After graduating from college, it seemed like everyone Linda Mathes knew was looking at graduate school. She had considered it herself, but she wanted to get her hands dirty, going out into the world and getting involved with something at the grassroots level. There had just been a devastating earthquake in Nicaragua, and in that tragedy, she saw possibility. She knew the Red Cross was bound to be sending people down there to help rebuild the country, and Linda wanted to be one of them. “I thought it would be a great opportunity to merge my passion for community and for helping people with my desire to be involved and experience alternative learning,” she remembers.
Though she’s now the CEO of the American Red Cross in the National Capital Region, the organization was only sending money and top officials to the troubled country at the time, and Linda had several hundred miles to travel before the stars would align. She also contacted the Peace Corps to see if she could get involved there, but they turned her down due to her limited tractor driving experience.
Linda was offered a job continuing to run the family insurance business, another at a bank in Tennessee where she had grown up and attended school, and a third with a popular and prominent elected official, but she wanted to conquer new territory. She had also concluded that, while she had loved playing the piano since she was a child, she wasn’t going to become the Dave Brubeck, and didn’t want to concertize. She resolved to nurture her passion for music on the side. She wanted to go someplace she had never been, where she didn’t know anybody and didn’t have any contacts, to see what she had to give. If she couldn’t volunteer her efforts abroad, she had to find another way to engage. “I wanted a raw experience to see what my raw abilities were,” she explains. “I headed west.”
With a degree from Vanderbilt University and a teaching certificate under her belt, Linda had seen the dysfunction in the education system and, concerned with what she had witnessed in the classroom, saw tremendous value in pursuing alternative approaches. At the height of desegregation, students were acting out and disengaged. Her solution had been to get them outside, involving them in the community in ways they could make a difference while learning about their surroundings and developing their own strengths, all at the same time. “I thought it would be great if they had that experience while they were still in school to supplement their classroom learning,” Linda remembers. “But the principal shut my efforts down and said they could do those things after they graduated.”
She knew California was pursuing some innovative strategies and techniques, including school by the sea, championing the alternative learning movement. She wanted to play a part in reshaping the education system in this way, transforming the experiences young people were having in the classroom, and she knew there was no better time for her to hop in the car in pursuit of her dreams. With that, she tossed her guitar, blues harp, and books in her trunk and set off. But en route to California, she decided to stop in Dallas.
Having witnessed how her hometown of Memphis was affected by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., she was interested in seeing how Dallas was dealing with the aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. “I felt it was an example of a community struggling to remain a community in the aftermath of a tragedy,” she remembers. “I was fascinated and passionate about that kind of resilience, and I was really interested in what makes a community resilient.” As a kid, she had watched Memphis’s once vibrant downtown close its doors and board its windows. It was during that period of difficulty and division that she watched her minister, Brooks Ramsey, bravely and progressively march for MLK. Brooks demonstrated the importance of being open to people of all colors and cultures. He was a real leader, and Linda ran into him by chance in Dallas.
In discussing her ideas and interests with her former minister, he noticed a common thread. “Linda, it sounds like the things you’re interested in relate to the Red Cross,” he had observed. “Why don’t you call them?” Though her recent shot at volunteering with the Red Cross overseas hadn’t worked, she took his advice and was offered a job at the Dallas Red Cross within 24 hours. “The opportunity Red Cross offered me was all about involving young people in the community and extending classroom learning into the community,” she affirms. “It was perfect.”
Linda finally had the chance to engage local youth and help them find their potential through the transformative experience of helping others—a theme that would become a common refrain throughout her life. Like the grow lights used in terrariums and greenhouses to promote the proliferation and health of plant life, she has used this innate drive toward self actualization through helping others to expand the reaches of her impact, helping more and more people. “From those earliest days, I’ve been committed to helping young people discover what they can contribute, and how best to do so,” she reflects. “I believe that if you’re engaged as a kid, you will always be engaged, because you find it meaningful. It was important for me to reach people early to ensure a lifetime of giving, and the good feelings and growth that come with knowing you’re making a difference with your life.”
However rewarding, Linda’s work environment operated under levels of high stress. Yet despite the turbulent push and pull of external influences, the executive at the Dallas chapter noticed a steadiness in her. Observing how well she handled emergencies and chaos, he said that if she was interested in a career in the Red Cross, it would be a good place for her.
Today, things can get exceptionally hectic at the American Red Cross in the National Capital Region, but Linda never loses sight of the mission. Even as a young girl, her heartstrings were pulled by the Red Cross images of disaster victims being aided by volunteers. She would collect pennies to donate to the organization and would never have guessed that, decades later, she would still be collecting “pennies” for this mission, and would even hold a leadership role with it.
These images still resonate with her and mark an early call to action, but it was her father who first showed her what helping others really looked like. After leaving engineering school to help build his father’s insurance business, he became devoted to helping the community. “He knew every back alley and used car lot in Memphis,” Linda remembers. “He knew that community backwards and forwards, and whenever someone’s roof collapsed or car broke down, he was there. He was the insurance man, but more significantly, he never met a stranger.” With a deep love of humanity, Cap Mathes always prioritized people and the relationships he was building. “For him, it wasn’t about the money,” she affirms. “It was about each individual person he served.”
While Linda now has a business to run, strategic plans to map out, budget targets to hit, and a team to engage, she brings this love of humanity and individual focus to her work, lending it transformative power. Going into her dad’s agency as a young woman to observe and help, she learned business principles, and above all else, the importance of deep, genuine relationships with customers, clients and partners. For Linda, this now means the relationships she builds with her staff, volunteers, board, community partners, and the service recipients she has devoted her life to helping. “The team is always stronger than the individual,” she affirms. “Because we’re a team that spans neighborhoods throughout the community and across the nation, which draws from a deep sense of duty and service, we’re able to truly amplify our impact and provide aid on a global scale.”
Famously spearheaded by Clara Barton in 1881, the American Red Cross is a nationwide organization that works to prevent and alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies. While many mistakenly assume it’s a government agency because of its prevalence and responsiveness, it actually relies on the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors to reach the victims of disasters, big and small, everyday. Starting off as a hopeful volunteer, Linda became the first female executive of a major chapter and illustrates the synergistic impact one can have when one finds the perfect mission in life and is able to work toward that goal through her entire professional career.
After taking note of Linda’s inquisitive pursuit of excellence, determined and direct work ethic, strong empathetic nature, and collaborative approach, Red Cross quickly began to utilize her in what they referred to as “turnaround situations.” She was asked to go into troubled units to rebuild, grow, and strengthen them, starting with Pittsburgh. “After some compelling years of work with the Red Cross in Dallas and then at the National Headquarters, I was excited to get back to the grassroots—to be on the ground, in the field, working directly with the community,” she reflects. She was also interested in top-notch management and leadership, which inspired her to apply for a White House Fellowship.
While working at the National Headquarters, before being selected for the executive director position in Pittsburgh, Linda had applied to the White House Fellows Program, which entailed a rigorous process that captivated her interest in leadership. This was a chance to work with the top leaders and managers in the country, and Linda wanted that experience, already expressing a desire to be the head of an organization like the Red Cross. “I wanted a leadership role that was more than just running something—I wanted to make things happen,” she affirms. “But then the president of the Red Cross asked me to work with him and offered me an opportunity to have that kind of exposure and impact, so I said yes.”
Through his own research process, the president had selected a team of individuals from both inside and outside the Red Cross to serve as his president’s council. Linda was an obvious choice to look at critical issues in the organization and find solutions, and in that capacity, she learned important lessons about what it was to be a leader. “I saw so clearly what it takes to move people to action in tough situations,” she says, remembering a time when the president successfully rallied a widespread effort to make a difference for victims of an African famine. “He demonstrated to me time and time again how important it was to roll up your sleeves, get involved, support your team, and make things happen when you really believe they should.”
Armed with these lessons, she was well equipped to lead the team in Pittsburgh to new heights. It had just been named the most livable city, and Linda was intent on matching that caliber in her revitalization efforts. With great progress, it wasn’t long before she was asked to move to the chapter in the District of Columbia to apply her turnaround magic there.
It was 1991 when Linda was selected to become the CEO of the Red Cross in D.C. She quickly found the problems there were far more extensive and complex than those faced in Pittsburgh. There were ten different, fragmented units in the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area, so Linda set about achieving her vision of unifying them to realize the possibilities that could unfold for the community they all served and engaged. She always believed it was important to involve people and see what could be done together rather than separately. With this philosophy, she moved forward to orchestrate a strong, unified, aligned team, as finely-tuned and harmonious as her mother used to play “Rhapsody in Blue” while Linda sat under the baby grand piano as a child.
With the President of the United States, the President of the Red Cross, and the countless other people of all kinds living within the bounds of her chapter’s responsibility, Linda knew her team would need to be prepared for the worst and capable of anything. “After September 11th, the world changed, and a series of disasters faced the community in the three months surrounding the terrorist attack,” she recalls. “First it was presidentially declared D.C. floods, followed the crash at the Pentagon, the anthrax scare, and a tornado that touched down in College Park. It was a scary time for the world, but especially for this community. Neither terrorists nor Mother Nature know city, county, or state lines. We needed to be able to move our resources wherever and whenever they were needed.”
Now, with one unit, one board, one team, and one chapter, the National Capital Region of the American Red Cross operates more consistently, efficiently, and cost effectively than ever. “I’m very proud of the team we’ve built, and the belief in the mission that each of us has,” she remarks. “But it was first essential to build financial strength. No money, no mission.”
With this in mind, Linda first focused on the board. When she arrived, its role was unclear. It was large, and its members were not asked to give personally to the organization. It was not a funding source, but rather a who’s who of community figures, and some were more interested in the prestige of the position than its potential to enact change. “I needed to find out who was serious about the mission, who believed in having a strong Red Cross in the community, and who was willing to pitch in to make it happen,” she remembers. “It took a lot of tough decisions and reductions to implement a strategy to make a difference as quickly as possible.” Linda’s efforts to strengthen the board were as successful as they were ambitious, resulting in a stronger team where each board member now gives time, brainpower, financial support, and connection with the community.
Throughout these changes, however, Linda took care not to lose focus on the greater operation. “We still needed to be there for the community,” she affirms. “Our team had to be at the frontlines while we built the strength of our chapter. Throughout that period of transition, at any given moment, someone’s house was burning down, and the volunteers were out there immediately, wearing their badges and helping out. If I hadn’t had vision and passion, it wouldn’t have worked, and I couldn’t have done it alone. This isn’t solo work. This is team work.”
Linda had always been accustomed to multi-tasking and chaos. Even growing up, she filled her schedule with extracurricular activities to keep her busy, engaged, and connected to the community in every way she could, thanks to the enduring support of her mother. From school clubs, to piano lessons, to high school sororities and volunteer work, Linda made sure her learning extended far beyond the classroom, but her grades never suffered, and she took advanced classes. While her parents both worked long hours, they supported her and made it possible for her to attend various practices, meetings, and events, getting a richer, deeper, and more nuanced education than she ever could have received in the classroom alone.
Her father stuck to insurance, while her mother worked a slew of different jobs. She was an administrator for a utilities company, assistant to a dean at Memphis State, and a frequent assistant in her husband’s office. “My parents were beautiful people, and I was just the luckiest kid in the world to have them,” she says. However busy her mother was helping out where she could, she was always very family-oriented, and still found time to inspire in Linda a love of music that would endure her whole life. In fact, each member of the family was devoted to helping the family insurance company in their own way. Even Linda’s older brother, who went off to school, got married and eventually returned to help with his father’s business.
It was this brother, with whom she always remained close, who truly taught Linda the power of possibility, especially throughout his battle with Guillain Barré. He once bought an old fire engine at an auction, and after having it in the backyard for a while, he turned it into a snow machine. “He figured out how to make snow out of that thing, with the conditions just right, and he would make snow for kids’ parties,” she recalls with a smile. “He relished the opportunity to bring such joy to people and saw potential in everything and everyone.” From him, she learned that anyone can make something out of nothing, and she brings this attitude to the Red Cross today. From devastating disasters, she makes hope for regrowth. From ignorance, she makes awareness. And from those pennies she would give and collect as a child, she makes food, clothing, and support. “We’re all about people giving what they can—pennies, time, blood,” she says. “It’s pure acts of giving, from one person to another, and all of these acts translate directly into lives saved, communities rebuilt, and possibility made real.”
Despite the strength of its mission, or perhaps because of it, the Red Cross faces unique challenges in recruiting volunteers. It’s easier to go about one’s business than to help someone in a time of need. It’s difficult to watch suffering, but it’s Linda’s job to move people to action. “I need to figure out ways to move and motivate people, making sure they stay engaged,” she explains. “It’s my job to care for them, nourish them, and make sure they feel supported. Beyond being there for people affected by disasters, and for men and women of the military and their families, we’re there for our team of volunteers. One of the things I love most about the Red Cross is that it’s all about people of all kinds being there for people of all kinds, finding ways to help everyone reach their potential despite what may have happened to them.”
This includes her own mother, who, at 91, recently had her first stroke, experienced congestive heart failure, broke her right shoulder, withstood numerous other medical afflictions, and suffered a severe bleed in which she lost over half her blood. Her life was saved with blood donated through the Red Cross, allowing her to live on with a sense of humor and kindness that has earned her recognition as the friendliest person in her assisted living home. “My mother is the epitome of resilience to me,” Linda avows. “She has played a key role in my success and happiness today, inspiring me with her humor, encouragement, and perpetual smile.”
In advising young people entering the working world today, Linda stresses the importance of finding what fuels them—the mission that makes them really get up and go the way the Red Cross has kept her going and engaged year after year. “Get in touch with your passion, and find meaningful ways to live it and share it with others,” she says. “Give back! I promise that you get far more from giving back then you could ever imagine. In this busy world we live in, it’s important for people to find that connection in their lives. There’s a place for everybody. The community wins, the individual wins, and the organization wins. It is such a crucial formula for growth and learning.”
Utilizing this formula herself and working with countless others to help them apply it to their own lives, Linda’s legacy is one that centers around the teams she’s built, the people who have pitched in and given of themselves to make it all possible, and the lives that are better because of it. “This is a story about teamwork and belief in the mission,” she says, with tremendous gratitude. “It’s a story about working together to really build up financial strength, mission readiness, and our capacity to help anyone who turns to us in need. I’ve always believed it’s important to involve people, seeing what we can do better together than independently alone.” This belief is rooted in the power of possibility, and as Linda’s story shows, the power of possibility is rooted in the simple willingness to see such potential in the world and people around you.