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February 16, 2013

Remembering Alice Sankey: Community loses inspirational leader

NEW CASTLE — Alice Sankey is remembered as a joker, an inspiration and by her battle cry: “I’ve got an idea ...”

Sankey, 66, died Wednesday in Allegheny Valley Hospital in Natrona Heights. A mental health advocate, she worked 24 years at the Human Services Center and in 2000 was named chief executive officer of Lark Enterprises, a vocational training facility that employs people with disabilities.

Her death came as a shock to friends, who had expected a recent surgery to be “just a bump in the road.”

“She went in for surgery, like it was just a little set back,” said Gayle Young, executive director of the United Way of Lawrence County.

The women had been friends since Young came to New Castle 19 years ago and they had worked together at the Lawrence County Family Center.

“She was a compassionate person, easy to talk to, someone to confide in and an excellent grant writer,” Young recalled. “I will miss her laugh, her sense of humor.

“God gives you very few friends in life with such wisdom and compassion for others. Alice was a great leader, mentor, friend and colleague. I feel like I lost a sister. She loved people and made a difference in the lives of others.”

Young looked forward to continuing to work this year with Sankey, secretary of Rotary where Young is the president-elect.

“She did the background work that made others look good and she could get things done.”

As for Sankey’s intention to retire this year, Young said she had already begun to plan the “roast” the community would give as a send-off.

Justin Bruce, president of Lark’s board, recalled Sankey as a “giving, generous person, a great leader.

“She came up with crazy ideas but she made them work,” he said. “She was not the normal model social service person.”

Bruce said Sankey’s innovation “took Lark in a new direction. She served our clients and taught them skills that they could use. She touched the lives of so many people and we’re all going to miss her.”

Co-workers noted she took the time to get to know every staff member and was always on the lookout for ways to update and improve.

A past president and past secretary of the Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce, Sankey was friend and mentor to chamber executive director Bob McCracken.

“We rode to and from Rotary meetings every Monday for 15 years,” he said, recalling, “She was big on details.”

He said he benefited from that dedication.

“She’d doctor my emails. When we were done, the only part of my original message was ‘Thanks, Bob.’ ”

McCracken recalled Sankey as a practical joker whose humor did not offend and as someone who could take a joke.

But, “she stayed on top of it all. She took seriously everything she did.”

Sankey worked with McCracken on leadership programs and promoted what she loved, including public speaking.

He also praised her as an advocate for mental health.

“It was more than a job,” he said. “It was her mission to make things happen.”

Sankey’s other passion was Toastmasters International. Two years ago, she attained the Distinguished Toastmaster’s award, which she worked for a year to get, recalls Toastmaster friend Ruth Ray.

“It meant a lot to her. It was something she really wanted to do.”

Dr. Dennis Nebel, director of the Human Services Center, also recalls and will miss Sankey’s engaging and out-going personality.

“I’m still reeling from the loss,” he said. “No one expected this.”

Nebel said Sankey was more than a dedicated, passionate advocate for the disabled and the community, she was also a close personal friend to him and his family.

“Her loss is significant,” he said. “The community lost a leader.”

Norman Moses, executive director of Lawrence County Association for Retarded Citizens, knew Sankey for 36 years.

“She was a strong advocate,” he said. “Once she believed in something, there was no getting her off the path. No obstacle dissuaded her.”

Moses said the two sometimes saw things differently.

“But we had the same goal, to do what is best for the mentally ill, for those with mental retardation. She was a strong leader, a strong advocate and never a follower.”

(Email: nlowry@ncnewsonline.com)

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