in heaven for convincing him to apply for the position and to Bob Hansen for having faith in his abilities and for giving him a chance to see what he could do. Who knew what would happen? Certainly not Rick Harshbarger, whose main desire is for continued success of the center, the defeat of COVID, and to the advancement of services for the ID/DD population in West Virginia.