Don Anderson, 89, led Ecumenical Center in San Antonio, promoting mental health and faith-based counseling
Early in life, Don Anderson was faced with a choice: a talented singer, he had offers to pursue a career in music, his daughter, Cheryl Dugger, said.
“He got to a Y in the road,” she said. Anderson made his decision and became a Baptist minister, following in his father’s footsteps and drawing from the service-oriented, religious household in which he was raised.
While he kept singing on his own, the ministry path led to a life spent championing mental health and faith-based counseling. He ran San Antonio’s Ecumenical Center, founded Hospice San Antonio and taught at UT Health San Antonio.
Anderson, 89, died on Dec. 24, 2018.
Born in Illinois, he moved frequently with his family growing up. He served as a pastor in Texas towns — Agua Dulce, Mathis, Kerrville and Kingsville — and came to Manor Baptist Church in San Antonio in 1963.
He left the ministry nearly a decade later, after earning a Ph.D. in educational psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. `
“He was seeing more and more people that were struggling and needed professional help and he saw he could be of more service in that regard,” Dugger said.
Anderson led the Ecumenical Center as its executive director from 1972 to 1997, and again as interim in 2012.
The center, founded in 1967, offers counseling, educational programs and training for clergy, religious workers and healthcare professionals on physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. Mary Beth Fisk, who has run the center since 2013, called Anderson “a visionary in shaping the Ecumenical Center into what it is today.”
He was the founding director of Hospice of San Antonio, taught in the Department of Psychiatry at UT Health and authored the book, “Better Than Blessed.” Anderson received the Liberty Bell Award from the Young Lawyers Association of San Antonio in 1977, and was named Humanitarian of the Year by the National Conference of Christians and Jews in 1996.
His career outside the church was just as grounded in faith as his time as a minister, Dugger said.
“He was more open to the idea of service beyond just preaching,” and embraced inclusive practices that welcomed people of different beliefs, she said. “He saw more to faith than just latching on to the thou-shalt and shalt-nots.”
“Being a Baptist minister and a psychologist, it was natural for him,” said Dr. Fletcher Lee, a neurosurgeon and Anderson’s longtime close friend.
The two met just as Anderson was finishing his doctorate, when Lee was starting his own practice, and began weekly tennis matches and Thursday night dinners with their wives.
“Our tennis was competitive — we were, neither one, that good,” Lee said. The occasional “pretty good shot” would sustain their competitive fire for weeks, he recalled. The same could be said of their fly fishing on annual summer trips to Colorado.
Anderson and Lee also exchanged frequent phone calls at night to talk through challenges or concerns at work.
“I think few people are blessed to have friends like that,” Lee said.
At home, Anderson “was always a listener” with his three daughters, Dugger said. “He had high expectations for each of us, but there was never any doubt that he loved and valued and was there for us.”
“When I was little, I could crawl up in his lap and I knew everything was going to be OK,” she said.
He was known for his “ministry of presence,” said Fisk, who praised him for providing counsel as the center expanded in recent years. “He was one that never got in a hurry,” taking time to listen to people and offer advice “with a gentle touch and the voice of a radio announcer,” she said.
“It’s not uncommon that, when I’m out in the community, people tell me about how Don Anderson helped them,” Fisk said. “The San Antonio community is grateful for the care, compassion and service that Don provided to so many.”