For the past year, friends and acquaintances of Barb Hudak have expressed shock when they discover she is no longer associated with the Robert J. Keegan Family Center for Autism.
The Copley organization was her passion, a way not only to connect with an autistic niece and nephew, but to make a lasting imprint on the city in which she has become a prominent Realtor and volunteer. It seems inconceivable to those who know her that she would have cut all ties.
After remaining mostly mum since her abrupt departure, she has decided to go public.
Hudak says she and two other founding board members were ousted in a power play orchestrated by retired Goodyear Chairman and CEO Robert Keegan. She says a suitable headline for her saga would be: “Hostile takeover of a nonprofit by a corporate raider.”
Keegan enthusiastically denies that charge and a host of others leveled by the three departed founders. He says he was just another member of the board and actually avoided taking on extra responsibilities because of a lack of time.
Everything the board has done was done to help autistic kids, Keegan says, and the operation is progressing nicely.
When Hudak is asked whether the problem was a “personality conflict,” she says, “Not at all. We got along beautifully. But he had an agenda. …
“He thought he could bully me.”
Hudak says she was forced out after raising 95 percent of the seed money and guiding the construction of the group’s 9,000-square-foot building in Montrose.
Hudak says she grudgingly sold Keegan the naming rights after he initially offered only $75,000, then upped it to $100,000 — far less money, she says, than is typically involved when a building is named after someone.
She also says he reneged on a promise to fund scholarships to the autism school that was launched in conjunction with the center.
In addition, Hudak says, she and the founders sparred with Keegan over his insistence on filling the $55,000-per-year job of executive director with a former hairdresser who had no experience with foundations or writing grant applications.
Fellow founding member Phil Martucci, director of special education for Cuyahoga Falls schools, seconds Hudak’s contention that Keegan and his allies ran roughshod over the group’s creators and criticized them so intensely that eventually they resigned.
He implies Keegan was less interested in truly helping the cause than in being publicly identified with “the latest, greatest, rising trend of a disability.”
“I’d like to see autism not being used for anything other than to help families,” Martucci says.
On the surface, this seems to be an incredibly unlikely organization to spawn public mud-wrestling matches.
Its 16-member board includes such well-respected heavyweights as Akron Children’s Hospital President Bill Considine, and its brief history includes black-tie affairs in swanky ballrooms, highlighted by fundraising auctions with tantalizing offerings: a trip for four to Italy, a weeklong stay at a four-bedroom beachfront home in the Cayman Islands, free use of a new car for three years, a Steinway piano, a visit to Jay Leno’s car collection in California.
A single auction at the Hilton Akron/Fairlawn in October 2010 raised more than $250,000.
But the further you wade into this story, the more it begins to sound a like a Jerry Springer show.
During a meeting in March 2011 at which the founding trio quit, one board member is said to have proclaimed, “I can’t even stand to be in the same room with the three of you.”
The concept for what became the Autism Family Foundation was hatched in January 2006 over chicken salad sandwiches and chocolate chip cookies at Hudak’s kitchen table in the Eagles Chase development off Smith Road in Akron.
Hudak, Martucci and Martucci’s wife, Susan — principal of an elementary school in the Stow-Munroe Falls district — saw a dire need to create an organization to aid the rapidly growing number of young people diagnosed as autistic.
The Martuccis witnessed the need every day in their school settings; Hudak had personal experience, because her sister has two autistic children.
Their foundation would have two primary goals:
• It would build a center where the families of autistic kids could gather for support and information, such as seminars and workshops.
• Working in conjunction with Summit County schools, it would establish a school for students whose needs could not be met in a public school.
Phil Martucci, whose 5,000-student district includes 88 autistic kids, was knowledgeable about the educational aspects and had connections with other school districts and with organizations that deal with autism. Hudak, who has sold some of the most expensive houses in Summit County, had connections to folks with money and influence.
Over the succeeding months, they met with others at Hudak’s home and at Fairlawn Country Club, on Hudak’s tab, gradually bringing aboard people they thought could help make their dream a reality.
An early ally was Considine, the longtime, influential head of Children’s Hospital. (He declined to talk about the dispute.)
The other key addition was Bob Keegan, one of the most prominent people in Greater Akron.
Keegan, 64, had an interest in the cause, because his daughter, Lindsey, works with autistic children in North Carolina.
Hudak, 63, with short blonde hair and a relentless intensity, first met Keegan in 2004, when he called her about listing a house he owned on the top of a hill in Bath Township. She sold it the following year for $1,480,000.
At first, Keegan and Hudak got along famously. But eventually, she says, it became clear he had no qualms about making unilateral decisions on how to structure and run the organization.
Her first major disappointment, Hudak says, is when Keegan said during a meeting that he would fund six scholarships but then never followed through.
The school — today thriving and growing on a quiet side street near Rosemont Country Club — was having trouble getting off the ground. By July 2010, it had only one child signed up for fall classes and “a few of us board members were starting to panic a little bit,” Hudak says.
That’s when Keegan stepped up during a meeting in the boardroom of the Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs law firm and said he would offer partial scholarships to get things going, according to Hudak and both Martuccis. In separate interviews, all three quote the former Goodyear boss as saying, referring to his wife and fellow board member, “Lynn and I will cover that.”
They say Keegan committed to paying $20,000 annually — about 40 percent of the regular tuition — for each of six students for three years in the hope area school systems would be more likely to send students. (Public schools are obligated to educate autistic kids unless the schools don’t have appropriate resources in-house, in which case they must pay for outside help.)
Hudak says that when she called Keegan a month later and asked whether he planned to pay in one lump sum or quarterly, he responded: “I’m not doing it. I don’t want this board to think that every time they get into trouble they can look to Bob Keegan for the money.”
Treasurer Susan Martucci sent him an invoice, which was ignored.
As a result, says Hudak, the foundation had to scramble to make up the first year’s $120,000 shortfall.
Keegan denies promising to fund scholarships.
“I don’t know what she’s talking about,” he says by phone from his home in Durham, N.C. “I would never say I would fund all the scholarships. I said if we get in trouble — I might have said if we get in trouble, and it’s the only way to fund it, I’ll take care of it.
“That’s very different. … If I do the funding, then the board won’t be aggressive in doing what they should be doing, which is getting the message out to the community and finding a broad source of funding, because as we get bigger we’re going to need a lot of varied sources of funding — which is what we’re doing today.”
Among today’s sources of funding: cold calls by InfoCision, a strategy that became another point of contention because the founding members didn’t like the fact InfoCision phones residents outside Northeast Ohio without telling them the funds are going to an organization in Akron.
When asked whether he paid $100,000 for the naming rights, Keegan says the amount is “private” and insists he actually fought against putting his name on the center.
“I never asked for naming rights,” he says. “A number of people, including Barb, said, ‘If we put your name on this, it will be good from a marketing standpoint,’ and I resisted that. That’s why you don’t see my name on other things I’ve given money to.”
He finally relented, he says, because “startups are difficult” and he knew his name would draw other benefactors.
School keeps growing
By all accounts, the school has blossomed and appears well on its way to fulfilling its mission.
“Kids First” is housed in a handsome, custom-designed facility staffed by 13 people, including three full-time teachers, all employed by Summit County Educational Services. They work with 15 autistic students who range from preschool through eighth grade and come from nine Summit County school districts.
After starting with only two students the first year, the school has passed the halfway point of its 28-student capacity.
How well the other side of the building is functioning is the subject of considerable debate. That side, labeled “Family Center,” is supposed to be buzzing with activity that comforts and educates families and others who deal with autism.
Phil Martucci, the Falls special-ed supervisor, says associates complained to him that three seminars at the center were canceled because not enough people signed up. With his name still etched on the founders’ plaque at the center, he worries that those failures reflect badly on him.
However, the center’s president, Ken Tyrpak, a retired municipal engineer and the fourth of four founding members (Hudak knew him through real estate transactions), insists the center has become a whirlwind of activity, with “almost 50 events” during the past year. He points out that a representative from Summit County Developmental Disabilities maintains an office at the center.
“People are beginning to believe in us and trust us,” Tyrpak says.
He and Keegan both acknowledge the center’s programming got off to a slow start. And that sluggishness created yet another major wedge between the factions.
Activity at center
Hudak and the Martuccis say there was an almost total lack of activity in the center during the first eight months it was open. They blame Executive Director Georgeann Pinter, saying she was in over her head.
Although Hudak praised Pinter in news releases and at banquets, she says she could not understand why Keegan forced Pinter upon them, given her lack of credentials.
Pinter, who has an autistic son, had served as a parent mentor in Cuyahoga Falls and was brought onto the board by Phil Martucci.
Keegan says she was an obvious choice to run the center because, “No. 1, she has a son with autism, so she has a lot of knowledge and a lot of passion in the area, and she could see it through the eyes of a parent.
“No. 2, she had a street-smart sense about how to do this — and she’s doing very well.”
After watching the center struggle for so long, the Martuccis explored relationships with a number of groups, including Children’s Hospital, Child Guidance & Family Solutions, United Disabilities and the Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence.
Tyrpak says the Martuccis showed up at what would become their final board meeting with signed contracts despite never having gotten approval from the full board.
Susan Martucci, principal of Echo Hills Elementary in Stow, insists contracts were not signed and were merely tentative agreements. She says she expected the board to be pleased.
Instead, some were angry.
At that March 2011 meeting, the factions also clashed over a suggestion by Tyrpak that they apply for a United Way grant for “overhead.”
The Martuccis said they’d never heard of a grant for “overhead.”
“All the grants I’ve ever gotten have to be accounted for down to the penny,” Phil Martucci says.
Shortly thereafter, board member Jim Simon, a lawyer with Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs, allegedly said, “I can’t even stand to be in the same room with the three of you.”
Simon denies saying that, but admits he was “very frustrated” because “prior directions of the board had not been complied with.” He declined to elaborate.
Susan Martucci says she stood up and said: “I’m not going to sit here anymore. It’s demeaning and embarrassing.”
“We started off as a group who had passion for children with autism and we just became a bunch of people who sat around and blew smoke,” she says. “We didn’t do anything. We didn’t put our money where it was supposed to be.”
To Phil Martucci, Simon’s alleged verbal attack was merely the last straw. He had soured earlier because of a disagreement involving an autistic student from the Falls.
Martucci invited a boy to speak at the second big gala, the one that raised $250,000.
The youth wrote a speech and practiced it for weeks in Martucci’s office. He figured the student would be an ideal spokesperson. “He’s like a Rain Man. He couldn’t tie his shoes, but he could read a history book and tell you everything in that book.”
Martucci says the speech was loud but effective, firing up the bidders.
The next day, Hudak says, Keegan called her and said the event was “the worst fundraiser ever” and that allowing the boy to speak was “ridiculous.”
Says Phil Martucci: “I thought, ‘Why would I want to be on the board somewhere with people who think it’s ridiculous to have someone who is overcoming these challenges speak about them?’ ”
Keegan denies calling it “the worst fundraiser ever” and criticizing the autistic speaker.
“It had nothing to do with the boy,” he says. “It was the flow of the evening. ... I said the flow of the evening could have been better.
“[Even] in the best events, you’ve got to be constructive and say, ‘How can we improve for next year?’ ”
When told it’s difficult to understand how a group of people who are so passionate about a worthwhile cause could become so divided, Keegan replies:
“It’s not just about passion. It’s about you create a team of people and that team has to be aligned and working in the same direction to get to the goal. They may all be committed to the goal, [but] that doesn’t mean there is going to be great chemistry between the team.”
On that last point, all parties would agree.
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or email@example.com.